When I was in my early twenties, John Lennon was far more popular with me than Jesus — or anyone else. I wasn’t raised in a religious household but had a tendency to obsess over vaguely messianic figures. When I was little, it was Mr. Spock, who died for our sins in Wrath of Khan. Then it became John Lennon, who was gunned down at the Dakota after asking America to imagine a better future. To be clear, I never wanted to be a musician. I simply believed — and believed that it mattered on some level — that John was the best Beatle. More specifically, I thought loving him and rejecting the more obvious charms of Sir Paul McCartney said something about me as a person. And I suppose it did. But, in the two years since I became a father, I’ve changed my tune. “Instant Karma” is out. “Silly Love Songs” is in.
I suppose this says something about who I became.
Some might say that yet another John vs. Paul argument is frivolous and those people would be correct, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely uninteresting. Without getting too much into Beatles lore — remember when John wrote “How Do You Sleep?” about hating Paul, after a legal fight in 1971? — it suffices to say that true Beatles fans often feel compelled to take a side. It is also fair to say that because Paul is very Paul and cheerful and obliging and John was not very Paul and prickly and sharp, it’s easy for the whole thing to become cartoonish (which would be Ringo’s preference). In essence, I decided as a young man that John was the artistic freedom fighter and Paul was a giant sell-out.
I could write thousands of words debating the various reasons why these characterizations are or are not true. But it largely comes down to the fact that John Lennon’s solo career is mostly political stuff like “Imagine” and Paul’s solo career is mostly “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Band on the Run.” In the 1970s and 1980s, Paul tried to write crowd-pleasing rock music while John did weird art with Yoko and a shitload of drugs with Harry Nilsson. Now, obviously, it’s nuts to say John only wrote weird rock music and Paul only wrote silly love songs, because there are obvious examples to the contrary. (Paul’s “Beware My Love” from Wings at the Speed of Sound kicks ass, while John’s “Woman,” “Jealous Guy,” and “Beautiful Boy,” are the most pro-love, pro-family songs perhaps ever written.)
And yet, the characterization persists: John is a hardass and Paul is a softy. I gravitated toward John. You see where this is going.
But here’s a twist before we get to the inevitable reveal: I think I was right. Sure, Paul wrote “Helter Skelter,” but John was more of a kooky leftwing artist. And, sure, they were both brilliant. But Paul wanted to make people happy in a way that John didn’t, which is why I’m a Paul guy now and why my daughter will grow up in a Paul household.
Maybe it happened right after my daughter was born almost two years ago. Maybe it happened the other day when a live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” came on the local rock station in Portland when I was driving home from the grocery store and I cranked it all the way the fuck up. I don’t really know, but I do know something essential about Paul McCartney: His music, even when it’s not his best, always favors positive vibes over negative ones. Beatles nuts often point this out as a reason why he and John were such a good songwriting team. In “We Can Work It Out” Paul delivers the hopeful parts of the narrative, while John’s stuff is a little more cynical. Ditto for Paul’s upbeat interlude in “Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The thing is, in terms of two guys in a rock band, having one upbeat dude and one cynical dude is great. But, being married and having a child is not like being in a rock band. Outside of the Beatles, Paul McCartney’s music, is, for the most part, full-on, unfiltered happiness. My daughter likes all the Beatles records, but she’s able to listen to an entire side of a Wings album all the way through, which is wild given that she has the attention span of a person her age. Part of this, I attribute to Paul’s consistency — the music isn’t going to lose her — but mostly I think it’s because Paul seems happy. Sellout or not, he’s producing a product that kids might want to buy. It’s an aural Happy Meal.
I’m not saying, by the way, that loving Paul is like admitting you’re a Jimmy Buffet fan. But I’m also not not saying that. These songs all attend the same barbecues in rock heaven and it’s a really, really, really nice party.
Here’s one thing that’s not cool for fathers and husbands to admit: Many of us are very happy. Yes, there’s stress, concerns about money, constant worrying about your wife and your kid’s safety, but for the most part, I love being a husband and father. These are the best years of my life. And when it comes to huge rock stars, Paul McCartney is perhaps the only example of someone who celebrated these exact same things in his music. Paul’s songs are basic and happy, like me. This may not have been the outcome I thought I wanted when I was younger, but I’m far from ambivalent about it now. I’m a Paul guy and I couldn’t be more pleased with that result.
Angst is not, I have learned, a byproduct of integrity. Happiness isn’t a byproduct of commerce. Sometimes joy is just that. And sometimes that rocks.
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