Dear emusic.com editor,
In your weekly review of new music, the entirety of your comment on Paul McCartney’s standards album was:
Paul McCartney, Kisses on the Bottom: I can’t. I just can’t.
Did you mean you can’t listen, or can’t write about it?
Well, I can. I admit that I cringed when the project was announced. Standards albums seem to have become de rigueur for baby boomers; oldies acts recording songs that were already oldies when they were born – très gauche! But I listened to McCartney’s and think it is pretty good. The critics for The New York Times and The Washington Post thought so too. And how did I live this long without ever hearing “My Very Good Friend the Milkman?”
But I’m not here to defend the music. I’m here to ponder why you – and I – cringed.
I get it. You’re young and snarky. I used to be young and snarky. Now I’m older and I’m still pretty much a smart-ass. Honestly, I admire the pithiness of your “review.” I might just steal it for my own use.
But getting older changes your perspective on life. When I was young, I thought I knew everything. I eventually learned that I didn’t know squat. One of the humbling things about reaching AARP status is realizing just how much squat I don’t know. When I was young, I believed that the world revolved around me. I eventually learned that six billion other people believed the same thing.
I hate to tell you this, but even if you eat vegan and exercise religiously, you are going to age. That nice beard in your photo? It will turn gray and then white. That nice head of hair? It will start falling out. Those eyeglasses? The prescription will escalate. That music you love? It will grow harder for you to hear. You’ll start getting aches in places you didn’t know existed. You’ll find yourself walking into rooms and forgetting why you entered. And those spontaneous erections you get when you see a hot object of desire? Enjoy ‘em while you got ‘em.
When you realize that you have far more days in your past than you do in your future, it makes you focus on things of real value and discard those things without it. One of those things I’ve discarded is the concept of coolness.
When I was young, I disdained anyone or anything that wasn’t “cool.” Now I look back at some of those “cool” things – like drugs - and see very un-cool consequences. I’ve learned that a lot of those people I considered “cool” were, in private, rotten bastards – junkies, angry drunks, serial philanderers, wife-beaters. Being able to say “I did it my way” often comes at a price – feelings unnecessarily bruised, relationships unnecessarily severed, bridges unnecessarily burned. Not cool at all.
James Dean was cool. Fortunately for his image, he died long before he could become un-cool and start making cola commercials and Law and Order guest appearances. Marlon Brando was cool – until he became a parody of himself. Kurt Cobain was cool – until he put a shotgun in his mouth and left his daughter fatherless.
When I was five years old, I would take my allowance money to the local record store and buy Elvis Presley 45s. Who was cooler than Elvis circa 1956? Certainly not the fat, druggy, white-suited Elvis who died sitting on the can after decades of crappy movies and garish Vegas shows.
I came of age in the 1960s. What cool music: the Beatles and the Stones, Dylan and Hendrix, Motown and Haight-Asbury. We weren’t going to make the mistakes of our parents. We were going to change the world with peace and love. Take a look at the news to see how that worked out.
In the early 1970s, I thought Miles Davis was the coolest thing since sliced bread. (Miles: another guy who wasn’t so “cool” to his women.) One day, I read an interview in which Miles talked about his influences and he said the only trumpet player that mattered to him was Louis Armstrong.
I almost fell over. Louis Armstrong? You mean that old dude I used to see on The Ed Sullivan Show singing that wretched “Hello Dolly” song?
Trusting Miles’ taste, however, I dutifully bought a collection of Armstrong’s music from the 1920s and 1930s and I was wowed. Even though the recordings were a little scratchy and some of the music seemed a little tame by modern standards, I saw that the modern jazz players that I loved were still applying the lessons they learned from Satchmo, which may explain why he’s now one of my favorite artists.
See, I understand that you’re going to promote new bands; that’s why I have a subscription to your site. (BTW, thank you for introducing me to the Mates of State and the Rural Alberta Advantage.) Pushing music forward in new directions keeps it vital. Showing disdain for old directions, however, is like disdaining the ancestors whose DNA is coursing through your veins.
Music history didn’t start five minutes ago. It didn’t start with Kurt Cobain, it didn’t start with the Beatles and it didn’t start with Elvis. It didn’t start with Miles and it didn’t start with Satchmo.
It’s like the lesson I’ve learned since my kids were born. We may believe we are autonomous creatures, but we are really just leaves on a branch on the massive tree of humanity. I swore I’d be nothing like my parents – but I am. I see it when I look at my aging face in the mirror. I see it when I ponder my behavior. When I look at my wife, I see and hear her parents. When I look at my kids, I see, for better or worse, their parents; to deny it is to deny evolution.
When I was their age, I lived for music. I attended a lot of cool concerts in my youth – the Who performing Tommy, the Concert for Bangladesh, even Miles himself – and I still have a massive record collection. But if never hearing another note of music for the rest of my life and wiping out every musical memory embedded in my brain would ensure that both my kids lead long, healthy, happy lives, I’d make that deal in a heartbeat.
So I understand McCartney’s urge to pay tribute to the past. He has more right to do so than most rockers. Early Beatles albums contained several covers of Tin Pan Alley – Paul singing “Til There Was You” from The Music Man can still make me smile. Old pop songs were staples of their shows in the band’s infancy; the first Anthology CD contains several live examples. In addition, McCartney’s father was a bandleader who introduced Paul to many of these songs, so the record is also a tribute to his parents. His appreciation of Tin Pan Alley song craft formed his own songwriting – and informed his ability to experiment with the craft. His warm voice is well-suited to the straightforward emotions of these songs.
No, the record is not going to replace Revolver or Abbey Road on my iPod. Hell, it won’t even replace the Mates of State or the Rural Alberta Advantage. But I am glad I have it.
I think much of McCartney’s recent music has been lackluster and that he’s often resting on his laurels (but what laurels!). Certainly, I’m jealous that he seems richer than God. However, he’s reached this point in a very successful life without bruising feelings, severing relationships or burning bridges. He’s adopted some good causes, he loved his late wife Linda devotedly, and his kids seem well-adjusted and seem to love their dear old dad, which means a lot to me. He’s earned the right not to pander to anyone’s idea of what is cool. Which is cool.
So when I see you write, “I can’t. I just can’t,” I hear, “I just can’t bear to acknowledge that someday I will be old.” Take my word for it: you’ll have no choice.