Saturday, January 23, 2010

McCartney the Pagan?

Dear readers: The political landscape in the United States is so disgusting right now, with my former state of Massachusetts electing as U.S. Senator a man who seems to have no credentials beyond good looks, a red pick-up truck, and an anti-government attitude, Obama deciding probably too late that it is time to actually put some brakes on the out-of-control banking industry and to perhaps also do something about the millions of people unemployed and losing their homes, CIA-directed drone attacks in Pakistan increasing, and the Supreme Court ruling that corporations have the right to unlimited financial contributions to political campaigns out of respect for the principle of "free speech". Ugh, what a mess. I can hardly stand to think about it just now, so I am going to take a different direction, which may seem totally apolitical at first, but will prove to have some political relevance in the end, and indeed some Pagan spiritual significance as well.

One of the things I did to celebrate the end of the 00 decade was to make song compilations of some of my favorite jazz and rock/pop artists. The one that proved most interesting was Paul McCartney. The very mention of his name may cause some of you to click away from this blog in annoyance, I know, because his reputation for some time has been of a once-great artist gone to seed, half-heartedly churning out sickeningly sweet musical pablum like "Silly Love Songs."

I beg to differ. Particularly since the death of his wife Linda in 1998, McCartney has been releasing a series of recordings which, while not perfect nor necessarily all up to the standards of his 1960s Beatles recording, contain a great deal of musical inventiveness and some occasionally quite moving lyrics, though admittedly his music is usually stronger than his words. It seems that with his hit-making days behind him, he has been feeling more free to be experimental and audacious, reminding listeners that John Lennon was not the only Beatle with avant-garde aspirations, and George Harrison not the only one to tinker with unusual instruments from other cultures. The arrangements on these records of the 2000s show a continuing curiosity with multi-layered sound textures and many intriguing contrasts.

Paul McCartney's most recent recording, made in partnership with another British musician known as "Youth," the two together calling themselves "The Fireman," is entitled "Electric Arguments" (2009), and was very well reviewed. With good reason: it is like a series of loose jam sessions with both high-energy and lyrical moments, freeing up McCartney to throw many different musical flavors and colors up in the air and see where they fall. Some of the lyrics are taken from a poetry anthology laying around the studio, and not all of the words necessarily make perfect linear sense. Not to worry: the whole is definitely greater than the parts, and the groove is definitely greater than the logic; or maybe it IS the logic here. The mood swings from exuberance on some tracks to wistfulness on others, but the overall feeling one gets from listening is definitely a sense of uplift and inspiration.

I do detect a certain Paganesque theme in many of these songs, one also to be found in earlier Mac songs all the way back to the 1960s. This is what brings me to the title of this piece, questioning whether it might be appropriate to consider McCartney a Pagan of sorts. There is an ongoing celebration of nature here, particularly of the sun and of birds, with one boisterously affirmative song entitled "Sun is Shining," and a beautiful, slightlty melancholy ballad called "Two Magpies." Obviously, this echoes Beatles songs associated with McCartney like "Good Day Sunshine" and "Blackbird," not to mention "Mother Nature's Son" and "I'll Follow the Sun."

Selecting songs for my personal compilation, I noted other songs from the 00 decade that also express a powerful love of the natural world. A 2001 song from the "Driving Rain" album called "Spinning an an Axis" talks about the earth spinning around the sun, and the wonder of the sun rising each day with new promise. That may sound a bit cliched and mundane, but the music adds a lot to this, and I find something else of some significance hidden in the song. There is an odd reference to "the day of the culture bat," which I only recently figured out may actually be a nod to the "culture battle" or "culture wars" that have embroiled and embittered political life in recent years in the USA and elsewhere. The song seems to find the cosmic reality of earth and sun more important than the transient problem of politically-motivated culture wars. I ask you, is that a Pagan perspective or what?

A fine 2005 acoustic ballad from the "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" album is "Jenny Wren," which tells the tale of a young woman driven to silence, like a bird that loses the power to sing, by the poverty and horrors of her life. The comparison of a young woman to a traumatized bird is highly effective, but again I would raise the question of whether the use of a metaphor derived from the natural world might again bespeak an essentially Pagan sensibility.

McCartney's 2007 album "Memory Almost Full" contains several poignant meditations on aging and death, which I believe is also implied in the title of the album. The most humorous is "Mister Bellamy," which seems to describe the situation of an old man suffering some mental malady, perhaps dementia, preferring to retreat into his "upstairs" rather than deal with other people, with careworkers intervening to talk him down. The song "You Tell Me" combines reminiscing about childhood experiences of happy times, most of which involve being out in the summer sun, naturally, with questioning whether one's memories are really to be trusted: "You Tell Me" if these things really happened or not. Let us note that songs about dementia and the unreliability of memory address some very adult concerns, a far cry from the "Silly Love Songs" stereotype. In another song from this album, "The End of the End," McCartney explains how he would like his funeral to be conducted in a joyous manner, while also expressing his hope that the afterlife will bring him to a place of even greater joy.

As the somewhat disquieting 2007 "Memory Almost Full" has been followed by the boisterous and inspiring 2009 "Electric Arguments," it would seem that McCartney has found his way back to the sunshine. As the tabloids have not told of any new great love in his life since his unfortunate divorce from his second wife, Heather Mills, it is tempting to speculate that he has tapped into some new spiritual inspiration of somewhat Pagan character, but this is of course just conjecture.

The exuberant tone of many of McCartney's various paens to nature brings me to reflect on how the last great surge of political liberalism, even radicalism, in the West was in the 1960s and 1970s, to the soundtrack of just such exuberant and idealistic music, often linked to a love of nature. That was a time when a massive wave of inspiration rose up to counter the grim realities of racial segregation and brutal war. It occurs to me that something similar is needed now. The right wing, reactionary side of society, is riding the wave of fear, anger and paranoia, telling people to put their trust in guns and the military, and to not look to any hope or beauty, just more "security," more punishment, more prisons, more invasions, more restrictions, a grim dog-eat-god, every-man-for-himself vision of the world that is perfectly reflected in apocalyptic films from "Mad Max" and "The Terminator" to the recent "Book of Eli." We need to hear the hippie voice again, the voice that sings of beauty and sharing in this world that we live in. We cannot reason with the right-wing fear-mongers, but we might be able to out-sing and out-dance them, and create an expanding space in the public consciousness for a different, less fearful, more loving and celebratory world view.

Sometime rationality is overvalued, and we need to tap into something greater, older, deeper--while not altogether rejecting rationality, let me be clear.

I raise my glass to Paul McCartney for his late-career outburst of Paganesque exuberance. It is a lesson to us all.


Maelstrom said...

Readers: Your humble correspondent has found a paranoid Christian web site that claims that McCartney is a Pagan, in the worst way: a Satanic devil-worshipper, no less. The proof? The way he exhibits a goat on the cover of his 1971 album "Ram." I am not kidding: check it out.

I was hoping someone might support me in my Paganistic interpretation, but this is not exactly what I was looking for!

Maelstrom said...

To reach the website listed in the previous comment, omit the "%20" thingies inserted by the Blog machine. It should be www DOT jesus-is-savior DOT com slash FalseReligions slash Wicca&Witchcraft slash pentagram DOT htm . That'll do yer.

Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with any of those songs, but it sounds like I should be ;)

Paul said...

Interesting interpretation! Pagan images and ideas very often find their way into the arts and what better medium than Paul McCartney (I would put forth Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull as a worthy contender too)!

Mother's Moon's Message said...

I have just stumbled on to your blog and must say it is quite refreshing. I will be honest and say that I am of those who feel that Paul M. songs have always been somewhat sappy and without depth. Yet I will also agree that he does have the ability to produce some beautiful work. Mull of Kintyre is one of my favorites and it speaks volumes of the beautys and gifts of mother earth.

And to you I say here here in regards to the need for the voice of the hippie to gain strength and be heard. The ignorance that seems to be flooding this country amazes me so deeply. It truly is a time when if we have any care or concern for the land we call home that we need to stand up and let our voice be heard... otherwise there is no telling where we will end up, and we have no one to blame lest ourselves. thanks for your thoughts, I enjoyed them

GreenFlame said...

I got here, five years late, by googling "Paul McCartney pagan" for a piece I'm putting together, and just have a few points to add to your good essay.

I was a big McCartney & Wings fan in the 70s, in high school; then I started listening to the critics and stopped listening to him. Like, for 30+ years. A couple of years ago I decided to catch up on what Paul had been putting out since, oh, 1980 -- and I was astonished. Much of his music is excellent. Much of it is innovative and interesting, particularly some of the early 80s material that almost puts one in mind of The Police, and the depth is reliably there. It was a real lesson to me about freeing my mind of preconceptions and thinking independently.

So then I became a fan in earnest, meaning I've done some reading on his life and career that proves interesting (to me, at least) from a musical *and* pagan angle.

On the musical end of things, it turns out that Paul was the initial sound-innovator in the Beatles. Paul was single and living in London, so he got to go to all the John Cage and avant garde things happening in the mid-60s. John was married and lived in the suburbs. Paul was the one who started experimenting with tape loops and backward sounds and such. John certainly picked up on it, and explored that world himself; but John's musical tastes pre-Yoko tended to be rather purist, and even into the 70s. Not to take anything away from the genius that was John, but a lot of Beatles ideas that get attributed to him really started with Paul. And he continued to experiment in the 80s with electronic music.

From a Pagan end, it gets even more interesting. I don't believe he is a theist, but I would certainly call him an "animist light" who has an appreciation for the spiritual qualities of nature including omens. Google his interview with Chrissie Hynde describing Linda's last days in Arizona and you will see what I mean. Martin Glover/Youth is a no-BS practicing Druid, friends with Phillip Carr-Gomm and such, who has said that his recording session with McCartney were always scheduled around the solstices and equinoxes. Paul seems to be personally tapped in: Let It Be was a dream visitation from his mother. Carl Perkins (who seemed to be tapped in himself) thought so, too, for reasons too long to describe here; again, Google will take you to them.

Having said that, Paul is on record as disliking the Tarot because he fears that if a not-so-great card comes up, he'll dwell on it for days; and he really likes to control his own mind.

So I agree that McCartney is pagan--ish, and with a small p, but that he is more psychically aware than most people know.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks, Green Flame! Double thanks for the interesting interview links that you suggest. I will enjoy checking them out.

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