"One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful even if it is only a floating ash."
Norman Maclean - A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.
Pete Dexter's indelible portrait of the man here.
A good writing day. Last night I kept coming awake and sending myself notes from the characters. Their minds and dreams feel alive in me now. The Savages. The images are sharper all the time. I wrote someone a letter- Tony, stop reading now if it hasn't come in the mail yet!- and I'm going to post it here because I'm too lazy to write something else for this post. I'd rather go for a walk. It's so lovely out.
August 26th, 2014
I just wanted to thank you again for bringing me (carrying me, our Virginian friends would say) with you to the McCartney concert. I always have such a good time hanging out with you guys, and it was amazing to share such an experience with all of you :)
It’s funny- unbeknownst to me, one of my mom’s friends was also in the audience that night, and the next morning they were on the phone: Becky was telling her about it with the same wonder I did. It’s just amazing that one human being can transmit so much wisdom, joy and beauty to the rest of us in just one single lifetime. He’s an incredibly inspiring being: one of the greatest storytellers of our race.
Off and on, I keep up a journal, and I thought you might enjoy my pages about the show. I’ve attached them below. It’s a bit rambly and meta, but I couldn’t stop myself! His performance was such a wonder- so much happened!
Hope this finds everyone well. Last night Andrew made us a shrimp and oyster perlou; he’s practicing his southern cuisine for when you guys get here this fall :) And I guess we’ll be seeing you twice in that season: I think we’ve definitely agreed to come home for Thanksgiving, and Cate’s wedding on the 29th :)
Very much love,
A few days ago- Sunday- my dad and I planned to toodle around Lake Quivira. It’s one of his favorite places. We drove up and switched out the car for their golf cart, which they keep parked there, and then went around the back of the old stone country club building that sits on the shore of the lake.
I remember going there as a girl, when the shore seemed endlessly long; walking to the very end to get away from the rush and noise of people. Now that same stretch of shore looks brief. Ah, to remember thoughts so vividly, from when I was so young!
He orders the Sunday buffet, which turns out to be a baked potato bar. Asks me to run in and fix him a plate, since he doesn’t move well. Then we get up and drive around the lake, which is beautiful. Birds, deer. Horses. The lapping shore, friendly people. My father likes to look at houses he might buy someday- he knows which ones are for sale and we go more slowly past them, trying to peer around at them without being invasive of people’s privacy.
It must be an inherited trait, this lookie-loo-ness: I spend time looking at pictures of cabins and airstreams online myself. For me they represent freedom, solitude. I wonder what these houses represent to him. Having his family together again. Happiness, relaxation. And yet, I think to all of us it’s apparent he may never retire. All I can do is dote on him.
I get a text from Tony asking when I’ll be in town, asking if I can call when I get a chance, and I call him when we get home. I'm in the kitchen, making naan pizzas for dinner at ten pm.
“I’ve brought my Charleston habits,” I say.
He wants to know what we’re having, how was the lake, is Andrew all right with my being gone so long.
And then! “So we’ve got tickets to the Paul McCartney show,” he says- wonders if I might come?
I was utterly surprised, and delighted. Babbling to him about McCartney’s music, wow, how much it meant to me when I was in college. I had almost all their records, used to read endless biographies about them. Watching documentaries. And oh those lyrics.
So Wednesday’s the day.
For me, the night starts at the Savoy: one of my dad’s longtime favorites. I go there to wait for the Schmidts to come scoop me up, as it’s near the Sprint Center. The cool and dusky wood, scarabs painted over the bar in 1903. Ancient black waiters in white coats, a strange lady at the desk wearing carnival makeup. Hushed booths with buttoned black leather, wealthy people.
A doctor is talking comfortably with the bartender about her illness; like all doctors he takes umbrage with the care some other doctor has given her. “When did your discomfort start?” he says.
It won’t occur to me until later, but once, a long time ago- lifetimes ago- before we lived in Charleston, before we’d lived in Tucson, he and I celebrated New Years Eve here with Michael Gaus and Henna.
(Andrew is irritated in this picture; by now we’ve been waiting for our cab for an hour. And have missed the funk show we were heading to. It was the very beginning of 2011- impossible to believe how much has happened, really and wildly happened, in only three years.)
Anyway. 6:40, I get the call from Tony, it’s Livvy, they’ve pulled up to the corner outside. I dash out to the car and we’re off. Tony is trembling-level excited. He is a trim and spare man with stiff-white hair, a ready smile, bright blue eyes. Loreta is an Italian who grew up in Scotland, has a glamorous accent- the beautiful lips and eyes that she has given all her children; whimsical, generous of her soul, and kind. She’s just had foot surgery and so has a wheelie bike which she somehow makes seem glamorous. Lovely Livvy wearing effortless hole-y sweater and sweepy black skirt, straw hat, everyone beaming. And then they realize they’ve forgotten the tickets! There’s a moment of sheer, shooting panic before the box office confirms they have record of the purchase, and so all is well.
Huge streams of people folding into the Sprint Center. We drop Livvy and Loreta off so Loreta won’t have to hobble/wheel too far and find $10 parking two blocks away.
Then, because Loreta is the walking wounded, we get to go up in a private elevator.
“I like this invalid pass,” Tony says. The keys to the city.
But the woman whose job it is to guard the elevator, is crabby. Sitting there on a tiny stool inside all day, going up and down with confused and excited people. All day, every day. Guarding the gates, like Cerberus. Even though we’re all excited, the four of us fall silent, as if respectful of the woman’s shitty mood and her shitty life.
Inside: people stacked are in row after row. Our seats are on the ground floor, center row. Folding chairs; we file in and I am sitting directly heartline to the center stage, where Paul McCartney will stand. Ah extraordinary energy that will pass through the floor, from his feet to ours; magic!
Delays. 9:40 pm. The excitement is building. Everyone seems to have the same expression of childlike excitement.
And then suddenly he comes out, a familiar flop-haired silhouette in a pale jacket, his hands raised high, and the auditorium roars- you can’t help but beam up at him. Oh, there he is, just as he was fifty years ago! One who is so intensely for us, for all humanity, so very, very human.
After the first song McCartney turns to face each corner of the auditorium, smiling, bathing in our applause-
“Now I’m going to just take a moment for myself,” he says, nodding. As if to say, yes, yes, here we all are together, and this is just as it should be. You all want to scream, so I will let you do that. What a showman.
Fifty years of performances. What a life he’s lived. The arched brows of his doll’s eyes, his still marvelous posture. And dewlaps; an old man now. 72?
After a few songs he and his supporting band launch into Paperback Writer. Tony grabs my arm- “That’s you!” he says, sweetly alight, and all of us clap and stare adoringly at the stage-
“Back in the sixties!” McCartney says, and then tells us one of many stories he’ll tell that night:
“This is the guitar I used on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and Jimi Hendrix, let me tell you about Jimi, he was such a gracious and humble man, and he did something for us- the album came out on Friday, and two days later he’d memorized it. He played the thing at a show-” here McCartney wobbled some side metal thing on his guitar, “giving it that special twist of his-” everyone screamed- “but the thing is technology was different, that would throw your guitar hopelessly out of tune. So he’s standing there and he says- ‘Eric?’ Eric meaning, Eric Clapton of course… and Eric was actually in the crowd! He tries to hide, he doesn’t want to go up there, and Jimmi says, “Hey man. Will you come tune this for me?”
And Eric says to him, “Tune it yourself!”
The crowd, naturally, goes nuts, and I can’t help thinking how McCartney has worked his own personal mythology into a something that feels concrete. But a good song, it’s more even than that: more than a physical thing. It’s irreducible.
His stories, stories about Linda, about his life: all of them hardened into something irreducible, what, into a diamond in our minds. And his private past, because he’s shared it with us, because he’s made it come alive for us in his songs, in a way his past has become America’s past.
He gives you the strangest feeling that you know him, that you understand him- and perhaps in a way, because he is such a singular artist and able to distill his own experience in this way- perhaps we do. Listening to his music, we feel as he felt.
Somehow, even after all these years, he still sings those lyrics as if he means every word.
“The love you take is equal to the love you make,” - hearing him sing those words in person, it’s as if I’ve heard them for the first time.
He rouses all the men to sing along, and then the women, and then everyone, “all together now,” man, he is still carrying the flag for love in a very real way.
A friend said to me once that she believed some people feel things more deeply than others, particularly artists, and the idea at the time made me bristle. It seemed unfair. Some people are just able to articulate their experience better than others-
yet I think Paul McCartney actually may. He was clearly still so in love with Linda. The mythology of that, of their love, of his continued love for her. When he sang the Linda songs you felt distinctly that she was still present for him. That she was sitting there on the bench beside him. Photographs scrolling on the projector behind him of the American Southwest, where they had their ranch- (later in the car, we wondered if it was still difficult for him to visit that part of the country without her.)
He has been so deeply betrayed by John; has experienced such love, such high flying inspiration, such adoration- and now those experiences exist now, in a permanent way, and will remain for all of human civilization. He’s shaped life into song. And we know all the words.
Being there was “like [having] a flood going through the landscape of your soul,” as Bergman said. Towards the end, McCartney sang a tribute to John:
And If I Say I Really Knew You Well
What Would Your Answer Be.
If You Were Here Today.
Ooh- Ooh- Ooh- Here To - Day.
Well Knowing You,
You'd Probably Laugh And Say That We Were Worlds Apart.
If You Were Here Today.
Ooh- Ooh- Ooh- Here To - Day.
But As For Me,
I Still Remember How It Was Before.
And I Am Holding Back The Tears No More.
Ooh- Ooh- Ooh- I Love You, Ooh-
What About The Time We Met,
Well I Suppose That You Could Say That We Were Playing Hard To Get.
Didn't Understand A Thing.
But We Could Always Sing.
What About The Night We Cried,
Because There Wasn't Any Reason Left To Keep It All Inside.
Never Understood A Word.
But You Were Always There With A Smile.
And If I Say I Really Loved You
And Was Glad You Came Along.
If You Were Here Today.
Ooh- Ooh- Ooh- For You Were In My Song.
Ooh- Ooh- Ooh- Here To - Day.
Then he raised his face, his guitar to John- lost forever- and later he made a similar tribute for George, too. Beautiful minds stolen from us, some of the last great universal storytellers, as we’ll never have anything like the Beatles again. They made something unique in the history of the world, those four men who brought us all together. Who still bring us together. Their awareness of love, of the importance of it.
Yet... he’d made a weird little stab at John in the lyrics of “Here Today”; I think John would have hated it! For John to be in Paul’s song- their rivalry after the Beatles’ ended, over who authored what. Who was to be credited first- and Paul won the argument merely by surviving. How bittersweet.
But God, he must miss him. Surely he has lost the only two people in the world who could ever really understand him- because they don’t come along often in a lifetime, the ones that understand.
The ways that men fall out with one another. Boyhood promises betrayed as men become men, as they go out into the world, and try to climb highest on the mountain. Do women betray each other on as grand a scale?
The next morning, talking to my mom about the show, waxing on about all these thoughts about mythology and experience, she had a different perspective.
“Well we feel that way about you- that’s just how artists are. They need to talk, to process, to turn their past into a thing.” She laughed, putting dishes away. “Sometimes it drives us crazy. I’m sure it’s hard for his family, too…”
Maybe so, maybe so.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
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Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
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Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
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Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
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