The Coolest Beatle

By Light, Alan | Newsweek, May 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Coolest Beatle

Light, Alan, Newsweek

Byline: Alan Light

At 70, more than half the man he used to be.

When the Beatles went to India in 1968 for a meditation retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the folk-rock star Donovan was part of their traveling party. The musicians had all brought their acoustic guitars, and Donovan wandered around the grounds of the Maharishi's compound in Rishikesh, playing in a traditional folk-bluegrass style known as fingerpicking.

After a few days, Donovan recently recalled, John Lennon stopped him and said, "How do you do that? That finger style, that picking, will you teach me?" He demonstrated the technique to Lennon, but he also noticed Paul McCartney occasionally hovering in the background. "Paul would stand around, he'd steal a look, and then he'd walk away into the woods. He was listening."

Too proud or too impatient to sit for instruction, McCartney eavesdropped enough to figure out the method on his own. Then he went off and used the style as the basis for "Blackbird," "I Will," and "Mother Nature's Son," three of the acoustic masterpieces on the Beatles epic double-LP set generally known as the White Album. With just a glimpse of a new direction, he instantly began blazing a musical trail.

This capacity for constant, lightning-quick creative revelation has characterized McCartney's music for 50 years. When he turns 70 years old on June 18, perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the idea of this eternally youthful icon reaching that landmark is the fact that he has gotten there without having lost the boundless inventiveness and creative curiosity that redefined the very possibilities of rock and roll. Though McCartney is often overshadowed in the public imagination by John Lennon's hard-edged cool, and frequently taken for granted after so many years in the pop spotlight, there is simply no other figure in pop who can claim a track record so deep.

The Guinness Book of World Records identifies McCartney as "the most successful musician and composer in popular music history." He's had 15 top 10 albums and 21 top 10 singles--and that's not including his work with the biggest band of all time. His tours still sell out stadiums around the world. His solo compositions have been covered by artists from Michael Jackson to Guns N' Roses. And his marriage last year to Nancy Shevell, the daughter of a U.S. trucking magnate, helped take his estimated worth from [pounds sterling]495 to [pounds sterling]665 million, making him the wealthiest performer in British music.

But this ongoing commercial juggernaut exists in tandem with an impressive eagerness to challenge himself and expand musically. At an age when most rockers have long eased into life as oldies acts, McCartney has undergone a startling creative renaissance. His most recent release, Kisses on the Bottom, is a smoothly orchestrated set of such Great American Songbook standards as "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," while (entirely unverified) rumors have buzzed that his next album will be a straight-up rock-and-roll record, produced with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.

Not surprising for someone who came of age as half of the most celebrated songwriting duo in history, McCartney has often sought out worthy collaborators, both writers (like Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello) and producers (including Youth, with whom he has released a series of ambient-inspired projects under the name The Fireman, and Nigel Godrich, who has worked with the likes of Radiohead and Beck). McCartney has also composed several extended classical works: two oratorios, a "symphonic poem" called "Standing Stone," and an album of shorter pieces, Working Classical. Last year he worked with the New York City Ballet to create a new narrative piece titled Ocean's Kingdom--but he didn't just write a score and send it in. He developed the storyline, made paintings to suggest the backdrops, and offered suggestions to his megastar designer daughter, Stella, about the costumes. …

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