Monday, August 3, 2015

James Paul McCartney (18 June 1942 - 8 November 1966)

Turn me round dead man,,,

Or was it 7 January 1967?  Or even, 26 December 1966?

The documentary Good Ol' Freda, is about a secretary to the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein who also became president of the group's fan club.

At various points throughout the movie, Freda Kelly reads articles from the monthly fanzine, The Beatles' Book. One of these is entitled, "Paul is Alive!", and denies rumours that Paul McCartney had recently died.

Though it isn't made clear, this didn't come in response to the famous reports of McCartney's death in the autumn of 1969; rather, it was published in the February, 1967 edition of the fanzine, when an earlier (and comparatively obscure) rumour emerged that the "cute Beatle" had perished in some kind of accident.

At whatever date, though, the idea that the co-leader of the most successful rock group in the world had passed away, is a fascinating study in what is called the "sociology of knowledge."

It is not entirely correct to characterize "Paul is dead" as a "rumour."  It started out as such, but (at least in 1969) it was picked up by the mainstream press as an "unconfirmed report."

Nor was it a "hoax", which implies that someone deliberately set out to disseminate the false idea that Paul McCartney had died.

"Paul is dead" is more so accurately described as an urban legend or myth.

The latter are not mere fabrications: as portrayed in the Tim Burton movie Big Fish, tall-tales do have some basis in reality.  But myths or legends exaggerate what actually occurred, so that the stories they tell do seem entirely fantastical.

This was the case with the "Paul is dead" legend.  But what was the factual basis for it?

There are a couple of versions.

One tells of a Beatle flunky who, in January 1967, was given the job of transporting illicit drugs from McCartney's London home to a country estate owned by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

Using the Beatle's custom-made motorcar to move the contraband, the man (who bore some resemblance to McCartney) instead crashed the vehicle on the M1 highway north of the metropolis.

He was only slightly injured.  Nevertheless the unique appearance of the car prompted rumours that McCartney himself had crashed the vehicle; and somehow, this was turned into the idea that he had died in the crash.

The other story goes that on Boxing Day, 1966, McCartney was riding around on a scooter he had given his younger brother Mike for Christmas.

Crashing the vehicle at slow speeds, Paul had minor injuries and received treatment at a London hospital.  

McCartney was quickly discharged.  Nevertheless people started to whisper that Paul had died because, simultaneous with his admission to hospital, another young man of McCartney's age and description was treated for fatal injuries there as well.

Whatever the source of the legend, I think this earlier rumour is key to the more grandiose mythology about McCartney's death that arose about two-and-a-half years later.

Not coincidentally, too, the idea that Paul McCartney had died emerged just after the Beatles themselves had perished, at least as a musical act.

According to this Wikipedia article, Lennon had advised the other three that he was leaving the group on 20 September, 1969.  Since the group and its management were in the midst of negotiations with their record company for higher royalties, it was decided that the "divorce" of Lennon from the Beatles should be kept secret.

Not even a month later, a Detroit-area disk-jockey, and then an article in the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, publicized "evidence" of the death of Paul McCartney.

Thereafter, the story spread like wildfire.

Here is my theory as to why this occurred.

While the report from early '67 about McCartney's death was quickly dispelled, it no doubt persisted as a meme thereafter (keeping in mind that the term "meme" wouldn't be coined until nearly a decade later).

Internet memes reach the far corners of the world in a matter of days or hours (or even minutes). During the late 1960s, however, information was transmitted from person-to-person (as opposed from a few to many) at rather slower speeds.  It could well have taken a year or two for the idea that Paul McCartney had passed away to spread from London to the U.S.: even long-distance, transatlantic phone calls were very expensive in those days, and so it probably was conveyed by face-to-face contact between people travelling between the two continents.

The demise of the Beatles was the "tipping point" for Paul McCartney's death to turn from a rumour into a report.

The fact that the band and their management opted to keep the breakup confidential is, however, key to the affair.

Perhaps it was an errant comment in the days after Lennon left, or even the generally mournful atmosphere around Beatle headquarters in London, which gave new life to the old rumour that McCartney had died.

Crucially, Paul McCartney himself was unavailable to disprove his own death in the period when the myth underwent germination.

Following Lennon’s announcement, McCartney had retreated in depression to his Scottish farm, which had no or unreliable communications with the outside world.

When the news-media began to inquire with the Beatles' press officers about the reports, they were reassured that, in fact, the whole idea was nonsense.

But, the band's representatives went on, it was not possible to actually speak to McCartney, because he was incommunicado with his family.

One can imagine that a seasoned reporter might well react with scepticism that an ultra-rich music star didn't own a telephone.

There was thus confluence between those who knew entirely too much about the Beatles and their music, and those, in “official” society, who knew not quite enough to see through the holes of what was potentially an explosive story: the death of a major celebrity.

It should be noted that the word "fan" is a contraction of "fanatic."  Perhaps more than any pop-culture act before and since, the Beatles have attracted a devoted and dedicated following, a significant number of whom have sifted through the band's music for profound meanings and messages (only Bob Dylan's music has undergone more persistent lyrical exegesis).

Coming down fast but don't let me break you...

Infamously, one of these fanatics was Charles Manson, the Los Angeles cult leader who believed that the song Helter Skelter (released on the 1968 eponymous or "White Album") described an imminent race-war (when in reality it was about a spiraling children's slide found at British amusement parks).

Manson directed his followers to murder the actress Sharon Tate and her friends as a means of provoking all-out conflict between whites and African-Americans (coincidentally, this occurred on the evening of August 8, 1969, the very day that the Beatles were photographed crossing the Abbey Road outside EMI Studios in Westminster, which became the iconic cover of their final recorded album) .

Beatle-fans' discovery of hidden meanings not only in the band's songs, but on the covers of their albums as well, was almost otherwise more benevolent.

Indeed the practice was common enough to be lampooned by John Lennon, who on the song Glass Onion from the White Album, sang: "Here's another clue for you all/The walrus was Paul..." (whereas Lennon had previously declared, I Am the Walrus).

The "Paul is dead" meme was fuelled in large part by Beatle-maniacs finding clues as to the demise of McCartney in songs and on albums back to 1966.

The Abbey Road record itself seem to offer hints of it.  

The two biggest singles on the album, Something and Here Comes the Sun, were not (for the first time) Lennon and McCartney tunes at all, but composed and sung by George Harrison.

It was obvious: Lennon could not write songs without McCartney, his now-dead songwriting partner (by that time, of course, “Lennon and McCartney” was a copyright fiction, with the “partners” mostly composing individually for several years). 

The cover itself was full of clues: the white suit worn by Lennon was symbolic of... Jesus; the fancy suit worn by Ringo was indicative of the priest; the denim outfit of Harrison, the grave-digger.  McCartney was attired in a suit, shirt unbuttoned, without a tie, and wearing no shoes — which is how they bury people (or so it was said).  

The licence plate on the Volkswagen parked some distance up the Abbey Road, read “28IF”: that is, McCartney would have been 28 years old, if he were still living (he was only 27, and the licence actually reads "Two-Eight-One", followed by the letter "S").

On the back cover of Sgt. Pepper (1967), McCartney has his back to the world, while the other Beatles face the camera; in a booklet photo contained in the soundtrack to Magical Mystery Tour, also from 1967, McCartney is wearing a white suit with a black carnation, while the other three have white suits with red carnations; if one looked from a right angle at the front cover of the album Yesterday and Today, which depicted the band sitting in around a large trunk, it appears as though McCartney is laying in a coffin, his eyes closed and hands folded across his chest.

The songs too, were examined as to any hint of the demise.  Doesn’t Lennon sing, “I buried Paul”, at the close of Strawberry Fields Forever?  (It was, in fact, “cranberry sauce.”)   On A Day in the Life (perhaps the last true Lennon-McCartney song), John sings, “He blew his mind out in a car” indicating the manner of McCartney’s death, a car accident.  (This lyric referred in fact to the suicide death of a young heir, while he sat in his car at a stop light).

Why did the Beatles stop touring in 1966?  Because Paul was dead.  The plausible but improbable (that McCartney had died sometime recently, without anyone knowing it), became the implausible, even supernatural or sci-fi, when these hints were assembled into narrative form.  If McCartney had died in 1966 or before, who was it that was appearing as him on albums that were released since then?  An imposter, the identity of whom was variously proffered as Mike McCartney, Paul’s brother, or a look-a-like named “Billy Shears”, hence the line in Sgt. Pepper - or an android.  Isn’t the singer on post-1967 Beatles songs emphatically Paul McCartney?  These songs were recorded before his death, and the thus the inability of the band to tour to support the music, and the need to dress it up in studio effects.

On the other hand, the reporters sent to investigate the Paul-is-dead rumours, were themselves from an older demographic than the Beatles.  While in the main charmed by the Fab Four, but they weren't fans of their music, either.  So they weren't thus knowledgeable enough about them music to bring any critical scepticism toward the fan-detectives making these claims.

In the end, a clutch of international reporters were dispatched to Scotland, and reluctantly guided to McCartney’s primitive farm, where he was compelled to emerge from private life to “prove” that he was alive (posing for pictures that, appropriately, ended up on the cover of LIFE magazine).

What amazes me is that, long after McCartney verified that he was still alive, the "Paul is dead" legends continued. 

I was prompted to write these thoughts down by a Facebook post promoting this web site.  Even before the Internet became a public utility, however, I was amazed at seeing my roommates gathered around listening to a radio program in which the narrator went over the "evidence" proving that Paul McCartney had died (played to a loop of the guitar riff from I Want You (She's So Heavy).

These young men, either about to graduate from university or (like myself) just having done so, lapped up this stuff as though they were listening to a prophet's revelations.

This was in the early 1990s.

The magazine died soon after.

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