Paul McCartney's "safe" performance at the recent Super Bowl half-time show caused one writer to long for the days when rock-and-roll was more of a dangerous art. The writer wondered if Paul McCartney was aware of the fact that he'd become a "warmed-over piece of toast". It’s true--Paul McCartney isn’t the dangerous rock-n-roller that Will Johnson (When the singer’s ‘safe’, it sure ain’t rock and roll, Metro, NY Edition, Feb 9) thinks he ought to be. But it’s also true that he never was. Though McCartney sometimes aspired to be a tough rock and roller, his personality was always more the eager-to-please entertainer than say, his songwriting partner John Lennon, whose personality embodied more of the "in-your-face" rock-and-roll spirit that Mr. Johnson extols in his piece.
But after leaving the Beatles, Lennon re-evaluated much of his legacy, rejecting the notion that the Beatles were, or even should have been, more than just a group of musicians. In interviews throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Lennon de-mythologized himself, as well as that entity called The Beatles. Having been THE “rock star” from the world’s biggest band –he knew too much to pretend that the Beatles had been anything more than four ordinary, though talented friends who managed to make some fantastic music.
Lennon, like Paul McCartney, simply grew up, giving up his youthful illusions in the process. Like McCartney, he too finally “became a responsible and caring member of society”, settling down to try to be a better father to his young son Sean than he’d been to his son Julian from his first marriage. During five years of self-imposed retirement, Lennon released no new material and was content to bake bread and be a “house-husband”. To "rock-n-rollers" out there this might have seemed like a cop-out, but Sean surely appreciated having an attentive father.
But there are some, like Will Johnson, who believe that the true spirit of rock and roll is rebellion and subversion, to thumb one’s nose at authority. Maybe it is, but what does all that prove? Any teenager can do that, and for no better reason than to seek to find some kind of identity in non-conformity. The ironic thing is that to forge an identity out of mindlessly rebelling against the establishment is just another way of conforming to a stereotype— in this case, the stereotype of the rebellious, edgy “rock and roller”.
And what is the legacy of all that rebellion? Drug overdoses, suicide, and great musicians and talents prematurely lost--think Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Eliot Smith...to name but a few.
Maybe we need a new kind of rock and roll spirit— one that doesn’t just rebel, but seeks to transform. One that isn’t just about being “cool”, angry and narcissistically “transgressive”, but which makes thoughtful, intelligent statements about the world we live in. Sure, McCartney hasn’t been known for profundity as a lyricist, but his talent for making melody has certainly entertained and made millions happy. I, for one, would much rather hear a beautiful McCartney ballad than some angry rock and roller (or hip-hop star) spouting off. So call me conservative, if you like. Call me a sell-out. But I’d rather quietly change the world by truly caring for and helping those in my circle than become a noisy, self-centered rock-and-roll star. Maybe what I’m talking about isn't quite rock and roll. Still I'd rather "whisper words of wisdom and let it be” than "hope I die before get old".
Freelance author and musician