The incomparable Paul McCartney at 80

As we celebrate Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday, it is positively staggering to note the many ways in which he has eclipsed the norms and expectations of his genre. When the former Beatle first heard the raucous sounds of Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t a profession. It was a scourge. A decade later, when the Who declared “I hope I die before I get old” in “My Generation,” no self-respecting rocker set his sights on retirement, much less living into middle-age.

And yet McCartney abides. In the new century alone, he has released chart-topping LPs and played sold-out stadiums across the globe. By all rights, he should be marking time as a pensioner, renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight or some such thing. While he contemplated that very fate in “When I’m Sixty-Four,” tending the garden and mending a fuse were never really his bag.

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Incredibly, McCartney has been in public life for nearly the whole of his adult years. He was barely 21 when British Beatlemania came into vogue in the autumn months of 1963. And he was working like a dog long before he glimpsed his name in the bright lights of a theatre marquee.

Indeed, if there is a constant in McCartney’s story, it is the artist’s journey — a rage to toil in the service of an unquenchable creative drive. He reportedly composed his first song — “I Lost My Little Girl” — after the untimely death of his mother Mary in October 1956, and he’ll likely be trying to capture the music playing in his head until the day he dies. And, true to his creative energies, he will never quite be satisfied. After all, it’s not the arrival at some hallowed place that excites our most enduring artists. It’s the getting there that matters.

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Across his long career, McCartney has enjoyed the rare air of being commercially and critically successful. His work both within and without the Beatles has positioned him as his genre’s greatest outlier. Any comparison to his level of attainment is futile at best. The same composer who reconceived the rock album in 1967 with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was still mining out new sounds in 2020 with “McCartney III.” And still he persists in searching out uncharted creative vistas — and, whenever possible, showing off.

Take last Thursday night at MetLife Stadium, where McCartney closed out the Stateside leg of his “Got Back” tour. For the past several years, he has made a point of performing Jimi Hendrix’s epic guitar lick for “Foxy Lady” during the outro for “Let Me Roll It,” a Wings-era track from “Band on the Run.” As you raise a glass in honor of McCartney’s 80th birthday, consider his motives for breaking off the same guitar pyrotechnics virtually every time he steps on stage. Wailing away on his Gibson Les Paul, with its custom paint job in full flower, he’s not doing it for us. He does it because he can.

Love the Beatles? Listen to Ken’s podcast “Everything Fab Four.”

More stories about Paul McCartney by Kenneth Womack:

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