If you’ve lived life right, you have likely, at one point or another, undergone some sort of conversion.
For some, the road to Damascus is short and well-lit, leading from platefuls of meat to a vegetarian menu or from two packs a day to airy lungs. Others travel a rockier road that begins in church and ends in shul, or that winds its way from the Democratic Socialists of America to the Grand Old Party. As we evolve, we’re often pointed at by friends and loved ones who demand consistency and chide us for changing our minds and our hearts, as if change wasn’t the whole point of human existence, as if hearts and minds were designed to do something other than seek out new directions and new possibilities.
If you Google my name, you’ll see that I’ve gone through my share of transformations, some political, some spiritual, and some more difficult to define. I grew up in the bosom of the Israeli left, organizing for Meretz Youth and marching for peace, fueled by BLTs and hope. I’m less hopeful now, I no longer eat bacon, and, looking at the left, I see little I recognize anymore. But these conversions are as convoluted as they are solipsistic, just one man’s attempt to make sense of a rapidly shifting reality. When I think about the ways in which I’ve changed and the ways in which I’d still like to grow—a relevant topic this time of year, when the days are more awe-filled than ever—I conclude that there’s precisely one conversion in my life that defines me in a meaningful way. It’s the conversion from John to Paul.
As the furious son of an incarcerated father and a hard-working mom, I had no sooner started listening to The Beatles than I heard myself in John. He came in through the tinny earphones of my yellow Sony Sports Walkman in two temperatures. There was raging John—you didn’t even have to know he was a serial abuser of women to sense the violence bubbling beneath lines like “Well, it’s the second time I’ve caught you talking to him/Do I have to tell you one more time, I think it’s a sin,” fueled by a 12-bar blues that sounds like it’s about to combust any minute. And there was cool John, the sort of cat who’d read an adoring magazine profile of Frank Sinatra, smirk, and then dash off “And Your Bird Can Sing,” a two-minute fuck-you in which those famous Beatles harmonies are silenced by John repeatedly braying the word “me.” Hot or cold, John’s emotional valence was the same: He was hurt. I was, too, and sitting in the back of a red Egged bus on a class trip to Eilat, listening to The White Album, his pain was my panacea. Listening to “Cry Baby Cry,” for example—“Make your mother sigh/She’s old enough to know better”—I felt John’s piano descending like a spiral staircase into a dark and quiet place, telling me that I was right for thinking everyone around me was a soulless jerk and right for thinking that the best way to deal with all those jerks was to mock them. At 14, that’s all the affirmation I needed. At 14, all you need is John.
A friend of mine has a theory about The Beatles. The Fab Four, he argues, are like that famous chart of the evolution of man. You begin with Ringo, the hunched over Paleolithic ancestor, our primordial origins embodied, all wonder and vigor and appetite. Then comes George, Man the Seeker, stepping out of the cave and wondering about God and man and the universe. And then? Well, My friend believes it’s angry John followed by Paul, the sublime, the pinnacle of emotional and artistic maturity. And for years, the idea struck me as rubbish.
Like a true Lennonist, I didn’t just dislike Paul—I despised him. Listening to songs like “When I’m 64,” I would say, much as John had to Paul’s face when he was alive, that Paul’s work was all “granny shit,” sweet and saccharine tunes for middle-aged mediocrities to make tired love to their husbands or wives by, utterly deserving of the deadening smooth jazz adaptations that inevitably pop up in shopping malls and dentists’ offices. Sure, Paul could belt out that “na na na na na na na” that made “Hey Jude” feel like the pinnacle of a very successful bonfire singalong in the kibbutz; but John was the smart one, the daring one, and the good one, too, because he wasn’t about silly love songs but about giving peace a chance.
And then, I began to turn.
Like so many conversions, mine was intermittent and hazy. Maybe it was listening to Ram, McCartney’s second studio album, one year while cooking for Rosh Hashanah. Maybe it was catching him in concert and seeing how hard this prince of pop, this storied and feted millionaire, worked to make each person watching him feel happy. And maybe it had nothing to do with Paul at all—maybe it was me, growing older and learning that there were more worthy emotions than John’s sneers and shouts.
It’s as hard to write well about music as it is to capture sex, food, or any other human activity designed to elevate us from the quotidian, so if you want to understand the feeling I’m talking about, put on Paul’s first solo album, 1970’s McCartney. Listen to the whole thing if you’ve got the time, but if you don’t, just focus on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” You’ve probably heard Paul playing the song live before, getting swept by those keyboard crescendos that give him the chance to go all raspy-voiced crooner, but the original album version is completely different. Before you play it, imagine you are he, the young Beatle, your band broken apart and your best friend no longer speaking to you and rebuffing your attempts to reconcile. You begin work on a solo project, but then Ringo shows up at your house carrying a letter from the other Fab Three trying to pressure you not to release your album so as not to cannibalize the success of Let It Be. Furious, you throw Ringo out, losing another mate. You retreat into your St. John’s Wood home and into a deep depression, with only your young wife and small daughters and old English sheepdog to pull you through. Then, with the London rain drizzling outside your window, you sit at the piano and record an album. Playing every single instrument and recording it on a four-track. And pouring out your heart and soul as your wife sits right there and listens to you sing. And this is what you have to say to her:
Maybe I’m amazed at the way you love me all the time
Maybe I’m afraid of the way I love you
Maybe I’m amazed at the way you pulled me out of time
And hung me on a line
Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you
You don’t have to be one of those compulsive freaks who annotate The Beatles’ lyrics like they’re the Bible to get what Paul is saying here. He’s overwhelmed with gratitude for the love of an amazing woman (do we mention she was Jewish? Of course we do), and he’s trembling because he’s seen his best intentions lead to heartbreak before and he’s worried that he may not be up to the task of loving lovely Linda as she deserves to be loved, as deeply and as supportively as she loves him. At the height of his fame, with so much hurt and so much to prove, with the entire world waiting to pass judgment on his first work without his eternal collaborator Lennon, McCartney bares his soul instead. The album’s artwork, all of it shot by Linda, features candid snapshots of the McCartney family, including one of Paul picking his nose. In another, he cradles baby Mary, still a tiny infant, in his shearling coat, beaming, clearly more proud of being her dad than of being a Beatle or a musical genius or a very famous person.
When you have children yourself, when you’ve been married for a few years, you begin to understand why McCartney is so great. It’s not just that he was the decent one, eating vegetarian dinners with his family at home and learning to paint while John was lost in a haze of heroin, spending 18 months in a drug-induced affair with a 23-year-old his wife suggested he seduce. It’s that his music, once you learn how to listen to it, strikes you as so truly transformative, and you kick yourself for not having noticed it sooner.
Now that you’re done listening to “Maybe I’m Amazed,” put on “Hey Jude.” You’ve heard it a million times. You’ve goofed off to that long coda at the end. Now listen:
And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Even if you’re not impressed by the wisdom of these lines—and, if not, really, what’s wrong with you?—the music, if you let it in, does the work. The musicologist Alan W. Pollack, one of the most astute analysts of The Beatles’ music, captured it simply and neatly; the song, he wrote, is “such a good illustration of two compositional lessons—how to fill a large canvas with simple means, and how to use diverse elements such as harmony, bass line, and orchestration to articulate form and contrast.” If there’s a better definition of music, all music, all great music, I haven’t heard it.
Like a great sermon, the song is simple. It builds up slowly, like confidence. First, it’s just Paul, delivering that first “Hey Jude.” The piano joins in, softly, lingering for a verse, giving you time to listen to what he’s saying before you’re pulled in by that gorgeous tune. The guitars are next, catching up unobtrusively, just another layer of basic rhythm, musical scaffolding to support the weight of the vocal harmonies. When you first hear the drum, it stumbles in, a few thudding bass hits and then a crash of cymbals, as if some drunken amateur was so moved by the melody that he just picked up a pair of sticks and tried his hand at keeping the beat. Paul repeats the same trick in that epic singalong part: He has a 40-piece band at his disposal, but he introduces it gradually, section by section, hesitatingly, gently, careful not to overwhelm. Brian Wilson used his orchestra to make the voices inside his mad head heard. Phil Spector applied his orchestra to mask his irredeemable sadness. Paul McCartney conducted his orchestra to make a child, John’s son Julian, feel better about his parents’ divorce, building the song up slowly to give the boy—and us with him—the emotional time and space to let go of every bad feeling and instead see the godlike beauty of something so simple and so joyous and so profoundly human as a few people who care about you coming together for a na-na-na. Paul is not here to spin his music into slick seduction, or to make a loopy statement like “imagine there’s no heaven” that only makes sense if you’re sprawled out on your dorm room bed lighting up the dregs of your terrible weed and starving for anything that may pass off as deep; Paul wants you to know a fundamental truth, and that truth is that you must let go and let other people help you heal your pain. At no time since Beethoven delivered his Ninth Symphony has an orchestra been put to better use explaining and exploring the depth of the human condition.
All of this, of course, requires the sort of selflessness that really rich and celebrated musicians rarely display. At best, our lauded classes keep it somewhat real by releasing insufferable albums about the hardships of dealing with fame and fortune, which has made for a few decent Eminem tracks but not much more. McCartney went a different way. He continued to allow himself to feel, which made for at least one great album per decade, from 1997’s Flaming Pie to 2007’s Memory Almost Fullto Egypt Station, released last week. Listen to “Back in Brazil,” a bossa-nova-scented small tale of a relationship gone wrong, or maybe right, and hear Paul still trying to connect, still feeling his way into other humans’ hearts, never treating them callously as prompts or foils for his genius like John or, to name a more recent bloated asshole, Billy Joel. Paul is the rare pop star who doesn’t only sing but also listens.
I can go on. The Beatles are rock’s Talmud, and every line invites disputation and study. But that’s all commentary, and commentary only goes so far when it sets out to capture truth and beauty. For that, we need music, and we need compassion, and we need to step outside ourselves, and we need other people to join us there, and we need to care, and we need to understand that there’s no greater masterpiece than helping a child feel better, all of which mean that, now more than ever, we need Paul.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.