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Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

BLACKBIRD SINGING, Poems and Lyrics 1965-1999 by Paul McCartney. W.W. Norton: 186 pp., $22.95

April 29, 2001|MARK HERTSGAARD | Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles," now being reissued as an electronic book by Barnes & Noble.com, as well as of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future.'

"Most of my life has been spent/ Painting pictures in song," muses Paul McCartney in one of the poems collected in "Blackbird Singing." Now, at 58, he presents himself as a literary artist who sometimes paints pictures with words alone.

McCartney posing as poet will strike some as a ludicrous conceit; does the world really need more verse from a man who penned such piffle as "Silly Love Songs," 'Mull of Kintyre" and "Morse Moose and the Grey Goose'? But a closer reading of his career cautions against dismissing McCartney's word-smithing out of hand; after all, he also wrote the lyrics to "Yesterday," 'Let It Be" and (most of) "Eleanor Rigby." No less fierce a critic than John Lennon pointed out (10 years after the Beatles broke up) that his old songwriting partner could actually write quite effective lyrics when he put his mind to it. Lennon especially admired what he called the "nice, cosmic line" McCartney offered near the end of the Beatles' last album, "Abbey Road': "And in the end the love you take/Is equal to the love you make'--a nifty restating of the Golden Rule.

McCartney's work with the Beatles is filled with such winning touches. In "Penny Lane," his most complete song lyrically and musically, he offers an affectionate, enduringly insightful portrait of postwar British life. His character sketches are specific enough that the individuals instantly spring to life in our mind's eye yet archetypal enough to summon up an entire social reality: "The little children laugh at him behind his back," he sings, referring to a banker too concerned with appearances to wear a raincoat, even in a downpour; "In his pocket is a portrait of the Queen," nine words that say all we need to know about a sturdy fireman while also alluding to a key aspect of the British identity during the years of imperial decline; and, best of all, the existential curveball about a "pretty nurse ... selling poppies from a tray/And though she feels as if she's in a play/She is anyway."

Vivid, compact, witty and wise, these lines would work as poetry even if they weren't backed by an irresistible melody. McCartney was plainly not as lyrically accomplished or consistent as Lennon, but he was hardly without sophistication or social sensibility. Lennon, the self-proclaimed working-class hero, tended toward grand philosophical statements, as in "All You Need Is Love" and "Revolution," but McCartney was better at portraying the lives and outlooks of actual working-class people, as in "Lady Madonna" and "She's Leaving Home." Of course, the greatest effects were achieved when the two men melded their respective inclinations. In "A Day in the Life," the masterpiece that concludes "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Lennon's gently ominous commentary on the hollowness of status and worldly attachments--'Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords'--is grounded by McCartney's peppy depiction of rushing off to work in the morning--'Woke up, fell out of bed'--before they beckon listeners to join them on the path to enlightenment: "I'd love to turn you on."

Making the world a better place was an ambition embraced by all four Beatles. But unlike Lennon and George Harrison, McCartney never preached; indeed, he sometimes conveyed his meanings so obliquely that they could be missed altogether. The introduction to "Blackbird Singing" contains a fascinating passage (reprinted from McCartney's authorized biography, "Many Years From Now," by Barry Miles) that reveals how McCartney came to write the lovely ballad that gives this book its title. The melody was developed first, McCartney explains, inspired by a Bach piece. The lyrics came later and--who knew?--were directed to civil rights activists in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. "I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird," McCartney says, adding that his message to her was, "Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope." This message was veiled, however, so that the original opening line, "Black woman living in Little Rock" became "Blackbird singing in the dead of night," followed by "Take these broken wings and learn to fly/All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to arise." McCartney says he chose this more symbolic approach so his song would apply to any listener's situation. That may have given the work broader, more lasting appeal, but it also muted its political impact.

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