Sir Paul played for our past sins

Posted: Feb 14, 2005 12:00 AM

It would be a hoot to hop into a time machine and travel 40 years back, with press clippings of Paul McCartney's Super Bowl performance in hand, and try to explain to the folks in 1965 the cultural changes that were in store for them. Not that this would be an easy task. Who in 1965 could imagine, as Beatlemania was approaching its anti-Establishment crescendo, that the day would come when Beatle Paul would be the one the whole nation would congratulate, according to one review, for providing "decent half-time entertainment," fulfilling a virtual "guarantee he'll be innocuous," while not minding "his role as the Super Bowl's atonement for past excess."

The fact was, once, "decent," "innocuous" and "atonement" were not the first words associated with young Paul, John, George and Ringo. As The Beatles, they, more than any other rock act, produced the heartbeatingly familiar and practically worshipped 1960s soundtrack of rebellion and collapse. Or was that peace and love? I always get them confused.

In any case, the Fab Four were still combustibly controversial with barely prevailing middle-class culture back in 1965. They were still seen as the flying wedge of rock culture that sundered families and propelled generations along separate tracks. Indeed, The Beatles were rather more likely to be banned from major venues (as they were in Cleveland) than credited with raising the moral tone inside them.

What would help 2005 explain to 1965 the transformation of Paul McCartney from barbarian at the gate to defender of the faith? I'm not sure that simply appending the appearance of the Beatle to the appearance of the breast would make much sense. But even if The People We Used To Be acknowledged that The People We Have Become regard Paul McCartney as mainstream-wholesome, it remains very hard to explain why. Sure, at age 62, Paul McCartney is older. But it's worth noting that the songs he played to be innocuous and decent in the 21st century were the songs he played to be groovy and cool in the 20th. In other words, he didn't change: We did.

Listening to Sir Paul the other night (note: don't forget to tell 1965 that Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 1997) was an unnerving experience for a kaleidoscopic -- dare I say psychedelic? -- mix of reasons. He was in fine, if paler voice, hitting every familiar note and lick (to the point where one critic wondered if he had been lip-synching). It was as though the performance had been frozen in time, his for the remixing.

This is one thing if you're 62-old Pavarotti singing "Pagliacci," or even 62-year-old Noel Coward singing "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." But 62-year-old Paul McCartney singing "Baby, you can drive my car" is something else again. Jingle-catchy though the song may be, there was something more than a little pathetic about "Car/star/car/cuz baby I love you" 40 years down the pike; ditto for "Get Back," with its once ... Shocking? Unsavory? Dangerous? Reference to "California grass." Today, of course, soaked in the tepid wash of a toxic mainstream, we consider it decent.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the hollowness of the McCartney music was a little surprising. That hollowness was probably accentuated by the music's place very much at center stage, and by its distance from the psychodrama of the 1960s. Long ago, The Beatles sang the songs that accompanied the upending of a civilization -- the anti-war movement, the sacking of the universities, the explosion of illegal drug use, sexual experimentation, four-letter-language; the cultural and stylistic works. Theirs was a songbook redolent of the revolution that has permanently eliminated the barriers and boundaries that once regulated the mainstream. That revolution, of course, is how we got to Janet Jackson's MTV moment last year in the first place.

It's also how we got to Paul McCartney's performance-to-the-rescue. Having rejected flesh, primetime has turned to "innocuous," a move that reveals just how grossly limited the spectrum of popular entertainment has become. It also shows how the injection of rage and revolution and smut and self-pity into the cultural mainstream seems to have pretty much dried the whole thing up. Certainly, the life has leached out. This isn't to say Paul McCartney was "offensive." He was indeed quite "innocuous."

And he didn't seem to mind a bit his role as "atonement" for past Super Bowl excess. Which, I guess, is about as good as it gets these days in the muddy old mainstream. But frankly, I think 1965 would say we told you so.