are you running out of chances?
can we play the game too long and too hard, and then just run dry?
Walking the grand and less grand streets of London the past week as a returning tourist, I was continually reminded of a song recorded around the time of my first visit: “London Town”, the title track to a McCartney/Wings album released in the late Spring of 1978. “London Town”, a catchy song that was not much of hit, is notable for a weird, druggy synthesizer track under a bouncy tune. It has the typical nonsense lyric carried on Paul’s soaring voice, layered over the wispy vocals of wife Linda and reliable Wings partner Denny Laine:
Walking down the sidewalk on a purple afternoon
I was accosted by a barker, playing a simple tune
Upon his flute, toot toot toot toot
Silver rain was falling down
Upon the dirty ground of London Town
People pass me by on my imaginary street
Ordinary people it’s impossible to meet
Holding conversations that are always incomplete
Well, I don’t know
Oh, where are there places to go
Someone somewhere has to know, I don’t know
Listening to the album now, it is understandable why the critical reception was hostile and the sales were disappointing (for a Beatle). The album is weak by comparison to its immediate predecessors (“Venus and Mars” in 1975 and the great live album “Wings over America” in 1976). Yet when Janet Maslin penned her review of in June 1978 for Rolling Stone magazine, she took a generous approach:
For the time being, as even the genial effortlessness of London Town demonstrates, Paul McCartney has a lot more talent than he knows, or cares, what to do with. Even without a little luck, he can get away with whistling a happy tune, letting a smile be his umbrella and singin’ in the rain.
What no-one could know then, as McCartney entered the second half of the second decade of his fame, was that the man had peaked. London Town, a giddy and yeasty confection, turned out to be the first record McCartney made after his last really good record.
The signs were there. Granting even that the “music video” was a very new thing in 1978, the film for London Town is a wretched embarrassment. Lazy, sloppy, unimaginative and dull, it is shocking to see how little you can do with so much money and talent (even if pot-headed Paul doesn’t get how awful the whole business is, you can see it in Denny Laine’s face.) The songs that could have been terrific, such as“London Town” itself, float upwards and then drop, while the really wonderful track -“With a Little Luck” – is a lonely stand-out from the rest. (The video for that song, by the way, is an amazing window into late 70′s fashion.)
In the three decades plus since London Town, you would struggle to name five McCartney songs worth remembering: “My Valentine” definitely, “Wonderful Christmastime” is also durable. After that, you drop a few rungs to “Put it There”, his Lennon tribute “Tug of War”, the marginal “Goodnight Tonight.” I suppose “Mull of Kintyre” deserves mention, especially if you’re Scottish. The fact that the execrable “The Girl is Mine” (his Jacko duet) and “Ebony and Ivory” (his Stevie Wonder duet) were catchy and immensely popular don’t make them any better songs.
When we stand back and look at the incredible productivity and quality of McCartney’s work from 1963 to 1978, it is impossible not to wonder what happened. It wasn’t losing John Lennon as a songwriting partner: the vast majority of their hits as Beatles were solo compositions (you can always tell the Paul songs from the John songs. A perfect example of their divergent styles in one composition can be heard in the “posthumous” record, “Free as a Bird” – the 1995 record where Paul inserts a distinct, chipper bridge into the sleepy John melody.) After the Beatles, McCartney had a glorious run of songs as a solo artist, with and without Wings. Until the mid-70s, when the well just ran dry. So what happened? Did he just run out of songs?
The same question arises when we look at any number of his contemporaries: Stevie Wonder dropped a double-album explosion of songs in 1976 (“Songs in the Key of Life”) and after that, I can think of two songs which deserve recollection (“Ribbon in the Sky” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” – the latter chosen solely for sentimental reasons). Nanker Phelge, otherwise known as the Glimmer Twins (Keith Richard and Mick Jagger) barely squeaked out another memorable album (“Some Girls”) after 1978. Elton John has put out a good number of hits since 1978, but few match the fire and feeling of the records released beforehand (full credit to Elton, though for his “Lion King” songs, “The One” and from his surprising “Songs from the West Coast” album in 2001, two remarkable songs, “I Want Love” and “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.”) There’s an argument that “I Want Love”, particularly as acted-out by the then-troubled Robert Downey Jr, is the best thing Elton ever did. You don’t see that thirty years into a career, very often.
(To see the amazing "I Want Love", visit: https://www.youtube.com/... )
Surveying these artists and so many others, the question arises: what the hell happened? Did they actually just run out of songs? Did their prolific and creative synapses just stop firing? Did all the sex, drugs and booze sap them of their creative ability? Maybe, but being stoned doesn’t explain why the very-sober Woody Allen made “Hannah and Her Sisters” and then started making things like “Everyone Says I Love You” nor does it explain Jerry Seinfeld, Pablo Picasso or the countless other artists who just “jumped the shark” one day and stopped producing great stuff. It seems to happen to them all.
And it’s not limited to the arts. Unless a business leader dies at the top (Steve Jobs) or retires early (Bill Gates) we see most rise and then crash. At best, some will change how they play the game in order to stay in it (Gordie Howe, Tony Bennett and Maggie Smith come to mind) but generally, except for those who are term-limited at what they do best (Bill Clinton) or who hang it up before they fade away (Ted Williams, Pierre Trudeau), we see in most careers the same pattern of peaking and then, suddenly and rapidly running dry. Sometimes, like Reagan or Thatcher, they peak part way through and don’t know that they’ve started to lose it (something President Hillary Clinton might try to remember, if sworn in at age 68 in the not-too-distant future. But Hillary will probably defy the odds, yet again.)
It is possible that this phenomenon occurs precisely because of the way these people have lived their lives: at full tilt. They dig and dig and dig every nugget out of the mine, until the diamonds are gone and only the coal remains. Maybe. In which case, if you haven’t put a shovel into your ground too often or too deeply yet, maybe you’ve still got time. Maybe.
But it is just as likely – more likely – to be a matter of simple human nature. Whether depleted by abuse, over-use or just age, the capacity to create, to master and to shine – in any human endeavour – seems to ebb. The well runs dry. Which is a sobering proposition, when you think about it. What is probably true, for each of us, is that there is only so much talent and so much time, before both run dry. We may only get so many chances to get it right, before we put out our own version of “London Town.”
Hey, is it too late to re-name this diary?