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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:  )

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?

Originally posted to samsoneyes on Sun Mar 23, 2014 at 02:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Nice piece here. (5+ / 0-)

    I've often wondered about Macca. I think that he loves being an entertainer; at one point, particularly after his mid 70s career rebirth with Wings, perhaps it dawned on him was never going to top his best work in his 20s and 30s.

    There is an out of print novel called Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper. Its a parodic biography of the Fabs that's a lot of fun. It gets some things wrong, but others are spot-on.

    In one scene, John and Paul have reunited (this was written and published before 1980, obviously) and are sitting at John's house trying to write a new song. They are really stuck (Lennon rewrites "In My Life" without realizing it!) and soon are in conversation about Paul's latest work.

    Essentially, fictive Paul makes a telling confession; he knows doesn't have the same drive and focus that his younger self had, but he long ago decided that he would still make music anyway.

    I think that there's something to that. After one has written some of the most popular tunes of all time, what is left to prove?

    I agree about London Town, although I think that the last great all killer/no filler Macca album is Band on the Run.

  •  Similarly Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson, Buck Owens (4+ / 0-)

    but there is also something to be said for some artists' late work, Monk, Ellington, Lefty Frizzell, Richard Rogers. Lennon's talent was undiminished but style changes perhaps gave less opportunity. There's a theory about shelf life of bluegrass, bop, romantic piano, folk-rock, rockabilly, beat poetry, swing, all in their time, the cutting edge possibilities exhausted then gone. The Beatles mastered genres of the golden age of top forty and then rock, but then adopted individual niches in a restructered scene. Lennon more like Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Elvis who transcended genre.

  •  True, but then there's Frank Lloyd Wright (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tobendaro, mookins, Oh Mary Oh, Debby

    I think the key is what you mentioned - changing the game. Paul McCartney changed the game in the sixties, but seemed reluctant to do so later, except in superficial ways.  Perhaps it's simply a matter of finding an "outside path," and then following it until all the ideas are fleshed out, and then refleshed out.  At first, the path seems creative, but then, the world accommodates itself to new ideas, so ever more creativity is needed to do more than run in place.  For many people, it doesn't occur to them to do so, unless they're challenged by a different situation, which might be the case with Elton John and writing for a film.

    None of this makes a bit of difference if they don't count your vote.

    by Toddlerbob on Sun Mar 23, 2014 at 09:07:38 PM PDT

  •  Well, perhaps rock stars run dry (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    northsylvania, No Exit, Kingsmeg

    I'm writing fiction and enjoying doing so, despite my great age.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 05:07:58 AM PDT

  •  'Wonderful Christmastime' may be durable (0+ / 0-)

    but that does not make it worth anything.

    "The great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is the first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk. Every state is totalitarian at heart; there are no ends to the cruelty it will go to to protect itself." -- Ian McDonald

    by Geenius at Wrok on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 05:19:24 AM PDT

  •  I think men burn out and women don't. (0+ / 0-)
  •  Maybe success breeds mediocrity in many creative (3+ / 0-)

    fields.  The artist becomes successful and as they do so, business execs, publicists and all kinds of other "experts" get involved and the focus shifts from "doing what comes naturally" to trying to beat the financial success of the previous effort or competing with other artists or being "fresh" or "pushing the envelope" etc.  Ego gets in the way, financial success brings distractions galore, subtle corruption takes hold and the list goes on.  We all change as time goes by, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  

    •  There ya go... (0+ / 0-)

      The game definitely changes as one achieves phenomenal, over the top success (something that most of us, by definition, will never experience personally).  "The business" begins to intrude upon the creative process - in a major way.

      t is only the most self-aware, most savvy, and most courageous artist who has the moxie to stand up to the suits, and protect his/her inner "goose who laid the golden egg" from becoming completely exhausted and completely depleted by the unrelenting demands of more and better, faster and faster and faster...

      All that is necessary for the triumph of the Right is that progressives do nothing.

      by Mystic Michael on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 09:35:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  "Some will change how they play the game..." (0+ / 0-)

    That's the key, isn't it? You change, the game changes, you have to change how you play. That's where long successful careers come from.

    You're gonna need a bigger boat.

    by Debby on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 08:00:30 AM PDT

  •  My feeling with both Lennon and McCartney (4+ / 0-)

    is that after they split up, none of the people that they kept around were 'big' enough (and 'in tune' enough) to tell them the brutal truth- when something wasn't good enough or was too much fluff or needed a major overhaul.  I know they almost never wrote together, but they did come in with material and bounce it off the group, and the criticisms were brutal and honest and that made the Beatles stuff razor sharp.  Afterwards, no one seemed to be able or willing to stand up and speak the sometimes obvious truth.

  •  It's not about age - that's for sure. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It has more to do with the natural trajectory of the creative process...and what happens to it after a period of extraordinary and/or prolonged high-quality productivity.  Creativity must be refreshed and replenished from time to time, on its own schedule - not according to the capricious or arbitrary dictates of publishers, record company execs, or producers - or else it deteriorates into rote formula.

    It's up to the artist to have the necessary self awareness and guts to do this for him/herself.  Let's face it:  Sometimes people get lazy.  They get complacent.  Eventually the gems of creative genius become harder to come by.

    The true legends instinctively know how to overcome all of this, by recreating themselves - sometimes over and over.  The merely gifted eventually reach a point of satisfaction and contentment - at which point they simply call it good.

    All that is necessary for the triumph of the Right is that progressives do nothing.

    by Mystic Michael on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 09:49:09 AM PDT

  •  Geesh. (0+ / 0-)

    McCartney II is an excellent collection and wonderful in its oddness. And his work since Flaming Pie has been pretty decent to boot (and this is not including his excellent The Firemen project).

    Ans Tug of War is not a Lennon tribute (you are confusing it with the song Here Today).

    Paul's albums such as McCartney, Ram, Red Rose Speedway, McCartney II have become very influential and respected today, since they have been removed from those silly hippy "music is the message for peace man" attitude from the early 70s. And I am not knocking notions of peace and music being a force for it, but the attitude that unless someone is singing something deemed to be "serious" then music is not worthy, or whatever.

    And for what it is worth I find Lennon's solo songs -- for the most part -- to be self indulgent, boring and tuneless. They seem to rely on the "three blind mice" melodic scheme.  I could give a shit about Oh Yoko! and albums like Some Time in NYC and Mind Games are pointless. But, eh, people love JL because he was murdered and his self indulgence is mistaken for depth of character.

    Health insurance is not health care.

    by Jarrayy on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 11:16:53 AM PDT

    •  Tug of War (0+ / 0-)

      you know, I fixed that mistake on my blog but failed to correct the Kos diary - thanks for proving my suspicion that no error will be left undetected by informed readers.

      my tastes and loyalties have migrated over the years; early on I was a Paul guy, and shared your view of Lennon's stuff.  But I've shifted to middle ground since. There is no way to characterize the Plastic Ono Band album as tuneless or boring. Self-indulgent maybe, but great stuff.  As for Yoko, agreed generally. Remember though, Paul did "The Lovely Linda" and put HER in the band too.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about the power and importance of Paul's early solo work, right through Venus & Mars. After that of course, not so much.

      But you've made me think and yup, it's possible John jumped the shark before Paul did.  Certainly the whole Nilsson-Mind Games-Walls & Bridges time period was worse than London Town.  But John showed he still had some chops on Double Fantasy, in my view.  Had he lived, most likely John would have dribbled out some good songs the way Paul has.

  •  Happens to comic book creators too (0+ / 0-)

    Chris Claremont had a legendary 16 year run on Uncanny X-Men, and has written mostly drivel ever since. Frank Miller created The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, the original Wolverine miniseries (that inspired the most recent movie), Daredevil: Born Again, 300, Sin City, but has written a stream of pure crap since 9/11.

    Visit Delaware Liberal, biggest and best blog in Delaware, and one of the finest state blogs in the nation.

    by XStryker on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 01:27:20 PM PDT

  •  classical composers, mathematicians (0+ / 0-)

    novelists, poets... in a lot of creative fields people seem to peak in their 20s or 30s.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Mon Mar 24, 2014 at 09:48:20 PM PDT

    •  Unless one is savvy enough to know that (0+ / 0-)

      keeping distant from all of the 'red carpets' and hero worship is the way to keep the creativity flowing, one is doomed to be overcome with the heavy burden of everyday life and all of the complications of being famous and wealthy, if that becomes part of the equation.

      Most of us artists experienced our 20's and 30's as a high adventure with limitless energy and a vast excitement for our own exploration of the world as seen thru our unique prism.

      Having the ability to re-focus, take a new path and refine our vision is the key to continued creativity.

      Most of us lose the passion, come to a dead end and just burn out.

      Burning out is never a final, lock-the-door-behind-you situation, tho, and can result in a chapter two of creativity after an emotional rest and distance from the original focus.

      Women artists, or single parent men,  have a much more difficult time staying focused, especially if there are children.

      Thus the ravages of everyday life on the psyche of the artist.

      'How like fish we are: ready, nay, eager, to seize upon whatever new thing.......And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook". ALDO LEOPOLD - A Sand County Almanac

      by flowerfarmer on Tue Mar 25, 2014 at 07:29:36 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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