The English middle orders from Ruskin onward have had an inbred prejudice against America. True, they may dress like mutant versions of Kurt Cobain and bundle themselves and their cloaca-tongued broods off to Disney World, but when you say “U.S.A.,” much of the professional class still thinks of headlines like “NEW JERSEY BABY BORN WITH THREE HEADS” or, more topically, “BUSH LEFT ME ON A ROOF TO DIE.” Indeed, there are few sights and sounds more British than that of some lucky H2 work-permit holder yapping at the heels of the host country while simultaneously enjoying her hospitality. Many grand pronouncements about America’s decline made by visiting rock stars would seem to illustrate this point.
Take, for instance, Sir Paul McCartney. Nothing that follows is intended as an attack or slur on McCartney or his family, or as a reason not to buy several copies of my new book on him. Unlike some of his ex-colleagues, I would not dream of questioning Sir Paul’s talent, drive, restless creativity, exquisite taste, philanthropy—notably the last, which has matured strikingly since the day in 1968 when he announced, “Starvation in India doesn’t worry me one bit, not one iota.” In the years since, he has variously embraced, among others, Friends of the Earth, Live Aid, War Child, Greenpeace, Adopt-a-Minefield, the National Endowment for Science and the Arts, and sundry nuclear-disarmament and debt-cancelation groups, as well as being a thrilling ranter on the subject of animal rights. (The historical role of megalomania in this last obsession, Hitler being the obvious example, is under-researched and would surely make a Ph.D. thesis.) In fact, few of the crises chronicled daily on CNN—whether about Iraq and Iran, or AIDS and global warming and racial strife in Louisiana—are entirely free of McCartney’s empathy. To illustrate the general perception of the man, one need go no further than the anonymous fan-page correspondent who writes that “Sir Paul has achieved monumental fame as a uniter and healer,” not to mention as the “conscience of his generation” and tireless foe both of “Western cruelty against innocent creatures,” and (surely a non sequitur) “the evil Murdoch press.”
Readers may feel that I have scoured the flakier end of the internet for such a rich example. But no. There are literally scores of pieces similarly extolling the ex-Beatle’s musically assisted therapy of his audiences, not to mention the audiences themselves, who are flocking to his current tour in record numbers. By all accounts, McCartney’s latest concerts continue to soar far above the level of other 1960’s antiques with their vaudeville routines for the curious and the disturbed. If you are under, say, 75, and have any sort of an ear for a pop melody, then he’s your man. But “monumental fame as a uniter and healer”? Take McCartney’s moderately successful 1970 single, today an anthem, entitled “Let It Be.” That’s the first, second, and third line of its chorus. The fourth is, “Yeah, let it be.” Might the attraction of hearing him sing this possibly be anecdotal, as well as to do with the appeal of moving to a rhythm at the same time as everyone else? As thousands of Red Army conscripts staged parades, lifting posters of the Comrade Leader and lowering them simultaneously, so people clap along and wave lighters during this particular number.
Other than the tribal sense of community, what does one get for a $250 McCartney ticket—for which, incidentally, you can expect to pay three or four times as much from those ever-helpful “brokers”? A couple of hours of tightly choreographed nostalgia, Sir Paul himself retaining such a sober, businesslike air that his Hofner guitar might as well be a briefcase. Indeed, he has taken the opportunity not so much to evoke the 60’s counterculture as to pitch financial planning on behalf of Boston-based Fidelity Investments. The privately held fund giant has signed up the conscience of his generation “to show that we, too, can help people achieve their dreams,” says Claire Huang, Fidelity’s executive vice president for advertising.
These latest Beatles-by-proxy concerts have added a tidy sum, then, to McCartney’s already capacious vaults. And good luck to him. But when a billionaire shakes the collecting tin, however inadvertently, on behalf of those crooks, charlatans, and top-of-the-range Mercedes owners governing much of Africa—as he did at last summer’s Live 8 event—harangues us, once again, about our dining habits (carnivores being not so much wrong as morally faulty), and then hokes it up with Fidelity, he wouldn’t, perhaps, seem to be a man whose first anxiety is self-effacement. Once the conscience of his generation sells mutual funds, what’s the generation to think? And why the mass investment in McCartney’s own pension plan, particularly just as those winter heating bills roll in? A couple earning $30,000 per year, after tax, would have to spend a week’s salary in order to watch the two-hour concert without the aid of binoculars. It must be those peerless tunes, and possibly, too, the publicity machine—a little like an Abrams tank with go-faster stripes—that drives the whole enterprise forward.
The conflict between historical truth and the more excitable end of mass perception has been a central theme in the career of another premium-ticket act currently touring these shores, the Rolling Stones. Of “Sweet Neocon,” a song from the group’s new CD, A Bigger Bang, we read that
We play your music in rock ’n’ roll marching bands, as we tattoo “JAIL BUSH” on the bloated bellies of the war criminal and his thugs . . . A clarion call to end the tyrant’s reign of terror, error, and stupidity . . . An anthem for creat[ing] a new society from the ashes of our fires.
How very different from the home lives of our own dear Stones. This is a band, it should be noted, with a nearly perfect, 43-year track record of political apathy. Sir Mick Jagger’s first ex-wife thought so much of the matter that she once publicly challenged him to write a song with a “serious message.” His response was a tune called “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (But I Like It).” “Sweet Neocon” itself offers lyrics of almost masterly vacuity, relying instead on crashing blues-guitar chords, wailing harmonica, and a large degree of critical goodwill. (It is, perhaps, distinguished by its use of the word Halliburton in a rock song.) Its composer again demonstrates his keen eye for the avenues down which his public might be inclined to roam, without showing much interest in exploring them himself. As of the time of writing, “Sweet Neocon” has failed to make a single appearance in the group’s stage act. Any fan who has committed himself to the view that even the early Stones were primarily about rebellion may wish to recall Jagger’s remarks of July 1967, the year of Their Satanic Majesties Request and sundry court visits. “I don’t want to format a new code of living, a new morality,” he assured the bishop of Woolwich and the editor of the Times. “I never set myself up as anything. It’s society that has pushed one into that position.” The drug laws apart, domestic-policy issues tended, and still tend, not to trouble the head Stone. In foreign affairs, there is perhaps a hint of the Vicar of Bray, if not of simple nostalgia for lost influence, as Jagger delivers one of his frequent musings on Britain’s post-Suez role, but the essential insouciance remains. With the Stones, saving the world, ending the Vietnam War, and stopping the arms race always had to be fitted into any spare time left over from the demands of their high-powered business managers and the endearments of groupies. “Everybody’s talking, showing off their wit / The moon is yellow, I’m like jello / Staring down your tits,” Sir Mick croons elsewhere on A Bigger Bang, among other such sweet, understated lilts. The last time I went to watch the Stones, the person entering the stadium in front of me wore a Some Girls T-shirt that bore Jagger’s face on the back, interspersed among sado-masochistic images of young women, but not his name. “God,” read the gaudy wisp of overpriced nylon. We have moved a fair way beyond due respect for a long-running entertainer.
For his part, Jagger’s fellow sexagena-rian Keith Richards continues to be a source of mingled humor and awe. Of late, the gaunt, sloe-eyed guitarist has dyed what remains of his hair blue, then dressed it with various baubles and ribbons. It makes for a melancholy late-seasonal effect, akin to a badly molting Christmas tree. Richards’ paternal grandparents were both well-respected councilors in the London borough of Walthamstow, where his grandmother served as the first female mayor. His maternal grandfather was a World War I hero. Richards’ father was among the first to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day and was badly wounded, and subsequently mentioned in dispatches, as a result. Some discrepancy exists, therefore, between the raised-by-wolves legend of Keith’s upbringing and the reality, with its emphasis on duty, rank, and sound traditional values. In a biography that appeared in 2003, he was outed as the sort of bygone English gentleman who likes madrigals and sheepdogs, and, more pertinently, to attend the local Anglican church; most journalists sounded as amazed by this fact as if they were reporting on the archbishop of Canterbury conducting a pagan fertility rite (perhaps not as remote a prospect as it once was). Richards remains a solidly earthbound character; the great question is whether he or Jagger will eventually recognize the broader potential of their agenda and outgrow their aversion to politics.
Many of the trimmings to the Stones’ latest tour come courtesy of the Ameriquest company, known for its robust marketing of loans to the fiscally challenged or dispossessed. Ticket buyers will be pleased to know of their tour sponsor’s current activities. Ameriquest recently put aside $325 million to settle a predatory-lending case, in which 30 federal and state prosecutors had accused the mortgage provider of charging “hidden fees and higher-than-promised interest rates.” The same day, President Bush named Ameriquest’s chairman and CEO, Roland Arnall, as ambassador to the Netherlands. Arnall and his wife, Dawn, had previously contributed some $5.5 million to Bush’s 2004 political campaign, of which $5 million went to the Progress for America 527 group, which ran ads promoting the President’s reelection. Ameriquest’s titanically aggressive sales strategy, no-nonsense pragmatism, and populist veneer should resonate quite strongly with the Stones, who are charging either $160 or $350 a seat (substantially more, in some cities) with, for real misers, a few “restricted view” bargains at $70.
A third knight bachelor, Elton John, though not currently plying his trade here, has pronounced at length on America’s troubled post-September 11 mores. The man of real talent who longs to be acclaimed for something else is a recurring and somehow quite endearing figure. Sir Elton, a gifted piano player in his day, clearly wishes to be thought of in the highest echelon of social critics. A few months ago, he informed viewers of the short-lived CNBC talk show McEnroe of the “scary” state of their culture. “There’s an atmosphere of fear in the States right now that’s deadly. Performers are frightened by the current administration’s bullying tactics,” he went on to explain, while denouncing the Bush regime’s vigorous, law-enforced “suppression” of artistic dissent. Yet the ruthless Nazi dragnet somehow continues to miss Sir Elton himself, who slyly lays low by appearing on prime-time television and accepting invitations to the White House. On this latter occasion, the pianist dolefully observed that the President was very civil and that the Kennedy Center award his host had presented him earlier that evening was “the icing on the cake.”
You can only admire the way these old-stagers seem constantly to find ways to reinvigorate careers now well into their second and third acts. The current clot of pop idols isn’t nearly as supple.
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