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Paul McCartney And Wings “Venus And Mars” Reviewed

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The past is another country and me at 18 years of age, in early 1975, was just a pretty wild kid playing in West Beirut with zero parental control (zero parents)  as the seeds of a civil war that would tear the country apart within five years ran like a river right through it. Girl crazy, but what 18 year old isn’t? Still, I had an English accent, was cute enough, drunk enough for shyness not to be an issue, and one evening me and my buddy Nabil Habbal (dead now) were at our local pub, “Greens”. Greens was an English language hangout, ten minutes from the Mediterranean on one side, and the American University Of Beirut on the other, go straight down to the Roache and turn right and you’re at the American Embassy (blown to smithereens in 1983, but still holding TGIF parties in 1975),  go right and go straight upwards and you’d find my Daddy’s textile factories and keep going up, my old boarding school Brummana High:  one of god’s little ironies, a Quaker school who preached religious tolerance and nonviolence. There were a lot of girls and there were a lot of clubs in Beirut 1975, but Greens was a starting out point, for a game of darts and a game of romantic three card monte with any talent up for it, and one early evening Nabil and I pulled two English girls, one a waitress in the sky at Middle Eastern Airlines, she was Nabil’s for the evening, the other girl one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Sally? Sarah? A married woman although young, with a baby boy, visiting with her sister and her parents while her husband was in New Orleans with his close associate, Paul McCartney.

We went on a coupla dates and then her parents found out and put a stop to it, but it remains a favorite memory and by the summer of 75, the album her husband and McCartney were working on was released, and defined the lead up to my 19th birthday and the barrel of a gun at the head of my teens. In 2016, McCartney’s sixth solo release,  Venus And Mars is not the best album ever for anyone the way it was for me in 1975: it was the day dream of a pop world planted in the middle of MSG with rock shows, superheroes, soldier boys and lonely people; yet resolutely shallow. Like the Mardi Gras was more text than subtext on the album, so was the ubiquitous rock show like a march down main street, thought I didn’t react that way. For me,  there was a feathery summery perfection to the album, it was made for the really young, it was all “soldier boy, kissed girl… he don’t mind”, with the Vietnam War barely in the rearview mirror. The world that McCartney brought to life was a world of optimism that fitted well into my smiley pursuit of girls. It wasn’t callow, however, it felt like privilege without being seemingly lost to  privilege.

In 1975, life was a daydream for some people: endless summer and McCartney, and not the Beach Boys, was calling us back. Opening with an astrologist before jumping to Arena rockers,some soft shoe shuffle, love as the ultimate superpower, and a mediocre McCartney blues ballad, flip it over for the reprise of “Venus And mars” (shmome mistake there), two huge flops (both sung and one co-written by Denny Laine), a triumphant pop masterstroke, and a be gentle with the aged closed out with the theme of UK soap “Crossroads”. In the light of day, even with Allen Toussaint’s stellar performance on “Rock Show”, it is slight where it didn’t need to be slight (if anybody had something interesting to say about touring, Macca should’ve been the one), but not to me. To me, it is a heralding of the past, it harkens back to a person I haven’t been in a long long time, in a place that has ceased to exist, doing things that seemed so specific to a past unreachable by any other way. I don’t even have pictures of it. It’s the memory of a memory, a place and time that would be killed off by punk rock a year later. By late 1976, all I wanted was loud, fast rules. McCartney was antiquated, But I am not nostalgic for 1976 or 1977, punk was too rough and tumble for that recherchezing in time. The me of 1976 is visible to the me of 2016, but the me of 1975 has completely gone. I can’t walk over to “Greens”, I can’t drive over the border to Damascus for the day: it is too far away, so many of the players are dead, so many of the places razed to the ground, so when I hear “Listen To What The Man Said” and close my eyes, I can see that place through the only place the past is open to me: if I’d been told what my life held, I’d never have believed it, it doesn’t seem credible, that the boy with the ready smile and the way with a line, who was always amazed by the wonder of it all, would go so far down and away. The secret of immigrants is that they are homesick, Venus And Mars takes me back home.

Venus And Mars has a similar form of innocence to my ears, Not kind, not caring, but carefree, where age is so far away that “here we sit two lonely old people…” might as well be reflective of a different species. I can listen to the album from one end to the other, and while now I can appreciate, say, Macca’s falsetto on “Lonely Old People”, then it sounded like the wind down before we start all over again, now it sounds like the wind down before the end. If all art is transmogrification, so is all  our lives, we move  from action to thought, from we did to we remember what we did. This is why Alzheimer’s is such a horrifying disease, we lose our memory and inside that memory, what we were and, finally, what we are. In 2016, Venus and Mars is a memory album, not just a girl who didn’t work out (they’d be replacements before the year was over), but also a world that didn’t work out: the shifting sands of time, on a balcony looking out, and on the stereo, I can hear it out there, I can hear the understated wittiness of “and you? you seem to like me”, “red light blue light”, the two note piano intro to “Magneto And Titanium Man”. The latter is definably a young man’s daydream, a childish dream song and a parade. It isn’t fragile, McCartney can be fragile, but this is robust in the extreme, it is so damn young. Younger than anything that came before, though McCartney was 33 years old, his youth behind him, the on tour rock and roll silliness and wiseness, the moving, the engine of excitement, pushed up against the album. His first arena tour since the Beatles, Wings Over America, was months away, as in MONTHS. It was an inside out third wall breaker, the Rock Show was about the rock show that was happening before our eyes . I believe it was Paul who noted that he worked so hard on the album because he didn’t want to be dogged all tour by a bad one, this wasn’t a bad one. I also guess Paul allowed Denny and the rest of the band their moment in order to instill a band aesthetic to the tour. The sound was very smart power pop, with enough room for signature McCartneyism like “Letting Go” and “Call Me Back Again”. It opens with a call to arms and ends with age encroaching upon the album. All the outtakes are excellent, it may well be the best album for outtakes he ever made: “Junior’s Farm”, “Soily”, the carnival “My Carnival” (so is Magneto a carnival -in a different way but it is marching down main street), “Sally G”., this was all prime McCartney.

If Wings weren’t a Beatles like band, McCartney’s affection for Jimmy McCulloch (who sang and co-wrote the anti-drug “Medicine Jar” before dying from a booze and drugs cocktail in 1979 at the age of 26) and Denny Laine -McCartney’s Steve Van Zandt though he wasn’t at all. But both live and absolutely on record, Macca was too much the perfectionist for a tight little rock band to make that much difference.In 2016 he has had the same touring band for 20 years, nice but so what? The sound is not organic enough to allow for a group aesthetic, it doesn’t refract. Jimmy could play bass and guitar, and Denny was a former Moody Blues, drummer Joe English would get a lead vocal on the next album.

In 1975, Dylan was releasing the divorced heat and chill of Blood On The Tracks, Elton John the overtly ambitious rock opera  Captain Fantastic And The Dirt Brown Cowboy, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and  Tonight’s The Night while Patti Smith’s Horses would slam the door shut on the last vestiges of color coordinated pop silliness to the point where Paul would get quite defensive soon enough.  While I respond to the album with some of my critical faculties stalled. if I can listen to it with a clear mind, Venus And Mars  isn’t better than Red Rose Speedway, and not just because of the album crash and burn “Spirits Of Ancient Egypt” and “Medicine Jar”, neither “Call Me Back Again”  nor “Love In Song” are very good, The “Venus And Mars” reprise is odd (he should have placed it just before “Treat Her Gently – Lonely Old People”), also,  by McCartney standards, there  isn’t a good hits to misses ratio. Everything else is great but if you were coming to Venus And Mars ice cold, you might be shocked at how it sags. It starts off great, sags through the middle of the second side, and ends on a beautiful bummer. If this is a touring band’s album, it is also a travelogue which McCartney, for reasons best known to himself, chose not to fulfill: if he had wanted it just a little, he couldn’t rearranged the playlist and centered it on Main Street, New Orleans. But McCartney wanted an upbeat album with hidden depths, that  he could perform live…  and he got one. It is an album which, by not tying itself to the specifity of life (not even his own family), became, for me,  a way to step into my own story, to remember a time and place lost forever. That is, indeed, what the man said.

Grade: B+

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