With Bonnaroo ’13 falling on Father’s Day weekend, what better way to celebrate great dads than with the legendary Paul McCartney?
Paul McCartney is seventy—the same age my father would be, had he lived. But my father drank too much, and in April 1972, when I was seven years old, he drove off I-85 and died at age thirty-one. Subsequent Father’s Days brought mostly longing and sadness. But these feelings diminished when Paul McCartney became my imaginary dad. This fantasy faded with time, and I eventually forgot about it. But when my wife and I catch a McCartney concert now, it all comes back. For the first time in decades, I’m like a son hanging out with his dad on Father’s Day.
I go from man to boy when Paul sits at the stage piano and performs “Maybe I’m Amazed,” from his first solo album, 1970’s McCartney. The album’s back cover, a photo by his deceased first wife Linda, features scruffy, smiling Paul, with their firstborn, Mary, nestled in his shearling coat. This exotic image of fatherly love and protection, which fascinated me as a child, comes to life when McCartney hits the opening chords.
Paul McCartney: Maybe I’m Amazed Live in Montreal
In the early ’70s, Wings was part of the soundtrack to a childhood spent in a lot of single-parent homes. I was a fan of Paul’s post-Beatles music, much of which he still performs—and kills—live. Now, as an adult, when those tunes wash over me—“Band On the Run,” “Jet,” “Live and Let Die”—I realize it wasn’t only the songs; McCartney’s unique “stability-within-rock” lifestyle enthralled me, too. But I didn’t want to be McCartney, I wanted to be his kid. I thrilled at magazine photos of the McCartney brood; grubby, beautiful Mary, Stella, and Heather touring with Mum and Dad, in Paul’s arms, or at his heels, running through airports. In the ’70s, this fired my imagination more than anything; rockin’ superstar Papa, up to his eyeballs in domesticity; a man fulfilled, yet still somehow funky.
Adolescence brought carnal pleasures, and I understood at last the temptations that had bested my dad—temptations Paul had somehow weathered. Surely, he’d been tempted, yet my fantasy dad stayed in control, kept his family together. Until her death from cancer in 1998, he was devoted to Linda, his soul mate. And he emerged from that crucible of grief stronger, better onstage than he was in the last century, when Linda was at his side. Better at seventy than at fifty? Yes—as if Linda, in death, fills him with her spirit, giving him the preternatural energy that propels his phenomenal three-hour show.
A McCartney set is not complete without a solo acoustic version of “Here Today,” an imaginary conversation-in-song with John Lennon, composed not long after John’s murder. When Paul introduces it at the show I attend, advising everyone to seize the day, to forgive and tell people you love them before it’s too late, I’m suddenly communing with my own dear friend, who committed suicide in 2004. When Paul sings “If you were here today…,” his voice aches, but also rages and, at the same time, salutes; all of this transports me. In the presence of my fantasy dad, I’m not only closer to my dead friend, I’m also with my real dad, in a place of forgiveness.
Paul McCartney: Here Today Good Evening New York City
Speaking of real family, Paul’s actual kids—my fantasy sisters Heather, a potter; Stella, a fashion designer; and Mary, a photographer, plus fantasy brother James, a musician—have all turned out fine. The road years, the travel, the intensity of it all seems to have swirled about them like a hurricane in which their papa was the ever-calm and loving eye.
These days I am a dad myself. I have long since moved on from dreaming of a Liverpudlian papa inviting me into his Yellow Submarine; I now look to Paul McCartney as a fellow dad. In true rock and roll style, his daughter Beatrice—by ex-wife Heather Mills—is five years younger than my son, and younger than a couple of his grandkids. When I try to imagine an offspring of mine having a child who is older than one of my own kids, I need to lie down. In any case, Father’s Day must be like Christmas for Paul McCartney.
As I watch McCartney live, it’s Father’s Day for me, too, no matter the actual date. I did not expect to revisit childhood longings for a rock and roll dad when I heard “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but I enjoy the welling up of a dormant desire for an adventurous musician to spirit me away from a fatherless childhood to concert halls, hotel rooms, the feel of a jet’s carpeting beneath my bare feet as we fly over the Pacific. Apparently, even the most far-fetched fantasy still exists in a corner of my mind, just waiting for the right sequence of notes to unearth it.
Paul sings to departed Linda as he looks up at the Jumbotron, seeing his younger self gazing into his soul mate’s eyes while he cradles their daughter against his chest. Time and space ebb for a few liberating moments and I see me, a grieving kid, caught up in a melody, looking at a magazine photo of a musical family on the run who appear, for the time being, far away from loss, tragedy, death. When the song fades and the cheering subsides, I am a man again, and Paul is not my father. But he’s allowed me to touch the part of myself that remains connected to the man I lost, and the dreaming child still inside me. As these feelings recede, I am happy to leave that longing. I’m glad to say I possess the skill to come back from pain to a world where I am blessed with health; a gorgeous, shaggy-haired child; and a beautiful, supportive, fascinating wife. I am pretty sure I learned how to do that from Paul. Happy Father’s Day, Fantasy Dad.
—Robert Burke Warren