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McCartney, Coppola, The Cheerleader
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I had a surprising number of friends who made the trip to Wrigley Field last week to see Paul McCartney in concert, performing the Midwest leg of his stadium tour, and almost everybody said that the show was tremendous and that McCartney played for nearly three hours. The incredible heat and humidity apparently didn't faze the 69 year-old singer, who blazed through 30+ songs that relied heavily on familiar Beatles and Wings titles. A few recent songs were sprinkled throughout, but McCartney obviously knew what his fans wanted: a greatest hits/nostalgia night, with the artist performing songs that have been iconic for decades.
I have no doubt that McCartney put on a good show, and I'm sure my friends weren't faking when they said they had a great time. Still, in the deep crevices of my diseased mind, I kept thinking that the only parallel to the McCartney tour that I could think of wasn't the recent blockbuster U2 tour or the Police's reunion shows, but, rather, the King Tutankhamun exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which ran for three and a half years in the 70's and was viewed by more than eight million people. Both were historical exhibitions that featured well-preserved artifacts from a fascinating, by-gone era, and both played before enthusiastic, backward-looking audiences.
I'm being wholly unfair here, but I can't help wondering how strange it must be for a nearly 70 year-old man to play songs that he wrote five decades ago, in his early 20's. And it's nothing against the music — like most sentient humans, I have dozens of Beatles songs ingrained in my memory, and I like a lot of them — I don't need to hear "Hey Jude" or "Yesterday" again, but I'll always sit still for "Paperback Writer," "I've Just Seen a Face," the "Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight" medley. And I do understand the nostalgia of seeing them performed live. I must confess that I once had a deep fascination for the whole Beatlemania thing, that crazy time in the 60's when the well-documented "British Invasion" took over American popular culture and the Beatles experienced unprecedented fan worship and popularity. But I should point out that I was 14 at the time, and the Beatles had only been broken up for a handful of years. Which means that even my teenage nostalgia is now approaching forty years old. When McCartney took the stage in Chicago, it had been four plus decades since the Beatles last played together.
Quick: name the last Paul McCartney that you really remember. "Silly Love Songs?" "Coming Up?" For me, the most recent image I have of Paul McCartney is from that dorky Wild West video he made with Michael Jackson, the one where they wear clown make-up and pretend to be medicine-men hustlers and Michael has to flirt with the only African-American showgirl in the history of the Old West (played, creepily enough, by his sister LaToya.) And that was twenty-eight years ago, in 1983. I gave a listen to his collaborative album, Electric Arguments, which got great reviews when it came out in 2008, but the songs evaporated almost immediately upon hearing.
Look, I know he's Sir Paul and universally beloved and that his face was one of the most recognized of the era — every time you see a 60's montage, it's always JFK, MLK, Vietnam, and Paul McCartney — still, it's a dispiriting thing when you see a great, iconic artist give in so completely to the power of nostalgia. It's like that terrible moment on Christmas Day in 1990, when Coppola released The Godfather Part III --it wasn't because the movie was awful (it was), it was more depressing that a great director was shamelessly trying to live in the past. The movie felt like it came from a poverty-stricken imagination, from someone desperate to go back to the scene of his greatest relevancy and acclaim. Watching it, you wished that Coppola had had the ruling creative intelligence to know that it was a disastrous idea to revisit those grounds. When filmgoers speak of their reverence for The Godfather movies, they take great pains to separate the last film from the masterful first two.
Sequels are not inherently a bad idea (Godfather Part II, obviously), but it takes a highly disciplined sensibility to make them work without feeling the pall of the previous work. One of my favorite books of all time is The Cheerleader, a 1974 novel by Ruth Doan McDougall, a coming-of-age story about high school cheerleaders in the 50's. The book was somewhat scandalous when it was released — there's a lot of sex in it and the cover featured a provocative rendering of the main character in a PG-13 degree of undress. It was a popular "dirty" book among many of my high school girl friends, so of course I read it, and I was surprised to discover that the book went miles and miles beyond the usual Jacqueline Susan, Sidney Sheldon tawdriness. It seemed dead solid perfect to me then, a great look into what teenage years are really like. Last year, I re-read the book and it impressed me even more — I know I'm prone to hyperbole, but it's simply the best book about high school that I've ever read.
So I was surprised to discover that the author published a sequel to the book in 1993 — apparently, The Cheerleader has developed a small but feverish cult of fans who wanted to know what became of the main character after high school. The sequel, Henrietta Snow (the main character's name) was available at my very own Allen County Public Library, so I immediately, enthusiastically tracked down a copy. And you can guess the rest. It's not a terrible book, and McDougall is a good writer, but it's plodding dutiful; I discovered that I didn't care to see the cheerleader as an adult. It seemed a violation of the original story, and I stopped reading halfway through. I think I realized that sometimes it's best to leave those fond memories in the past, where they belong.