Paul, your picture from the early days is so innocent, handsome, and carefree. You’re wearing an earth-toned, collarless suit from the Epstein days. Your arched eyebrows and auburn eyes twinkle, and I can’t imagine how I can survive in this world without you.
Who knows? This may be the last letter you read as you await the end. And to be honest, I don’t know who hurts more, me or you? You’ve “taken me from crayons to perfume” as the British singer Lulu sang in the ‘60s song “To Sir With Love”.
As little girls, my cousin and I played at being Beatles, too. We polished our nails and donned fuzzy slippers. We took turns playing “Paul” or “Paul’s girlfriend”. We talked into the early morning hours, giggling at our self-taught brilliant British accents. Desperate to get close to you, to understand your culture and that industrial town called Liverpool, we collected magazines and cards and posters, taping them to our walls so that we’d see your face before drifting off to sleep.
Back then, my friend’s older sister actually got to attend a Beatles concert. You can’t imagine how hurt and jealous I was that I couldn’t go. After the show, Karola came home so elated, clutching what seemed to be an empty mason jar. The next morning, however, I heard her scream as her father opened the jar in order to store some tools. Karola screamed hysterically, Paul, Paul, Paul!
Seems she had carefully and lovingly saved the air from the show, air you undoubtedly breathed inside the concert hall. Her poor, helpless father was aghast, not knowing what he had done, releasing you. Of course Karola immediately tackled him and saved a few, short breaths. I would have done the same, you know? Time moved us forward.
* * *
Another moment when you seemed to touch my life happened when a boy came to school with a picture of you. His mother was an artist, and our teacher said he could give the portrait to any girl in school today. My arm ached; I remember screaming, Paul, Paul, Paul! as I waved again and again, praying to get Ronald’s attention. Suddenly, like a burst helium balloon, the picture fell on my desk, and I kept it in a special drawer for years afterwards.
Later in life, at one of your Chicago concerts, the footage of “Good Day Sunshine” and “English Tea” for NASA astronaut Bill McArthur and Russian Cosmonaut Valery Tokarev was shown. McArthur and Tokarev were orbiting some 220 miles above earth in their space shuttle Discovery. I was (and still am) so fascinated by what you’ve accomplished, Paul.
And during that same concert, after a few fans heckled you and you stopped playing, remember? You didn’t get angry; you simply turned toward the crowd and asked, “Do you know what I’ve accomplished?” Aside from the few hecklers, the rest of the crowd supported you in that moment, myself included. I felt like I really understood you—that intimate compassion you feel when some blowhard hurts someone you’ve always loved, and suddenly, you don’t know who hurts more. What do these accomplishments mean as you lay here? I wonder if they bring you peace?
I also understood then what it was to grow older with someone, beside someone. As I looked around the room at the people of all different ages, I realized that the very young ones had no idea who you really were, let alone what you’ve accomplished in your lifetime. Of course, they can hear your songs in the same way—after all, we hear Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole harmonizing long after her father’s death—we can hear the music, but how many can say they’ve known a man’s life the way I think I know yours.
That same night at the United Center, the lights lowered, and you walked on the stage with your beautiful acoustic guitar strapped around your neck. Your innocent, solitary, and purposeful image reminded me of the album cover of Ram, where your firstborn James was swaddled inside your warm jacket. You strummed the first few chords of “Yesterday”, and the sheer loveliness of the sound was as delicate as Renoir’s brush strokes on a lily pad.
I was enraptured, Paul, at the delicacy of that moment, hearing you sing a song that has been covered by artist after artist, but the music was pouring from your heart nonetheless. And if I had died with you, Paul, after sharing this moment, it would have been absolutely fine. Sharing your art, be it writing, singing, or guitar playing, is always so frightening; but releasing that part of yourself never dampened your spirit—a fear some of us, like myself, harbor—and I’ve tried to carry that same spirit with me as a teacher, writer, and mother.
* * *
I read that you watched in horror on September 11th as the twin towers in New York City burst into flames. You were traveling on an airplane yourself as you witnessed this tragedy, but grief stricken as you were, you resolved to help the survivors. You buried your grief long enough to play benefit concerts for these families. Giving back—how easy to get caught up in the trivialities of life—but giving back is important, Paul, and I think you can honestly look back and feel you’ve done that.
It’s hard to imagine you grieving, Paul. As I grew up, you were the cheerful one, the one who rallied the troops. But watching you grieve, first over Brian Epstein who gave you your start, then Linda, your wife of 30 years, then the deaths of John and George, made me admire your strength even more than before.
Maybe you don’t feel that strength now, Paul, but the weakened figure you are now on these last days, are not who you have been your whole life. These last few moments don’t measure your entire life, which leaves it to us to realize your achievements for you.
Once, I played “She’s Leaving Home” for my father. Of course, like most fathers then, he hated rock music. “How can you play that,” he would ask me. But after hearing the beautiful string section and cautionary lyrics of that song, he smiled. Through your voice and your words, he understood how your music could revolutionize the world, bringing together a multitude of cultures and generations.
“Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy,” your sultry voice sings before trailing off. Watching Hard Days Night and Help and learning the tablature parts for “Norwegian Wood” is what bound my days together, you should know.
You’ve saved seals and raised consciousness about land mines; you’ve performed concerts for the people of Kampuchea; and in 2008, you played the “Friendship First” concert in Tel Aviv. Will people remember the man behind the donations, Paul? Know that I will always remember that conviction and the lesson that even one person can change the world. You really did, Paul, and you still are changing us, and I know, you still will continue to do so, even when you’re gone.
Back in USSR...
In 2003, years after that barbed-wire wall of inhumanity came down, you shared your talents with the Russians. You played the Back in USSR tour in Moscow’s Red Square, where you personally met Putin. Later you played the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the site of their revolution. Maybe those “cold wars” only exist in our imaginations, Paul.
I hope those memories feel warm to you, Paul. As I recall these historical events, I can’t imagine a timeline existing without your presence, without your warm smile and those careful words that I’ve heard in interviews and television shows and movies.
I can’t imagine Carnaby Street or Piccadilly Circus without your sentiments. I can’t imagine Earl Grey tea or bell bottoms or poison rings or Mary Quant fashions without my mind drifting past your mop top bangs, black, shiny boots, and shy smile. I can’t imagine looking at a flock of sheep without thinking of your farm in Scotland or looking at Stella McCartney fashion and wondering if the teens know that her dad is a rocker.
I think it’s the father in you that brought out the mother in me. For me, you were the first superstar who wore the role of nurturer so well and so proudly. Your love for your children and your thirty-year marriage may be considered “old school” in an era where half of all first marriages end in divorce, but that never seemed to phase or influence you. With your prickly beard and button down pullovers, you made parenting look sexy. You were a “believer, you couldn’t leave her if you tried” as that rival gang song expressed.
Rock-solid and working-class in values and sensibilities, I learned from you, Paul. Be polite, but never phony. Be thoughtful, but never ingratiating. Be talented, but share these gifts generously. Maybe you never said this, but through your extensive catalogue and contributions to this world, the implications were many, and intuitively, I held them close.
One YouTube interview showed you and John besieged by a journalist. Your auburn hair, streaked with light, your eyes still retaining that twinkle, you glanced into the camera. You mumbled about maybe enjoying fame for another few years—this was the early ’60s. How could you have known, Paul, that this wild ride would go on and on and on? But your humility was unmistakable, which is a rare quality, Paul. And maybe that’s why your ride went on and on and on.
* * *
Years later, when you were interviewed by Howard Stern and he tried to catch you off-guard with piercing and embarrassing questions, remember how you stood your ground, never showing an ounce of surprise or anger, enthusiastically anxious to play the game, but not too caught up in the drama? You’ve grown from lovable lad to predictable sod growing lovelier vis-à-vis the charm of Benjamin Button.
My journalism reflects those moments, Paul. Each interview and album review gives me access to the overpowering feelings that musicians live for and often have to overcome. Music and writing about music immortalizes us, documenting the triumphs and tragedies for posterity. Maybe that’s what gives me hope and faith, Paul. That I can still share in this life of yours by constantly raising my own bar, finding joy in looking back and hope in looking forward.
Paul, you taught me that love changes. I didn’t know that when I had my schoolgirl crushes, but having a child, getting married, piecing together a career when the responsibilities prove overwhelming, the love changes—it has to change. Of course I waited for you, but now I’m taken, and he’s a Stones fan, please don’t judge.
The beautiful boy you were when you played that amazing solo on “Taxman” or the haunting vocals on “Eleanore Rigby” or the chill I get when I hear the first, few bars of “Maybe I’m Amazed” will thrill me now and forever. But what once made me scream, now makes me reflect. I’m really not sure which sensation I prefer, but I’ve been moved and that’s what seems to really matter.
* * *
Paul, I have a confession to make. At a local Beatles fest not too long ago, I purchased a gorgeous photograph of Ringo smoking a cigarette. It currently lies beside my sneaker collection. Though I love this black and white photograph of Ringo’s baby blues, I’ve never actually nailed it to the wall. It’s like you’re tugging at my sleeve, Paul. “C’mon, Lisa, I know I wasn’t there for prom or homecoming, but haven’t we had a few good moments there?”
Yeah, we’ve had them, or I’ve had them. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference. Our paths have been so intertwined, my senses aligned so closely to yours, that it’s impossible for me to separate them or to fathom what life will be like without you, Paul.
Donovan, who meditated with you and the Maharishi in India, wrote the song, “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”. Would those words be more spiritually uplifting now? Even as your mantra wanes from conscious memory?
But all my life I’ve followed your lead, from transcendental meditation to experimental music to flashing a peace sign at cops. You’re everything I know, and I can’t see how that can ever change. So even though my heart will break should you pass into the next realm, I’ll turn my grief to action, Paul. I’ll give to someone needy or smile at someone sad. Why? You’ve changed me and watched me grow and on that final note “maybe I’m amazed at the way I really love you…”
* * *
I remember the famous “Paul is Dead” rumor, do you? Insipid clues from The White Album suggest that if we play the song “Revolution 9” backwards, we will hear, “turn me on dead man”. The song “Glass Onion” was British slang for the handle of a casket, according to DJ Russ Gib, as 19th century caskets had round glass handles that resembled glass onions.
The cover of Abbey Road shows the Beatles as they walk across a zebra crossing in St. John’s Wood, staging a funeral procession according to fans. Dressed in white, Lennon was the priest, Starr in black was the undertaker, Harrison in jeans was the gravedigger and you, Paul, barefoot, were said to be the corpse. Did these rumors prepare you for what’s happening? It all seemed so silly back then, but now so deadly serious.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s front cover shows a funeral flower arrangement. The white flowers to the right either illustrate your left-handed bass or they spell P-A-U-L. It was such eerie fun, such a game. But now, faced with your demise, these images turn to dread and sadness. When I look at these album covers and hear the songs that held me through courtship, marriage, and loneliness, will I forget the outlines of your face?
I sang “I Am the Walrus” for a talent show once. I begged a girl named Lou Anne to sing the lyrics with me, I remember. Well, we actually lip-sang. We wore love-beads and go-go boots and sat in the lotus position. Lou Anne was a nervous wreck. Don’t worry, I told her. There’s nothing to be nervous about. The music started, and I looked at her and then to the room full of kids, teachers, and principals. Suddenly, I started to crack up and laugh hysterically. Poor Lou Anne was horrified—she just stared blankly at me—as I bit my tongue to keep quiet.
“Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come… Mister city policemen sitting pretty, little policemen in a row…” The music continued. I’m sure the kid running the tape player was scared to come anywhere near me. I continued to laugh away, and Lou Anne sat there, pale as a ghost. The curtain closed on us—thank God—and I ran to the girl’s bathroom for salvation. Of course, Lou Anne didn’t talk to me for awhile, but we finally reconciled. Still though, I can’t help but giggle hysterically when I hear that song.
That’s what you gave me, Paul. A life filled with insanity and deep emotion. In 2006, you became the lyric to your own song, “When I’m 64”. You’re just as gorgeous to me now as you were back in the day, though one of my favorite teens said, “Isn’t he kinda old to still be singing?” Maybe I can’t see the transcendental forest through the psychedelic trees, but you were there for me marking time and filling my heart with music and art and love, and for that I can never forget you.