McCartney, melancholy, and my generation

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McCartney, melancholy, and my generation

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good thinking · Monday 27 Jun 2022
Tags: Ageingpoliticaldecline
The end of a weekend of music making with Entertaining Mr Stone leaves me melancholy and wistful, not because of our performances (which were happy occasions) but because I spent the last hours watching Paul McCartney’s set at Glastonbury.

McCartney at 80 was not exactly bouncing around the stage, but he commanded it all the same, and though his voice was thinner in places, he held the stage with all the power of a true legend, and his singing and playing were on point throughout.

So why the melancholy? It’s because it doesn’t take much imagination beyond the immediate power of the music to know that you’re witnessing a kind of swansong and with it the end of a remarkable era.

The feeling was reinforced by the use of film clips at the back of the stage, of McCartney from the Ram period in the 70s, and before that historically a collage put together by Peter Jackson from his recent Get Back documentary, featuring The Beatles at what proved to be the end of their career as a band, but still clearly young and full of life, a point underlined all the more poignantly towards the climax of the gig when a live performance of I got a feeling was augmented with footage of Lennon singing his part. We grow old and die of course and there’s no more enduring truth, but the melancholy wasn’t just about having to face our bodily mortality.

Faces of optimism
In my youth, as a child in the 60s and even as an adolescent in the 70s, I enjoyed the luxury of living in a time of hope, of optimism that the idiocies (as we saw them) of older generations were being swept away in the aftermath of the 20th century’s terrible wars, that greater enlightenment and progress lay in front of us. This was the period in which The Beatles came forward and changed popular culture forever. They weren’t alone in this but they were probably the single most significant force, and they embodied that hope.
And this apprehension sat against the image of the Glastonbury crowd, around 100,000 people, all ages but mostly under 40, transported into a togetherness by the shared experience of the music, singing their hearts out, clearly familiar with words which in most cases were written well before they were born.

It’s easy to imagine too that in this togetherness they were celebrating something that has simply not been possible in these last two extraordinary years of Covid, a truth that made the best banner of the day all the more pointed. It read “This is a work event.”

The turn to cynicism
It’s not just that the banner nails the extraordinary state of affairs in which the prime minister of this country either cannot imagine how transparently pathetic his lies about his conduct during Covid might be, or really doesn’t care whether or not people think him a liar. It’s probably a bit of both.

Just as The Beatles in the late 60s symbolised something much bigger than themselves (a group of young men trying to find their way forward from early fame) Boris Johnson epitomises the spirit of a succeeding age when all that earlier hope has collapsed into narcissistic venality, into corruption and careless self-enrichment.

All this too comes a day after Greta Thunberg yet again found herself on the Glastonbury stage having to remind the world that our political leaders are talking the talk and doing next to nothing about the threat to the immediate future of those generations singing with happiness in the crowd.

Perhaps a change is coming (it can’t come soon enough). Perhaps we are at the end of the thankfully short Johnson era, though you have to wonder when the power to displace (then replace) him lies with those who put him there in the first instance: they can hardly claim not to have known what he would be like, since there were plenty of senior figures even in the Conservative Party who said loud and clear what a catastrophe he would be. None of that it seemed outweighed the allure of Johnson’s media celebrity, which itself says something dismal about our times.

Age really has withered us
In the 2019 election I was standing in the queue for the polling station and an older woman front of me who I vaguely knew asked me excitedly “do you think Boris is going to win?” “I hope not,” I replied, and she turned away from me in disgust. She’s dead now, so I’ll never know whether she would have felt betrayed by her own folly, but then the inability to see and admit that you’d got a major judgement disastrously wrong is another characteristic of our post-Brexit years, and the reason why this country remains so bitterly divided.

It’s also a generational thing, since Brexit would not have happened without the collective vote of an older generation who miserably have no skin in a future game they have so destructively disrupted. It adds a further poignancy to the sight of McCartney and Springsteen, nodding knowingly at each other during Springsteen’s Glory Days as the lyrics glanced over the perils of a distorting nostalgia. Of course McCartney and Springsteen are among the good older guys, unlikely to return the likes of Trump to the White House or Johnson to no 10, and who with the repeal of Roe vs Wade will be feeling the slide backwards of the West to some kind of dark age.

Johnson is younger than me, but close enough in age to be part of my generation, and it’s my generation that has failed the world so dismally. You could (and I would) say that the rot set in with Thatcher and Reagan, a conscious reaction to that liberal euphoria of the sometimes swinging sixties. Their potent misconceptions licensed the cynicism which has left a vacuum across the political spectrum.

It used to be a commonplace of how things were, that as people grew older they would look on the world, and particularly coming generations, and find themselves baffled and alarmed, worrying that the world was going to pot (literally and otherwise). I now find myself with a cruel twist on this commonplace, getting older and feeling despair at the state of my own and older generations, hoping against hope that those happy young faces massed in the crowd at Glastonbury will find a better way forward than the complete mess we have made.

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