somewhere formal

luke jaeger (
Mon, 30 Jun 1997 16:40:18 -0400

> Songs are simple, written by musical illiterates. However, I often
> give
> "When I'm 64" as an example of one of the two greatest rock songs.
> The song is inimitable. It has highly complex arrangement, a
> distinctive
> sound, and a high level of craftmanship. Yet, it was written by a
> musical
> illiterate. A guy whose tape recording is his score. Isn't it time to
> stop
> criticizing him for composing that way? I love listening to "When I'm
> 64."
> I'll alternate between Beatles and Mendelssohn on my Walkman.

before we go too far with this "musical illiteracy" thing, let's get a
few things in writing . . . (so to speak)

1. It may be an urban legend that Paul McCartney couldn't or can't read
music. I don't know where this came from - some 1960s interview maybe?

2. The ability to read and write musical notation is an easily learned
technical skill and while it is useful (at the very least) it is not
necessarily vital depending on what genre you're talking about. Reading
music doesn't make you musically literate any more than knowing how to
type makes you a writer.

3. Not to say there's no such thing as "musical (or artistic)
illiteracy" - it exists, and it ain't pretty. Songs composed by
illiterates are not going to be any better than books written by
illiterates, though they often seem to dominate the top 40 charts and
the New York Times bestsellers list. Lots of good art has been made by
people without formal education but I refuse to believe that a decent
artistic product can come from someone who has no aptitude or discipline
of any kind. Maybe this is naive of me? I don't know.

Whether or not Paul McCartney can read music, don't forget that there
was an ace staff of music industry veterans like George Martin backing
up everything the Beatles did. Not to detract from the Beatles' real
accomplishments but these things don't happen in a vaccuum. It's a
mistake to compare this kind of music production with the "solitary
classical composer" model. At the time 'When I'm 64' was written he had
been a full-time professional musician for 10 years. Some kind of
learning was going on during all that time - I don't know whether it
adds up to something you want to call "literacy" which implies formal
training. Also his father was a working musician - whether formally
educated or not I don't know.

Here's where the subject of class once again comes up in the discussion
- it has long been the prerogative of those in the "high arts" whose
work appeals to the upper classes to look down upon artists who work for
a living - and to express amazement when some talented individual comes
to prominence through channels other than the officially credentialed
academies. The only possible explanation then is that the person is a
"genius" - a line of reasoning which lets everyone concerned off the
hook. If Paul McCartney can write a song like "When I'm 64" without any
formal training, then he must be a genius - and if he's a genius, then
he couldn't have benefitted any more from formal education anyway.

Please note that I'm not accusing you, David, or anyone else of
personally holding these views - but I feel this is the subtext of the
"Paul McCartney couldn't even read music" legend. It sticks around, as
legends do, because (whether or not it's factually true) it more
importantly corresponds so well to what so many people would like to
believe. It's the same thing with "Walt Disney didn't know how to draw"
- the real truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anyway Paul McCartney probably isn't the best example since he's not the
most dazzling composer or instrumentalist that the school of hard knocks
ever produced. The history of non-academic music is full of "illiterate"
players and performers - many of whom got their early musical education
in such un-credentialed institutions as the black christian churches
(Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, etc etc etc) or their
families' homes (Paul McCartney, Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix). It
generally comes from somewhere, even if it's not somewhere "formal".