AFTER PAUL McCARTNEY
A play by David Hoppe
Copyright 2005, David Hoppe, all rights reserved.
The action takes place in 1989.
The setting consists of an oriental rug, an end table, a floor lamp, and a sturdy chair.
PHILIP, the teller of this story, enters.
Lights come up.
I sat by the edge of that desert highway, expecting to see Paul McCartney. I thought I could see his car - a gleaming black bomb come cruising down from the foothills, parting the waves of heat.
Behind me, on the ground, Robert stretched his leg, pushing gravel with the heel of his boot. His pant leg was torn all the way above the knee, stained with blood. Later, we added our injuries up. But, at this moment, we accepted them as part of the deal.
The blacktop simmered. I could imagine Paul, running errands, on his way home with a bag of rice, a quart of milk. He might pick us up. Robert and I had covered great distances, had many adventures, even risked our lives to find him. Yes, I thought, this is the way it's supposed to be.
During that time when Robert and I were on the outs I feared a freak crime or accident might strike one of us - that one of us could die and the other not know it. Naturally I thought a fatal occurrence more likely to hit Robert than myself. I worried about this. I did not want our friendship to pass from this world without our honoring it.
I wondered if Paul McCartney thought of such stuff while John Lennon was alive.
Once the dust over the break-up settled, Paul must have reflected on the often hidden purpose behind all events, resolving to go his own way until he and John might meet again as friends. Dads. Survivors. Gods.
The real trouble with Robert was not that he might die but that he was still alive. I knew his number. I could call him. Nothing kept me from unburdening myself on the subject of my friendship with Robert but Robert himself. When I thought of our long silences and how we stopped sharing confidences, I was stricken by a sense of failure as much as loss.
Robert was rarely embraceable. He passed more judgments than a Judge.
When we were younger I took this for integrity.
I waited, as I imagined Paul McCartney did, for the chance to finally come to terms with my best friend.
"You look the same."
Robert stood on my front porch, squinting through the screen door. Did I look the same? I ran a fast shuffle trying to suss what my long lost friend meant: Maybe he was being ironic - no one stays the same. Or satiric - I've lost hair, gained crow's feet; this might be Robert's way of saying we were friends in spite of appearances. Senility couldn't be ruled out - maybe Robert's memory was gone.
He stepped into the house. I noticed the creases at the corners of his eyes. We laughed and, in the entryway, embraced. A big dog of a hug. Robert dropped his duffel on the floor, said, "Your directions were impeccable."
A creative writing teacher at the college Robert and I attended told me: "Characters in fiction must act from desperation. If a middle class guy [like me] was going to be interesting, he must have a brush with death.
A coronary or cancer.
"If he wasn't stricken with disease, a broken heart: divorce, infidelity, the death of a child.
"At the very least he ought to be drug addicted, schizophrenic, suicidal or homosexual.
"Qualities like these, [my teacher said] might justify the drastic action or sense of inevitability that propel narrative."
I gave up trying to write fiction.
I quit the rock band I played in with Robert.
Then I graduated from college, married Catherine Johnson and became a father to a beautiful boy, Joshua.
We moved to Indianapolis where I found a job I didn't hate.
With the help of my folks we bought a prairie-style house. We learned to garden and rake the leaves of a towering sycamore that grew in our front yard.
Robert became a master interpreter of the Lennon-McCartney songbook. When he sang those songs it was like hearing them for the first time.
"Josh, this is your Uncle Robert."
I watched as Catherine introduced our son to his long lost godfather. I was touched by Josh's grace and Robert's humility. Later we lit candles, drank wine and shambled through dinner. Robert making light of himself as a way of avoiding telling us too much about what was going on in his life.
Catherine seemed charmed, enjoying Robert more than I'd expected. Josh was happy, too - no one worried over whether it was time for bed.
This was the scene I'd pictured when I told Catherine I wanted Robert for Josh's godfather. Good stories with a whiff of burgundy and tobacco smoke. I hoped a kid might tease out Robert's gentler side. I thought Robert might like this. My mistake. Tripped by my liberalism again. Years before it was fashionable to slag liberals, Robert let me have it:
"You think everybody's the same. If they don't like something you like, you think all they need is a little more education, the right teacher, a lucky break."
After Josh went to bed Catherine brought out the brandy. All three of us smoked Robert's cigarettes until none were left.
So Robert and I walked to the 7/11 and bought him another pack.
The street was lined with parked cars. The moon shone through the branches of bare trees.
Robert said: "Paul McCartney thought - no, Paul didn't think, he knew - he and John would reconcile one day. It was impossible for Paul to believe otherwise. He loved John like a brother - more than a brother. John was his muse. His conscience.
"And so Paul could walk away from the Beatles. He could spend the '70s toying with Wings, proving he could build a hit machine all by himself. He could fuck off indefinitely because his heart was certain he and John would come together again."
Robert stuck a Camel in his mouth and offered me the pack. I took one.
"I'm not saying Paul wanted to resurrect the Beatles," said Robert. "I doubt he wanted to write with Lennon the way they did in the early days. He wanted his brother back. I think he wanted to sing with John. He couldn't sing like that with anybody else - and my guess is he believed John would come around to feeling the same way. To go on living and denying themselves each other was.inconceivable. Then John was killed.
"So Paul tries a series of collaborations: Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson. Some are embarrassing. Others more or less successful. But even when they show promise, McCartney pulls back. He doesn't devote a full album to any partnership.
"And where George and even Ringo associate with their peers in the rock aristocracy, McCartney sticks with younger players, hired hands."
We stood in the middle of a block. The front porches and amber lights of Midwestern bungalows were lined up alongside us. Television beams played on the inner surfaces of picture windows. A dog started barking in someone's backyard.
Robert told me he was going to England. "Soon as possible." He was going to try and find Paul.
I asked him how - he said he didn't know exactly: "There's no way you can plan something like this. It's like writing a poem or a song."
But he'd done his research.
He said: "I think I know where to find him."
"But what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to try and find Paul. If I can spend some time with him I think I can.I think I can help him."
I started laughing. Not forcing it. Laughing. Robert took this in stride.
"I'll sing with him. Come with me. I'd appreciate your company. Even if we never find Paul - I mean, the trip will be interesting, right? Anybody can go on vacation but how often do you get to go on a mission? Philip, I know you love that music as much as I do. I haven't asked anybody else to go with me - and I won't."
I told Robert he might have a better chance by himself.
"Alone? "Now it was Robert laughing. "A better chance of fucking up you mean. Look, I recognize how weird what I'm suggesting sounds. All the people who keep art outside their lives -- who simply use it as wallpaper - people who have never been changed by art, who don't want art to change them - cannot get this. If I'm alone over there I'll begin second guessing myself. It'll get too weird, even for me."
Robert was talking about an offering. He wanted to thank Paul - and he wanted Paul to trust him.
"I owe him that much, said Robert. Don't you?"
Robert began this project thinking if he could sing with Paul there could be an epiphany. Paul might reinvent his art. You're forgiven for thinking Robert figured to profit from this encounter. Believe me, he didn't see it that way.
But it wasn't long before Robert saw the negative space in his picture of Paul. As important to Paul as music was friendship. Without John's friendship Paul could easily have been selling sheet music in Brian Epstein's shop, playing piano and singing standards on Saturday nights in a workingman's club. He might have been like Robert.
Paul couldn't make good music without John's friendship. At any rate he couldn't make art. Not because John was the genius to Paul's craftsman. No, because Paul discovered music and friendship at virtually the same time.
Teenage boys can fall in love and there is nothing queer about it. No one is lonelier than the teenage boy. No one needs a kindred spirit more. If, by chance, two teenage boys are able to get through each other's fortresses of cool, crack the ice of doubt and paranoia, the bond runs deep.
Boys never talk about these things. Not Paul and John. Not me and Robert.
Paul McCartney played Eddie Cochran's 20 Flight Rock on John Lennon's guitar. Before long they were on stage together making a dream come true.
John found Yoko and became a man. Paul found Linda. Then fatherhood. Wings. A chain of Number One records. John was killed.
Robert realized you don't get to Paul through music alone. He'd get further with McCartney by talking about kids or schools or dogs. Robert knew practically nothing about these things.
He called me.
In high school Robert kept an electric guitar under his bed in a slim, gray case. It was a red and white Stratocaster, the first electric guitar I ever held in my hands. He asked me if I knew how to play.
Robert inserted the jack into his practice amp. I saw the tiny red light glowing. His chair creaked as he lowered his head and struck the opening chord to A Hard Day's Night.
Then his Mom yelling: "Robert!! You'll crack the plaster!" Both of us laughing. My hand on my chest: I could feel that -- here!
Here's a story I loved the first time I heard it. I still do. Jay Berlin told it to me. Jay lived in a college house with Robert and me our sophomore year. Now he's a child psychologist near Washington, D.C. The story goes like this:
A singer matching Robert's description performed at a wedding in northern Virginia. The groom was a friend from Chicago. He insisted that Robert perform at the reception and the bride's parents, wealthy horse breeders, paid for Robert to fly out for the weekend. What the groom wanted and what Robert provided were Beatles songs. A full set.
Robert did not know that Paul and Linda McCartney were friends of the bride's parents. He was not told they were invited to the celebration.
McCartney placed himself discreetly at the back during Robert's set. He reportedly enjoyed the performance. When Robert was finished, Paul made his way up to him and said either, "Great material, "
"I'm glad somebody remembers the words to that lot."
"Jay," I said. "This actually happened?"