Graded on a Curve:
Venus and Mars

Celebrating Paul McCartney in advance of his 79th birthday tomorrow, June 18.Ed.

I finally got to see the comandante. It nearly killed me. Between the trigger-happy checkpoint guards, the high-speed ride in the bouncing wooden bed of a rickety pickup along the perilously narrow roads hanging precariously over the steep mountain gorges, and the 3-day trip upriver through alligator- and piranha-infested waters, with government troops occasionally firing upon us with AK-47s from the riverbank, I didn’t think I’d survive. But I finally arrived, having braved it all to get the STORY, the real lowdown from the general himself on the bloody revolution.

But if I thought he was as interested as I was in talking about the insurgency, I was dead wrong. The moment I entered his office he said, “Do you have it?” He was referring to my cost of admission for our tête-à-tête. “I do,” I said. He smiled. It was not a thing you would want to see. Some men smile, and it is a show of teeth. “Gimme,” he said greedily. So I handed it to him and he gazed at lovingly and said, “Amigo, Venus and Mars are alright tonight.”

Some people love sex, and some people love macaroni and cheese. The general loved two things: killing and Wings’ 1975 LP Venus and Mars. He pressed a button on his desk, and an adjutant in white gloves rushed in. “Put this on the turntable,” said the general, “and if you make so much as a shadow of a scratch, you will pay for it with your head.”

So instead of talking about the insurgency as I’d hoped, we listened to Venus and Mars. The general was rapt. No one knew how old he was (my guess: 110) or his origins (some said a patrician family, others that his mother had been a whore) or what he’d done before becoming the comandante (Proust scholar, said some, gun runner said others.) But I knew this; the bald and wrinkled old man with the great pair of big black mustaches, who looked like a character straight out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, loved Venus and Mars. And in the end I got my STORY, only it wasn’t the one I’d expected.

He sniffed the air during the intro to the brief and lovely opening track, “Venus and Mars,” then said, “What is that? A flute? There are no flautists on the album credits!” This seemed to make him extraordinarily angry. But the sound of Beatle Paul singing, “Sitting in the stand of the sports arena/Waiting for the show to begin” quickly soothed him. At song’s end he said, “Did you hear Linda at the very end? A man once told me she couldn’t sing a lick. I had him flayed. He died screaming, “She can sing! She can sing like a lark!”

When the haunting “Venus and Mars” segued into “Rock Show,” the general smiled beatifically, leaned back in his throne of a chair, closed his eyes, and said no more. Leaving me to alone to ponder just how much I hate Wings, thanks to such ear-torturing treacle as “Silly Love Songs,” “Listen to What the Man Said,” and “Let ‘Em In,” all tragically unavoidable on FM radio during my youth.

But “Rock Show”! How wonderful—a campy glam pastiche with marvelous lyrics, a fabulous melody, and a real barking rocker to boot, always a rare good thing from the likes of Sir James. It opens with some big bad guitars, McCartney name-drops Jimmy Page, then in his most raucous rock voice sings, “There’s a rock show at the concert bowl/They got long hair at the Madison Square.” Then adds, “Behind the stacks you glimpse an axe/The tension mounts you score an ounce, ole!” Then the song waxes campy and McCartney comes on like a Mad Max glam star, singing, “In my green metal suit I’m preparing to shoot up the city/And the ring at the end of my nose makes me look rather pretty/It’s a pity there’s nobody here to witness the end/Save for my dear old friend and confidante Mademoiselle Kitty/Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!” while the backing singers bark, “Oi! “Oi!” “Rock Show” may be the best song ever about the thrill of seeing an arena rock show, and you’ve got to hand it to McCartney for coming up with a such a simple but brilliant idea.

I looked at the general: still beatific, eyes closed. And listened to the mid-tempo “Love in Song,” a minor-league treacle fest but far from Paul’s most unbearable. Not only does he keep his voice at medium-smarmy he keeps things simple, preventing “Love in Song” from joining the ranks of his more overblown howlers such as “With a Little Luck.” Still, I would never willingly put the thing on, and the same goes for “You Gave Me the Answer,” a 1930s musical hall tune that Paul croons old school like a hoofer Lindying about the stage holding a top hat and cane. The piano-based melody is jaunty but too cute and precious by far, Paul’s most besetting musical fault. If you hated “When I’m Sixty-Four” you’ll loathe this baby, guranfuckingteed.

“Magneto and Titanium Man,” on the other hand, wins out through its fetching melody and sheer, over-the-top weirdness. The tale of a crime filled with people with cartoon character names, it opens with a pulsating organ, then Paul, whose vocals are wonderfully butch, talk-sings, “I was talking last night/Magneto and Titanium Man/We were talking about you, babe/They said, You was involved in a robbery that was due to happen/At a quarter to three in the Main Street.” The backing vocals are smashing, as is the guitar solo just after the two-minute mark, and Paul even does some cool scat singing. It’s an edifying little story, as the woman the singer can’t believe is a criminal in fact isn’t (“You can’t be bad/Magneto was mad/Titanium too/And the Crimson Dynamo/Just couldn’t cut it no more/You were the law…”).

The bluesy “Letting Go” opens on a heavy, almost Lennon-like note, with a lengthy guitar and drums intro, and my expectations were high until McCartney enters singing some banal lyrics leading up to an just-okay chorus. Then the horns come in, and overwhelm the song, and had it been me I’d have let the guitars, which are feral and great, carry the weight. And had McCullough or Laine solo during the song’s finale, instead of letting a corporation of horns do it. Still, it’s a better tune by an octopus’ garden than probably 70 percent of Wings’ remaining output, and it I would listen to again. As for “Venus and Mars—Reprise,” it’s both pretty and strange, with Paul singing about leaving Earth on “Starship 21ZNA9,” and all I can say is shades of Styx. “Come away on a strange vacation/Holiday hardly begun,” he sings, then an electric piano comes in along with what sounds like a burping crocodile. Throw in an astral choir and lots of eerie keyboard blips that remind me of Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, and you’ve got yourself one twisted little tune.

Denny Laine handles lead vocals on the moody “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” with its strange and haphazardly cobbled together lyrics (my guess is the lines, “You can take a pound of love/And cook it in the stew” were contributed by Jeffrey Dahmer), syncopated drumming, and electric keyboards. Following an intro copped straight from 10CC, the song speeds up (except for the annoyingly lugubrious chorus) and is middling catchy. But this otherwise decent tune’s besetting and fatal fault is its keening and ululating backup singers, which are as distracting as they are irksome. That and the tune simply never cuts loose. Wings had as many guitarists as Lynyrd Skynyrd. So where the hell are they?

The excellent “Medicine Jar”—which bears echoes of Pink Floyd–was interrupted by sporadic small arms fire and the occasional mortar explosion, but the general remained as he was, eyes closed, smiling blissfully, his magnificent mustache unfurling on both sides of his skull-like face. An adjutant crept in and, obviously knowing not to disturb the commandante during his musical siesta, whispered to me, “Government troops have entered the city.” Meanwhile, Jimmy McCullough, who wrote this cautionary tale about drugs but unfortunately failed to heed his own advice, dying of a heroin overdose at 26, sings, “There’s more to life than blues and reds/I say, I know how you feel/Now your friends are dead.” Meanwhile those guitars I was wondering about show up in spades, and this baby cooks with electricity from beginning to end. Especially nice is the frenetic guitar solo that follows the foreboding chorus (“Dead on your feet, you won’t get far/If you keep on sticking your hand in the medicine jar.”) Why, even Linda McCartney’s backing vocals sound good, and McCartney resists the urge to clutter up this rocker with horns, strings, wacky backing vocals, or any of the other gimmicky musical tics he can’t seem to resist.

Speaking of horns, they actually work on the mid-tempo blues “Call Me Back Again,” which also features one cool piano and lots of bluesy guitar licks. Not only that, but McCartney has a real rocker’s edge to his voice, and shouts out the lyrics, making this one of his more frenetic vocal performances, on a par with “Helter Skelter” and the ecstatic end of “Hey Jude.” Unfortunately he follows it with the horrific “Listen to What the Man Said,” which he sings in his sappiest voice while the execrable Tom Scott plays his pussified sax and the song bounces along like a Nerf ball of atrocious sound until the slow coda, during which the strings maudlin along to the accompaniment of yet more Scott sax splooge. And what I want to know is what Allen Toussaint is doing on this song, besides muttering at the beginning, “See you down in New Orleans, man, yeah, hairy, yeah yeah,” because I certainly don’t hear his piano amidst the proto-disco beat, McCartney’s schmaltzy vocals, and Scott’s abominable blurt.

And as the sound of gunfire increased, I realized that “Listen to What the Man Said” was a harbinger of bad things to come, as I was first subjected to the slow and seemingly endless “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”—one of McCartney’s more annoyingly sentimental songs, sung in his smarmiest voice—whose only good point are the guitars that leap in and out throughout. And then the blessedly brief “Crossroads,” a Wings arrangement of the theme song to an English soap opera of the same name. Seriously. After the maudlin “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People,” an English soap opera theme should be a step up, except it isn’t. It’s an innocuous guitar and strings extravaganza that does nothing and goes nowhere, and is a really bad way to end an LP, even a Wings LP.

But the general was still smiling, despite the fact that the stylus had lifted and the gunfire was growing closer and the mortars seemed to be finding our range. So I said, “General? Comandante! General!!” Then got up and gently shook him by the shoulder. And realized he was dead, deceased, mort.

So I grabbed—I wasn’t sure why—Venus and Mars off the turntable and slid it into its cover, then slipped out a back exit of the general’s office, making a run for it lest I be blamed for the comandante’s demise. As I made it to the street I found myself saying a prayer for the old monster and thinking about Venus and Mars, one maddeningly inconsistent LP that despite its awful moments contains a handful of very pleasant surprises. While Paul may be guilty of the most atrocious crimes against good taste and only slightly more hip than Barry Manilow, he has never made any bones about the kind of music he prefers, namely saccharine rubbish. Yet as “Rock Show” demonstrates he’s a truly great rocker when the mood strikes him, and throws off his cloak of sentimentality and lets ‘er rip like Little Richard.

And I’ll take those moments, no matter how seldom they occur, I thought as I raced down the street with mortars exploding to the left of me and mortars exploding to the right of me, and a government tank rumbling straight towards me, the long lethal barrel of its .88 pointed directly at my head. I was sure I was a goner until on impulse I held Venus and Mars above my head, and the tank lurched to a stop. The hatch atop the turret opened and a man in a Castro beard and tanker’s goggles appeared, smiled a gold-toothed smile, and said, “Amigo! Venus and Mars are alright tonight!”


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