I am little enriched for having listened over the past week to most (though not all) of more than 90 songs published with Paul and Linda McCartney credited jointly as co-writers. In fact, I almost wish that President Obama had never given Sir Paul the Gershwin Prize and stirred me to reconsider this remarkably unmemorable work, much of which I had heard at one time or another over the years and appropriately forgot. After hunting through the MP3 playlists of Beatles-related music that I've accumulated (with help from several Beatlehead friends in bootlegging circles), I gave a good listen to most of the songs released on the first five Wings albums and on Ram, the only record issued jointly in the names of Paul and Linda, as well some singles, B-sides, and unreleased tracks. I found goofy, tuneful pop such "Bip Bop"; empty ballads such as "Let's Love"; some almost-convincing rockers such as "Soily" and "Letting Go"; and some wondrously ridiculous, tossed-off oddies such as "Norton" (recorded by McCartney's brother, Mike McGear).
Not long into the process, I thought of the time Marion McPartland, the jazz pianist, sat me down at her piano and took me note for note through "Day Dream," the jazz ballad credited to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. "If Ellington wrote a single note of this, I'd like to know which note it is," she said, pointing out how Strayhorn had left his musical fingerprints on every bar of the music. I listened to the McCartney recordings for possible signs of Linda's handiwork, and I found them in every song: tunes so corny, chord changes so obvious, and words so dumb that they might well have been the work of an ungifted near-amateur. In musical terms, there's no reason to doubt that Linda, in her incompetence, contributed significantly to much of the music we associate with Paul. For good or bad and despite the fact that he was awarded the Gershwin Prize on his own, McCartney has always done his most interesting work in collaboration—from the Beatles songs he wrote with John Lennon (or with John near enough to cast his critical shadow), to the superb songs he wrote with Lennon's surrogate Elvis Costello in the late '80s and early '90s, to his one-off duet with Allen Ginsberg, to the three experimental albums he made with Youth under the pseudonym of the Fireman. It is perhaps fitting that the award McCartney won this month is called the Gershwin Prize, which leaves unspoken the first names of the two collaborators—George and Ira—that it honors.