'When I'm Sixty-Four' comes to pass


He's not losing his hair, although color seems to be an issue.

He does have grandchildren, although no Vera, Chuck or Dave.

He has been known to do a little gardening work, "digging the weed," so to speak. In fact, one of his multiple marijuana busts was for growing the stuff on his Scottish farm back in the early '70s.

Given the recent upheaval in his personal life, it's unclear who will feed him, although there's no doubt he'll be taken care of.

Yes, the cultural alarm clock that Paul McCartney set 39 years ago is ringing. The man who sang "When I'm Sixty-Four" in 1967 turns 64 today.

"I do remember that on the song's recording session, we all figured out it would be 2006 when Paul was 64," Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick recalled on the phone from Los Angeles, "and we had a good laugh about that and wondered what we'd be doing."

That McCartney is reaching the age he whimsically imagined so long ago is an unavoidable milestone, a ready-made occasion for comparing snapshots, then and now, of the singer and his contemporaries. "You'll be older too," after all. It's also the inevitable moment when the words of the young man are shoved into the face of the old - or let's just say older - man.

At least McCartney's tongue-in-cheek portrait of his dotage was affectionate enough that it shouldn't be too tough for him to swallow. Fellow '60s icons Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger have had to choke on the strident, aging-averse declarations of their younger selves. Townshend has become a walking ironic counterpoint to the classic line he wrote for the Who's "My Generation": "I hope I die before I get old." As for the wiry Stones front man, he once was famously quoted as sneering, "I'd rather be dead than singing 'Satisfaction' when I'm 45." Jagger was 62 when he sang it at this year's Super Bowl.

McCartney didn't equate old age with death in "When I'm Sixty-Four," but his song is still revealing in the way it views the autumn years from a spring chicken's perspective. The ex-Beatle has told interviewers he wrote the song when he was "about 16," placing it in the late '50s, eight or so years before the Beatles finally recorded it for their landmark album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles used to perform it in the early years, in clubs in England and Hamburg, Germany.

In Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, Barry Miles' 1997 biography that takes its title from the song, McCartney says he made a point of putting "the tongue very firmly in cheek" so the song wouldn't come across as "too vaudevillian."

" 'Will you still need me?' is still a love song," he said. " 'Will you still look after me?' - OK - but 'Will you still feed me?' goes into 'Goon Show' humor." (That last part is a reference to the 1950s madcap British radio series featuring Peter Sellers.)

Hardly psychedelic

When the Beatles finally recorded this "rooty-tooty" song (as McCartney called it), it was an anomaly both on the Sgt. Pepper album, where it's easily the least psychedelic track, and in the larger rock world. You didn't hear other rock bands recording songs driven by multiple clarinets, although McCartney's fascination with the baroque arrangements on the Beach Boys' 1966 classic Pet Sounds is felt here.

Emerick, who details his experiences recording the Beatles in his new book, Here, There and Everywhere, recalled speeding up McCartney's voice to make it sound more youthful. The engineer said he thinks McCartney finally decided to record "When I'm Sixty-Four" for Sgt. Pepper after pulling off the glorious string arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby" on the Beatles' previous album, Revolver. Another frequently cited theory is that McCartney was paying tribute to his father, Jim, who turned 64 in 1966.

"When I'm Sixty-Four" almost didn't wind up on Sgt. Pepper.It was the second song recorded for the album, after "Strawberry Fields Forever," and when Capitol Records insisted on taking two songs to release as a single (single and album tracks often didn't overlap back then), "When I'm Sixty-Four" was targeted as the flip side to "Strawberry Fields." But "Penny Lane," which drew on McCartney's youth in a different way, became the choice instead.

"It's this instant acceptability," Tim Riley, author of the 1988 Beatles song-by-song analysis book Tell Me Why, said of the effect of such songs as "When I'm Sixty-Four." "It makes them OK for parents. The other three Beatles are laughing behind his back. They give him constant guff about that. But it delivers them a huge mainstream audience because it's irresistible."

'A novelty song'

Looking back, some critics have derided the song for being a harbinger of the cloying, wink-wink quality that would infect some of McCartney's subsequent Beatles contributions and his solo career. Emerick said he didn't think John Lennon liked it at the time, a sentiment the late Beatle confirmed in his 1980 interview with Playboy: "I would never even dream of writing a song like that." Even super-fan Terri Hemmert, who hosts the radio show "Breakfast With the Beatles," called it "a novelty song. It's not one of their great songs, but it's a fun song."

Since its release, "When I'm Sixty-Four" has become a standard, a song you routinely encounter and probably hum along to. A few years ago, Julian Lennon, John's oldest son, even sang it on an insurance commercial.

Now the song has become a touchstone for baby boomers realizing they're catching up with an age that used to seem so distant. "When I was a kid, 64 was old," said Mark Lapidos, 58, founder of the Fest for Beatles Fans. "Now it's just getting started."

Yes, 64 is the new 44. Since 1967, the average life expectancy in the United States has risen from 70.5 to 77.9 years. (The figures tend to be slightly higher in Britain.) In the 1960s, rock was a young field populated by young people. Now, sixty-something performers such as McCartney, Bob Dylan and the Stones remain active, touring rock 'n' rollers.

Yet turning 64 still feels significant, particularly in the case of the Beatles, given that Lennon and George Harrison are no longer around. "It's kind of poignant," Hemmert said, "because only two of the four got that far, and 64 isn't that old."

This may be a bittersweet birthday for McCartney for other reasons. "When I'm Sixty-Four" envisions growing old alongside your longtime sweetheart, a scenario that evaporated for McCartney when his first wife, Linda, died of breast cancer in 1998 after almost 30 years of marriage. He later married Heather Mills, but their separation was announced last month.

Mark Caro writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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