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I cheated on Washington City Paper this week. Last night Sir Paul McCartney performed in the East Room of the White House and collected the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and I filed this report for Rolling Stone.
Based on the lineup—-McCartney performed, as did Stevie Wonder, the Jonas Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Jack White, Corinne Bailey Rae, Herbie Hancock, Lang Lang, Elvis Costello, and Dave Grohl—-I didn’t walk in particularly excited. (I am cynical and like insular indie rock! I admit it!) And there was nothing thrilling, in theory, about watching 90 percent of the show from the White House’s briefing room. (We got into the East Room for remarks by President Obama, and McCartney’s performance of “Michelle.”)
But despite a couple of missteps—-someone misplaced Wonder’s harmonica and he had to restart his “We Can Work It Out,” other performers had some shaky vocals—-the concert was a treat. If you’ll indulge me, my favorite moments: Bailey Rae and Hancock’s alternately breezy and impressionistic “Blackbird,” Grohl’s electrified “Band on the Run,” White’s aberrant, outsider-bluesy “Mother Nature’s Son.” Oh, and McCartney’s final comment, in which he thanked the president and the Library of Congress, and then said: “After the last eight years, it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is.”
The day before, at that very library, McCartney answered journalists’ questions: Some scribes asked great ones, others not so much. The first question—-the first!—-boiled down to “Will you sign my LP?” Later, a Fox News reporter declared that five days earlier he’d given his newborn son the middle name McCartney, and then asked two very specific, very boring questions: The first about a line in McCartney’s John Lennon tribute “Here Today,” the second about when McCartney began thinking up his verse in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” “I’m not sure. I’m not counting, you know,” McCartney said. “Don’t ask me about Beatles history, I was too busy doing it.” There were a few policy questions (the BP oil spill, the Performance Rights Act), and few painfully rote ones (about McCartney’s favorite song to play, and his advice for the other performers at the White House event).
He also answered my question, about whether there’s anything to be taken from the fact that all three recipients of the Gershwin Prize (McCartney, Wonder in 2008, and Paul Simon in 2007) are performers as well as songwriters, and in what ways the role of popular songwriters has changed. “What used to happen before we came on the scene, people used to have writers, so someone like Elvis would have people writing his stuff for him, Leiber and Stoller, people like that,” McCartney said. “We kind of upset the boat a bit. We came along and we were writing our own stuff, so we came along and put some of those people out of work, which you know was OK for us, not so good for them.”
At the end of the press conference, journalists mobbed the dais like so many eager teenagers, pecking for autographs.