“When I’m Sixty-Four” / The Beatles
With the other-worldly “Within You Without You” still echoing in our ears, it comes like a splash of ice water -- a natty trio of clarinets burbling a music-hall tune, right back on Sgt. Pepper’s home turf. That bass line oom-pahs like a tuba; corny chimes ting-a-ling in the bridge. I always imagine this song pouring out of an old thirties-era radio. It’s WAY out of the rock vernacular. So what?
You can pretty much divide Beatle fans in two groups: those who love “When I’m Sixty-Four” and those who are embarrassed by it. This was one of the few Beatles songs my parents “got”; that should have made me hate it -- but how could I? I refuse to be a rock snob about it. McCartney’s enormous musicality lets him write credibly in any genre, and if you've ever doubted his skills as a lyricist, look at how these phrases have lodged permanently in our brains. Where is their cottage? You know it’s on the Isle of Wight. What are their grandchildren’s names? Vera, Chuck, and Dave. How should she sign her postcard? "Yours sincerely, wasting away." Specific details, married to that toe-tapping rhythm, that can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melody -- after all is said and done, those are the hallmarks of a great pop song.
One thing we often forget: this song’s not sung by a pair of old fogeys. The narrator could be 22; he’s just projecting into his old age. In fact, McCartney wrote this tune as a teenager, though the words came much later (Lennon encouraged him to dredge it up for Sgt. Pepper, knowing it had the feel they wanted.). Thousands of pop songs have declared “I’ll spend my life with you” or some variation thereof; but trust Paul McCartney to flesh it out so vividly – and to sound so ready for it. He could have camped it up, but he didn’t; no cheap ironic distance here. The track was actually sped up to make his voice sound younger and more sincere.
The tone is completely self-effacing -- “When I get older losing my hair” (Paul still hasn’t lost his, I’ve noticed) – and down-to-earth, juxtaposing the romantic Valentine with the prosaic reality of staggering home drunk at three a.m. There may not be much money (love those lush harmonies on “we shall scrimp and sa-a-a-a-a-a-ave”) but they’ll eke out special treats, like that summer cottage. “Send me a postcard, drop me a line / Stating point of view” he requests, with old-fashioned courtliness. I get the idea this guy is ready for all the give-and-take of marriage. Images of domesticity flit past – “I could be handy, mending a fuse, / When your lights have gone / You could knit a sweater by the fireside / Sunday morning go for a ride / Doing the garden, digging the weeds / Who could ask for more?” We generally do ask for more – eternal passion and intense drama, the usual stuff of pop songs. Not here.
And of course, there’s that famous refrain – “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” – a cheap rhyme? I don’t think so. “Need” is an overused pop-song verb, but “feed”? That’s the reality of a relationship; you can’t have one without the other. I picture years’ worth of evening meals, the patient woman cooking them – and a grateful husband who knows that domestic contentment is what he married her for. I don’t know about you, but I’d accept this proposal in a heartbeat.