Paul McCartney is Coming Up
If Southern cities can be measured by the caliber of artists they attract, then Greenville, South Carolina is ready for this Beatle.
For my fifth birthday in 1974, my cousin gave me the 45-rpm single of Ringo Starr’s “Photograph.” By then, I was an expert at snapping the spider adapter into a 45, sliding it onto the spindle, and putting the needle in the groove. As the stereo console filled the living room with strings and castanets, I studied the photo of Ringo on the sleeve. Bearded and shrouded in silver fabric with his limbs outstretched, he resembled a canny, approachable Jesus — nothing like the fire-and-brimstone savior propagated by Bob Jones University down the street or the one Ku Klux Klan members invoked in 1966 when they burned albums a few towns away in Chester, S.C. Against Greenville’s backdrops of textile industries and old-time religion, Ringo was the peacenik rock star who expanded my horizons, my first Beatle. I played his record over and over and over, then I discovered Paul McCartney.
A few months later, I lay in the backseat of our Chevy Caprice Classic on Greenville’s Eastside, swooning with nausea as my mother turned onto Pelham Road. My face was stiff and sticky from the dried tears, and the wobbly synthesizer riffs on the radio matched my wooziness. We were on our way home from a dental appointment, where, after I’d received too much nitrous oxide and woke up with drill cuts on my arm, the dentist told me not to tell my parents what happened. The song on the radio soothed me as my oxygen level returned to normal. It was “Band On the Run,” a trippy five-minute ballad that Paul McCartney reportedly wrote about his attempts to evade police during marijuana raids, and it got me. The “Stuck inside these four walls” and “If I ever get out of here” lines translated into my to escape from the trauma of that afternoon, and years later, a desire to leave my hometown. Over the decades, as I came and went from Greenville, Paul McCartney’s music helped me make sense of my complicated relationship with my city.
Our town (originally named Pleasantburg) was idyllic — full of swim meets, trick-or-treating for UNICEF, school field trips to see our museum’s Jasper Johns collection, and basketball games in church gymnasiums where no one could have imagined a future in which a pastor in the next century might wear $2,000 sneakers. We were the first generation of Greenville kids to take music with us everywhere — from the transistor to the turntable to the car cassette player to MTV to the Muzak soundtracks at the Winn-Dixie grocery store beside McAlister Square Mall. My parents liked Roy Orbison and Elvis and owned no Beatles records. So, I was weaned on WFBC-FM’s playlist which became the ether of my early life, and I knew the choruses to “Let It Be” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” before I was two years old. Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” was my favorite in third grade; and I remember ice skating to John Lennon’s Double Fantasy at Greenville’s Textile Hall the night in 1980 when Mark Chapman murdered him. I was 11. Now, at 50, whenever I hear “Woman” or “(Just Like) Starting Over,” I can feel my face flush with cold as I try to keep my ankles steady.
As lovely as it was, Greenville was also full of dichotomies — the place where preachers on one side of the tracks promised eternal damnation to homosexuals, and on the other, drag queens drew crowds to The Stone Castle; where international businesses built gleaming new headquarters, but barriers between black and white neighborhoods were defined; where suburban flight thwarted the reinvigoration of Main Street, but entrepreneurs turned boarded-up brownstones into thrift shops and made way for the River Place Arts Festival. Even before its fancy suspension bridge, a string of enterprising mayors (including Max Heller, a Jewish immigrant who’d fled Austria during the Holocaust)groomed Greenville to be the type of destination Travel & Leisure or The New York Times would later laud as one of America’s best.
Greenville had a lot going for it — except the big concerts that bypassed the city for Charlotte and Atlanta. In its heyday, the 7,500-seat Greenville Memorial Auditorium featured legendary performers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, but it couldn’t lure a Beatle. Paul McCartney and Wings played Atlanta’s Omni in 1976, while our brown brick box garnered the infamous cage match when Wahoo McDaniel stripped “Nature Boy” Ric Flair of the National Wrestling Alliance’s Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title. Greenville also hosted the final concert by the original lineup of Lynyrd Skynyrd before the 1977 plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, along with a crew member and both pilots. KISS, Hank Williams, Jr., and Prince dashed through the GMA, but by 1984, college basketball domes in Clemson and Columbia and other arenas up and down I-85 had become the preferred tour stops for most pop and rock acts.
Because superstars wouldn’t come to Greenville, many of us Gen X and late-Boomer music fans developed a sort of musical inferiority complex. The scarcity of arena shows ultimately fueled the local music scene, and brought national and regional talent to town in venues of all sizes — long before the double-venue Peace Center opened in 1990, and the 19,000-capacity Bi-Lo Center (now Bon Secours Wellness Arena) opened in 1998 and immediately brought Janet Jackson to town.
Networks of musicians, promoters, and small business owners forged relationships around shared musical tastes and planted stages around Greenville wherever they could in the 1980s. The UPS Club hosted R.E.M. in 1982; Downtown Alive’s open-air stage became the requisite testing ground for local bands in 1986; the Electric Warehouse hosted Keith Whitley; Studio B advanced the regional alternative scene; and Al’s Pumphouse grew Widespread Panic’s following). Yet, nowhere was this sense of musical community more cemented than in the city’s record stores, where employees and patrons spoke the common language of acceptance — and the Beatles still loomed large.
Among the rows of vinyl, it didn’t matter if you were Baptist or Catholic or atheist, gay or straight, white or black or brown, a girl, a boy, or neither. Greenville’s Horizon Records on Highway 291 was the place to go for imports, roots music, and deep conversations with owner Gene Berger. BJ’s Music and Tapes on Augusta Road was the spot for cut-outs and 12-inch club mixes. Peppermint Records in Greenville Mall had the posters and pins. On slower weekday evenings at the Record Bar in Haywood Mall, where I worked part-time during high school and college in the late 1980s, we’d finish re-alphabetizing albums and then pull out our rock family tree. It was a rudimentary infographic drawn on a piece of notebook paper we stored under the cash register — to connect artists like U2, Rosanne Cash, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Metallica to the Beatles and their influences, like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. I owe so much of who I am to the dear friends with whom I bonded at that job.
We record store geeks had a natural curiosity about how and why music affects us, which meant we argued endlessly over which Beatle was superior, and we ranked John, Paul, George, and Ringo at whim.
Fresh on the heels of “Say, Say, Say,” “Ebony and Ivory,” and “Press,” Paul McCartney often placed third or last in almost everyone’s opinion but mine. I remained a stalwart defender, pointing to all those times my school pals and I drove to the Krispy Kreme with the windows down singing the harmonies of “All My Loving” and “We Can Work It Out,” or the day my best friend’s mother found her original copy of Meet the Beatles in the basement with “I love Paul” scribbled on the cover. Two generations of Greenville girls squealed together at the sight.
I never realized how music had influenced my worldview until I studied in West Germany during my junior year at Greenville’s Furman University. I was born to be a flower child of the 1960s, a true believer in the peace-and-love stuff the Beatles and their contemporaries peddled — sitars, vegetarianism, Greenpeace, all of it. A classmate and I went to Munich’s Olympiahalle to see Paul McCartney in the autumn of 1989, two weeks before the Berlin Wall fell. It was the first time audiences had heard him play many Beatles songs, including the Abbey Road trilogy of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.” That night, we had reached the end of the Cold War, but didn’t know it yet: There was a celebratory mood in the room of 14,000, because 350 miles away in the divided former and future capital, East German Chancellor Erich Honecker, one of the Communist party’s staunchest hardliners, had just resigned, making the way for peace, democracy, and eventual German unification, and the West was electrified with hope. The concert was a music-as-ambassador-for-democracy moment, and I remember thinking, Maybe ‘the love you take’ really is ‘the love you make’ as Paul played his rainbow-colored upright piano.
It was hard to “get back homeward” at the end of my eye-opening semester abroad, but I returned to Greenville anyway. I spent my senior year at Furman making paintings in protest of the Gulf War and experimenting with recipes from Linda McCartney’s first vegetarian cookbook. After graduation in 1991, I moved to New York, where I was lucky to attend U.S. premiere of Paul McCartney’s orchestral work, “Liverpool Oratorio,” at Carnegie Hall. Before the concert, I briefly met Paul and Linda in the hallway as security ushered them through a door to their box. A few seconds later, as I turned to go to my seat, the door opened, Paul stuck his head out, gave me a wink, and shut it again. He’s a master of the personalized encounter. I wrote about the experience with pen and paper and faxed it to Greenville for publication in the local alternative weekly called EDGE Magazine.
I moved back to Greenville in the mid-1990s and met my future husband when a dear friend brought him to visit the radio show I co-hosted on the alternative rock station 103X (and later on B93.7FM). His group The Blow Up was one of the dozens of local and regional acts to perform live during our broadcast, and we hit it off immediately. Our equal appreciation for the Beatles’ influence on pop culture and in our lives was a key factor in our early relationship. In a few months, we were married, and my husband’s band played in a “Beatles for Bucks” fundraiser at the old Handlebar listening room on Church Street. At that time, the South Carolina Music scene was flourishing statewide, with major-label acts such as Hootie and the Blowfish and Edwin McCain selling millions of records. We moved away for law school, then came back for a few years, and moved away again.
The Greenville of the moment isn’t the town of our youth: Its music and arts communities are stronger than ever, and despite existing in a state where evangelicalism has always held a tight grip, it was recently named one of the top 10 cities in the country for moderates. An April 2019 series of letters to the editor published in the Greenville News argued whether the city had become too large, too filled with new construction, or too brazen in its development of downtown and surrounding areas, where, for example, breweries and bike trails abut a homeless mission. Those questions are legitimate, but I agree with the reader who suggested Greenville residents should be “bursting with pride” at the size of their “big city” problems.
It may seem indulgent to recount personal timelines and link them to Paul McCartney and our hometowns in the South or anywhere else around the planet, but it’s a necessary exercise for those with lives defined by memories attached to the melodies and words he wrote and, at 76, still writes. In these uncertain times, when men want to erect new walls to divide us, music remains an unwavering companion and unifier. Yes, the Beatles’ success aided in the fabrication of the 20th century’s monster music industry (now disrupted and ruled by algorithm-generated compositions and astronomical ticket prices), but there is a purity to their songs that neither time nor digitization can erase. Like the record that was the first to make its way into my hands as a child, Ringo Starr became the first Beatle to perform in Greenville when his All-Starr Band played at the Peace Center in 2015, but it’s Paul McCartney’s turn now. I’ve seen most of his U.S. tours since the early/mid-1990s, talked with him at a press opportunity at AmericasMart in Atlanta in 1999, and covered the opening night of “Ocean’s Kingdom”, a symphonic collaboration with the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, in 2011.
But the most exciting Paul McCartney show I may ever see is the one he will perform tonight at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. I moved away from Greenville to live in a city where the music came to me. Tonight, I’m going home to the music.
This essay was originally published in The Bitter Southerner.