Another generation at the feet of Sir Paul

We stood facing the empty wooden chair bathed in soft lamplight.

Little children wriggled on the floor in front of us - about two dozen or so kids from Shoreline's Briarcrest Elementary School. Outside, where the long lines wrapped around Third Place Books, the Friday afternoon rain had stopped.

I returned my gaze to the empty chair where Sir Paul McCartney would sit. I didn't expect to be this close - 15 feet, maybe. I pinched myself. I was still there.

And so we waited, about a dozen of us press types and the school kids and a couple of their teachers and the requisite advance men, knotted with nervousness. We'd been shepherded into an intimate, curtained-off space where the reading would take place while the Lake Forest Park anchor store was locked down.

Eddie Vedder and Jill McCormick entered with their 17-month old daughter Olivia and took reserved chairs to our right. The couple, looking as serene and handsome as the stars of a Dumas novel, gazed beatifically at their daughter as she mixed with the older kids on the floor.

McCartney was scheduled to read for about 15 minutes from his children's book "High in the Clouds." This event was for the kids, we were told - no talking to Paul.

And so we waited. And whispered. It was like being in church.

We Americans are such self-centered types.

In February 1964, when we first beheld the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, we thought they were a gift from the gods, a deus ex machina to cure the terrible hangover from JFK's assassination. Little did we know how many years of hard work stood behind them.

I was 13 at the time, a vulnerable age. And there they were that Sunday night with angel-faced McCartney out front early, as manager Brian Epstein, worried about the mothers of America, had calculated. As time went on we would learn, and appreciate, that when John Lennon sang "I Want to Hold Your Hand" he wanted to bite it.

The collaboration and creative exchange between the two was one of the spectacles of my youth, and grounds for hero worship. Think about this: In the span of 18 months the Beatles released "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," leaving their early "Yeah, Yeah's in the dust. Beside prodigious talent, the Beatles owned a rare work ethic.

At the same time, like all awkward teens, I struggled to find myself. I wanted to write a poem, or paragraph as good as a classic Lennon-McCartney number, those songs of high adventure and sometimes haunting beauty. How, and why, did these kids in their early 20s with the world at their feet become so deft sometimes in the minor key? They were wise beyond their years.

At 1:30 someone came in and whispered, "Two minutes." The store's PA system played, softly, "Rocky Raccoon."

A teacher spoke to the kids: "Sir Paul's coming. He wants to have a good audience. If you sit quietly until he gets here you'll get to hear him tell the story."

I could sense a change in the air pressure beyond the curtain. "Hey Paul," a young female voice called. A bustling was headed our way.

"Hi kids," Paul chimed as he walked in, took off his suit jacket, sat down and rolled up his sleeves. A little jowlie. Looking tired from the previous night's concert. Still gorgeous at 63. His eyes, in the face of the flashbulbs, roved over us press types like a wolf looking at all the visitors to the zoo. This has been his world since he was 21.

"I'm going to read from my book," he said to the kids. "Don't be intimidated by all these cameras."

He read several pages from the book quietly and fluently. The story, in the C..S. Lewis vein, was nicely done. I checked out the faces of the press crew. Many of them were beaming. I felt it, too - simple joy.

I once wondered to a writer friend about McCartney's reversing the song writing credits to McCartney-Lennon on his 2002 tour CD.

"Because he knows he's going to die," my friend, who is McCartney's age, said.

"Speak for yourself," I replied. But I wonder.

His recent album, "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," as critics have noted, is touched with autumn. There are some songs, if heard from a farther room, that would stop me and make me ask: "Whoa, who IS that?" It contains some of his best work since his Beatles years. But he seems to have undergone some dark night in the region of the soul. Maybe age hasn't caught up with Paul. Maybe Paul has caught up with his age.

After the reading McCartney took questions from the kids.

"How old is Froggo?" one child asked.

"That's a very good question," Paul answered. "I don't know. But seeing how I made up the story, I'll make up an answer."

"How many books have you written?" asked another. "Two" came the reply. "Only two?" In Paul's British mock-gruffness: "That's more than you." Then he added, thoughtfully: "There's plenty of time."

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