Since Christmas is right around the corner, I planned on writing about the Beatles’ Fan Club Christmas records. However, last week’s mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, has halted the usual festivities, teaching us that life is fragile.
When such a tragedy occurs, music can be a source of comfort, a way to somehow make sense of unfathomable truth. Throughout their group and solo careers, the Beatles wrote about difficult subjects, forcing listeners to open their minds to new ideas, enact change, or grieve for those suffering from injustice. Paul McCartney’s 1997 composition “Little Willow” exemplifies this tradition; while not calling for revolution, he gives voice to those experiencing the loss of a loved one.
McCartney was inspired to write this delicate song in 1994, when Ringo Starr’s first wife Maureen Cox Starkey died of cancer. McCartney and wife Linda had remained close with Maureen and her children with Starr, and expressed great sadness at the news. As McCartney explained in 1997 interviews promoting the album Flaming Pie, he wished to write a song to comfort her kids and help himself work through the grief. The “little willow” mentioned in the lyrics refer not only to Maureen, but to anyone who has passed away from illness or an accident. In Flaming Pie’s liner notes, he explained that “I wanted to somehow convey how much I thought of her. For her and her kids. It certainly is heartfelt, and I hope it will help a bit.”
The recording of Flaming Pie commenced after the completion of the 1995 Anthology documentary, and featured Jeff Lynne at the helm. Due to Linda’s own cancer struggles, the album sessions spanned two years. Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra frontman who had previously worked with George Harrison and the so-called “Threetles” for the Anthology tracks “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” used a fairly light touch with McCartney, avoiding swamping the songs with overproduction. “Little Willow” typifies this new approach, although the typical ELO sweeping harmonies accent McCartney’s lilting voice.
Recording at his Essex home studio the Mill, McCartney and Lynne began working on the track on November 21, 1995, according to the MACCA-Central site. He was juggling several other projects at the time, including the symphonic work Standing Stone, a one-off performance with Elvis Costello, and various tracks that surfaced after Flaming Pie. Yet “Little Willow,” as well as the entire album, does not have a rushed feel. Instead, it sounds intimate, as if he were simply playing in a small room with — and for — a select audience. As on albums like McCartney and McCartney II, he plays most of the instruments on the track: bass guitar, acoustic guitar, Spanish guitar, electric guitar, piano, harpsichord, harmonium, mellotron, and percussion. Lynne provided assistance on backing vocals, electric spinette, and harpsichord. Appropriately enough, longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick presided over the session, adding another Beatle-esque touch to the proceedings.
Over a simple arrangement slightly reminiscent of chamber music, McCartney’s voice lies in the forefront of the mix. “Bend, little willow; winds gonna blow you, hard and cold tonight,” he sings, clearly referring to coping with trying circumstances. “Life, as it happens, nobody warns you; willow, hold on tight,” he continues, suggesting that we must accept what we have no control over in life. While he appears to address the loved one, he indirectly refers to those left behind: “Sleep little willow, peace gonna follow; time will heal your wounds.” Here McCartney assures Maureen’s family that she is out of pain and in a state of peace. Not only will her physical wounds heal, but the family will also recover from their anguish.
Several heartbreaking lines lie within the tender ballad, both comforting the family but empathizing with their grief: “Grow to the heavens, now and forever; always came too soon,” he gently croons, using his voice’s lower registers. Who cannot relate to the feeling that life is too short and can end suddenly? But he assures listeners that “nothing’s gonna shake your love, take your love away; no one’s out to break your heart; it only seems that way.” In other words, life may seem unbearable upon losing someone dear, but enduring love will remain and overcome sorrow.
In these challenging times, such a message deeply resonates: It expresses our agony, but also consoles us. When something as inexplicable as the Sandy Brook school tragedy occurs, music can help us make sense of the world; at the very least, it makes us feel like we’re not alone in our sadness. “Little Willow” may have described one person’s death, but its impact reaches much further.
Deep Beatles will be on vacation until the new year, but will soon return with more hidden Beatles and solo treasures.