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I wasn’t sure I’d get much from Sir Paul McCartney. As he says, “Mine’s a massive fame,” and it’s been that way since 1963, when Beatlemania first erupted. He’s spent 37 years dealing with reporters: if he wants to hide from the media’s curiosity behind a smokescreen of good-humoured charm, he’s more than capable.
So I certainly hadn’t expect him to talk about the aftermath of his wife Linda’s death and say: “I thought I might be dead by the end of the year, it would just be so unbearable. I half-prepared for that to happen. The nearest I did get to that was with grief and crying. But I thought, no, that’s a slippery path. So I tried to counteract that by just going from day to day.”
There spoke a man very different from the public image built up over so many years. Paul was always the sweet one, the Beatle you could take home to your mum. He had big wide eyes and innocent raised eyebrows. His characteristic gesture was a breezy thumbs-up. To his critics, he was also the shallow one and the goody-goody. While rebellious John was taking drugs, giving peace a chance and becoming sanctified by violent death, Paul was churning out breezy trifles such as “When I’m Sixty-Four.” He released “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as a single. He put a chorus of singing frogs into “We All Stand Together.”
When he ventured into the deeper waters of classical music, he was mocked for his presumption that he – a pop musician – could have anything serious to say. But just listen to the “Frog Chorus.” Yes, of course it’s silly. So play it to children – its intended audience. Sing along with those bullfrog boom-boom-boom-booms. Is there any other composer currently working in the classical idiom who has even a fraction of Sir Paul McCartney’s instinctive melodic felicity? That gift is apparent in “Nova”, the piece he has composed for A Garland For Linda, the fund-raising tribute to Linda McCartney, devised by Stephen Connock and executed by nine British composers. After an austere beginning, McCartney waits more than three minutes before releasing
a characteristically beautiful tune – one that brings a new note of optimism to the piece. The beauty of that melody is that it is instantly appreciable, instantly pleasurable.
If McCartney is so frequently under-rated (an absurd thing to say, perhaps, about the most commercially successful composer of the 20th century, but just read a few of his reviews) perhaps it is just because music like that seems too easy for him to create and for us to enjoy.
Yet there has always been another side to McCartney. It was he, rather than Lennon, who brought the influence of avant-garde musicians such as Stockhausen and Berio to bear on the recording of Revolver and Sgt Pepper, just as it had been he and George Martin who gave “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” their classically inspired arrangements. Now, the release of A Garland For Linda is a poignant reminder that, for all his enthusiastic public demeanour, he is a man well-used to personal suffering.
His mother died when he was still a boy. His closest male friend (and most bitter enemy) was gunned down before his 40th birthday. His beloved wife was taken from him decades before her time. “Nova” begins with the stark question, “God where are you?” – a question triumphantly answered in the affirmative as the piece evolves. “I have a certain kind of feeling that’s not exactly religious, but it includes God, includes spirituality – and that hasn’t changed at all,” said McCartney. “I think I’m always exploring those themes, but it comes in different forms.
“Eleanor Rigby” explores those themes and that was a long time ago.” When he says something like that, one remembers the degree to which McCartney’s work has permeated all our lives. So to sit down and talk to Sir Paul is to meet someone who has been an invisible companion for almost all of my life.
I asked what it was that McCartney took from the very different forms of music in which he is involved. “Straight rock’n’roll performing is something boisterous that can be very enjoyable,” he said. “If you get up and scream as if you’re a fairground barker, an incredible energy has to come through. It’s a physical thing. I get up and I can fill a room – ‘Waaahhh!!!’ It’s plain rowdiness. But then, on the other side, I’ve always loved great melodies. It’s to do with emotion. I’ve had a big attraction to both those things and in the Beatles I got to do a bit of
each. I don’t really recognise the barriers now.”
I told him of a conversation I’d had with Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, about five years ago. Sir George had said that his great regret about the band breaking up as they did – it is, incidentally, 30 years this April since McCartney’s announcement of the Beatles’ dissolution – was that their last recorded work, Abbey Road, signaled the possibility of a fusion between rock and classical forms. McCartney agreed. “I think he’s right. I think that to this day, and not just with the Beatles, but music in general. That’s what I think is interesting about what’s happening tonight [with A Garland For Linda]. People have been saying that this is the beginning of some kind of fusion. I think it’s a bit long coming, just because the classical world wants to hold on to its little patch, and so does the rock’n’roll world. But it is happening, whether they like it or not.” Part of the problem, of course, is that critics tend to be intolerant of anyone entering “their” field.
“I was well warned. People said to me, ‘Watch out. They’re going to really sharpen their pencils.’ It was still a shock, but I’ve been through so many critical minefields that I see them all as the same minefield. You get a bit of a thick skin. It’s not that it doesn’t hurt. It’s just that you think, ‘This isn’t going to put me off.’
“It’s always been a musical journey for me. That sounds terribly corny. You want to say something clever: ‘Oh, it’s been a terrible struggle.’ But it has actually been an extraordinary journey, from my Dad playing the piano, listening to the radio, playing at the Cavern, to all of this.”
As we talked, we sat by a poster of Linda. Was it hard for McCartney to see that image of the woman he had loved so much? “It’s always good to talk about Linda,” he said. “If you lose someone, there’s an ever greater distance between you. So to talk about them lessens that distance, even if it’s for a second.”
Did he ever feel he’d had to pay a price for what he’d been given in life? “I do. But I think we all pay that price. My particular story is just very visible and very pointed, very deep. I was up in Liverpool over the New Year with my family. And the way they are, they induce a certain kind of character in you. Which is, ‘Get on with it. Be optimistic. Overcome it. Have a laff.’ To some people that can look a bit fatuous, but to me it’s quite deep. Yes, all these things have happened to me, but I don’t want them to break me.”
For McCartney, the death of a partner with whom he had been so close for so long was not just a matter of coming to terms with her absence. It meant a total redefinition of who he was. “If you’re lucky enough to love someone and be in a very strong relationship with them, you grow reliant on each other because you’re half of each other’s life. So when you lose them, that’s the first thing: ‘I’ve lost half of me.’ That’s the shock.
“I tried to see what came out of it, see where I was. After about a year and two months I found that I’d thought something out. I still don’t know what it is. But that’s what it is like when you lose someone.” I thought of him trying to write “Nova.” McCartney wrote so many love songs for his wife when she was alive. But to write a song for her after she was gone must have been far harder. He agreed. “Yes. But I always jump at a project if I like the sound of it, and this one I jumped right at. I thought, ‘I’ll write something, and if it’s no good I’ll just say sorry.’ So I got on my computer and put up the choral settings that I use and just thought, ‘Well, how do I want to start it?’ And just thought it all through.”
He’s trying to put his life back together knowing that the media are constantly on the look-out for any sign of the next Lady McCartney. Once again, McCartney has to find ways of living a life, despite the pressures imposed on him by his fame. “It can be a bit spooky. I don’t kick and scream. I try to make fairly swift decisions, go with my instinct and get through things. I am this famous character, I know that, there’s no way of escaping it. So I try to find a way of enjoying it. Whatever I’m doing, whoever it’s with, I just think, ‘This is a moment. I wonder if we can enjoy it?’ And generally I seem to find a way.”
Abbey Road ends with what John Lennon said was the finest line Paul McCartney ever wrote: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” More than three decades later, did he still think those words were true? McCartney smiled. “I don’t know. I haven’t got to the end yet.”