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Paul McCartney has sued the Beatles, fought Yoko and been called ‘petty’ by his old mate Ringo. But, preparing to headline this year’s Glastonbury festival, he tells John Harris why the insults will never grind him down
Prague’s T-Mobile Park is a pretty grim place: a scrappy rectangle of land some 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre, surrounded by the rusting remains of communist-era industry. Today, it is also spread with a layer of sticky mud, and rendered yet more unpleasant by the imminent prospect of rain.
Some people, however, have managed to erect their own small bit of sunshine. Pressed up against a security barrier is a fantastically excited middle-aged Russian man, dressed in the international uniform of those who have been hopelessly afflicted by rock music (black drainpipe jeans, Converse trainers, threadbare tour T-shirt), and accompanied by the obligatory embarrassed female partner. Watched anxiously by a gaggle of Czech security staff, he simply spends an hour shouting. “Paul! You are de best!” he yelps. “You still are de best! From Russia with love! You are de greatest!”
Up on the stage, Paul McCartney is leading his band through a soundcheck that takes in an apparently random array of music. To start with, he plays Coming Up, a 1980 solo single released some six months before John Lennon’s death, and rather grudgingly described by McCartney’s one-time songwriting partner as “a good piece of work”. He goes on to Honey Don’t and Matchbox, 1950s rockabilly covers perfected during the Beatles’ brain-pounding trips to Hamburg, whose recorded versions were sung by Ringo Starr. And he ends with a song from Abbey Road, the album knowingly created as the group’s last word to their public.
Written as the Beatles’ internal bond was ripped apart by the entry into their lives of the notoriously shady impresario Allen Klein, it still sounds wonderfully crestfallen. “You never give me your money,” he sings. “You only give me your funny paper/ And in the middle of negotiations/ You break down.” It’s a compelling sound: proof that a great song is something you can momentarily live in, a place populated by all kinds of ghosts.
The show that follows five hours later only proves the point. When McCartney sings She’s a Woman and I Saw Her Standing There, the vast screens on either side of the stage are filled with the image of the moptop-era Beatles, sprinting from yet another fan ambush, or obediently mugging for the camera. A rendition of Band on the Run is accompanied by film of Wings, the post-Beatles enterprise that briefly gripped the 1970s mainstream just before the arrival of punk.
At the show’s end, by contrast, McCartney stands at the lip of the stage alone. This is a relatively new thing for him: the Beatles took their famously low bows as an unbreakable quartet; with Wings and beyond, he was always accompanied by his first wife, Linda. It also represents a final reminder of the contrasting fates of McCartney and his two most celebrated colleagues – for while John Lennon and George Harrison have been divested of any imperfections and installed in that part of the hereafter reserved for musicians who somehow come close to being saints, Paul McCartney must still go about his labours in the Real World.
This, of course, brings forth all kinds of malign consequences. For every virtue posthumously attached to Lennon, McCartney’s detractors can come up with a corresponding vice. John luxuriated in his genius; Paul is hideously unsure of himself. John sailed out to avant-garde extremes; Paul is a sugary balladeer. John was always dismissive of Beatles nostalgia; Paul clings to it like a security blanket.
Precious little of this stuff adds up, of course: listen to a Lennon song as saccharine as Woman, or as paranoid as his anti-Paul tirade How Do You Sleep?, and you soon understand that the Beatles’ famous belief that they were somehow “four sides of the same person” meant that their abiding characteristics were shared rather than split. But in the UK, some of this stuff has coloured the more negative perceptions of McCartney, as he well knows. Unlike Lennon’s work, the sentiments of his songs have usually been founded in magnanimity and generosity of spirit, but it’s perhaps telling that on four occasions during our interview, his descriptions of his place in the public mind include the word “bastard”.
Interestingly, he traces much of this not to Lennon’s death in 1980, but to December 1970 – when, desperate to extricate himself from the aforementioned Allen Klein, he took the last resort of legal action against John, George and Ringo. “The fact that I had to sue the Beatles was something that was very, very difficult, ‘cos I could see what that would do in terms of perception of me,” he says. “People could quite easily say, ‘You know what? I’d never do that, no matter if it meant losing everything. He’s a hard-hearted bastard. And a mean bastard. And a money-grabbing bastard.’
“And doing well didn’t help. We’d tried to get Apple going, and in the short term, it had failed spectacularly. And I started doing my own business, and it started to do quite well. That’s what happened, and it resulted in that split: ‘John’s really cool, and Paul isn’t.'”
His recent cuttings files have, lest we forget, taken in two splurges of coverage that only heightened the sense of smouldering hostility. First came the upsurge of enmity that accompanied his marriage to Heather Mills, later manifested in gleeful dissections of both her alleged tendency to embroider her personal history, and rumoured spats with McCartney’s children. Meanwhile, 2002 saw a splurge of coverage around McCartney’s crediting of 19 songs on a live album to “Paul McCartney and John Lennon”, in brazen contravention of the supposedly unimpeachable Lennon-McCartney brand-name. The latter brought forth a threat of legal action from Yoko Ono, and criticism even from Ringo Starr, who curtly declared McCartney’s actions to be “petty and silly.”
“It snowballed,” he admits. “People were phoning me up saying, ‘You’re doing yourself no favours with this, you know.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Well, you know, you want to knock John’s name out. He’s dead. It’s terrible: you’re walking on a dead man’s grave.’ I was like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.'”
McCartney is simultaneously keen to call time on the affair, and surprisingly willing to flesh out his feelings. He traces the controversy back to the publication of the Beatles’ Anthology book in 2000, and Yoko Ono’s refusal to allow Yesterday to be credited to anyone other than “John Lennon and Paul McCartney”. Contrary to more outraged portrayals of his motivations, he is perfectly happy with the time-honoured Lennon-McCartney credit; but when the two are named in full in the Ono-endorsed order, he still feels a familiar twinge of irritation.
To anyone who knows even the most basic facts about the pair’s partnership (ie the one who sang lead vocals had always written most of the song and, if it dates from 1967 or later, all of it) this might seem to border on the neurotic; it perhaps amounts to proof that as the Beatles have always seemed to live the surreal life of giants, so their common-or-garden insecurities can easily seem unbelievably inflated.
“What happened recently,” he continues, “was that my lyric to Blackbird was published in a poetry anthology as something written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And John had nothing to do with that lyric. I think he would actually be my great supporter in this, but unfortunately he’s not here to tell us. So it’s become a public thing, and I look like this total bastard trying to screw John over. Which I’m not. But now [comically raising voice] I don’t care! I don’t want it! I wouldn’t have it if you paid me!”
The animosity hurled towards his second wife, however, still rankles. There may, I suggest to him, be something about his place in the British cultural patchwork that means certain people simply don’t like him getting married. As with his explanation of the Lennon-McCartney Cool Wars, he traces the explanation back to that difficult phase of his life between the late 1960s and early 70s.
“They didn’t like me giving up Jane Asher,” he says. “They didn’t like that at all. It all started there. They would have quite liked that. They were set up for that. And then I married a New York divorcee with a child and, at the time, they didn’t like that. This time around, I married a younger woman and they didn’t like that. But again, it doesn’t matter: what’s important is that I thought it was a good idea, and I still do. But it reminds me of the stick Linda got. It’s strangely similar. I have a nasty feeling that some of the people who do it were Paul fans, like some of the people I still get strange letters from.
“The British psyche can be very strange,” he considers. “Some of the people who do it most … well, I rang one or two of those journalists up, out of the blue. They’d just done sustained ‘I hate Heather’ stuff. It was a couple of lady columnists … I’d rather not give them the fame. I just said, ‘I’ve been trying to ignore this, and somebody just gave me a bunch of press cuttings, and I’ve just looked through them all, and you said that. Well, that’s actually wrong.’
“It was just nonsense: stories that Heather and I went to bed early at Stella’s wedding. Well, we couldn’t possibly have done: we were sleeping above the karaoke. I just rang them up and said, ‘We actually didn’t. You ask anyone who was there.’ And they said, ‘Well, someone who was there said you went to bed early.’ I said, ‘Well, they must have been pissed or something – ‘cos we were up till dawn, in the disco, and I was on the karaoke.
“And I went down the list. I took a little time. Another thing was Heather’s too old to wear above-the-knee boots. I said, ‘Do you actually know why that is? She’s an amputee, love. That’s why she wears those boots.’
“I think it’s a phenomenon in the British press, particularly at the moment, which isn’t very helpful for our national identity. It encourages people to go [in high-pitched scouse], ‘Look at her! Look at him!’ Our great organs do it, all the time: ‘Ooh! Look at her! Look at him! Ooh – a footballer! Look at his hair!’ It reminds me of these bloody people off the estate where I used to live – these dreadful gossips. It’s puerile. It’s the people you wished you’d left behind.”
McCartney is in Prague as part of a 12-date European tour. As unbelievable as it sounds, this amounts to a extended warm-up for his Saturday night at this year’s Glastonbury. Indie-rock bands might prepare themselves by playing Moles in Bath on the previous Tuesday; McCartney and his band have already played vast shows in Gijon, Lisbon, Madrid, Zurich and Leipzig, with Scandinavia, St Petersburg and Paris still to come.
“I was asked to do Glastonbury, and for years, I’ve been sort of half-toying with the idea ‘cos it’s the great festival; the ongoing Woodstock,” he says. “But you can’t go from the Mean Fiddler to a big outdoor thing. I had to get my voice up. I had to get up there – [sings] ‘waaaargh!’ There’s muscles involved. I do know that it’s helpful if I’ve been at it, maybe a week or so before. Then I can slide into it a bit more. So I said, ‘Let’s do a few shows.’ And that turned into a European tour. It does sound a bit silly, or that I’m very respectful to Glastonbury. I suppose I am.”
I share McCartney’s company in his dressing room, a windowless box festooned with scarves and cushions, perfumed with the scent from an incense burner (but not any marijuana – he has, he confirms, given up). He is, naturally enough, a little shorter than you might imagine. His hair, the grey that took hold during the 1980s and 1990s long since dyed an autumnal brown, somehow looks both luxuriant and slightly fragile. And if his features have recently seemed to take on a new youthfulness, his is still a face etched with experience, slowly hardening into the same benignly owlish countenance you see in photographs of his long-departed father, Jim.
His next appointment is with a Czech linguist, employed to teach him 20 or so phrases, so that he can break with the usual arrogant rock practice of yelping “Hello Prague!” and assuming that most of the audience are conversant in English. He began these compacted tutorials on his last world tour; as the appreciative response from 100,000 Czechs proves, it invests his shows with an admirable kind of warmth.
“Most people really get ready before a show,” he says. “But my last hour before a show’s like an O-level exam. And it can be hard: Hungarian was very difficult. The translator kept saying – and I’ve forgotten the exact word, of course – ‘Tishush’. And I was going, ‘Tishush’. And she was going – ‘No – Tishush .’ I’d go ‘Tish- ush ?’ She said ‘No – Tish -ush.’ I thought I really had it; we took hours over this. It was a fuss over the tiniest little thing. But we saw her the next day after the concert and I said, ‘How did it go down?’ She said, ‘My mother rang up. In her newspaper it said, ‘He spoke Hungarian without a trace of an accent.'”
If McCartney is quite the European, this phase of his progress – which began with the release in November 2001 of the album Driving Rain – has also seen him reinstated at the heart of America’s musical mainstream. He became all but ubiquitous in the wake of the September 11 attacks, appearing alongside the Who, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John et al at the fund-raising Concert for New York, and authoring the event’s musical finale: a march-time anthem entitled Freedom. Back then, it sounded like a rather platitudinous example of the fact that McCartney has always been happy with his role as one of the western world’s favoured cheerleaders, perhaps lent an unwitting irony by the passage of President Bush’s rights-curtailing Patriot Act. “This is my right, a right given by God,” it went. “I will fight, for the right/To live in freedom.”
“After 9/11,” he says, “I felt there had to be some sort of response. Some people were just saying, ‘No, no – peace at all costs. Nothing must happen.’ And my argument was, ‘But peace is not what we’re talking about. Two very big buildings have been taken out, in a place that’s never had that kind of an attack before, with an unseen enemy.’ I felt for the Americans, ‘cos I was there, living with them. It wasn’t like I was living in Muswell Hill thinking, ‘We shouldn’t do anything.’ Something had to be done.”
You can hear that feeling – a kind of non-specific, righteous belligerence – in the song. In the context of the Iraq war, though, those kind of sentiments have taken on a new kind of ugliness.
“Exactly,” he says. “It becomes a licence to torture, and that’s not what that song’s about. It’s really a We Shall Overcome thing. And at that time, playing it in America was helpful, healing, for some Americans. Now it’s all got completely ugly – the whole Iraq thing, rushing in without the second resolution. It’s all gone very wrong … It is crazy that they haven’t found any weapons. I think the whole world is just puzzled by that. So it’s ugly. It’s now Vietnam.”
So Freedom is not being played on this tour? “No, it’s not. It’s more ambiguous now. It probably has become identified with the war effort. And I think that’s a bad thing.”
To finish, we talk about the songs that have made their way into his set-list, and their habit of sparking the odd Proustian rush. When he plays the age-old Beatles song I’ll Follow the Sun, he says, he finds himself back in his father’s house in Liverpool, “looking out through the lace curtains”. She’s a Woman, from 1964, takes him back to his salad days at Abbey Road, “smoking Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, with a smart black jacket and a white shirt”.
And then there is Here Today, the song he wrote in the wake of John Lennon’s death. “At least once a tour, that song just gets me,” he says. “I’m singing it, and I think I’m OK, and I suddenly realise it’s very emotional, and John was a great mate and a very important man in my life, and I miss him, you know? It happened at the first show, in Gijon: I was doing fine, and I found myself doing a thing I’ve done in soundcheck, just repeating one of the lines: ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ I did that and I thought, ‘That’s nice – that works.’ And then I came to finish the song, to do the last verse, and it was, ‘Oh shit – I’ve just totally lost it.'”
Two lines from the song have always intrigued me: “What about the night we cried/ Because there wasn’t any reason left to keep it all inside.”
“We were in Key West in 1964,” he says. “We were due to fly into Jacksonville, in Florida, and do a concert there, but we’d been diverted because of a hurricane. We stayed there for a couple of days, not knowing what to do except, like, drink. I remember drinking way too much, and having one of those talking-to-the-toilet bowl evenings. It was during that night, when we’d all stayed up way too late, and we got so pissed that we ended up crying – about, you know, how wonderful we were, and how much we loved each other, even though we’d never said anything. It was a good one: you never say anything like that. Especially if you’re a Northern Man.”
Three hours later, McCartney and his band are joyously tumbling through Got to Get You Into My Life, and Live and Let Die, and Penny Lane, and Drive My Car. It’s all triumphant stuff, but it’s also suffused with a striking sense of McCartney as the put-upon underdog, sloughing off the more burdensome aspects of the Beatles’ myth and just about achieving a momentary sense of closure. In that sense, the finale is perfect. It’s The End from Abbey Road, the song that calls time on The Beatles’ progress as follows: “And in the end/ The love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.”
Trudging back through the mud, however, I keep thinking of another couplet from that record, played during that afternoon’s soundcheck. On the album, bellowed by all four Beatles, it sounds defiant; backhandedly jubilant, even. In Prague, sung by McCartney in a bluesy half-whisper, it suddenly took on a new quality: sighing melancholy, perhaps arising from the human mind’s endless talent for railing against the inevitable.
“Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight,” he sang. “Carry that weight a long time.”