Interview for The Observer • Sunday, March 11, 2001

The long and winding ode

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
The Observer
Interview by:
Nicci Gerrard
Read interview on The Observer
Timeline More from year 2001

Songs mentioned in this interview

Hey Jude

Officially appears on Hey Jude / Revolution


Officially appears on Help! (Mono)

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He wrote poetry before he wrote songs, and after Linda’s death he produced a torrent of verse. Now his lyrics and poems have been published – although Paul McCartney thinks his words look naked on their own.

When Paul McCartney was a boy – before the Quarrymen, before the Moondogs, before the Beatles, before Beatlemania – he wrote a poem for his school magazine. ‘Something deep and meaningful.’ It was turned down, which rankled – after all, he likes, as he says to me laconically, ‘to do things well’. He sits opposite me, in his security-frantic Soho office (Beatles memorabilia everywhere, and a de Kooning painting over his sleek desk), with his absurdly familiar pouchy, pixie face; so familiar I can’t really see him. There’s a kind of fame that is like a mask – so visible that it’s invisible.

He is amiable but wary. He doesn’t want to talk about Linda, the pain or the recovery, or Heather Mills, the new light in his life after the other, blazing light went out, or family feuds, or long long ago, when he became an icon and then had to live with it for the rest of his time. He doesn’t want to talk about noisy, legendary, epic things, rake over the things we all know and love to hear again and again, he wants to talk about these new poems, lying on the table between us: short lines of loss, love and wordplay.

So then, for a long time after that early rejection, he didn’t write another poem. Things got in the way, he says – those songs that poured out of him so he didn’t really know where they were coming from. That life which we all read about, watched, absorbed into our own lives. Then, many years later a childhood friend of his, Ivan Vaughan, died and he found himself writing a kind of elegy to him. Sometimes, he says, ‘poetry can be a deeper expression of what you feel’. ‘Ivan’ is rhythmic and staccato; it has a jaunty kind of melancholy to it. You can imagine it as a song lyric, something in the minor key. One of the formative moments of music history is smuggled into its middle lines, like a wink: ‘He introduced to me / At Woolton fete / A pal or two / And so we did.’ The pal of course, was John Lennon.

‘Linda encouraged me to write poems,’ McCartney continues. ‘After Ivan, I did a few more,’ some emotional and some jests; imagistic fragments. They talked about the idea of a book with the poet Adrian Mitchell, whose own reading performances they had backed. ‘A book for Paul’. ‘Yeah. I quite liked the “slim volume” idea, you know, wouldn’t it be nice, a slim volume of poetry, something to talk about at parties.’

Then, after Linda died, closing their long and passionately close marriage, he wrote poetry in her memory, ‘poetry out of grief and deep emotion’. Some of those poems are in Paul McCartney’s new book, outpourings of the heart, elegiac love songs and prayers to God. They sit alongside some of the most famous lyrics in the world, since Mitchell persuaded him to gather the past and the present together under the simple title Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics 1965-1999 (it’s not, he says, meant to look like an epitaph on a tombstone; he’s not dead yet).

Recent poems are sandwiched between ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Hey Jude’. It’s the first time he has allowed his old songs to be reproduced like this: ‘They look a bit naked, don’t they?’ And perhaps this marks his growing acceptance of his mythological past, a willingness to embrace what he for many years turned away from. The recent Anthologies, the return last year to the Cavern in Liverpool where he began, and now this splicing together of the Sixties with the rest of his life suggest a moving out of the extraordinary and intimidating shadow.

For a time, he agrees, it was ‘Get Thee Behind Me Beatles!’ – which of course was impossible, since the public’s love of the Beatles has never died down, and when the Anthologies were released, they rocketed once more to the top of the charts, as if 35 years had not intervened. He cannot begin to compete with the legend that he once was. Nothing he has written since the Beatles can compare with the beauty of ‘Yesterday’, which ‘came to me like a dream, and I didn’t know how it happened’.

No collaboration comes close, creatively, to the face-to-face compositions of Lennon-McCartney. But he still, he says, writes ‘mystically’, with the same faith that if he listens to what is inside him he will be able to capture it and that it will mean something. He believes, endearingly, that music and words flow through other people, but they don’t know how to get it down. He seems proud of the fact that he has never taken formal lessons – not in music (‘though I tried’), not in painting, not in poetry-writing. He sits at a keyboard and lets his fingers take him; he listens to the stream of consciousness in his head and his poems ‘come to me’. ‘Creativity is “a matter of wonder”, it takes me by surprise, hopefully. That’s the thrill. Every time is still as fresh as the last time I did it and the first time I did it. I am,’ he adds, ‘addicted to it. I’m not a chocaholic but I’m some sort of an -aholic.’

McCartney knows that every time he does something like this volume of poetry – or his recent exhibition of painting, which he ‘went at with a vengeance’ – then he is ‘putting myself on the line’. But then, all his life he says, ‘I’ve been putting myself on the line. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s partly because I’m conspicuous. And I like a lot of things. It can get a bit (he wrinkles his nose) embarrassing, liking a lot of things. I’m intelligent enough to know that it’s more cool to focus on one thing and do that really well. But I’m an enthusiast. It’s more positive to do it than not to do it. I never much liked authority. I didn’t like school teachers or critics telling me what I could do. Or myself telling me. I’m alive – do it! It’s like that line in ‘Hey Jude’. You know that song?’ I nod. ‘Well, how does it go?’ I refrain from prompting him, and he finds the song in his book: “Yes, this: for well you know that it’s a fool / That plays it cool / By making the world a little bit colder”. That sums me up to some extent.’

It’s interesting that he quotes himself to explain himself, dipping into the compendious anthology and feeding off lines he wrote long ago. Many of the lyrics he wrote in the past were born out of his own life and then appropriated by all of us, to describe our growing pains; Penny Lane and the bric-a-brac of childhood is ours too, now. He gave it to us. What was particular for him became universal; his heartbreak became ours. We sing his words, hum his tunes, have opinions on the Fab Four (who was your favourite Beatle?), the bitter break-up, his faithful marriage, his shaky, on-off, determined post-Beatles career.

So I ask him if it’s hard, now, to belong to himself, disentangle the legend from the private man. ‘I’m not sure I do feel I belong to myself,’ he replies, abruptly. Then, after a pause, he says: ‘There are two sides to me. I’m a Gemini, you know? I’m very conscious of my duality in lots of ways, sort of like a split personality. Well, that’s a human condition, isn’t it, though? Everyone has a conscience, a voice inside their heads. Anyway, I’m very conscious of that debate between the two of us. Like (he half chants this bit) black/white, day/night, dull/bright. They all happen to rhyme by the way. So there are two of us.’

There’s him, and he walks down the streets and goes into shops and is very famous. And there’s the other one, who loves, laughs, cries, remembers, plans. ‘That’s just me. It’s always been me, since the age of five. I compartmentalise the famous side. And I’m very happy to do that. It doesn’t bother me.’

He says that when the Beatles started to get famous, he used to go to Greece on holidays, and nobody knew who he was. ‘I used to say to the hotel band, “Back home, I’m pretty famous”, and they’d go, “Oh yeah, pull the other one”. So I decided Greece would always be my bolt hole. Then one day someone said, “But you’re massive in Greece”. Shit, I thought. Shit. There goes my bolt hole. So I had to make a decision: did I want to be famous or change things. I wanted to continue, so I might as well get happy with the situation. I make a point of enjoying it. I have my private life. I guard it fiercely.’

He doesn’t want to, won’t, talk about ‘Paul after Linda’ (he uses a mock syrupy voice here, and lambasts newspapers for the way they make glib headlines out of his love life and his grief). He often hates interviews, for the way they twist his words. It’s a strange business, he says, talking about yourself.

When people call him (or his younger self) a genius, he says that ‘that is embarrassing. I don’t need to go there. I get a bit uncomfortable when people start doing that – I mean I like it, but it’s embarrassing really. I like some of the stuff I’ve done. Sometimes I do look at it still, and I think: “Bloody hell!” – and then I look away again. I don’t want to look too closely.’

People have called him big-headed, and he admits that he can be ‘kind of conceited – I mean, how can you say that the Lennon-McCartney stuff isn’t good? I’m very ambitious. If I do things, I want to do them well. With Lennon-McCartney, there’s a body of work, like Picasso – and it can be judged. There will be no more of it, and I can say what I think of it now, and it was damned good.’ For a moment, he sounds in awe of himself. ‘And I’m not alone in thinking that I feel a little easier there, because John’s in there too. I don’t like big heads, but it’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.’ He gestures wildly towards me with a forefinger: ‘That’s the title of a country and western song you know! I didn’t make it up.’

‘I am normal,’ he says. ‘I am extremely normal. Anyone who gets to know me knows what I mean. If you knew me, you’d like me.’ He give a slightly nervous chuckle.

Paul McCartney has often been described as someone who likes too much to be liked. While Lennon was bolshy and bumpy and disagreeable (and therefore, ironically, easier for people to idolise, ‘arty’ not just ‘nice’); he was sweeter and smoother, in life as in work, open to the charge of being insecurely ‘charming’. ‘Most people like to be liked,’ he says reasonably. ‘I don’t crave it. I just prefer it. Look, where I come from, we’re the grovelling type. We tend to doff our caps. I set out to try and do good. When I was a kid I wanted my friends to like me. You want to have mates. You don’t want to be the one in the corner that everyone spits at, do you? I wanted to earn money, the more the better. No one wants to earn less,do they? When I got into songs, with the Beatles, I wanted to write the best songs in the world. Just that.’ Just. How the everyday rubs up against the glory.

When Linda died, he cried for a year, and he wrote poems for her, about her, to her. ‘She’s still there,’ he says. ‘She always will be. But they say that time is a healer, and it is. It heals by erasure. It erases the awful feelings. Grief is numbed and eased. Not the memories, but the pain, is rubbed out a bit. And that has to be a good thing. Otherwise you’d never be able to get on with life.

‘My mum died when I was 14. I can’t recall her face now. It’s like a law of nature – a good one really. You could go mad. There are people who do that – sit in a room full of photos, remembering. Well, the poems were therapeutic for me. I could remember and forget at the same time. Remember by recording the feelings; forget by releasing the feelings.’ He grimaces briefly. ‘To some degree,’ he adds.

In five years, Paul McCartney will be 64. But he still feels close, he says, to the boy he was before he became famous – that ‘grovelling type’, who doffs his cap; that insecure child who lost his mother early. ‘I haven’t changed that much,’ he says. ‘I’m just more puzzled. Don’t we all get more puzzled as we get older? When you’re young, you think you know what it’s all about. When you get older, you see more. And things go faster. I don’t mind being puzzled really.’

When I leave him, I want to say that I can’t think of anyone alive who has given as much pleasure as he has.

McCartney’s favourite self-penned poem

Her Spirit
Her spirit moves wind chimes
When the air is still
And fills the room
With fragrance of lily

Her eyes blue green
Still seem
Perfectly happy
With nothing

Her spirit sets
The water pipes a-humming
Fat lektronic forces be with ya sound

Her spirit talks to me 
Through animals
Beautiful creatures 
Lay with me

Bird that calls my name
Insist that she is here
And nothing 
Left to fear

Bright white squirrel
Foot of tree
Faces me
With innocent gaze

Her spirit talks to me

Last updated on August 30, 2020


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