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JAN MOIR being unavailable, Brian Sewell being unattainable, and Andrew Motion busily crafting another new poem, it fell to me, ace reporter Roger McGough to interview Paul McCartney about his first book of poems and lyrics Blackbird Singing. At the moment he is in Los Angeles recording a new album. My kind offer to fly over and interview him beside the hotel pool was surprisingly turned down, so we talked over the phone on Saturday night, me in my garret in West London and he in the studio between tracks. He was in buoyant mood as the recording was going well.
Roger McGough:Your poem Painting Pictures in Song describes what you’ve been doing for over 40 years, and now in this book you are painting pictures without song, ie naked words. What is the difference between writing poems and writing lyrics? Do you have to keep the melodies at bay?
Paul McCartney: I think so. There is a little bit of a crutch with the music. I do think of them separately, although Adrian Mitchell (who edited and introduced the selection) doesn’t. He’s into Sweet Little Sixteen and rock’n’roll lyrics and he sees the poetry in them. Originally I only wanted poems in the book, but he talked me into, or rather, persuaded me into including the song lyrics. I used to hang out a bit with Allen Ginsberg in the Sixties, and later on during the last couple of years of his life we became good friends. And he said to me “That Eleanor Rigby is a f- good poem, man.” So I thought, well, he’s no slouch, and so, with Adrian pushing me, I looked at them again, and thought, yes, some of them could be read.
RM: Is having a book published any different to having an album released? Do you care about what the critics think?
PM: Yes, there’s a big difference. I’m used to doing albums, but this is a bit special. My neck is on the line.
RM: I didn’t have any inspirational English teachers at school, did you? Were you interested in poetry then?
PM: I did A-level English at the Inny [Liverpool Institute], which is my scholastic claim to fame, and we had Alan “Dusty” Durband, a lovely man, who showed us the dirty bits of Chaucer, you know, The Miller’s Tale, and The Nun’s Tale, which were dirtier than anything we were telling each other. He had studied under FR Leavis at Oxford, and he brought a rich pool of information to us guys, and when we would listen, which was occasionally, it was great. He introduced us to Louis MacNeice and Auden, both of whom I liked. It was a good period of my life and I enjoyed it.
RM: I remember in the early Sixties doing poetry shows at the Hope Hall (later to become the Everyman Theatre) with Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and “Our kid”, Mike McGear [McCartney’s younger brother], and you would come along from time to time, with George Harrison, I remember, though never Lennon. I suspected then that you might be a closet poet, but wasn’t it true at the time that being a painter or a sculptor, or a muso was considered OK and macho, whereas being a poet was regarded as being fey? Iffy? Poofy?
PM: I agree. It was all very well to be artistic, but poetry was just that bit too far. I used to hang around bookshops like Phillip, Son and Nephew and surreptitiously read the stuff and be turned on by it. I would go and see plays at the Playhouse and the Royal Court and get excited by what I experienced, but I was never going to do anything with it.
RM: There are poets who believe that when a poem arrives you write it down, catch the moment, as it were, and then that is it. Whereas other poets revise and rework until something shines through. What is your method?
PM: For me, how art works is I get a mood, a desire to do the thing, usually writing songs, but sometimes this passion to paint. The feeling has to be there. I do it for pleasure. I’m not a great one for, as Linda used to put it, “Beating myself with a wet noodle.” So with a poem, a line comes to me and I sort of doodle with it in my head. I can’t stop it. I realised the other day that the great thing about being a composer is that you are doing nothing. What a doss! I was recently on holiday in India, having a fabulous time doing nothing, and I wrote three songs that I’ve just recorded. It’s a lovely thing to be able to say in my profession, “I have to be doing nothing.”
RM: Do you use a computer?
PM Pencil and paper. I’m not a typist. Funnily enough, John became a red-hot typist towards the end of his life. He had always had this “Arts Correspondent in Kowloon” kind of dream. But for me it’s pencil and paper by the bed . . . those moments between falling asleep and just before waking are good. I’ve got this little book that Stelly [his daughter, Stella] gave me and it’s full of scribbles and drawings.
RM: Are you interested in poetic forms? Have you tried your hand at writing a villanelle or a sonnet?
PM: I really haven’t got into structure yet, but I can see how it can be effective from reading other poets. Like a mantra. Allen [Ginsberg] always used to say, “First thought, best thought”. And I’d think, “Oh, brilliant.” But the joke is, of course, that Allen was always revising.
I think he was the first person I showed my poetry to. He came over to the house in Sussex to ask me if I knew anybody who would accompany him on guitar at a gig he was doing at the Albert Hall. So I suggested Dave Gilmour and Dave Stewart and a few others. Then when he’d gone it dawned on me that he wanted me to do it, so I rang him and said OK. So we met up and I stuck a little Bo Diddley jinkity-jink behind his Ballad of the Skeletons, a really cool poem, and he introduced me to the audience as his accompanist.
He loved to be the Don, did Allen, the controller, and I loved to give him that. Anyway we sat down with my poems and he knocked out all the “thes”, and any word ending in “-ing”. And I said, “Allen, you’re going to make me into a New York Beat poet, and it’s just not me.” In the end I thanked him for going over them, and it was good to have an annotated version in my drawer, The Ginsberg Variations, as I called them, but I wouldn’t be using them. It was a lovely process, though, and I should be so lucky.
RM: Having recently exhibited your paintings, who knows what you’ll turn your Renaissance hand to next? Choreographing a ballet? Playing the lead in a West End musical you have written and directed? But whatever you do you will continue to write songs, and now presumably more poems. Do you see your next book being poetry pure and simple rather than Lyrics and Poems?
PM: It depends how many I write. I think a lot of the poems in this book were written out of grief. The one for my friend Ivan, for John and the ones for Linda are like private notes, confidential letters that seemed to me more powerful than writing songs. I really felt that it was Linda who was moving the wind chimes and only a poem could express that feeling. I remember Peter Ustinov saying, “I like being interviewed, it allows me to know what I’m thinking.” It’s a little bit true of poems. It’s like therapy; you write something down and then you can remember what you were thinking. In my case the depths, in your case the poems are more humorous, but with an underlying sadness that you’re probably just covering up.
RM: Well, thanks. I’d better let you get back to the studio.
PM: Yes, I’ve just got one line of vocals to do on this track.
RM: If you’re short of any lyrics just give us a shout.
PM: What? Oh, yes, well you never know.
Last updated on September 2, 2020