Interview for Times Online • Saturday, November 6, 2004

Let him be

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Times Online
Interview by:
Alan Franks
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Interview

He’s not at all as you might have expected. He just happens to live in a world which still likes to see him as the cherubic one with the sweet voice and a guitar the wrong way round. He was, and never quite stopped being, the Beatle who was every mother’s nomination for son-in-law (John too snarly, George not eating properly, and Ringo… please). The reality of him is sharp, restless, wary, defended, sardonic and, after everything that’s happened to him these past few years, a little scuffed. In another age, the one which he and his universal music helped to end, you might even have used that hideous adjective “chippy”, but this would have said more about you than him.
As if to rub in time’s utter indifference to everything we hold dear, Sir Paul McCartney is now 62. To put it more tellingly, he is barely 18 months off The Age which he and Lennon created in that confoundedly catchy song about getting older. Far from contemplating a cottage holiday in the Isle of Wight, “if it’s not too dear”, he is drawing breath between two of the most enormous international rock tours ever seen. As for the hair, he’s not losing it at all. Earlier this year, Uppercuts salon in Brighton, from which he was seen emerging apparently less grey than he went in, declared it a very fine head. Pension arrangements? Depends what you read, but the figure that keeps coming up in relation to his fortune is £1 billion.

I meet him at the Ocean Way studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where he has come to work on a new album. It doesn’t look much on the outside, but it’s where a lot of the most celebrated musicians feel at home. Their photos and their high-selling albums line the corridors: Stones, Joe Cocker, Barry White, Michael Bolton, Bon Jovi, going back to Nat King Cole, one of McCartney’s heroes, and to a young Paul of about half his present years. Seeping from one of the studios is the unmistakable sound of his voice, true and plangent, still able to sing the Beatles numbers in their original keys. Waiting for him to break, I get chatting with John Hammel, his personal assistant for 30 years. I remember him from nearly 20 years ago, when I’d interviewed McCartney at an odd little studio in Eastbourne, not far from where he lived with his first wife Linda and their children. John answers all my questions with “you’d better ask him that yourself”, or “Paul will be able to answer that one”. Then, in the silence, he adds that “a fish gets caught when its mouth is open”.

McCartney appears in the doorway, casual and humming. He looks me up and down in a flash and then suddenly we’re going up some narrow stairs and crouching our way through a sort of attic lined with cubby holes full of old studio components. He fingers them approvingly as we pass. Next, we’re out on the roof, with no railings and a nasty little drop, sitting at a table under a big parasol. I want to say something about the Beatles’ rooftop concert back in 1969, and how the police broke it up, but just then a cop car roars down Sunset with everything going. He stretches an arm out across the view. I’m surprised by his approval of it because it is an endless plain of low roofs like ours, all squared off and gridded by serious highways. Right at the back of all this is the sign saying Hollywood, and the faint trace of hills. No trees, no parks, no people. Think how Penny Lane, that fantastic little English place-hymn, just teemed.

I ask him if there is any truth in the rumour that he and his wife Heather are planning to settle in America. He rolls his eyes and goes into a long lament about the way rumours like this circulate and pick up strength until they acquire the status of a received truth, no matter how forcefully they are denied. He gives the sobering example of how his first wife was continually referred to as “the photography heiress Linda Eastman”, when there was in fact no connection between her family and that of George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak. There’s plenty more where this came from, and some of it pretty angry. So I ask about late fatherhood. Has he found it difficult? Does he enjoy it? Would he like another baby?

“It’s been great fun for me,” he replies with enthusiasm. “I love it. She [Beatrice] is a delicious little baby. But I don’t really want to talk about that. I want to give her the choice of a private life. If we were talking just as guys, I’d go on talking about her endlessly. But with the newspapers, no matter who it is, Heather and I have a rule that we don’t really talk about it. But yeah, it’s great. She’s great.”

And he’s coping with it all OK? “It’s fine. I love it. I just love it.” To the last question, about another baby, he replies very firmly: “I don’t want to answer that.” Nor does he choose to talk about his life with Heather, let alone about the stress that re-marriage can impose on the existing family, as well as on the couple themselves. However, much later in the conversation, he comes back to the subject and mounts a heartfelt defence of his wife, passionate in its content and defiant in its tone.

In the course of his 2002/3 tour, McCartney played live to more than two million people at 90 packed concerts, from Madison Square Garden in New York to Red Square in Moscow. Now a book of that regal progress, Each One Believing, has been published, with photos by Bill Bernstein, a New York photographer whose 15-year association with the former Beatle secured him access to the offstage life of the tour. The result is relentlessly fizzy, professional and upbeat, just like the image of the man at the heart of the account. Here is Macca sharing a quiet moment with Heather in the sumptuous dressing room; Macca learning how to say “hi guys” to his Russian fans. “I was with Putin this afternoon; he invited me and Heather to the Kremlin. I was telling him I like to speak to the crowd”; Vladimir taking his seat at the Red Square gig, flanked by archetypal heavies; Macca in one of the band’s private huddles before performing; Macca with guys who would love to consider themselves members of his peer group, if such a thing existed: Sting, Geldof, Stallone, Cage (Nicolas, not John), Spacey, Clinton (Bill). Some are openly delighted to be sharing a frame with the legend, others are still trying to wrestle humility into their smile as the shutter clicks.

The gallery goes on: Jay Leno, James Taylor, Ozzy Osbourne and Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer and, some would say, fifth member of the band in the Abbey Road studio days. He is the only one whom McCartney seems overjoyed to see. Sir George – just like Sir Paul, and like Putin’s companions, and like the expressions of almost tragic devotion on the girls’ faces – seems unchanged. Tall, grey, decent, sober, the ultimate liberal uncle. Riffle through the book and the whole tour, the whole world that it encapsulates, becomes strangely glazed by a similar immutability. And the poses: Paul emerging from somewhere giving yet another thumbs-up or a victory V-sign; Paul and the guys doing some routine that makes him look as though he is levitating, always with the wide-eyed and winsome look which somehow kept innocence alive in an era apparently embarrassed by it. Words like looning, larking and goofing come to mind; postwar words of a Carry On England kind. Glance through the set lists and you find up to 23 Beatles numbers, two-thirds of the material. This is a heritage tour, never mind that many of the fans were not born when the songs were made. It is the very same heritage that so extraordinarily upstaged monarchy itself at the Queen’s jubilee concert.

Now think of some of the Beatles songs that emerged between Love Me Do and Let It Be. Think of how they fused every kind of vernacular music from Liverpool/Irish folk, through the dance-hall jazz of the kind played by McCartney’s father Jim, to the R’n’B arriving in boatloads from the States. Add to this the plain genius of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration – up there with Schubert, said Leonard Bernstein – and you come a little closer to explaining how the songs and their original singers became and remain monumental. The phenomenon brings problems, and McCartney knows this better than anyone. Though he makes the point that he became even bigger after the Beatles, “into another league of very famous”, it would be hard to claim that his songs with Wings, or subsequently, reached the same heights as his work alone and with Lennon in the Sixties. His harshest critics say there’s been hardly anything of note these past three decades, never mind that, in 1977, Mull of Kintyre became the best-selling single of all time in Britain, in the process winning its composer an Ivor Novello Award.

I wonder whether it is harder to write good pop songs when you are no longer young, and I ask him how he approaches the process these days. He replies “same as ever”, and says repeatedly that he hates to analyse these things, much prefers to allow the presence of mystery. Almost at once he starts talking about Lennon. “I wrote Yesterday without John and he wrote Imagine without me, so we were very lucky that when the break-up came we weren’t totally reliant on each other. We’d written a lot of stuff individually. But I miss him a lot, and any time you could bring him back I’d be grateful, so that I could sit him down and get him to sort out some of the problems with my songs. But, knowing that’s not possible, I miss him, yeah, as you would miss any great collaborator. And he was the greatest. He and I, for each other, were it. Maybe that thing about both of our mothers having died gave us some kind of solidity. And we liked each other, we could take the piss out of each other, it worked on a million levels.”

He says what he has said before, that he would have liked the Beatles to have gone on for longer. His face becomes ruminative, like I’ve never seen in the photos these past 40 years. He sighs and continues: “The way I look at it is, I’m a great optimist, but I do recognise that nobody gets out of this one alive. And so it’s just very, very sad to think that these people won’t be coming through that door again. You know, John, George, Linda, mum and dad. It’s a hopelessly sad fact that we all have to live with. It’s the nature of the beast, the nature of what we are all in. I’ve known that for an awfully long time. I remember saying to my dad, ‘Will you die? Will I die?’ As a kid, you do. It’s very final, very horrible. I’d like everyone to go on for ever, but none of us is going to, and so you grieve. I just cry when I have to. It strikes me at odd moments. Sometimes, on stage, I’m singing the song I wrote for John [Here Today], and I just find myself going… [he makes a gasping noise], and not being able to handle it. If I’m doing a lot of emotional songs, I think, what if I blub, what if I start to lose it?”

The greatest loss of all has been Linda, who died six years ago of breast cancer. They had married in 1969, had three children, and had been virtually inseparable. As well as his wife, she had been a member of Wings, albeit much derided by the music press. As with John and George, so with Linda: you grieve, you get on with it, you count your blessings, which are considerable, and you lean on your music, which never lets you down. “When I was a teenager in Liverpool, no one expressed their grief. You just had to put your head down and carry on. You didn’t talk to a psychiatrist because there weren’t any. Today, I just think what an amazingly lucky person I am to have found Heather.”

It was the year after Linda’s death that he met the former model Heather Mills, whom he then married in 2002. Once more, hostility surrounded his choice of partner. There was reportedly a family crisis, with his eldest daughter, the fashion designer Stella, said to be at loggerheads both with her father and his intended bride of 34. The couple met at a charity awards dinner. “I just liked the look of her, same as had happened when I saw Linda. I was just physically attracted. Then we got together and found we had so much in common. And I was thinking, what if I hadn’t seen her?”

They married in the small village of Glaslough in County Monahan, with an inevitably starry list of guests, and strangers travelling from as far as Zurich to line the narrow lanes and cheer. “The more we go on, the more we realise how lucky the pair of us are. But that’s what I find all the time. My mum dies, and I find John. Linda dies, and I find Heather.”

Jim McCartney also remarried after bringing up Paul and his younger brother Mike. The boys’ mother, Mary, had also died of breast cancer. His second wife had been widowed and already had a five-year-old daughter. This girl, Ruth, is now 42 and, unbeknown to Paul, lives in California. By comparison with his father, who remarried eight years after being widowed, Paul’s getting together with Heather was swift. And even though his own children were grown up, it must have caused some difficulties for everyone.

Paul nods ruefully and says: “I think these things are part and parcel. It can be difficult, you know. For them [the children], for Heather, for all of us. But, you know, luckily these things clear up. Time is a great healer. These things have healed – amazingly. I’d prefer not to go on about any difficulties. I like much more the fact that we get over these things, that people grow, and they get used to stuff and get through things. So we are doing very well as a family.” At several points in this conversation, I find myself thinking how much nicer it would be if we were, in his words, just guys, rather than me being press and him being what he is. Impossible, of course, with me asking what I think are legitimate questions about how he copes with the raw and ragged bits of life familiar to the ordinary and unfamous, and him guarding his privacy with the ferocity of a man who knows what it is like to lose it. So it’s ironic. Someone like me would never have the chance to spend time with someone like him without the licence of belonging to the press. Yet it is that very belonging that blocks off certain avenues of discussion.

From what I’ve heard two of his friends say, he is great company, witty and generous. If he doesn’t much like the press, and he doesn’t, it is surely in part because he dislikes the thought of losing control of his image. And yes, that image is definitely at odds with the man. I’d go further and say it doesn’t really do him justice. At one point, when we are talking about the (false) rumour of him moving to America, he floats the following fantasy with me: “You and I have to write something for this bare page today. Look, it could be a lot of fun. How about… Stevie Wonder is moving to London to be near Paul, and the neighbours are up in arms. OK? That will run. Or else… Madonna has asked Paul to write the music for her new children’s book. I could do better than that if I spent half an hour on it. But no, for the 50th time, I am not dead [a reference to the 1969 rumour that Paul had died and it was a stand-in on the Abbey Road cover], and no, we are not moving to America.”

The posh papers (his word again) are not exempted. He goes into plummy-voice to imitate the reader of one such paper – not this one – learning that McCartney is to relocate. Perhaps it is my turn to be paranoid when I say there is a hint of aggression in it. But why has there been so much ill feeling towards his wives? And not just from the press. That would not be accurate. As he says: “Linda got a lot of flak when we married, and Heather has had similar types of experiences… I don’t know why. Look, I was due to marry Jane [Asher]. The public appeared to like that.” True enough. Jane came from an impeccably middle-class professional family. Because of their address and the girls’ hair colour, they were known as the Carrotts of Wimpole Street. Paul lived there for a while, and the couple were a classier Posh and Becks of the Sixties. And so much more wholesome than Mick and Marianne. “She was a nice girl. A British girl. And then I realised that I wasn’t in love with her. Which was a slight problem. Then I realised I was in love with Linda, and we got married and had a delicious romance. We met on the cusp of Jane and me breaking up. But number one, she was American. And we didn’t like Americans. And she was divorced.”

Wallis Simpson Syndrome. “That. And she had a child. These were all reasons for not liking someone. But like the Linda thing, it [the Heather thing] is clearing. People are realising who Heather is. We were at a stop-the-mines benefit the other evening. The simple perception of this was that Princess Diana dies and therefore anyone going into it is trying to be Diana. But Heather had been doing this a long time before. She gave a fantastic speech. She is a very intelligent girl, a very impressive woman. She left school at 13 with virtually no education. She’s just written an article for The New Statesman. You should read it. It’s in the Labour Party conference issue. A 90-year-old gent I met on holiday said [of the magazine]: ‘Oh, that’s a formidable book.’ This is the side that people don’t bother to find out about. She spends her days helping people.”

And when people said it was too soon for a new partnership? “I never listened to gossips in the street in Liverpool. ‘Ooo, look at ’im wairin’ those those tight trowsers. Look at the length of ’er skairt. It’s a bloody scandal!’ It’s just a variation on that.”

At the time of this conversation there’s a fortnight to go until the presidential election, so I ask him who he’s rooting for. Kerry is the answer. “I’ve got the Bushisms book. ‘Most of our imports are from overseas.’ From a president, I’m not so sure this is good.” Ever since Give Ireland Back to the Irish (banned by the BBC), I’ve had him down as a naïf. Or call it broad-brush. “Great Britain you are tremendous, And nobody knows like me, But really what are you doin’ in the land across the sea?” Can the medium of song change the way that people think and vote? “Well, Give Peace a Chance was something that did make a difference. I remember seeing thousands of people chanting that on the White House lawn… They’re not easy to write, those protest songs.”

His American contemporary Bob Dylan, an equally durable musician, managed a few in his time. “He’s a great guy. Great poet. I run into him every so often. I saw him in an anorak in the corner of some airport lounge. He’s so courageous. A guy from his band said, ‘Mr Tambourine Man went down well tonight,’ so Bob said, ‘OK, take it out of the set.’ I’m not like that. I’d say keep it in.”

Of course he would. This is not a man who got famous by being controversial, even if he was there at the heart of the biggest popular music revolution this country has ever known. The fact is that you could probably have set him down anywhere, any time, and his melodic brilliance would have propelled him to the top. Everyone sensed that in their own way, from George Martin right the way down to toddlers hearing those sounds coming down the hall from their parents’ transistor.

John Hammel comes up to call time and we make our way back off the roof. Paul gathers up his lunch box, which had contained the veggie roll made for him by Heather. The box is actually a little blue plastic handbag in the shape of an old Roberts radio, with a photo of the new Mrs Macca occupying the whole of one side. Through the attic with the components, down the steep steps and into the studio. He bashes out a Lady Madonna riff on the Crown Upright, then has a quick go on his famous Hofner violin-shaped bass. He got this one for £30 more than 40 years ago because he couldn’t afford £100 for a Fender solid. You wouldn’t dare put a price on it now. Then he picks up his acoustic six-string and starts singing.

I say I must be the smallest audience he has played to since he used to practise in the bathroom, and he nods. His eyes have gone all distant, just like they always did, and instead of hearing just soulfulness in the voice, I find I’m picking up a great weight of downright sadness. It’s that something in the throat, that compulsive catch that words, thankfully, can’t describe. It’s funny to think that, when it was a third as old as it is now, it only had to make itself heard on a stage to be instantly drowned by screaming girls. Even as it idles its way above the chords, with no one else about, it’s as distinctive in its own way as Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday. But oh so mournful. Before leaving I ask him if the Beatles will ever re-form. I’m hardly the first. These days, sadly, it would only entail one phone call, from Paul to Ringo, or vice-versa. “I would if he asked me,” says Paul. There was a time when this would have constituted a scoop. He goes on: “I thought I was going to play with him once, but he got a shoulder thing.” The Who do it with just two of the originals. So if Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were to join Paul and Ringo, you’d have the full line-up of vocals, bass, lead and drums. “Right,” says McCartney. “The Whootles.” Remember you read it here first.

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