- Published by:
- New Yorker
- Interview by:
- David Remnick
- Timeline More from year 2021
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Let It Be (50th anniversary boxset) Official album.
More from year 2021
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An article from The New Yorker, which covers a private screening of a shortened version of “Get Back” by Peter Jackson, and goes through the Beatles history, as part of the release of the book “The Lyrics – 1956 to Present“. Paul McCartney is quoted throughout the article, and his comment on The Rolling Stones made the headlines for a few days.
I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are. I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.Paul McCartney
Early evening in late summer, the golden hour in the village of East Hampton. The surf is rough and pounds its regular measure on the shore. At the last driveway on a road ending at the beach, a cortège of cars—S.U.V.s, jeeps, candy-colored roadsters—pull up to the gate, sand crunching pleasantly under the tires. And out they come, face after famous face, burnished, expensively moisturized: Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Buffett, Anjelica Huston, Julianne Moore, Stevie Van Zandt, Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi. They all wear expectant, delighted-to-be-invited expressions. Through the gate, they mount a flight of stairs to the front door and walk across a vaulted living room to a fragrant back yard, where a crowd is circulating under a tent in the familiar high-life way, regarding the territory, pausing now and then to accept refreshments from a tray.
Their hosts are Nancy Shevell, the scion of a New Jersey trucking family, and her husband, Paul McCartney, a bass player and singer-songwriter from Liverpool. A slender, regal woman in her early sixties, Shevell is talking in a confiding manner with Michael Bloomberg, who was the mayor of New York City when she served on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Bloomberg nods gravely at whatever Shevell is saying, but he has his eyes fixed on a plate of exquisite little pizzas. Would he like one? He narrows his gaze, trying to decide; then, with executive dispatch, he declines. […]
McCartney knows that, even in a gathering of film stars or prime ministers, he is surrounded by Beatles fans. “It’s the strangest thing,” he told me. “Even during the pandemic, when I’m wearing a mask, even sunglasses, people stop and say, ‘Hey, Paul!’ ” He’ll gamely try to level the interpersonal playing field by saying that, after so many years, “I’m a Beatles fan, too,” often adding, “We were a good little band.” But he also knows that fandom can curdle into malevolence. In 1980, Mark David Chapman, a Beatles fan, shot John Lennon to death outside the Dakota, on Central Park West. Nineteen years later, in Henley-on-Thames, west of London, another mentally troubled young man, Michael Abram, broke into George Harrison’s estate and stabbed him repeatedly in the chest. […]
The party shifted into a new phase. A platform had been laid over the swimming pool, and rows of folding chairs were set up in front of a large screen. McCartney took his seat in the makeshift theatre flanked by his daughters Stella, who is fifty years old and a fashion designer, and Mary, who is fifty-two, a photographer, and the host of a vegetarian cooking show. It was time to screen a special hundred-minute version of “The Beatles: Get Back,” a three-part documentary series more than six hours in length made by the director Peter Jackson, and scheduled to stream on Disney+ during the Thanksgiving weekend.
The resulting collection of essays [in “The Lyrics – 1956 to present“] is arranged alphabetically, as if to defy any obvious arc to McCartney’s evolution, and to dissuade the reader from thinking that matters peaked in the summer of 1969, with “The End.” The oldest song in the anthology is “I Lost My Little Girl,” composed on a Zenith guitar, in 1956, when McCartney was fourteen. “You wouldn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that the song is a very direct response to the death of my mother,” he says. His mother, a midwife named Mary, had succumbed to breast cancer earlier that year. McCartney told me that he didn’t have many pictures of his mother, although he recalls her approaching him with a red rubber tube and a bowl of soapy water telling him it was time for an enema. “I was crying and begging to not have this torture!” he said. But Mary––the “Mother Mary” of “Let It Be”––occupies a sainted place in his mind.
“One nice memory I have of her is her whistling in the kitchen,” he said. And when she became ill, he went on, “I remember her sort of seeming a little bit tired, a little bit pale, but we were too young to make anything of it.” The word “cancer” was never spoken. “There were all sorts of little euphemisms. But one thing I remember vividly was on the bedclothes there was some blood.” It was a moment of realization: “Oh, God, this is worse than I’d been thinking.”
His father, Jim, was a cotton salesman and an amateur jazz musician. Although Paul grew up in Liverpool on a working-class housing estate, he went to a good secondary school where he caught the bug for literature from his teacher Alan Durband, who had studied with F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. But, after a “pretty idyllic” childhood, his mother’s death cast a pall over the house that lasted for many months. Paul could hear “this sort of muffled sobbing coming from the next room, and the only person in that room was your dad.”
“I remember walking through Woolton, the village where John was from, and saying to John, ‘Look, you know, it should just be you and me who are the writers,’ ” McCartney recalled. “We never said, ‘Let’s keep George out of it,’ but it was implied.”
As the Beatles gained a following, the sophistication of their songwriting deepened. McCartney, for instance, was taken with epistolary songs like Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” On a tour bus, he thought of the imperative phrase “Close your eyes” and went on from there. “We arrived at the venue, and with all the hustle and bustle around me—all the various bands and tour crews running about—I made my way to the piano and then somehow found the chords,” he recalls in “The Lyrics.” At first, it was “a straight country-and-western love song,” but then Lennon provided a unique swing to the verses by strumming his guitar in a tricky triplet rhythm. The result was “All My Loving.” The Beatles recorded the song in 1963, and when they came to New York the following year they played it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” More than seventy million people watched. Within two months, they had the Top Five songs on the Billboard charts and Beatlemania was under way.
McCartney waves away such high-flown talk, but he isn’t above suggesting that the Beatles worked from a broader range of musical languages than their peers—not least the Rolling Stones. “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are,” he told me. “I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.”
The Beatles worked at a furious pace. Their producer, George Martin, brought deep experience to the process, along with an unerring ability to help the band translate their ideas into reality. As McCartney recalls, “George would say, ‘Be here at ten, tune up, have a cup of tea.’ At ten-thirty you’d start.” Two songs were recorded by lunch, and often two more afterward. “Once you get into that little routine, it’s hard, but then you enjoy it. It’s a very good way to work. Because suddenly at the end of every day you’ve got four songs.”
By 1966, the Beatles had tired of the road. The fans nightly screaming their hysterical adulation sounded to McCartney like “a million seagulls.” As the band came to think of themselves more as artists than as pop stars, they saw performing in stadiums as an indignity. “It had been sort of brewing, you know, this distaste for schlepping around and playing in the rain with the danger of electricity killing you,” McCartney told me. “You kind of just look at yourself and go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a musician, you know. I’m not a rag doll for children to scream at.’ ”
On August 29, 1966, the Beatles played Candlestick Park, in San Francisco. The band stood on a stage at second base, far removed from their fans, and ended their half-hour set with Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “It was just a dispiriting show, we just went through the motions,” McCartney told me. They came off the stage, he said, and “we got loaded into a kind of meat wagon, just a chrome box with nothing in it, except doors. We were the meat.” The Beatles never played for a paying audience again.
The Beatles finished recording “Abbey Road” in August, 1969. At a business meeting a few weeks later, Lennon told McCartney that his idea of playing small gigs and returning to their roots was “daft.” “The group is over,” he declared. “I’m leaving.”
“That was sad for all of us,” McCartney told me. “Except John didn’t give a shit, because he was clearing the decks and about to depart on the next ferry with Yoko.” McCartney made the breakup public when he included a short interview with the release of his first solo album.
Lennon was now fully engaged with a new outfit, the Plastic Ono Band. Starr recorded an album of standards and then one of country tunes. Harrison, who promptly made “All Things Must Pass,” the best work of his career, was especially glad to get on with his post-Beatles life. The band, he said, “meant a lot to a lot of people, but, you know, it didn’t really matter that much.”
It mattered plenty to McCartney. He and Linda went off to a farm in Campbeltown, Scotland, where McCartney drank too much, slept late into the afternoons, and then drank some more. He’d always enjoyed a drink or a joint. And when he took acid, he told me, he had visions of bejewelled horses and the DNA helix. But now, he said, “there was no reason to stop.” He was depressed. “The job was gone, and it was more than the job, obviously—it was the Beatles, the music, my musical life, my collaborator,” he told me. “It was this idea of ‘What do I do now?’ ” In McCartney’s absence, a rumor that he’d died began on a Detroit radio show and spread across the world. Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis sent a telegram inviting McCartney to record; a Beatles aide replied that McCartney was out of town. When a reporter and a photographer from Life showed up on the farm, McCartney threw a bucket of water at them. “The Beatles thing is over,” he told them after settling down. “Can you spread it around that I am just an ordinary person and want to live in peace?”
Then, on December 8, 1980, Lennon was murdered. Four months later, Philip Norman published “Shout!,” a best-selling biography of the band built around the idea that Lennon was “three-quarters of the Beatles” and McCartney little more than a cloying songwriter and a great manipulator. And Ono did not relent, remarking that Lennon had told her that McCartney had hurt him more than any other person had. McCartney was hamstrung; how could he respond? Lennon was now a martyr. People gathered outside the Dakota to sing “Imagine” and leave behind flowers or a burning candle.
McCartney kept his counsel for a while. Otherwise, he told me, “I’d be walking on a dead man’s grave.” But in May, 1981, he called Hunter Davies, who had once published an authorized Beatles biography, and unloaded about Lennon and Ono: “No one ever goes on about the times John hurt me. When he called my music Muzak. People keep on saying I hurt him, but where’s the examples, when did I do it?” McCartney went on like this for more than an hour. “I don’t like being the careful one,” he said. “I’d rather be immediate like John. He was all action. . . . He could be a maneuvering swine, which no one ever realized. Now since the death he’s become Martin Luther Lennon.” Then, there was the issue of who wrote what: “I saw somewhere that he says he helped on ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Yeah. About half a line. He also forgot completely that I wrote the tune for ‘In My Life.’ That was my tune. But perhaps he just made a mistake on that.”
He wavered for years, savoring his partnership with Lennon and declaring his love and his sense of loss, but also relitigating old resentments, to the point of challenging the order of their trademark: “Lennon-McCartney.” (Indeed, in “The Lyrics” McCartney has the credit lines for “his” Beatles songs read “Paul McCartney and John Lennon.”) It was a struggle for reputation, for the narrative of their lives together and apart. And yet, even in his rant to Davies, McCartney made plain that he could see the absurdity of it all: “People said to me when he said those things on his record about me, you must hate him, but I didn’t. I don’t. We were once having a right slagging session and I remember how he took off his granny glasses. I can still see him. He put them down and said, ‘It’s only me, Paul.’ Then he put them back on again and we continued slagging. . . . That phrase keeps coming back to me all the time. ‘It’s only me.’ ”
The morning after the party, I returned to McCartney’s house on the beach. He’d been up late. Once the film was over, there was dancing to a string of boomer hits—“Hey Jude,” “We Will Rock You,” “Miss You”—and he occupied the center of the floor, shimmying for all he was worth. Also, he’d had a few drinks.
“I’m a bit knackered,” he admitted, greeting me at the door. His complexion was pale, his eyes droopy. As we walked into the kitchen, he said in a comic stage whisper, “Coffee! Coffee!”
Nancy Shevell came by, dressed in a bathrobe and reading texts on her phone. For a few minutes, they did a post-party rundown, assessing the thank-yous from their guests. Outside, workers were loading up the glassware and the folding chairs. Shevell went to inspect their progress. McCartney smiled. “Nancy loves it,” he said. “She’s a little sad that it’s over, I think.”
Stella McCartney was in tears when she watched the film with her father. “It did occur to me, watching it, that we spent a lot of our childhood with Dad recovering from the turmoil and the breakup,” she told me. “Can you imagine being such a critical part of that creation and then having it crumble? And, as children, we were part of a process in which our dad was mourning. It was not an easy thing for Dad, and it lasted for a lot longer than we probably knew.”
Sean Lennon, who was five when his father was killed and who now, with Yoko Ono’s having withdrawn from public life, represents the family’s interests in the Beatles business, told me, “Time has sort of made us all grow to soften our edges and appreciate each other much more. Paul is a hero to me, on the same shelf as my dad. My mom loves Paul, too, she really appreciates him. They’ve had tensions in the past, and no one is trying to deny it. But all the tension we ever had, hyperbolized or not, makes it a real story about real human beings.”
The screening [of “Get Back” at the party] had been emotional. He watched images of Linda as a beautiful young woman, pregnant with Mary, who was now sitting beside him. And he saw himself with his friends, at the end of the film, performing not at a Syrian amphitheatre or in a London park but on the roof of the Apple building, running through sublime takes of songs they’d been working on, nailing them at last. Forty-odd minutes of music that ended with Lennon’s immortal announcement: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.” Down on the street, people heading out to lunch stared up in wonder, unaware that they were hearing the Beatles play together in public for the last time.
The performer was now the spectator, the observer of his younger self and his “fallen heroes.” Amid that footage of the Beatles, dressed in woolly winter getups, playing with pace and precision, all the bad stuff seemed to melt away. Even for McCartney, there’s been a shift in perspective—in part, a literal one. “Whenever I was in the band, playing live, I’d be facing out,” he said. “John was to the left or to the right of me, so I never got to sort of see him perform so much. Except in the film. And there he is in massive closeup. I can study everything about him.”
Here and there, as McCartney watched, he got a flash of the “old feeling”—Why is Yoko sitting on that amp!—but time, coupled with a new framing of the past, has allowed him, and the audience, a more benign view of things. They were a gang, a unit, even a family, and happy families are a bore, if they exist at all. “The elder brother does shout at the younger brother, and then they have fisticuffs, or whatever,” McCartney said. “It’s all very natural.” He raised his voice above the sound of workmen outside packing up the tents. “Buying into this myth that I was the bad one, it bothered me for years. But I sort of feel like it doesn’t bother me now, because I feel like a lot of people sort of get it.” If he’s not entirely over it, it’s because he’s still in it.
Last updated on November 7, 2021
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