Interview for The Times • Saturday, December 5, 2009

Paul McCartney: in love and back on the road

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
The Times
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In love and back on the road, Paul McCartney is in the best place he has been for years. If only John Lennon were here — “It got a bit sticky,” he says, “but we were really good mates again” Robert Crampton For someone who’s been giving interviews for close on 50 years, Paul McCartney is surprisingly unjaded by the process. It’s often said of mega-celebrities how refreshingly normal they are, and usually they’re not: they’ve been spoilt by fame or they were just plain weird to start with. But McCartney, it seems, is an exception. No airs and graces, self-deprecating, relaxed, efficient but friendly, just an ordinary 67-year-old multimillionaire (some say billionaire but I suppose his investments have taken a hit of late) and arguably the most famous man on the planet. The young women in his outer office, which is dominated by a huge Peter Blake, as his inner one is by several de Koonings, say he brings them in leftover food sometimes — mashed potatoes — and doesn’t like being called Sir. “What’s your first question?” they ask. I say I’m going to ask him whether he’s played The Beatles: Rock Band yet. And I do. “Yeah,” McCartney says, once I’ve been ushered inside, “my assistant showed me how to set it up ’cos I’m not Mr Tech. I lost twice. On Easy.” You lost on Easy trying to simulate songs you wrote in the first place? “Yeah, and I was playing bass, I’m ashamed to say. It’s all red and green and yellow buttons. I said, ‘Can we start this again?’ ” McCartney’s Scouse accent, after so long living down south or across the Atlantic or up in Kintyre, is surprisingly strong. In one corner of his office overlooking Soho Square is a Wurlitzer jukebox, cutting-edge technology when he started out, about as interactive as things got. And he’s survived into the age of the downloadable digital game. Survived, and prospered. It may be an exaggeration to say that McCartney is cool again, but after many years he is certainly credible once more. Even his dyed hair doesn’t look so blatant in the flesh. And he’s looking good, not too naff, in a black Savile Row suit and Converse. Last year’s Electric Arguments album was exceptionally good and exceptionally well reviewed. This month’s concert DVD will be in a lot of stockings this Christmas, and many recipients will be pleased to discover that it offers more than a heritage gig. It’s possible that the most successful songwriter in pop history is on the verge of finally being forgiven for the Frog Chorus. For most people, of course, and all those at his three Citi Fields gigs in New York in July (the new DVD is the film edited from all three concerts) there was nothing to forgive. Yes, he had a major blip in the Eighties, but his back catalogue is so good, so interwoven with most people’s lives, that it didn’t matter. Not just the Beatles back catalogue either: Wings, too. We forget what a huge band McCartney’s second group were, especially in America. “Often I’ll be doing an interview and I’m talking about Sgt. Pepper and I’m thinking he [the interviewer] will think that’s the big seminal thing and he’ll say [adopts hippy American accent], ‘To tell you the truth, man, it was Band on the Run for me’.” Having said that, the set list from Citi Field tells the story. Of the first 17 tracks 12 are by McCartney solo or with Wings; 15 of the final 16 are by the Beatles. Does he feel people are waiting for him to turn into a Fab Four jukebox? “You do have a feeling the Beatles songs are gonna be the most popular. People come to the show and often if they don’t know a song you can see them thinking, ‘This is a good chance to go and get a beer’. I’ve always been reluctant to give them a chance to go and get a beer. Concession people hate me. [But] they’ve paid money to come and see a show. I could pull the moody artist and say, ‘You’re only getting three, ’cos it’s my show’. With Wings I did that, didn’t even do three, even though promoters would say, ‘Can you just do Yesterday at the end?’ I’d go, ‘No’. I didn’t wanna crap up my second group by suggesting what was already in people’s minds: ‘Hey, the Beatles were better’. Once we’d done Wings it was OK, we’ll feed in some Beatles songs. These days, it doesn’t matter.” For many of us, McCartney’s rehabilitation began at Live Aid in 1985. Since then, it seems, any major issue or cause-based gig has ended with him trooping on stage to a piano and leading the stars of the day in a singalong. He was only 42 when Live Aid happened, and already the daddy of world pop. And now he’s the grandaddy. He’s got the killer tunes, after all. Is it harder to write songs now than way back when, 45 years ago, when he and John Lennon seemed to be able — were able, pretty much — to knock out an all-time classic melody in their tea break? “It actually doesn’t feel any harder, but it’s different. I’m not the same guy.” He once said he couldn’t write Paperback Writer now because back then, in 1965, he was (sort of) the young guy in the song. “Yeah, you can’t. You try, you think, ‘Oh, it’d be nice to do another Eleanor Rigby, that was a good idea, taking a character, getting into a mini-play’. But you can’t really.” A lot of artists, I say, and intellectuals, too, seem to have this burst of creativity very young . . ? “I can believe it. Because I do the [Beatles] songs now, so many of them, I look back and think ‘clever kid!’ Bloody hell, writing songs like a 90-year-old would sing, at what age? 24.” McCartney breaks into Yesterday in a parody of a shaky old man’s voice. He giggles. “Yes, it was quite a mature perspective.” Now, he says, he likes writing songs so much that “it’s like an addiction. And occasionally I’ll come up with something and I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s good’. It’s not harder, it’s maybe more difficult to come up with something as original when you’ve done loads and loads of stuff.” Does he think his Beatles songs were better than his current output, or just different? I fully expect him to say different. But no. “Oh, some of the songs from then were better. As you say, there’s this spurt, you don’t even know that you’re doing it until you look back later and think, ‘Bloody hell’.” Every last scrap from his early life in Liverpool, you would have thought, has been picked over so often, in his own lyrics, in other people’s books and films and PhD theses no doubt, that he’d have no energy for or interest in going back over it again. Yet he does, voluntarily, as if he’s talking about it for the first time. “I was always wandering around Liverpool, looking at old buildings, seeing people at bus stops, drinking it all in. There was this old lady lived near us, and I would go round, not as a goody-goody thing, but because it was interesting, and I’d say: ‘I’m going to the shops, do you want anything?’ And she was a fascinating old lady, I remember seeing a crystal radio set she had, and then I’d get her a pound of potatoes or whatever. All those little visits, the lonely old lady thing, that found its way into Eleanor Rigby. That’s hard to re-create. I haven’t helped any little old ladies with their shopping recently. Maybe I should.” The Beatles’ very early days are topical again, not so much McCartney’s childhood as Lennon’s, thanks to Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, a new film examining Lennon’s relationship with his Aunt Mimi and mother, Julia. Has he seen it? “I haven’t. Sam asked me to but I’ve been very busy lately. She showed me some little bits of it and I said to her, ’cos I know Sam, she’s a great girl, I said, ‘Sam, this isn’t true’. She sent me a synopsis and it said, ‘Aunt Mimi is a cruel woman’, and I said, ‘Sam, do me one favour: Aunt Mimi was not cruel. She was mock strict, very proper. But she was a good heart who loved John madly and she knew she had to bring up what was potentially a wayward boy’. I always could read that.” Taylor-Wood had the character rewritten. “She showed me some stuff and I said, ‘Well, the Mimi character’s good now, I like that, but that bit, we never did that, and John never did that, and he certainly didn’t do that’. So we had a discussion about ‘Yeah, well, it’s a film’ — ‘This is not a pipe’, as Magritte would have said, ‘it’s a painting’. It captures the essence, but not for me. Because I was there. I hear it’s a good film. But it’s my life.” The one genuinely moving, as opposed to entertaining, moment on the new DVD is when McCartney sings Here Today, the song that he wrote shortly after Lennon’s murder in 1980. He chokes up. “I’m talking to John in my head. It’s a conversation we didn’t have.” But they’d become friendly again before the tragedy? “Yeah, we were mates. God, that was so cool. It was the saving grace. Because it got a bit sticky after the Beatles. No, we were really good mates again — it was lovely, actually. Performing this song, in New York, where he was killed, is a very emotional affair. The last verse, where I sing ‘and if I said I really loved you, and was glad you came along’ … Jesus, it’s like singing it to your dad who died.” Would they have worked together again had John lived? “I dunno. We were always a bit nervous of that. Had he lived it might have happened, there was a mellowing. It could have been pretty interesting.” When McCartney says he’s been busy lately he means it. His European tour kicked off last week, in Hamburg. On Thursday he addressed the European Parliament in Brussels, campaigning for his “meat-free Monday” initiative, aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and, of course, promoting vegetarianism, a cause on which he has recently lobbied figures as diverse as the Dalai Lama and Pamela Anderson. “This isn’t just me, a vegetarian, banging on: it was a United Nations report … that got me interested,” he says. “There’s a need to do something: the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than all forms of transport put together. People are confused about what they can do — they can try one meat-free day a week. It’s kind of interesting once you get into it.” He plays the O2 in London before Christmas. Naturally, it’s sold out. He’s played on Broadway and with Beyoncé and become the third recipient, after Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He’s also written a song for the new Robert De Niro film. And he plays on a couple of tracks on Ringo Starr’s forthcoming album. Clearly, divorce agrees with him. Heather Mills, I’m afraid, is off limits. What is clear, however, is that the McCartney of late 2009 is a world away from the suspicious, troubled figure interviewers described three or four years ago. He has a new(ish) girlfriend, Nancy Shevell, 49, and rumours of marriage abound. Shevell, like his first wife, Linda Eastman, and unlike Mills, is from an influential East Coast family, independently wealthy. Apparently his four grown-up children, including the plain-speaking Stella, have given Shevell their seal of approval. The great survivor is in a good place in his personal life, the best he’s been in since Eastman’s death in 1998. Yet he remains keen to emphasise that his professional life is still developing. He doesn’t want to be, and isn’t, a Sixties icon touring the world, grinding out the hits, banking the profit. He likes to go into the studio, especially in the guise of one of his side projects, the Fireman, and work on more experimental music with Youth, formerly of Killing Joke, his collaborator and producer. Their first album, he says, “was completely underground, incognito. It sold 500 copies if we were lucky. It’s a great freedom for me. I don’t have to worry about singing this song well, because there is no song. It’s like actors doing improv.” He’s also, just as he was in those heady days of the early Sixties, enjoying having a laugh with the lads. “We once rang up a sex line and recorded it,” he giggles. “Well, we all bottled out, but my mate John, he doesn’t care, he rang up, we’re all in the control room giggling. And you know it’s some middle-aged woman in Manchester, knitting.” (Assumes northern female accent): “‘Hello, love, what kind of thing do you like then?’ And we took that out and looped it to these swirling echoes. You can imagine. It’s completely unlike work.” Often he’ll just muck about on guitar or piano for hours on end, “then I’ll latch on to something, and it’s really bad, but somewhere in the middle, I’ll think, hang on, that’s a chorus, and I’ll start to do something more structured, because what I am is … a songwriter.” Paul McCartney’s multi-disc CD/DVD Good Evening New York City, filmed in Citi Field, formerly Shea Stadium, historic site of The Beatles’ landmark 1965 Concert, is released on Monday on Mercury Records. Paul McCartney plays Dublin 02 Arena on December 20th and 02 Arena London on December 22nd.


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