[…] Esquire: Clearly you don’t need the money and you don’t need the fame. So what are you doing here playing a series of concerts in Japan, when you could be at home with your feet up?
Paul McCartney: Two reasons: I love it, and it’s my job. Three reasons: the audience. You sing something and you get this incredible warmth back, this adulation. And who doesn’t like that? It’s amazing. Plus, the band’s very good. And having said there were three answers there are now about seven. Another thing is I kind of get to review my songs, and they go back quite a way. So if I’m singing ‘Eleanor Rigby’, I’m me now reviewing the work of a twentysomething and I’m going, “Whoa, that’s good.” [sings] “Wearing the face that she keeps in the jar by the door”. Ooh! And you see it all again flashing by you… like drowning. In the nicest possible way.
ESQ: You’ve never seriously contemplated retirement?
PM: Sit at home and watch telly? That’s what people do, man. Gardening, golf… no thanks. Occasionally, I do think, “You should have got fed up by now, you should be jaded.” My manager, who I don’t have any more, glad to say, suggested quite a long time ago that I retire at 50. He sort of said it’s not a good look. I went, “Oh, God, he could be right.” But then I still enjoy writing, I still enjoy singing. What am I gonna do? You see so many people who retire and then immediately expire.
ESQ: Is it that you feel you still have something to prove?
PM: Yeah, all the time. And it is a silly feeling. And I do actually sometimes talk to myself and say, “Wait a minute: look at this little mountain of achievements. There’s an awful lot of them. Isn’t that enough?” But maybe I could do it a bit better. Maybe I could write something that’s just more relevant or new. And that always drags you forward. I mean, I never really felt like, “Oh, I did good.” Nobody does. Even at the height of The Beatles. I prefer to think there’s something I’m not doing quite right, so I’m constantly working on it. I always was, we always were. I mean, look at John [Lennon], a mass of paranoia and worries about whether he’s doing it right. You only have to listen to his lyrics. I think that’s just artists in general.
ESQ: They say happiness writes white.
PM: Domesticity is the enemy of art. I don’t know if that’s true. You can write good happy songs. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily happiness. But I think self-satisfaction is maybe the enemy. It’s kind of better to think, “Tomorrow night I’m gonna sing it better.” There is this forward effort. It feels to me right, it feels human.
ESQ: Your shows are long: 40 songs, three hours. It’s unusual.
PM: Springsteen overdoes it, too. You know what it is? We’ve got a lot of songs.
ESQ: It’s a retrospective, with a heavy emphasis on The Beatles. You spent many years not playing Beatles’ songs, trying to escape from that. What changed?
PM: Well, that was very specifically the period after The Beatles when I was trying to establish Wings and I had to say to myself, “Yeah, you’re an ex-Beatle but you’re trying to do something new so you’ve got to leave that alone.” It’s a risky business because the promoters didn’t like that. They said, “Can’t you just do ‘Yesterday’ at the end of the show?” “No!”
ESQ: Presumably it wasn’t just the promoters. The audience must have wanted ‘Yesterday’, too.
PM: That’s right. But for me it was, “Too bad, I’ve got to do it this way. I don’t want to rely on the Beatles’ stuff.” It was round about 1976 when Wings had a big successful American tour that I thought, “You know what? It’s OK now.” I felt that I’d succeeded in having a life after The Beatles. And then I was able to think what I’d known all along and you touched on there. Which is, “If I’m in an audience I wanna hear the hits. I don’t want to see the Stones do their new album. I want ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’.” I rationalised that at a certain point.
ESQ: Many of your songs are autobiographical. One of the reasons they resonate is people know what they’re about: ‘Let it Be’, about your mum; ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, about Linda. Are you thinking about those people when you play those songs? Isn’t it painful?
PM: No, not always. I’m really doing them just because they’re songs. I mean, when I do ‘Let it Be’ I’m not thinking about my mum. If there’s one thing I know it’s that everyone in that audience is thinking something different. And that’s 50,000 different thoughts, depending on the capacity of the hall. Obviously, when I do ‘Here Today’ as I do, that is very personal. That is me talking to John. But as you sing them you review them. So I go, [sings] “What about the night we cried?” And I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah: Key West”. We were all drunk. We’d delayed Jacksonville because of a hurricane. We got parked in Key West and we stayed up all night and we got drunk – “Let me tell you, man, you’re fucking great” – so I know that’s what I’m talking about. I know the night. I do think of that.
ESQ: So you don’t find yourself moved, in the way the crowd is, by the emotional content of the songs?
PM: Not all the time. You wouldn’t be able to sing. You’d just be crying. But yeah, there are moments. I think it was in South America. There was a very tall, statuesque man with a beard, very good-looking man. And he had his arm round what was apparently his daughter. Might not have been! No, it was, it was clearly his daughter. I’m singing ‘Let it Be’ and I look out there and I see him standing and she’s looking up at him and he glances down at her and they share a moment, and I’m like, “Whoa!” [He shivers.] It really hit me. It’s hard to sing through that. You see quite a bit of that. If I ever spot anyone crying during ‘Here Today’, that can set me off. I mean, on one level it’s only a song and on another it’s a very emotional thing for me. And when I see some girl totally reduced to tears and looking at me singing it catches me by surprise. This really means something to her. I’m not just a singer. I’m doing something more here.
ESQ: When I’m interviewing actors or writers or whoever, I often ask them to quote a song lyric that means something to them. It can be quite revealing. I’m not sure if you’re the best person to ask or the worst, because you’ve written so many yourself.
PM: I’ll have a go.
ESQ: Right then, what’s the Paul McCartney lyric that means the most?
PM: “Why don’t we do it in the road?”
ESQ: Nope, I wasn’t expecting that one. For me it’s a soppy one: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” The last words of the last Beatles song. That’s quite a sentiment to bow out with.
PM: That little one, it surprises me. I don’t remember coming up with it. It just sort of popped out, like a lot of my stuff. People say to me, “How do you feel about The Beatles?” I’m kind of proud of it, because it was generally a good message. Now it wraps up the show, and the interview. Come on, give it up man!