- Album This interview has been made to promote the McCartney III Official album.
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NYTimes: It seems to me that working on music by yourself, as you did on the new album, might allow for some insights about what you do and how you do it. So are there aspects of “McCartney III” that represent creative growth to you?
Paul McCartney: The idea of growing and adding more arrows to your bow is nice, but I’m not sure if I’m interested in it. The thing is, when I look back to “Yesterday,” which was written when I was 21 or something, there’s me talking like a 90-year-old: “Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be.” Things like that and “Eleanor Rigby” have a kind of wisdom. You would naturally think, OK, as I get older I’m going to get deeper, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think it’s a fact of life that personalities don’t change much. Throughout your life, there you are.
NYTimes: Is there anything different about the nature of your musical gift today at 78 than in 1980 or 1970 or when you first started writing songs?
Paul McCartney: It’s the story that you’re telling. That changes. When I first said to John, “I’ve written a few songs,” they were simple. My first song was called “I Lost My Little Girl” — four chords. Then we went into the next phase of songwriting, which was talking to our fans. Those were songs like “Thank You Girl,” “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me.” Then came a rich vein as we got more mature, with things like “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road.” But basically I think it’s all the same, and you get lucky sometimes. Like, “Let It Be” came from a dream where my mother had said that phrase. “Yesterday” came from a dream of a melody. I’m a great believer in dreams. I’m a great rememberer of dreams.
NYTimes: What’s the last interesting dream you had?
Paul McCartney: Last night’s was pretty good.
NYTimes: What was it?
Paul McCartney: It was of a sexual nature, so I’m not sure it’s good for the Kids section. Pretty cool, though. Very interesting, dreams of a sexual nature when you’re married. Because your married head is in the dream saying: “Don’t do this. Don’t go here.” And just to let you know, I didn’t. It was still a good dream.
NYTimes: You know, I was conscious of not mentioning the Beatles early in this interview, and you’ve already mentioned them a few times. So let me ask you: The band broke up 50 years ago. You were in it for roughly 10 years. When you’re not doing interviews or playing concerts, how central to your own story of your life are those 10 years from half a century ago?
Paul McCartney: Very. It was a great group. That’s commonly acknowledged.
NYTimes: Generally speaking.
Paul McCartney: [Laughs.] It’s like your high school memories — those are my Beatles memories. This is the danger: At a dinner party, I am liable to tell stories about my life, and people already know them. I can see everyone stifling a yawn. But the Beatles are inescapable. My daughter Mary will send me a photo or a text a few times a week: “There you were on an advert” or “I heard you on the radio.” The thing that amazes me now, because of my venerable age, is that I will be with, like, one of New York’s finest dermatologists, and he will be a rabid Beatles fan. All of that amazes me. We were trying to get known, we were trying to do good work and we did it. So to me, it’s all happy memories.
NYTimes: “McCartney III” will come out very close to the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Has your processing of what happened to him changed over the years?
Paul McCartney: It’s difficult for me to think about. I rerun the scenario in my head. Very emotional. So much so that I can’t really think about it. It kind of implodes. What can you think about that besides anger, sorrow? Like any bereavement, the only way out is to remember how good it was with John. Because I can’t get over the senseless act. I can’t think about it. I’m sure it’s some form of denial. But denial is the only way that I can deal with it. Having said that, of course I do think about it, and it’s horrible. You do things to help yourself out of it. I did an interview with Sean, his son. That was nice — to talk about how cool John was and fill in little gaps in his knowledge. So it’s little things that I am able to do, but I know that none of them can get over the hill and make it OK. But you know, after he was killed, he was taken to Frank Campbell’s funeral parlor in New York. I’m often passing that. I never pass it without saying: “All right, John. Hi, John.”
NYTimes: And how about your perspective on the work you did together? Has that changed?
Paul McCartney: I always thought it was good. I still think it’s good. Sometimes I had to reassure him that it was good. I remember one time he said to me: “What are they going to think of me when I’m dead? Am I going to be remembered?” I felt like the older brother, even though he was older than me. I said: “John, listen to me. You are going to be so remembered. You are so [expletive] great that there’s no way that this disappears.” I guess that was a moment of insecurity on his part. He straightened me up on other occasions. It was a great collaboration. I can’t think of any better collaboration, and there have been millions. I feel very lucky. We happened upon each other in Liverpool through a friend of mine, Ivan Vaughan. Ivan said, “I think you’d like this mate of mine.” Everyone’s lives have magic, but that guy putting me and John together and then George getting on a bus — an awful lot of coincidences had to happen to make the Beatles.
NYTimes: People always ask you about John. I’ve noticed they rarely ask about George. He was 58. who of course also died relatively young.
Paul McCartney: John is probably the one in the group you would remember, but the circumstances of his death were particularly harrowing. When you die horrifically, you’re remembered more. But I like your point, which is: What about George? I often think of George because he was my little buddy. I was thinking the other day of my hitchhiking bursts. This was before the Beatles. I suddenly was keen on hitchhiking, so I sold this idea to George and then John.
NYTimes: I know this memory. You and George hitchhiked to Paignton.
Paul McCartney: Yeah, Exeter and Paignton. We did that, and then I also hitchhiked with John. He and I got as far as Paris. What I was thinking about was — it’s interesting how I was the instigator. Neither of them came to me and said, “Should we go hitchhiking?” It was me, like, “I’ve got this great idea.”
NYTimes: Why is that interesting?
Paul McCartney: My theory is that attitude followed us into our recording career. Everyone was hanging out in the sticks, and I used to ring them up and say, “Guys, it’s time for an album.” Then we’d all come in, and they’d all be grumbling. “He’s making us work.” We used to laugh about it. So the same way I instigated the hitchhiking holidays, I would put forward ideas like, “It’s time to make an album.” I don’t remember Ringo, George or John ever ringing me up and saying that.
NYTimes: How strange is it to share an idle recollection from your youth, as you just did with that hitchhiking story, and then have the person to whom you’re sharing it — in this case, me — know the memory? It seems as though it would be weird.
Paul McCartney: It’s quite annoying, David. It’s like people at dinner yawning when I’m telling stories. This keeps happening to me.
NYTimes: I even know the details. You and George slept on the beach.
Paul McCartney: That’s right.
NYTimes: Some Salvation Army girls kept you warm.
Paul McCartney: Yes.
NYTimes: Then at some point you sat on a car battery and zapped your ass?
Paul McCartney: That was George who did that! I have a very clear recollection. He showed me the scar. Let’s set the record straight: It was George’s ass, and it was a burn the exact shape of a zip from his jeans.
NYTimes: Do you remember the last thing George said to you?
Paul McCartney: We said silly things. We were in New York before he went to Los Angeles to die, and they were silly but important to me. And, I think, important to him. We were sitting there, and I was holding his hand, and it occurred to me — I’ve never told this — I don’t want to hold George’s hand. You don’t hold your mate’s hands. I mean, we didn’t anyway. And I remember he was getting a bit annoyed at having to travel all the time — chasing a cure. He’d gone to Geneva to see what they could do. Then he came to a special clinic in New York to see what they could do. Then the thought was to go to L.A. and see what they could do. He was sort of getting a bit, “Can’t we just stay in one place?” And I said: “Yes, Speke Hall. Let’s go to Speke Hall.” That was one of the last things we said to each other, knowing that he would be the only person in the room who would know what Speke Hall was. You probably know what the hell it is.
Paul McCartney: I can’t amaze you with anything! Anyway, the nice thing for me when I was holding George’s hands, he looked at me, and there was a smile.
NYTimes: How many good Beatles stories are there left to tell that haven’t been told?
Paul McCartney: There are millions. Sometimes the reason is that they’re too private, and I don’t want to go gossiping. But the main stories do get told and told again.
NYTimes: Can you think of one now that you haven’t told before?
Paul McCartney: Hmm. I will rake through the embers. Oh, I’ll tell you one! I thought of one this morning. It’s pretty good. I don’t think I’ve told it. You’re going to have to say in the article, “I forced this out of him,” because it’s a bit telling-out-of-school.
NYTimes: I am hereby twisting your arm.
Paul McCartney: So when we did the album “Abbey Road,” the photographer was set up and taking the pictures that ended up as the album cover. Linda was also there taking incidental pictures. She has some that are of us — I think it was all four of us — sitting on the steps of Abbey Road studios, taking a break from the session, and I’m in quite earnest conversation with John. This morning I thought, I remember why. John’s accountants had rung my accountants and said: “Someone’s got to tell John he’s got to fill in his tax returns. He’s not doing it.” So I was trying to say to him, “Listen, man, you’ve got to do this.” I was trying to give him the sensible advice on not getting busted for not doing your taxes. That’s why I looked so earnest. I don’t think I’ve told that story before.
NYTimes: Tax filings — that’s some deep arcana.
Paul McCartney: I have dredged the barrel.
NYTimes: I know that your goal with making music is to do something that pleases yourself. What’s most pleasing to you on the new album?
Paul McCartney: I’m very happy with “Women and Wives.” I’ve been reading a book about Lead Belly. I was looking at his life and thinking about the blues scene of that day. I love that tone of voice and energy and style. So I was sitting at my piano, and I’m thinking about Huddie Ledbetter, and I started noodling around in the key of D minor, and this thing came to me. “Hear me women and wives” — in a vocal tone like what I imagine a blues singer might make. I was taking clues from Lead Belly, from the universe, from blues. And why I’m pleased with it is because the lyrics are pretty good advice. It’s advice I wouldn’t mind getting myself.
NYTimes: There’s a song on “McCartney III,” “Pretty Boys,” that is kind of unusual for you in how the music is sort of unassuming but the lyrics have an almost sinister edge. What inspired that one?
Paul McCartney: I’ll tell you exactly. I’ve been photographed by many photographers through the years. And when you get down to London, doing sessions with people like David Bailey, they can get pretty energetic in the studio. It’s like “Blow-Up”, you know? “Give it to me! [Expletive] the lens!” And it’s like: “What? No, I’m not going to.” But I understand why they’re doing that. They’re that kind of artist. So you allow it. Certain photographers — they tend to be very good photographers, by the way — can be totally out of line in the studio. So “Pretty Boys” is about male models. And going around New York or London, you see the lines of bicycles for hire. It struck me that they’re like models, there to be used. It’s most unfortunate.
NYTimes: “Lavatory Lil’” is another song I was curious about. That’s quite a title.
Paul McCartney: “Lavatory Lil’” is a parody of someone I didn’t like. Someone I was working with who turned out to be a bit of a baddie. I thought things were great; it turned nasty. So I made up the character Lavatory Lil’ and remembered some of the things that had gone on and put them in the song. I don’t need to be more specific than that. I will never divulge who it was.
NYTimes: I have another bigger-picture question. In your experience, how is the love in a marriage different at different stages of your life and in different marriages?
Paul McCartney: I don’t think it’s different. It’s always a splendid puzzle. Even though I write love songs, I don’t think I know what’s going on. It would be great if it was smooth and wonderful all the time, but you get pockets of that, and sometimes it’s — you could be annoying. To Nancy I’m pretty complex, with everything I’ve been through.
NYTimes: In what ways?
Paul McCartney: I’m some poor working-class kid from Liverpool. I’ve done music all my life. I’ve had huge success, and people often try to do what I want, so you get a false feeling of omnipotence. All that together makes a complex person. We’re all complex. Well, maybe I’m more complex than other people because of coming from poverty.
NYTimes: And how do you think about money these days?
Paul McCartney: It has obviously changed. What has stayed the same is the central core. When I was in Liverpool as a kid, I used to listen to people’s conversations. I remember a couple of women going on about money: “Ah, me and my husband, we’re always arguing about money.” And I remember thinking very consciously, “OK, I’ll solve that; I will try to get money.” That set me off on the “Let’s not have too many problems with money” trail. What happened also was, not having much money, when anything came into the house, it was important. It was important when my weekly comic was delivered. Or my penpal — I had a penpal in Spain, Rodrigo — when his letter came through, that was a big event. When they had giveaways in comics with little trinkets, I kept them all. Some people would say that’s a hoarding instinct, but not having anything when I was a kid has stuck with me as far as money. You know, I’m kind of crazy. My wife is not. She knows you can get rid of things you don’t need.
NYTimes: You’re a hoarder?
Paul McCartney: I’m a keeper. If I go somewhere and I get whatever I bought in a nice bag, I will want to keep the bag. My rationale is that I might want to put my sandwiches in it tomorrow. Whereas Nancy says, “We’ll get another bag.” In that way, my attitude toward money hasn’t changed that much. It’s the same instinct to preserve. One of the great things now about money is what you can do with it. Family and friends, if they have any medical problem, I can just say, “I’ll help.” The nicest thing about having money is you can help people with it.
NYTimes: Something that has been a constant for you musically is your ability to keep coming up with melodies. It’s there on the new album — the melodies all flow. Is your facility for writing a catchy melody ever an obstacle to getting the songs to be morethan just catchy? Because a good tune by itself is not always enough to make a good song. “Bip Bop” would be an example of that. Do you know what I’m saying?
Paul McCartney: No, I know. “Bip Bop” is not lyrically stunning. I was always embarrassed about that song. Literally, it goes, “Bip Bop / take your bottom dollar.” It’s inconsequential. But I mentioned that to a friend, a producer, a few years ago, and he said, “That’s my favorite song of yours.” So you don’t know what people like. It’s enough if I like it and enjoyed putting it on record and don’t particularly want to think of any more lyrics. I don’t want to sweat it. Sometimes maybe it would be better if I sweated it. Once or twice I tried to sweat it, and I hated it. It’s like, What are you doing this for?
NYTimes: Sixty-something years into writing songs, do you feel any closer to knowing where melodies come from?
Paul McCartney: No. There is something with my ability to write music that I don’t think I’m necessarily responsible for. It just seems to come easier to me — touch wood — than it does to some people. That’s it. I’m a fortunate man.
Last updated on December 26, 2020