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- Grant Smithies
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He wakes up, falls out of bed, drags a comb across his head. A day in the life of the world’s most influential living songwriter starts much the same way as anybody else’s.
But then things get mental for Sir Paul McCartney.
At 75, McCartney’s life is still a hectic whirl of writing, recording, tours and interviews. Everyone wants a piece of him.
His day is broken into tiny chunks by an array of assistants and PR people, and today, one of those little chunks belongs to me.
“Hello there Grant, how are you?” he says via cellphone from some sweltering London street, the voice instantly familiar, that congested Liverpudlian accent as strong as ever. “It’s a gorgeous day here, right at the end of a big heat wave. I’m lovin’ it.”
You will have heard that McCartney is playing in Auckland in December. It’s the first time he’s performed here since 1993, when his New World Tour touched down at Auckland’s Western Springs. What took him so long?
“I’ve been raising children. Once kids get to school age, I can only get out of the country for a week or so at a time, but it needs a lot longer to come down your way.”
Fair enough. But now, finally, he’s on his way, which is a Very Big Deal.
For many music fans, McCartney is a sainted figure: one of a rapidly dwindling old guard of musicians whose music both created and reflected a seismic shift in popular culture during the 1960s and beyond.
How does it feel to be the bloke most would agree is the greatest pop songwriter alive today? To have your songs held in such high regard worldwide? To have soundtracked the lives of a couple of generations of music fans? To have been endlessly copied ever since?
It feels pretty good, he reckons. But the biggest thrill for him isn’t the adulation; just like the early days, he’s still hooked on that charge of excitement that comes when you write a good song.
“A great song has gotta really connect with people, and you often get a feeling as you’re writing it, like ‘Oooh, this is good! You can just tell something’s working, because it’s coming easy and feeling great’. You sometimes just think ‘Oh, yeah!’ and you can’t wait to play it to people.”
Other songs you have to really labour over, he says. And some just arrive in your sleep. “That happened with Yesterday. I woke up one morning and there it was. No words, just the melody. I couldn’t get it out of my head! I kept singing the melody to people, saying- ‘What is this? Have you heard this before?’ No one could identify it, so I knew it was mine. That was kinda magical, really.”
The Beatles only ever played in New Zealand once, in 1964, honouring a contract they’d signed the previous year, before Beatlemania really took off.
They arrived on a mid-winter Sunday following a rapturously received tour of Australia, and felt they’d been delivered direct into Dullsville. George Harrison later described New Zealand as “what England must have been like in the 18th century”.
They did, however, get to catch up with some local whanau. After the Wellington gigs, police escorted John Lennon up to Levin to meet his second cousins, and Ringo Starr (born Starkey) headed off for a cuppa with some Starkeys from Karori.
Eight Days A Week. The Beatles headed home again on June 28th, 1964, having played seven shows in eight days: two each in Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin, and one final gig in Christchurch.
That tour is now considered a pivotal point in our cultural history; a time when a staid, post-war generation of older New Zealanders reacted with alarm to the emergence of a powerful new social force: youth culture.
“Actually, I thought that tour was great,” says McCartney. “New Zealand wasn’t quite what we were used to, that’s true. It seemed a little bit like going back in time. But overall, it was brilliant. 1964 was right near the beginning of things for us, but being British, you already know about New Zealand, about the Maori history and so on. And, of course… you haven’t got a bad rugby team, either.”
And this latest solo tour; what can we expect? A truckload of Lennon/McCartney hits, for one thing. McCartney’s current set-list is notable for the huge number of Beatles’ songs getting an airing alongside his Wings material and solo work.
We can assume there are few complaints from fans. After all, some of these songs are, you know… not bad.
He plays Michelle, Eleanor Rigby, Helter Skelter. Did I mention Blackbird, Let It Be, and Hey Jude? What about Day Tripper, A Day In The Life, and mad, pervy, gravel-rash classic Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
McCartney has even dusted off A Hard Day’s Night and Love Me Do on this tour, the first time a former band member has rattled through those particular pop nuggets live since The Beatles last played them together on stage in California in 1965.
“You know, when The Beatles broke up, I felt that I had to prove myself all over again,” he explains. “I couldn’t be just a sort of Beatles tribute band, so when I started Wings, I didn’t do any Beatles songs at all. But then once Wings had its own stature, I felt I could reintroduce Beatles songs to the show again. And of course, that’s what people want. Some of the best songs I’ve been involved in have been Beatles songs, though a lot of younger people are equally into Wings stuff like Band On The Run.”
McCartney’s been fronting his current touring band – drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, keyboardist “Wix” Wickens – for 15 years now, a lineup that’s lasted longer than either The Beatles or Wings.
His live show runs for three hours. Why does he still maintain such a punishing work schedule? It’s not as if he needs the dosh. Why sit on a plane for days to get to New Zealand when you could be tinkering in your home studio and taking it easy?
“Yeah, you would think that, right? I go out on tour and I think, ‘OK, this is gonna be knackering’ but you get on stage and the audience energises you. I come off the end of a tour feeling better than when I went in. And coming down to New Zealand is really special, because we’re almost like tourists seeing a place for the first time, and the audience have a similar excitement, because we’ve finally shown up after so many years.”
McCartney is also mindful of the fact that many of his songs are deeply meaningful to people. “I’ve been to shows by James Taylor and Brian Wilson where I welled up, you know? I thought ‘S—, people are gonna notice me crying!’ It’s just so fantastic when a song hits something deep inside you, so I understand it when I see people in our audience looking moved. It’s a great thing.”
What’s not so great, he says, is the relentless public scrutiny. Such is McCartney’s significance to our cultural history that his every relationship, public appearance and casual utterance are given a ridiculous amount of attention.
An ocean of ink has been expended printing stories about his rocky relationships with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, ex-wife Heather Mills.
Every piece of his music has been analysed to death, with even his most throwaway lyrics combed for hidden meanings.
“Yeah, that is really crazy. Just the other day I was flicking through a book about Beatles’ lyrics. Bloody hell! It was the most ridiculous thing ever! This guy was writing about Good Day Sunshine, where my lyric says something about the ground burning my feet. And you know what that is, right? It’s when you’re walking somewhere in summer and the pavement or the sand is very hot. That’s all! But the guy’s going into this deep thing about me journeying through fire, and how people in ancient cultures would have to prove themselves by walking across hot coals. It was a hoot! I wanted to ring him up and say, ‘listen mate, save your breath. I just didn’t have my sandals on that day’.”
There is, of course, an orgy of Beatles-related chin-stroking going on right now, with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album having turned 50 this year.
It’s a pearler of a record, no question. But to read some people’s analysis, this is the greatest album in the history of recorded sound, the high-water mark of rock’n’roll, a sacred text, every note and lyric gilded and glorious. He heaves a sigh at this unseemly palaver. “The only good thing about it is that I’ve been reading more about that record myself. One guy was writing about how we mixed multiple pianos together in some song, and I’m thinking ‘Bloody Hell! I forgot we did that! There’s eight pianos, there. not one!’ ”
McCartney will allow that Peppers is “a very cool album”. For the first time in their lives, the band got to spend as much time on a recording as it needed, rather than just squeeze the sessions in between live shows.
“At this point, we’d given up touring. We couldn’t hear ourselves for all the screaming, and the fun had gone out of it, really. So we got into the studio and we had time to experiment and follow through on any little idea, no matter how wacky or wonderful it was. That made it into a very interesting album that influenced a lot of people who came after.”
McCartney’s more recent solo albums seem primarily concerned with memory. Scout camps, school plays, old songs his dad used to play around the house, the songs seem like little audio snapshots from a photo album of his youth, capturing a Liverpool now long gone.
“Yeah, that’s very true. But we were doing that with The Beatles, too, with songs like In My Life, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields. They’re all about me and John, looking back on our youth. Doing it now, people might think I’m looking back so much because I’m getting older, but it’s not true. You look back at all points of your life. Even when you’re only 20, you think about the summer holidays you had when you were a little kid. They’re strong emotional experiences, which is why they’re good things to write songs about.”
Yesterday. All his troubles seemed so far away. But now McCartney is 75, getting down to the pointy end of things. As an old dude looking back over his singular life, any regrets?
“Yeah, actually. You’d have to say the way The Beatles broke up was a bit untidy, a bit ugly. We were such a great little band, it would’ve been nice to just continue on, but the business side really crept in and got a bit sticky. I regret that. If I could have reversed that scenario, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. But otherwise, no regrets, really. You do what you do, and try and make things work out, and have a bit of fun while you’re doin’ it. That’s the story for me, these days.”
For someone who’s been so famous for so long, this particular billionaire vegetarian seems surprisingly charming and self-effacing. But with anyone whose life and work has been explored at length from every angle, it can be difficult to separate the myth from the man.
How would his friends describe him, does he reckon?
“They’d say ‘Paul is one of the best guys you could ever meet. He’s honest. He’s loyal. He’s friendly. He’s funny. He’s a great mate, generally’.”
He forgot devilishly handsome. “Yes, true. Also, devilishly handsome. Or do you want the real version? But yeah, I’m lucky. I’ve got some great mates, and they keep me grounded. One of my big fears in life was gettin’ too full of meself. When you have the sort of success I’ve had, it would be easy to go ‘You know what? I’m dead cool!’ But coming from Liverpool, that’s not the cleverest thing. When I go back up to Liverpool, if there’s any of that, it’s like, ‘Eee, Paul. Whatcha doin’? Now f… off!’. I get pulled back to reality real fast. ”
And with that, the world’s greatest living songwriter stops in his tracks. He gasps. He sighs. He starts muttering under his breath.
“Sorry, mate. I’m gettin’ distracted here. I just got my car washed, then I come back half an hour later, and all these bloody little leaves and pollen are all over it. It needs washin’ all over again!”
Baby, you can wash my car. Why don’t you just take it back through the car wash?
“Nah, I’m just gonna drive home really fast so it all blows off again. I’m gonna drive down to my house in the country right now, and if I get there in time, I might even get a ride on my gee-gee.”
There’s an image for you. Sir Paul McCartney at 75, cantering around the grounds of his Sussex country estate astride some sleek thoroughbred. Please tell me there are no jodhpurs involved.
“Oh, God, no!” he says, sounding horrified. With a fortune of over US$1.2 billion, Macca’s by far the richest musician in the UK, but he still has working class roots.
“Nah, mate. No jodhpurs for me. I’ll be wearing jeans. Jeans, and a cowboy tie.”