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- Radio Times
- Timeline More from year 2001
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It’s 30 years since the ex-Beatle formed Wings with his late wife. Here he recalls those fledgling days, and has a lot to say, say say about his children, losing Linda and life with new love Heather.
“I’m oversensitive but it’s my life and I’ll do what I want”
He wants to put the record straight about several matters – his girlfriend Heather Mills and his childrens’ reaction to her, his wealth, Yoko Ono, Wings which he formed with his late wife Linda, the perception that he tries to do too many things – and as we sit in his New York office he exudes shrewd charm and still-boyish grins that conceal vanity (a voluptuous head of dyed hair, not balding as envisaged in When I’m Sixty Four, an age he’ll reach in five years), control freakery, and insecurities you wouldn’t expect in a man whose haunting melodies have provided pleasure and inspiration to millions over four decades. “If I was a cynical London pundit or a smart-arsed 18-year-old I could look at myself and think, ‘God, what’s ‘e doing now?’ I’m putting myself more than ever on the line, but it’s better than keeping my head down, hiding in a bunker, and saying, ‘I was part of one of the greatest groups ever. End of story.'”
Instead he worries about being mocked as “Renaissance man” by the envious, and with some justification. In the past few years he’s composed a 75-minute symphonic oratorio, Standing Stone, published a book of his paintings, a mammoth authorised biography, and a slim tome of poems, Blackbird Singing, which I listened to him reading the previous evening at a meeting hall, the 92nd Street Y, in front of an adoring audience who gave him a standing ovation before he’d even opened his mouth and whose flashbulbs, in spite of a ban on cameras, winked incessantly at his image on a TV screen in an overflow auditorium.
“It would be safer and wiser not to publish my poems, but I have a passion for challenges, so when Linda and [the poet] Adrian Mitchell suggested I should, it was hard to say ‘No’. Critics will be sniffy whatever I do – I can almost hear them sharpening their pencils. My solution is not to read them, even good ones. They might say ‘He’s marvellous….but,’ and that’s a dagger I don’t need. No one says, ‘Another bad review – great!’ Most critics aren’t brilliant people, or they’d actually be working at their passion. I say, ‘OK, you do better.’ But I don’t want to give them too much importance. We’re only talking five per cent of my life, and everyone has little hurtful corners. I have quite a good time and am a lucky person.”
I mention that one of his poems, Black Jacket – including the lines “Tears are not tears/they’re balls/of laughter/dipped in salt” – recently appeared in Private Eye’s “Pseuds’ Corner.” He remains jovial, but his eyes betray anxiety and words stumble as he contradicts himself. “My God. Bastards. Private Eye isn’t supposed to turn on me. I’m their friend. That’s the last donation I give them. It slightly bothers me. No, not really. But Pseuds’ Corner is where I hoped never to be. I’ll defend the poem over anything those little…..” His voice tails off. “I’m visibly peeved. Let’s talk about other stuff.” The next day I’m asked “as a favour” not to mention Pseuds’ Corner.
A few years ago he told me he tries to please too much. Surely he’s mellowed with continued adoration? “I suppose I’m oversensitive, unfortunately. Anyone else would say to you, ‘No I’m not,’ but it’s been a life-long policy since I left school to be painfully honest. And that can be dangerous. I look at my life and think, ‘You could be cooler,’ but there’s a line in Hey Jude about being cool – and making your world a bit colder. I know exactly what I’m getting into and I’m glad the fear of criticism doesn’t stop me. It’s my life and I’ll do what I want. Those who appreciate me far outweigh those who don’t.”
Some months after the Beatles gave an unexpected rooftop show at their London office in January 1969, the band split in acrimony, with Paul wanting his father-in-law to manage them and the others insisting on New Yorker Allen Klein. He decided to continue with music and a new group Wings – the name came to him when his daughter Stella was born and he was thinking of angels – was conceived at a fancy-dress ball hosted by him and Linda at the Empire Ballroom in November 1971. The band lasted ten years, splitting in April 1981, some months after he was arrested at Tokyo airport with 8 oz of marijuana. He spent nine days in jail, facing the prospect of seven years’ hard labour, before being deported.
The idea for Wingspan (a retrospective TV film and a double CD of greatest hits), originated on Paul and Linda’s 28th wedding anniversary when Alistair Donald, who’s married to their daughter Mary, compiled a film of those years. They decided to make a longer version, with questions asked by Mary. So it’s a glorified home movie? “Not at all. It’s the story of our struggle to follow the Beatles, a virtually impossible thing. It’s also a tribute to Linda. You just have to look and you realise she’s a pretty cool chick, one hell of a strong woman.Anyone who thinks differently should try to do better in the world, and I doubt they’d be able to.
“It would have been logical to stay at the level of the Beatles by forming a supergroup and telling Linda to come on tour, bring the kids, watch me, take photos. But I fancied having my best mate on stage and she liked the idea of being in a band. I’d escaped that high-plateau life and was buying my own Christmas tree, walking instead of travelling in limos, and we realised that all bands, including the Beatles, start as a bunch of friends who live near each other and don’t know how to play. They grow organically and become strong by struggling together. People asked why I had my old lady up there, and I’d reply, ‘Because I wannoo. What business is it of yours?’ We hung in against all adversity, particulatly Linda.”
Etched in memory is her playing a tambourine as if at the vicar’s tea party. “Yeah, people laughed at that, but, hey, if you play tambourine that’s what you do. She played the keyboard parts to Live and Let Die, and anyone who wishes to do that has my blessing because it’s damned hard. We made our mistakes in public and were easy targets, but we proved ourselves.” That is undeniable; 17 of their singles sold more than one million copes worldwide.
They travelled in a van with dogs and children (Heather, Linda’s daughter by an earlier marriage who he adopted and is now 37, Mary 30, Stella, 29, and James, 23), playing anywhere there was a university, beginning in Nottingham in February 1972, at lunch time in the student union hall for 50p entrance.
“I look back and think we were ‘crazy,’ which equals stupid or crazy which equals ‘cool’ – the interpretation I prefer. Psychologically it was like going on a suicide mission. We didn’t even have hotels booked. We’d show up at places and they’d say sorry there’s a conference in town, so we stayed in some quite seedy joints. People said we shouldn’t drag the kids with us, but they saw a lot of the world, and had tutors. We never felt in a race to prove ourselves the best parents, or best musicians, on the planet. We only wanted them to have good hearts, and the evidence is there to show we were OK. It was an intimate experience for Linda and me – us against the world.”
It must have been cushioned by his millions. “No. When we started I had nothing and coudn’t get money for the first two years because it was frozen by lawsuits. We lived off Linda’s savings in the Chemical Bank. It was a source of great pride to both of us that she could say she kept me for a couple of years because there was a danger I’d dominate the situation and I’m not out to do that, particularly in a marriage. There were moments we wondered why we were doing it, but there’s a perseverence gene in me and if I’d given up after the Beatles I wouldn’t have written Maybe I’m Amazed or My Love, and I’m glad I did.”
He wanted My Love, written for Linda, to be the best love song ever, and I wonder how he compares it to some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soulful compositions. He laughs. “Far superior to anything of his. Sorry. I love him, and he’s a pretty good songwriter, but….”
Lloyd Webber is also much less wealthy if The Sunday Times’s Rich List is to be believed – £420 million to McCartney’s £713 million. “I’m sure they make all that up,” he says. “Let me remind your readers, if no one else, that it’s not true. I don’t even know how much I’m worth, and I’m not sure my bunch of accountants know either. But I’m very well off, which is great beause as a working class lad from Liverpool that was my intention. I’d expect Mick Jagger, who went to the LSE, to be the most informed rock person about money and he’s not [£150 million, allegedly]. He sold the publishing rights to all his songs before he released any records. I supposed he never believed Satisfaction and Honky Tonk Women were great songs. I knew they were, and there’s no way you’d have persuaded me to sell those rights.”
Nevertheless, he lost his anyway in 1985 when – in a transaction that is still a source of irritation – Michael Jackson bought the Lennon/McCartney songs for $550 million. It was not the first time he lost out in the delicate world of copyright. “John and I were 20 when we signed our first agreement in a dark flat in a Liverpool mews which still applies to this day. And many bosses later – most recently Michael Jackson and Sony -we still haven’t had a raise.
“Luckily I’ve done so well I don’t feel bitter, but it’s pretty terrible and wrong. They should recognise our success and alter the deal. At one point Yoko earned more from Yesterday than I did. It doesn’t compute, especially when it’s the only song that none of the Beatles had anything to do with. I asked as a favour if I could have my name before John’s on the Anthology credits for Yesterday, and Yoko refused. I could question her but I’m a civil person and life isn’t long enough. I’d prefer to walk in the park, have fun. I still talk regularly to Ringo and George – I love them till death us do part. We had our fights, but even married couples argue, I do believe.”
With Linda he says their arguments were often caused by his own insecurity. “People might be surpried to find I’m insecure. I could say, ‘Hey, are you kidding? With my talent, and money?’, but I’m being honest. Everyone I know is insecure in some way or other whether it’s about their shape, finance, talent, marriage.”
Maybe he worries about death? “When the man in the sky wants me, he’ll take me. I could drop dead right now of a heart attack, and I’d think, ‘Well, it’s time.’ I don’t look forward to death, but it has to come, so there’s no point fearing it. As a little kid I said I’d live to 100. Now I wonder if I really want to. My insecurities are more in the area of being found out – well, not quite. I feel pretty good about my songwriting because, like it or not, I’ve achieved a hell of a lot, although I’m not satisfied I’ve done my best.”
He writes very quickly. A few days previously he’d been to Washington to meet secretary of state Colin Powell in connection with Heather Mills’s charity, Adopt A Minefield. “After a high-profile meeting Heather and I took the train to New York, left the scales of city life behind, just the two of us with no security, got off a Penn Station, grabbed a cab to our apartment, and wrote a song within half an hour – ‘Took the train from Washington, up to New York City, passed the town of Baltimore….'”
Linda died aged 56 in 1988 after a two-and-a-half year battle with breast cancer. “I don’t think I’ve changed a lot since then, I learnt all my lessons about life with her. I’ve been through a period of mourning which is more severe than anything I’ve known. I lost my mum [also from breast cancer] at 14, but I was a Liverpool boy and didn’t allow myself to grieve because you didn’t. Now I’m more liberated, in part due to Linda’s influence.
“After about a year I found myself coming out of a tunnel and began to look at the world again. There was an adjustment to being a single person, which was weird and disturbing because whenever I met an attractive woman with Linda – both of us were faithful – I felt I was meeting a person, not a bird or an object of desire. I’d think, ‘She’s really attractive….but I have someone really attractive who’s my soulmate.’ I didn’t want to mess around, and it would have been more than my life’s worth anyway.
“Then I became a single parent, and after 15 months I started to look at women again as objects of desire. It was a big adjustment, enjoyable but difficult, the same as when you’re a young guy and go, ‘Cor!’ There’s trepidation, fear of rejection, in a game I’d been free of for 30 years. I talked it over with the kids, asked if they’d be comfortable, and they said, ‘Yeah, it’s got to happen. We want you to be happy,’ and we decided Linda would too.”
He met Heather Mills at an awards ceremony and in October last year publicly declared his love for her on TV. She’s 33, a former model whose left leg was amputated below the knee after she was hit by a police motorcycle eight years ago. She has entered a close family unit. James is a musician, and Stella a successful fashion designer – “a very bitchy world,” he says. “Much tougher than the music business, but she’s a canny lass who studied for years, was at two colleges, worked with a lot of designers since she was 16 and is very good.”
There have been Sapphic rumours in the press about Stella, peddled with sanctimonious prurience, and last month suggestions of dissension between his children and Heather. “That’s been played up too much. My kids are great, very supportive to us. They like Heather, and it’s getting better all the time, as the song says.
“The British press are the naughtiest in the world. They’ve brought our standards down. The other thing they made up, which is a source of embarrassment, is that we’re getting married in June.” But her father Mark, a year older than Paul, gave an interview saying how pleased he was. “He’s had five strokes and can barely talk, so they say to him, ‘Are you happy Paul and Heather are marrying?’ and when he nods they write a whole lot. People stop me in the street – ‘Congratulations on your impending nuptials.’ I’m an optimist,” he adds. “Life goes on, and I look forward to just enjoying myself. Marriage may happen – if things continue to go well.”