Interview for Newsweek • Sunday, September 15, 2002

Rocking Russia

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Newsweek
Interview by:
Jonathan Alter
Read interview on Newsweek
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Interview

This Thursday, the A & E Network will air “Paul McCartney in Red Square,” a 90-minute concert film covering McCartney’s first-ever visit to Russia last May. The documentary explores the role that Beatles’ music played in helping to erode communism and includes interviews with President Vladimir Putin, former President Mikhail Gorbachev and many Russians whose lives were changed by the band.

NOW 61, SIR Paul is enjoying something of a renaissance. His latest tour drew 500,000 outside the Colosseum in Rome and grossed $126 million worldwide, the biggest since the Beatles. In November, McCartney will release a cleaned-up version of “Let It Be” called “Let It Be Naked.” 

NEWSWEEK’s Jonathan Alter interviewed McCartney on September 12 in a London studio where he is completing work on a new album, his 20th since the Beatles broke up in 1970.

Why do you think the tour was so big?

Paul McCartney: For some, nostalgia. These are songs you can sing to. The kids don’t care when they were recorded. To them, all of the psychedelic clothing is the future, not the past. And there’s something appealing about it in the same way I love Fred Astaire. It’s classic, and structured very well. It’s the same for kids and the Beatles. There’s just something there that’s timeless.

Did you know during the 1960s that you had this great appeal in Russia?

We heard about it. When we heard that it was blue jeans and the Beatles that they smuggled in, we loved that….It was strong, liberating music that we delighted in, and they got that. How did Elvis reach me? It was this delight—it wasn’t an intellectual thing.

Why was this the first time you went there?

There were always rumors that we could do a concert in Red Square, but it always fell through. The timing wasn’t right or the regime wasn’t ready…When I went [in May], the one question they wanted me to answer over and over was: Did you come in the ‘60s and give a concert at the airport? The burning rumor was that we had played a show [that had been kept from them.] We didn’t.

Why do you think the Beatles had such an effect on Russians trying to resist the strength of the Soviet government?

I’m not sure but maybe when someone comes up with an idea that’s a little looser, that’s powerful. They [the Russian people] are thinking, ‘If only….if only’ and that starts to spread. Under any of these tough regimes, they’re cowering. But in their own rooms, no one can control them and they’re saying, ‘This is a real pisser! Don’t you hate this?’ You can’t stop them saying that. It’s like with a lot of big-headed stars. The star’s going, [big gruff authoritarian voice] ‘If you don’t do that, I’m gonna kill you.’ And he walks out of the room and all the grips and people who do the work for him say, ‘What a tosser [jerk.]’ You can’t stop that. You can stop just about anything else, but there is a certain grassroots thing that stays.

They kept sepia-tinted pictures of you in Russia almost as icons, like you were dead. That gives me an excuse to ask you about the whole ‘Paul is dead’ thing.

Am I dead? It was a warm day [when the Beatles shot the Abbey Road cover in 1969]. I had on sandals. We went to the photo shoot, kicked them off—took a couple of shots. An American DJ picked up the story that being barefoot was a mafia sign of being dead. There was a Volkswagen beetle car with the license ‘28IF’ [which conspiracy theorists saw as a sign that McCartney wouldn’t reach age 28.]’ Now that’s kind of a tenuous thing, but they stretched that and that car has sold for a lot of money. So it’s madness, really. I knew I wasn’t dead, but I knew everyone else thought I was. So people were looking at me as if I wasn’t me.

In the film, some of the Russians put you in the canon, comparing you to Tchaikovsky.

That’s a bit scary. I’m very proud of my achievements but I don’t think of myself like that. People say I can’t go to the cinema [undisturbed]. And I say, ‘you wanna bet?’ I go to the shops every morning—get my fruit and bagels at the supermarket. I’m still this guy who does all these ordinary things. So when people lionize me a little bit—or a lotta bit like the Russians, it makes me think, ‘God, you are that guy!’ Stella [his daughter] had never seen much television when she was a little kid and we were living in Scotland and she was watching and turned to me and said, ‘Daddy, are you Paul McCartney?’ There’s a lot of that for me, too. I try to liken it [all of the adulation] to getting an honorary degree or something, not so uncommon for lots of other people. It is great, though, so I never get too freaked out.

Your legacy is so secure. Why the fight [with Yoko Ono over reversing the credits from “by John Lennon and Paul McCartney” to “by Paul McCartney and John Lennon”]? Why would you care about the credit?

Why do I care? I dunno. I’m human. I’ve given up — I’m not going to bother with it. It’s very unseemly for me to care because John’s not here and it’s like walking on a dead man’s grave. I was talking about him as if he were here and he’s not, which is very unseemly…. [It started when] I asked for a favor. I had just performed “Yesterday…”

This was originally about ‘Yesterday’ [which McCartney composed and sang alone]? That didn’t come through [in the coverage.]

No, it never comes through, and that’s why I’m backing off. [Echoing the critics] “Oh, there he goes again! Jesus Christ, isn’t he happy with what he’s got?” And I got a lot of mail—”Don’t go there.” So I am dropping it and I will not ask for it ever again. It’s like Gilbert and Sulllivan — they both get enough credit.

Do you think if John Lennon hadn’t been killed [in 1980] that — like a lot of bands that broke up and got back together much later—the Beatles would have reunited?

I think we might have. The dust would have settled. We [he and Lennon] were talking a lot more just before [his death], about his new son and all kinds of other things. But we’ll never know, will we?

What do you think of George W. Bush?

There’s a certain disenchantment from what I see, particularly with young people. But he did a good job post-9/11. I was there [in the United States]. I can remember the week after, some American saying, “And we’ve got this banana-head as president.” And I said, “Stop right there. You’ve got a president. Right now, don’t do that, don’t go there. He’s on our side. We love him. He’s going to lead us.” I wonder if we’re past that now. I do see funny signs like you’d see in the ‘60s: “Screw Nixon.” Now I’m seeing similar things about Bush. 

What do you think of hip-hop?

Some of it I like and some of it I don’t. I like Eminem and found [his film] “8 Mile” quite interesting. It’s a little out of date, but one of my kids introduced me to [rap group] Cypress Hill. [Overall], like any parent, I’m not keen on the ‘slapping bitches’ aspect of it. But my kids tell me it’s just swearing. Parents never get it, which is part of the whole thing. My father’s father once called Sinatra’s music ‘tin can’ music.

Is there anyone you haven’t teamed up with yet that you would like to?

I can’t think of anyone. Nelson Mandela, maybe?

Last updated on September 13, 2019

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