- Published by:
- The Guardian
- Interview by:
- John Harris
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In a revealing interview, Paul McCartney tells John Harris about his fight with Yoko Ono, the British press and what really happened at his daughter’s wedding.
Prague’s T-Mobile Park is a grim place: a scrappy rectangle of land 20 minutes’ drive from the city centre, surrounded by the rusting remains of communist-era industry. Today, it is also spread with a layer of sticky mud, and rendered yet more unpleasant by the imminent prospect of rain.
Some people, however, have managed to erect their own small bit of sunshine. Pressed up against a security barrier is a fantastically excited middle-aged Russian man, dressed in the international uniform of those who have been hopelessly afflicted by rock music (black drainpipe jeans, Converse trainers, threadbare tour T-shirt), and accompanied by the obligatory embarrassed female partner.
“Paul! You are de best!” he yelps. “You still are de best! From Russia with love! You are de greatest!”
Up on stage, Paul McCartney – in Prague as part of a 12-date European tour – is leading his band through a soundcheck that takes in an apparently random array of music. He plays Coming Up, a 1980 solo single released six months before John Lennon’s death, and rather grudgingly described by McCartney’s one-time songwriting partner as “a good piece of work”. He goes on to Honey Don’t and Matchbox, 1950s rockabilly covers perfected during the Beatles’ brain-pounding trips to Hamburg, whose recorded versions were sung by Ringo Starr. And he ends with a song from Abbey Road.
Written as the Beatles’ internal bond was ripped apart by the entry into their lives of the impresario Allen Klein, it still sounds wonderfully crestfallen. “You never give me your money,” he sings, “you only give me your funny paper/ And in the middle of negotiations/ You break down.” It’s a compelling sound: proof that a great song is something you can momentarily live in, a place populated by all kinds of ghosts.
The show that follows five hours later only proves the point. When McCartney sings She’s a Woman and I Saw Her Standing There, the vast screens on either side of the stage are filled with the image of the moptop-era Beatles, sprinting from yet another fan ambush, or obediently mugging for the camera. A rendition of Band on the Run is accompanied by film of Wings, the post-Beatles enterprise that briefly gripped the 1970s mainstream just before the arrival of punk.
At the show’s end, by contrast, McCartney stands at the lip of the stage alone. This is a relatively new thing for him: the Beatles took their famously low bows as an unbreakable quartet; with Wings and beyond, he was always accompanied by his first wife, Linda. It also represents a final reminder of the contrasting fates of McCartney and his two most celebrated colleagues – for while John Lennon and George Harrison have been divested of any imperfections and installed in that part of the hereafter reserved for musicians who somehow come close to being saints, Paul McCartney must still go about his labours in the world.
This, of course, brings forth all kinds of malign consequences. For every virtue posthumously attached to Lennon, McCartney’s detractors can come up with a corresponding vice. John luxuriated in his genius; Paul is hideously unsure of himself. John sailed out to avant-garde extremes; Paul is a sugary balladeer. John was always dismissive of Beatles’ nostalgia; Paul clings to it like a security blanket.
Precious little of this stuff adds up, of course: listen to a Lennon song as saccharine as Woman or as paranoid as his anti-Paul tirade How Do You Sleep? and you soon understand that the Beatles’ famous belief that they were somehow “four sides of the same person” meant that their abiding characteristics were shared rather than split. Some of this stuff has coloured the more negative perceptions of McCartney, as he well knows. Unlike Lennon’s work, the sentiments of his songs have usually been founded in magnanimity and generosity of spirit, but it’s perhaps telling that on four occasions during our interview, his descriptions of his place in the public mind include the word “bastard”.
He traces much of this not to Lennon’s death in 1980, but to December 1970 – when, desperate to extricate himself from Allen Klein, he took the last resort of legal action against John, George and Ringo.
“The fact that I had to sue the Beatles was something that was very, very difficult, ‘cos I could see what that would do in terms of perception of me,” he says. “People could quite easily say, ‘You know what? I’d never do that, no matter if it meant losing everything. He’s a hard-hearted bastard. And a mean bastard. And a money-grabbing bastard.’
“And doing well didn’t help. We’d tried to get Apple going, and in the short term it had failed spectacularly. And I started doing my own business, and it started to do quite well. That’s what happened, and it resulted in that split: ‘John’s really cool, and Paul isn’t.’ “
His recent cuttings files have taken in two splurges of coverage that only heightened the sense of smouldering hostility. First came the enmity that accompanied his marriage to Heather Mills, later manifested in dissections of both her alleged tendency to embroider her personal history and rumoured spats with McCartney’s children. Meanwhile, 2002 saw a splurge of coverage around McCartney’s crediting of 19 songs on a live album to “Paul McCartney and John Lennon”, in brazen contravention of the supposedly unimpeachable Lennon-McCartney brand-name. The latter brought forth a threat of legal action from Yoko Ono, and criticism even from Ringo Starr.
“It snowballed,” he admits. “People were phoning me up saying, ‘You’re doing yourself no favours with this, you know’. I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Well, you know, you want to knock John’s name out. He’s dead. It’s terrible: you’re walking on a dead man’s grave.’ I was like, ‘Get the f— out of here.’ “
McCartney is keen to call time on the affair and surprisingly willing to flesh out his feelings. He traces the controversy back to the publication of the Beatles’ Anthology book in 2000, and Yoko Ono’s refusal to allow Yesterday to be credited to anyone other than “John Lennon and Paul McCartney”. Contrary to more outraged portrayals of his motivations, he is perfectly happy with the time-honoured Lennon-McCartney credit; but when the two are named in full in the Ono-endorsed order, he still feels a familiar twinge of irritation.
To anyone who knows even the most basic facts about the pair’s partnership (i.e. the one who sang lead vocals had always written most of the song and, if it dates from 1967 or later, all of it), this might seem to border on the neurotic.
“What happened recently,” McCartney continues, “was that my lyric to Blackbird was published in a poetry anthology as something written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And John had nothing to do with that lyric. I think he would actually be my great supporter in this, but unfortunately he’s not here to tell us. So it’s become a public thing and I look like this total bastard trying to screw John over. Which I’m not. But now (comically raising voice) I don’t care! I don’t want it! I wouldn’t have it if you paid me!”
The animosity hurled towards his second wife, Heather Mills, however, still rankles.
“I rang one or two of those journalists up, out of the blue. They’d just done sustained ‘I hate Heather’ stuff. It was a couple of lady columnists . . . I’d rather not give them the fame. I just said, ‘I’ve been trying to ignore this, and somebody just gave me a bunch of press cuttings, and I’ve just looked through them all, and you said that. Well, that’s actually wrong.’
“It was just nonsense: stories that Heather and I went to bed early at Stella’s wedding. Well, we couldn’t possibly have done: we were sleeping above the karaoke. I just rang them up and said, ‘We actually didn’t. You ask anyone who was there.’ And they said, ‘Well, someone who was there said you went to bed early.’ I said, ‘Well, they must have been pissed or something – ‘cos we were up till dawn, in the disco, and I was on the karaoke.’
“And I went down the list. I took a little time. Another thing was ‘Heather’s too old to wear above-the-knee boots’. I said, ‘Do you actually know why that is? She’s an amputee, love. That’s why she wears those boots.’ “
I share McCartney’s company in his dressing room, a windowless box festooned with scarves and cushions, perfumed with the scent from an incense burner (but not any marijuana – he has, he confirms, given up). He is, naturally enough, a little shorter than you might imagine. His hair, the grey that took hold during the 1980s and 1990s long since dyed an autumnal brown, somehow looks both luxuriant and slightly fragile. And if his features have recently seemed to take on a new youthfulness, his is still a face etched with experience, slowly hardening into the same benignly owlish countenance you see in photographs of his long-departed father, Jim.
His next appointment is with a Czech linguist, employed to teach him 20 or so phrases, so that he can break with the usual arrogant rock practice of yelping “Hello Prague!” and assuming that most of the audience are conversant in English.
If McCartney is quite the European, this phase of his progress – which began with the release in November 2001 of the album Driving Rain – has also seen him reinstated at the heart of America’s musical mainstream. He became all but ubiquitous in the wake of the September 11 attacks, appearing alongside the Who, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John et al at the fund-raising Concert for New York, and authoring the event’s musical finale: a march-time anthem titled Freedom. Back then, it sounded like a rather platitudinous example of the fact that McCartney has always been happy with his role as one of the western world’s favoured cheerleaders, perhaps lent an unwitting irony by the passage of President Bush’s rights-curtailing Patriot Act. “This is my right, a right given by God,” it went. “I will fight, for the right/To live in freedom.”
“After 9/11,” he says, “I felt there had to be some sort of response. Some people were just saying, ‘No, no – peace at all costs. Nothing must happen.’ And my argument was, ‘But peace is not what we’re talking about. Two very big buildings have been taken out, in a place that’s never had that kind of an attack before, with an unseen enemy.’ I felt for the Americans, because I was there, living with them. Something had to be done.”
In the context of the Iraq war, though, those kind of sentiments have taken on a new kind of ugliness. “Exactly,” he says. “It becomes a licence to torture, and that’s not what that song’s about. It’s really a We Shall Overcome thing. And at that time, playing it in America was helpful, healing, for some Americans. Now it’s all got completely ugly – the whole Iraq thing.”
So Freedom is not being played on this tour? “No, it’s not. It’s more ambiguous now. It probably has become identified with the war effort. And I think that’s a bad thing.”
We talk about the songs that have made their way into his set-list, and their habit of sparking the odd Proustian rush. When he plays the age-old Beatles song I’ll Follow the Sun, he says, he finds himself back in his father’s house in Liverpool, “looking out through the lace curtains”. She’s a Woman, from 1964, takes him back to his salad days at Abbey Road, “smoking Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, with a smart black jacket and a white shirt”.
And then there is Here Today, the song he wrote after Lennon’s death. “At least once a tour, that song just gets me,” he says. “I’m singing it, and I think I’m OK, and I suddenly realise it’s very emotional, and John was a great mate and a very important man in my life, and I miss him, you know?”
Three hours later, McCartney and his band are joyously tumbling through Got to Get You Into My Life and Live and Let Die, and Penny Lane and Drive My Car. It’s all triumphant stuff, but it’s also suffused with a striking sense of McCartney as the put-upon underdog, sloughing off the more burdensome aspects of the Beatles’ myth and just about achieving a momentary sense of closure. “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight,” he sang. “Carry that weight a long time.”