Interview for Boston Globe • Sunday, December 3, 2000

The act you've known for all these years: McCartney today

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Boston Globe
Interview by:
Andrew Marton
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Interview

It’s Halloween night and I’m having an out-of-body experience.

I’m a very long way from my apartment in Fort Worth. In fact, I’m 42 floors above the teeming traffic of Manhattan’s Park Avenue at one of those celebrity-packed glitterati events where you’re not supposed to stare at Catherine Zeta-Jones’s raven tresses or notice that Matt Dillon isn’t quite so studly as he appears on-screen. For the record, I’m in the residence of the United States ambassador to the UN, a fly on a very exclusive wall (my sister is married to the ambassador). My hands are trembling, but it has nothing to do with the espresso I’m sipping.

I think it’s because Paul McCartney is 10 inches away from me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that Paul McCartney, the one who some 40 years ago set off with three other “mop tops” from a sooty English port town to orchestrate the past century’s most successful pop-cultural invasion.

Truth be told, in Sir Paul’s company, I’m just not myself. For starters, I do a lot of listening. I’ve also lost track of my jaw, which has dropped because a heroic figure in my utterly anonymous life is actually talking to me.

“I see a piano like that and I can’t resist,” utters McCartney as he ambles over to the embassy’s official baby grand. Suddenly the sight of Paul McCartney approaching an instrument – any instrument – has completely muzzled the din coming from such members of New York’s chattering class as Barbara Walters and Charlie Rose.

Unceremoniously standing in front of the Steinway, McCartney doesn’t crack his knuckles or remove his black silk dinner jacket. He simply leans over the keyboard, laying his slender fingers over the slightly yellowed ivories. He then begins to noodle. But because it’s McCartney tickling the keys, whatever emerges is bound to be something to remind us instantly of our collective youth. Sure enough, it’s “The Long and Winding Road,” jazzed up with some complex chords Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle would envy.

For a split second, under the spell of that amazing melody, I involuntarily begin to murmur, “But still they lead me back, to the long, winding road.” But I stop, petrified that Sir Paul has heard me. He just turns and smiles.

So let me introduce to you to the one and only Billy Shears

Paul McCartney is 58 years old, still has plenty of “mop” left in his “top,” and can mischievously wear tennis shoes with the formalwear required on another evening, this time at the Waldorf-Astoria.

McCartney’s recent trip to New York is part of what is the beginning of the next, fruitful – and surprising – chapter of his already storied life.

McCartney is only now emerging from the deep well of bereavement following the death in 1998 of Linda, his wife of 30 years. He never hesitates to revive her memory in the simplest of ways; he sprinkles “my wife” into conversation as if she’s waiting in the next room. He wears her wedding band next to his.

Yet today, there is another attractive, blond woman in McCartney’s life who has helped him reenter the land of the living. She is Heather Mills, a former fashion model and an automobile-accident victim who had a leg amputated below the knee. Mills has become one of the world’s most vocal advocates for amputees’ rights, and a global crusader for ridding the world of land mines, responsible for maiming around 26,000 people every year.

This evening at the Waldorf-Astoria, the ex-Beatle has answered a private call to arms by lending his billion-watt celebrity to land-mine elimination. Such a high-profile political cause is a great fit for him, as he was always the most diplomatic of the four Beatles. Hardly fitting the stereotype of the reclusive or self-immolating cultural icon, McCartney now presses the flesh of ambassadors, State Department officials, and Hollywood types like Michael Douglas, tossing around land-mine-speak with all the ease of singing “Blackbird.”

“These land mines are the ultimate weapons of cowardice,” McCartney says in pre-coffee remarks, his voice still marinated in that Liverpudlian brogue. “How brave is it to leave the war behind you for the innocent to suffer through the peace? It is cowardly, and I would like to think that brave soldiers would not be part of this.”

Everyone in the room nods in unison.

How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?

Paul McCartney and the Beatles were my heroes. More than 30 years ago, I began playing guitar and piano and writing corny songs, trying vainly to spin just one Beatle-esque melody. I still remember the unalloyed joy of huddling next to the stereo, trying to hit the wistful high notes of “Yesterday” or to reach the guttural defiance of “I’m Down.” What I most wanted to emulate was the Beatles’ insouciant charm and breezy charisma.

Paul McCartney is one hero who does not disappoint. Closing in on 60, he still retains his impish enthusiasm. His charm is not just camera-ready but radiates a candleglow of authenticity.

Spend even a little time with McCartney, and one realizes that it is his complete grounding as a regular guy that puts everyone completely at ease. Somehow, after 40 years of being in the spotlight, McCartney has miraculously remained both engaging and genuine.

“So your sister tells me she once made you a Sgt. Pepper uniform,” McCartney says to me. “Well, you might be interested in knowing that at this one exhibition space in London, I really think they got the color of George’s Pepper outfit all wrong. And the Beatle boots they had were no more Beatle boots than cowboy ones.”

There it was, the McCartney touch – putting me completely at ease by bringing up my Sgt. Pepper uniform, made when I first had a mouthful of braces, in order to talk about some little bit of Beatle trivia that I would find riveting. So well-practiced is McCartney at relaxing an agog stranger that he convinces you that maybe the two of you might pal around together.

Good day, sunshine

On an unusually mild fall day in Manhattan, a small mix of Beatlemaniacs, along with an assortment of photographers and camera crews, huddles together behind steel barricades in front of the Matthew Marks Gallery. This gallery somehow hit the publicity jackpot by landing “Paul McCartney Paintings,” a rare exhibition of McCartney’s latest work as a painter.

With fashionable tardiness, two black limousines pull up to the gallery’s inconspicuous, battleship-gray facade. Out leaps McCartney, snappily clad in a houndstooth coat, a scarf rakishly thrown around his neck.

“Paul, this way,” yells one member of the press corps. “Paul, please, over here,” squeals a Beatles fan who looks old enough to have swooned during the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert. McCartney then goes into a slightly zany Beatle mode, circa “A Hard Day’s Night,” bobbing and weaving on the sidewalk. He then whips out a tiny camera and begins to snap pictures of the photographers taking his picture, turning the tables on the paparazzi.

Since 1982, and to the surprise of even his closest friends, McCartney has produced more than 500 paintings, more than 30 of which are on display at this Chelsea gallery. Using both naively representational and abstract expressionist styles, McCartney has delved into oils with all the relish of his balletic bass guitar work in “Fixing a Hole.”

“I always wanted to paint, but I really felt inhibited because I thought only art-school-trained artists were allowed to paint,” says McCartney, who has also published a collection, “Paul McCartney Paintings,” presenting 80 of his canvases.

But then McCartney, that most confident of musicians, met a painter who would help him get over his easel block. “When I turned 40, I was able to watch Willem de Kooning paint,” McCartney recalls. “I was looking at a painting of what I thought was a purple mountain. Not wanting to ask a dumb question, I still asked, `So Bill, what is it?’ And he replied, `I dunno’ – pause – `looks like a couch, huh?'”

For tomorrow may rain so I’ll follow the sun

That was a “fantastic” moment for McCartney, as de Kooning’s open-minded shrug told the ex-Beatle that it really didn’t matter what the final interpretation of the painting was. It assured him that painting could be a very forgiving endeavor.

Now McCartney, fashionably clad in bohemian black, is touring the installation of his paintings. He gazes at his portrait of the queen. From his line in “Penny Lane” about the banker’s “portrait of the queen” to his brief but droll “Your Majesty,” it is abundantly clear that McCartney sees the queen very much in commoner’s terms.

For this particular take on Queen Elizabeth II, McCartney began with a fairly standard photo of the monarch and covered it in a scrim of dull blue, lending her a kind of hospital waiting-room pallor.

“It’s very tongue-in-cheek,” McCartney says. “That pasty look. This is what I imagined the queen to be like after her first morning cigarette.”

In several works, McCartney is completely engrossed in exploring the spectrum of yellow and brown tints that compose grains of Arizona desert sand or the stretches of beach on Long Island. Stopping in front of “Pintos in the Sky With Desert Poppy,” a work ablaze in desert burnt siennas and ochers, McCartney seems caught in a nostalgic reverie.

“Linda used to just love those pinto horses,” he recalls. “I just love the colors of the desert, those earth tones such as umber and burnt sienna. For my sand paintings, I just wanted to try to get as close to the ground as possible to see just what colors a grain of sand are made of.”

When confronting the canvas titled “John’s Room,” it is very challenging to separate the pure artistic value of the work from the enormous emotional baggage it carries. Of course, the “John” of this portrait is John Lennon – who was an art student in his pre-Beatle days – and McCartney has managed, as brilliantly as he mimicked a ’30s crooner in “Honey Pie,” to replicate the naive style of Lennon’s now-classic minicharacter drawings.

“I often think of John when I look at this one,” McCartney says, gazing off dreamily. “John used to always do those funny little men, you know? And I would often sketch John when we worked together, often without him knowing it. It was so easy doing John because he had glasses, those sideboards – what you call sideburns – and that long, aquiline nose.”

The painting’s genesis came “really when an accident happened on the canvas and, suddenly, I began to see John’s face in the work emerge, especially that familiar nose of his – it was a good chance,” recalls McCartney. “It was a really light moment because I was not intending to do John, but his form emerged from what I was scratching out.”

At one point during the evening at the Waldorf-Astoria, McCartney answers a random question with, “No, I always felt much closer to John.” Out of the mouth of anyone else, “John” is just a name, a mere monosyllable. But when the name is uttered by McCartney, the ghostlike presence of John Lennon suddenly descends on the evening. Lennon’s name, so simply invoked by McCartney, takes on the power of a talisman, conjuring up an entire shared cultural scrapbook of images defining musical collaboration and the purest of camaraderie. McCartney owns the pronunciation of “John” the way Katharine Hepburn made “Spensah” Tracy her own.

McCartney also owns a personal history that a whole generation lays claim to. “It was incredibly illuminating, learning so much about the early lives of Ringo, George, and especially John,” says McCartney when he muses on his part in assembling the recently published “The Beatles Anthology,” the best-selling oral history of the group.

In a recent television interview, McCartney revisited an intensely private memory. He recalled that in a rare quiet moment during the filming of the movie “Help!”, he and Lennon were listening to a cassette recording of McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere.” McCartney related how Lennon blurted out how he liked that song and other McCartney compositions on what would become “Revolver” more than his own. “For such a proud man to say that – well, that was just very cool,” McCartney said in the interview.

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make

As McCartney strolls through his exhibit, he all but brims with vitality. On the music front, he’s got at least another CD of rock tunes percolating inside him, while he’s also polishing up a choral piece composed for Oxford University. And he’s looking to publish a book of poetry combining a hybrid of prose and song lyrics.

“Yes, it is a very good and interesting time in my life,” McCartney says. “The critics might say I’m trying too much to be a Renaissance man, but I’m just following my passions and I don’t think about it. I mean, after the tragedy of Linda, I really did wonder about life afterwards, but now I have more of a light feeling than ever before. And this art has just been very liberating for me, giving me a free license. When I go back to my music, I feel really refreshed.

“It’s really almost a new beginning,” he adds. “I feel as if I can try anything, and I’m not locked into one thing.”

When he penned “When I’m 64,” McCartney painted a picture of a man “losing my hair, many years from now.” Well, even though those “many years” to age 64 have now dwindled to six, they don’t seem to be catching up to him.

“It’s coming up,” says McCartney, smiling. “But when I make it, I’m sure there will be plenty of birthday greetings and a bottle of wine.”

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