Interview for Evening Standard • Thursday, August 26, 1993

The Gospel According to Paul

Press interview • Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Evening Standard
Interview by:
Maureen Cleave
Read interview on Evening Standard
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Someone somewhere on an airwave plays the song Yesterday every 1.8 minutes. As the song takes 2.3 minutes, someone somewhere is listening to Yesterday every minute that God gives. “This stuff will never last,” they used to say in the Sixties, but Yesterday must be part of the music of the spheres by now.

It is odd being in the same room with a man as famous as Paul McCartney, who wrote it – though he was pretty famous the last time I saw him, which was in 1966. “Interesting and complicated,” I wrote, “a terrible tease, an excellent mimic. He has” – warming to my theme -“wicked charm, shrivelling wit and enormous talent. He is self-conscious, nervy, restless and on the go; he will surprise us all in the end.”

And he did – by staying the course, by growing up sound, sensible and uxorious, leading fame by the nose instead of being led. “Ex-Beatle, ballad writer and occasional rocker,” is how he once described himself – which covers everything when you come to think of it. 

We were on a hilltop in Sussex where he has a recording studio, me and several male European journalists in purple and green suits, for he is in the middle of a world tour. They were altering their flights home; he was keeping us waiting, an hour at least. We were patient as with royalty.

I was curious to meet McCartney again, this historical personage who has to get on with everyday life. I’d kept an eye on him through the pages of Club Sandwich, his fan magazine, which featured photographs by his wife, Linda, of Paul in every domestic posture, cleaning his teeth, scratching his ear and, occasionally, bearded and rising up like an Old Testament prophet against billowing clouds. I liked what I read: how they were vegetarian, how they demonstrated against the closure of the local hospital, how they called their daughter Mary (instead of Fifi Trixibelle or Dweezil) and sent their children to local schools. There were never any pictures of the children, apart from the famous one of Mary as a baby nestling against his bare chest under his jacket.

I was the last in. McCartney is 51, with a jaunty step and hardly a line on his face. My eyesight isn’t what it was, but he seemed to lack the preserved look of Cliff Richard or even, nowadays, Jagger. He was very friendly. Some of what he said was slightly off the record, some of it completely off the record. I was the seventh person he had seen in 24 hours, and the way he copes with this is to talk and talk and talk. Some of what he says is more interesting than the rest and it had the happy effect of making me forget any awkward questions such as ‘doesn’t it depress you that people prefer your early songs?’

Did I know, he asked, that John’s Aunt Mimi had died at 80 something? “A great old smoker, Mimi. She used to call me ‘John’s little friend’ and talk nicely to him about me behind my back. He always liked dominating women. The Beatles split up because he had to clear the decks for Yoko. Yoko was very much a person you had to clear the decks for, so he waved his old army buddies goodbye. In the beginning one of the bonds was that our mothers had both died.”

McCartney’s mother was a midwife and she died of cancer when he was 14. “Nobody knew what it was. I haven’t seen many things of my mother’s but there was a letter she wrote in a lovely script on nice Basildon Bond. She’d been to the doctor about her pains and he’d given her a couple of tablets and told her everything would be all right. ‘But I know there’s something wrong,’ she wrote. So it was mis-diagnosed. When she died it was very scary and painful and it made you realise that if you didn’t do something about it, life could get worse. It was the impetus for The Beatles.”

How had he managed to stay on the rails? How did he contrive to be good, clever, happy and . . . I hesitated. “And rich?” he said resignedly. There isn’t a question in the world he hasn’t heard before. “It’s sickening, I know it’s sickening.” He reckoned it was because he’d been well brought up by his father. That was what John had lacked, a father figure, though he had an uncle in Edinburgh who was a dentist, not to say an aunt called Harriet. “John might sing about being a working-class hero but he was nothing of the sort. The rest of us knew nobody called Harriet.” We talked a bit about John. “I did love him,” he said, suddenly, “and I know he loved me.”

Paul, we all thought, would be the first to go solo, the first to rat on the rest. Instead he was devastated when The Beatles broke up. He took to not getting up in the morning, to not shaving, to the bottle, and this was where Linda came in. “Linda was very womanly, the first woman I’d been out with. She expected me to be responsible. She would say, ‘Take Heather back to the apartment and give her her tea.’ (Heather was to be his stepdaughter.) Then one day she said, ‘I could make a nice home for you.’

“The way I see it, you’ve got to be faithful once you get married. I don’t know how else you can play it. I often refer to Linda as my girlfriend on purpose to keep the marriage going. I have friends of my age who are still sowing their wild oats. One rang the other day and said, ‘Let’s go to the Brazilian Grand Prix.’ I said, ‘But I don’t like motor racing,’ and he said, ‘I know, but think of the dusky beauties.’ I said, ‘Look, I’ve done all that. I know the old hormones can pop up any old time but I’ve got it all worked out.'”

He and Linda, rumour tells, have not spent a night apart since the episode of the Tokyo jail. Neither have they adopted upper-class English habits like having nanny bring the children down at teatime.

“I once heard Ringo’s son, Zak, saying ‘hello, Mummy’ to his nanny, so we’ve had no nannies. Linda likes cooking, so we’ve never had a cook.” Ever had a live-in couple? “I did once and the woman was worse than your Aunty Norah in a pink quilted dressing gown and her hair in curlers. I had a chauffeur who wouldn’t let me drive my own car. Ever sat in the back of a Rolls-Royce watching TV? You feel sick. I found that living like that wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“I know people who live in huge houses with wings and they don’t know whether their children are in or out. Our house has five bedrooms. It isn’t easy being Sinatra Junior or Julian Lennon or a young McCartney with all that weirdness so we kept the children with us. We haven’t worried too much about A-levels and we’ve brought them up to have good hearts.

“People used to say to me, ‘You must send your son to Eton – it’s a marvellous education,’ and I said no, no, no. I knew I couldn’t handle it. I’ve had friends who’d been to Eton and they didn’t have great stories about it.”

Heather is a potter, Mary works for her father and tours with him, Stella studies fashion design and James is keen on the guitar and still at school. He goes on tour, too, with a tutor. Stella, he said, had red hair.

“I’m a smoke-screen expert since John got shot. I lie all the time. It’s the price of fame. I used to laugh at that, but there’s a price for everything. We have code names in the family for places we own or like to go to, and you’ll never see photographs of my kids.”

This was true – no photographs of them boarding planes to expensive destinations or being dragged off by police in dawn raids. The limelight is only there when you choose to step into it.

What his life lacked, he knew well, was angst. “Should I try to get a bit more angst? If I’m a target it’s because I’m not dashing enough, not anxious enough, not crazy enough. I even have my wife in the group and embarrassing things like that. Jagger quoted that thing about domesticity being the enemy of art, but I’ve decided I don’t care much about art. I’ve thought about it and I would never have wanted to be John, no – definitely no. Besides, mine’s not a bad life.”

Indeed not.

Girls may scream but the fans who last are the boys and, to loyal fans who have grown up with him, McCartney is a mystery. It is not only the way he treats Hey Jude as a sing-along, or the way he hummed his tunes for the Liverpool Oratorio to Carl Davis who had to write them down, or his double thumbs-up sign, or his habit of saying at the end of a concert, “We’ve all got buses to catch,” when the audience knows he is probably going home in a helicopter. It is his total lack of intellectual curiosity about his own genius and how it works. Why has he never learned to read music? Does he know how he writes a song? A colleague once suggested he sing Martha My Dear in concert. He couldn’t be persuaded to approach the piano. It was as if he had created it and forgotten it.

It turns out he is superstitious about the whole process. “I feel I’m betraying something if I talk about it in ordinary terms. Writing a song is magic and you are lucky to be able to do it. Nobody could ever accuse me of writing a Puccini melody because I have never heard a melody by Puccini. If I think of a melody, it has nothing to do with anybody else.

“Primitive is a word I like very much. Life is a series of ad-libs, having children, being a parent, being a Beatle. I’ve had to work these things out as I went along.”

And so he has taken up painting without any lessons and sailing without ever learning how. “Just the boat, the tiller, the wind and me,” he said, as his assistant came in for the third time in an effort to persuade me to go home.

Had he changed so much? He made me try on a Jimi Hendrix wig which embarrassed the life out of me, so he’s still a tease. He’d done a good imitation of Michael Jackson, who owns the copyright of all the early Beatles stuff, including Yesterday, but the wicked charm and the shrivelling wit, I concluded, he reserved for private occasions. And who would blame him?

I wondered later if Stella really did have red hair and I was jolly nettled to discover that nothing was off the record. He’d taped the lot, including my own indiscretions.


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