Interview for Newhouse News Service • Sunday, December 9, 2007

McCartney on McCartney

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
Newhouse News Service
Interview by:
Kevin O'Hare
Timeline More from year 2007

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Since the early 1960s, there’s barely been a week when Paul McCartney hasn’t been in the news. First with his mates John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in The Beatles, then onto working with his wife Linda and others in Wings, as well as proceeding with a prolific and extremely successful solo career. Recently, though, he’s been in the news more for his tabloid-topping, turbulent divorce negotiations with his second wife (Linda passed away in 1998), Heather Mills, than for his music. That’s very foreign territory for McCartney, but he’s still progressing with numerous musical projects. The songwriter recently released a three-disc DVD (“The McCartney Years”) chronicling his post-Beatles career, as well as an expanded deluxe edition of his critically acclaimed 2007 album “Memory Almost Full.” He’s working on the release of a classical DVD. He played a handful of small-scale shows earlier this year, including two in the U.S., and is hoping to mount a full scale tour once the divorce is finalized. He recently spoke – at length – from England about his amazing life and times. “It’s sort of a rainy evening here in London,” McCartney said over the phone. “It’s cool, though, things are starting to get a bit Christmas-y – it’s nice.” And so it went, as rock’s leading Renaissance man reflected on the good times and the tough times and everything in between. As you can read, at 65, the guy once dubbed “The cute Beatle” has got far too much on his plate to even consider slowing down:

Q: It’s obviously been a tough year for you in a lot of ways. How are you getting through it all?

A: I’m doing quite well, y’know, surprisingly well, really. I think it’s mainly because of my music. I think music is a great help in difficult situations. I love music. Music is a place to kind of escape to in many ways and that’s one of the great things about it. It also is a healer. So I’m doing pretty good.

Q: Looking back on the 40 music videos in your new DVD “The McCartney Years” must have brought back a lot of memories. Was it a major nostalgia trip for you?

A: Yeah, it was. It was one of those things I put off for years ’cause when is the right time to release a collection like that? It was suggested to me by the guys who put it together, Dick Carruthers and Ray Still – who were the main people behind it and did most of the work they said, “We’ll put it all together for you, we’ll clean it all up, we’ll clean the pictures up, clean the sound up, it’s gonna look beautiful. All we want for you is to enjoy it and approve it.” So I would go in and see them every so often and, I was like, “Wow, I haven’t seen that thing in years. Ooh, look at that.” Obviously, the main nostalgia thing was Linda, really, ’cause she plays such a big part in it. But it was lovely; it’s like looking at your family scrapbook.

Q: The film “Heart of the Country” really focuses on your life with Linda shortly after The Beatles’ breakup. It has the intimacy of a home movie. Is that one especially difficult for you to watch?

A: Yeah. The truth is really that anything with Linda in it is kind of difficult for me to watch because of losing her. So I don’t think that’s any more difficult than anything. The whole period was great. Like I say, all of that is difficult, but at the same time, this is what happens in life. And we have to rationalize that fact, that we lose people. Y’know, I lost my mom and dad, I lost my mom when I was young. And even though it’s really sad, I think you have to – I certainly do – look to the good times. Even though there’s sort of a tinge of sadness running throughout any of the pieces with Linda in it, there’s also a great feeling of, “Wow, God, what a good time we had.” That’s really what outweighs everything in the end for me.

Q: Watching it all, were there any songs that you had sort of forgotten about and felt like – “Hey, we should play that one live again”?

A: There were a few like that, actually. There was one, “Pipes of Peace,” I don’t really consider performing that. There’s some sort of some good stuff there. I think “Put It There” is kind of interesting to suddenly see out of nowhere. “Take it Away,” that’s another quite a sort of funky little music video, that.

Q: You’d have to get (producer) George Martin back on piano, though, for that (“Take it Away”).

A: That’s amazing. Whoa. You kind of forget. You do it, then a year or two later you’re not always thinking, “Oh, that was the music video with George in it,” I mean, ’cause it also had John Hurt in it, it had Ringo in it, and Linda, it was quite a star-studded little cast that one …

Q: As seen in the DVD, you’ve played with a whole lot of musicians since The Beatles. Other than Linda, obviously, and other than your current band, who are some that you miss the most and are there any that you might like to play with again at some point?

A: “Since The Beatles” – That’s kind of a difficult question because I think they’re all cool in their individual ways. I mean, because I’m very happy with my new band. If we were five years from now, I think I’d probably sort of miss guys out of my new band if I wasn’t playing with them. Then I don’t know who you’d choose. My mind goes to Joe English, actually. Funnily enough, he’s just a real cool character Joe, I liked him, I thought he was a really hot drummer. But y’know it’s always difficult singling anyone out. My mind went to him but I kind of loathe to single anyone out. We had some great times. The 1976 lineup of Wings, which Joe drummed for, I think was the height. Linda and I always thought that was the height of the Wings’ period. But then again you have a memory like the “My Love” lineup, which was Henry McCullough , ex-Grease Band on guitar. Henry’s greatest moment for me was in the recording of “My Love,” when we’d rehearsed the whole thing and I kind of knew what he was going to play on the solo and I was happy with it and he just came over on a live session where we were playing live with the orchestra in Abbey Road No. 2 studio and he just sort of wandered over to me just before the take and said, “Hey, do you mind if I try something different?” That was like, “Whoa, wait a moment, decision time: ‘Yes I do, stick to the script’ or; ‘No, of course, I don’t.'” The latter was my answer. And he came up with the solo there on “My Love,” which I think is a real fine moment, the definitive Henry moment. It’s difficult to single any one out, so I think I shouldn’t really, it was all great and each period had something great.

Q: Now that you’ve gone back into the archives, and it’s come out so well, let me ask about two other projects that a lot of fans have asked about through the years. One is “Cold Cuts,” the long-discussed album of some of your best solo unreleased material, and one is a DVD of all The Beatles’ promotional films, which were the music videos of their era. Any chance of either being released?

A: I think there’s every chance always. George Harrison and I used to joke when we did “The Anthology,” “O.K. guys, we’ve done it now. The next album is going to be called ‘Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel'” (laughs heartily). We can poke fun at ourselves. But there still is stuff at the bottom of the barrel. It’s not the A-list stuff, The Beatles’ promo stuff, it isn’t bad stuff, but the fact that it hasn’t been released ’til now indicates, I think, that there’s not sort of a huge outcry for it. Maybe, not absolutely the greatest stuff we ever did, but I think it’s good enough. I think The Beatles’ barrel is pretty cool. I think you can scrape the bottom if it. “Cold Cuts,” with me, it’s kind of bootleg country, a lot of that has been out on bootlegs. I always like the idea of going to the bootleggers and putting their stuff out officially and watching them as they come up to me and say, “Hey, that’s our album.” “No, it ain’t buddy.” So I imagine, yeah, both of those, it’s a possibility as time goes by.

Q: You’ve released a special edition of “Memory Almost Full” with a bonus DVD of film clips from the London club show you did awhile ago. Why did you pick London, as opposed to say, the show you did at the Highline Ballroom in New York City?

A: I tell you what it was. We just got more film on the London one … we did film the others, but didn’t film them as comprehensively. I think what will happen, we do have footage of all of these gigs, they were great – he said modestly (laughs). I really enjoyed them. The feedback we got was super. So we were just talking the other day actually that when we had to put it together, you can imagine for it to be released now we had to put it together very quickly. And the most footage we had readily available was of the first show.

Q: Speaking of the clubs shows that you’ve done this year, they’ve been tremendously well-received. The new songs sound great live. Do you have any plans of bringing them out for a wider audience and doing a full scale tour, and if so, when?

A: Yeah, I’m looking at that now. The truth is, personal circumstances. I’ve never done this divorce thing before. It’s completely new to me. My basic feeling is, it’s really difficult and the thing I need to do sort of before taking on any big commitments like a big tour is try and get it settled. I’ve got like a tidy mind that way. I don’t want to be in the middle of some holocaust and be on tour. So I would like to tidy it up and try and do the whole thing with dignity. But certainly what we’re looking at beyond that, I’m itching, me and the band are itching to get out for those friends of ours.

Q: Seeing you play in a club made me wonder. In the early days of The Beatles, did you ever just bomb with a crowd? Somewhere where they hated you guys?

A: Oh, yes. This is what early days and training are about. Oh, yeah, that sure happened.

Q: Where?

A: It happened all over the place.

Q: C’mon, it was The Beatles.

A: You’re talking early days. For instance, there’s a place called Stroud, which is really sort of backwoods country (in England). We’d never heard of it and certainly didn’t know how to find our way there in our little van. But it was that early, it was really van time. What you did in those days, you’d get down there in the afternoon, you’d have to find the gig. That was the most important thing. And then you’d get your equipment sort of set, get your van parked and then you could go get something to eat. Anyway we did this gig in Stroud, we finally found the place. There weren’t an awful lot of people who showed up. Very slim audience, some of whom were male hooligans that you’d always get at these shows. This is half the fun about a rock’n’roll show, there’s always somebody going, “Wellwayabeya” (McCartney yelling gibberish). And you’ve got to prove yourself. The cooler you get, the less of that you get, but in the beginning, these guys, we use to call them “Teddy Boys” in England, we called them “Teds.” A bunch of “Teds” in the back of the room, they came forward and they started throwing coins at us. We were like, oh (expletive), this is what we’ve heard about (laughs). But we were, as always, on top of it. We just kind of stopped and picked them up and pocketed them and we thought, well, a little extra money. They didn’t stop us, we just continued. I think they realized they were giving us their money rather than shaming us. It wasn’t having much of an effect, other than we were looking rather pleased to make a little more out of the gig. But yeah, we certainly had those moments. That’s just one I particularly remember.

Q: 1961, you think, or ’60?

A: Yeah, that kind of time.

Q: “House of Wax,” from the new album isn’t just musically complex, it also offers some very fascinating lyrics. What exactly is “hidden in the yard, underneath the wall?”

A: “The meaning of it all.” It’s like that. Look at any kind of philosophy and they’re talking about their view of what this thing we’re going through means. Look at modern science and they will give you the molecular quantum theory view. The big question is really that. To write a song and say, “It’s hidden in the yard, it’s buried in the wall, buried under a thousand layers.” That’s kind of how it is, it appears to me. You don’t just get born and someone goes, “This is what it is,” and you go, “Ah, ok, Buddha thank you.” It’s not like that. We’ve got this hugely complex life, multi-layered. More layered perhaps now than ever. We’re all kind of, in a way, it may not be our primary question of the day, but in the background there is always this thing – what’s it all about, Alfie? That’s just a song that found its way to that in the chorus. The front bit, I was just enjoying writing kind of surrealist poetry, what is this house of wax? There were two things and I hadn’t decided. One of the terrible things about doing a poetry book with a Japanese translation was I had to actually decide the sex of the (Beatles’ song) “Blackbird.” In Japanese you can’t just put “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” They need to know if it’s a male or a female. I’m going, “Um, I don’t know, I don’t want to tell you, I don’t want to decide.” In the end I think I had to decide. They bullied me into it and I think I made her female. In that sort of vein, this song is sort of like that. What is a “House of Wax?” Is it a museum like Madame Tussaud’s? Or is it a record shop, or label? I think I kind of thought more of that, a fantasy, surreal place where they make records, manufacture them in sort of a Tim Burton house. That’s where my mind was going. But I liked the sort of poets spilling out onto the street. Spilling. I enjoyed the lyrics to that. “They can only dream of flight away from their confusion.” It’s slightly sort of chilling. It’s just me having fun really as Edgar Allen Poe did (laughs). It’s a little bit Poe-esque.

Q: In June, you and Ringo and Yoko (Ono – Lennon’s widow) and Olivia (Harrison – George Harrison’s widow) attended Cirque du Soleil’s production of The Beatles’ “Love” together in Las Vegas. How did you enjoy that, and what was your reaction when Yoko referred to you as “a magnificent man?”

A: I thought she was stealing my line. I had just said two seconds before that John was a magnificent man. And she went, “Paul, you’re a magnificent man.” I think in the interests of equality, which is rather nice, we’re always trying to do that. It was very cute, really. I was very pleased, obviously, but my main thought was, “Didn’t I just say that? (laughs). Just kidding, this is all in good humor.

Q: How did you enjoy the whole thing of “Love” in Las Vegas, other than Larry King mixing up your names?

A: I thought that was the best. We nailed Larry, it was terrible. We shouldn’t have, but the sort of hunting instinct came out, I’m afraid. The interesting thing was, he was saying, “No, I didn’t mean it like that,” and we were going, “Get out of here.” We wouldn’t let him off. But afterwards I was thinking about it. I think possibly what he was actually saying wasn’t, “Now George,” looking at Ringo. I think what he was sort of saying was, “Now George, there’s a subject.” I’m giving him such a massive benefit of a doubt. I’m afraid we nailed him on that night. But he’s a good enough friend of mine, I’ve run into him so many times. I like Larry. And he was also a voice in “Shrek,” so anyone who’s a voice in “Shrek,” I have a lot of time for.

Q: You were recently quoted as saying that it looks like The Beatles’ songs are going to be available to download in 2008. That’s been in the works for a while. Are there plans to include any bonus material on that project?

A: It’s progressing. I don’t actually know the details just yet. We’re all very keen – everyone’s very keen – but it’s a deal, a negotiating thing. And when you talk about The Beatles, all it needs is one branch of the deal – and obviously there’s a lot – there’s the record company, individuals, whatever. And it just needs somebody to need a variance in the deal. But it’s near, it’s very near. As I’ve said, there are one or two things that need talking about rather than just “Yes,” which is natural. But it will happen. Everyone really wants to make it happen. I think there’s just I’s being dotted, T’s being crossed.

Q: A restored version of The Beatles’ “Help!” DVD was recently released. What are your favorite recollections of that movie and how do you think it compares with “A Hard Day’s Night?”

A: In truth, my recollections of making “Help!” were that we really didn’t bother. We didn’t read the script. I don’t think any of us read the script. Ringo might have, being the film star amongst us. I don’t think anyone bothered. At the time I thought, “This is probably not a good omen.” And I say we were a bit stoned during the making of it, and we weren’t in “Hard Day’s Night.” So I consequently at the time thought, well, “Hard Day’s Night” has got it a million times over “Help!” But seeing it now, it’s actually pretty cool, it’s actually sort of rather brilliant in a strange way. The filmmakers, I think, did a pretty good job putting it all together, it’s filmed beautifully. And the script writer caught some surreal, witty, period things. So all in all, my answer is, it’s kind of cool. But I must say I never thought it was. I always thought we really missed that opportunity. But looking at it now, it’s great.

Q: What can you tell me about this Long Island Labor Day party of Bon Jovi’s? There were reports that you played at the party at his house with a band that included Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Roger Waters and Jimmy Buffett? Is that accurate?

A: That is.

Q: What songs did you play and what was it like?

A: It was funny, actually. It was the last night of my holiday and I was going over there and there were huge local fireworks displays. I went this way, got stopped, went this way, it must have taken me about an hour more than the usual 20 minutes to just sort of get there. So I got there and I was having fun just meeting people. Then I noticed Jon going down the lawn to where there was just a little band and I thought, “Oh, he’s going to play. Oh, my God.” He suddenly starts calling everyone. “Hey is my friend Billy there?” And so Billy goes up, and I’m thinking, “Oh, wow, what do we do now?” I must admit, I was kind of edging toward the parking lot, very, very discreetly (laughs), when I heard, “Hey, my friend Paul, you gotta come up, man.” I felt, “Well, there’s no way out of that one.” But it was great. All that lineup in the band and the rest of the other guys from the evening’s band. I did “Long Tall Sally.” It was impossibly high. Someone said, “E.” I said, “No, it’s in G.” They said, “No, E will be more attainable.” So I sort of (sings a bit of “Long Tall Sally” in a very high voice), I was right up there. But I enjoyed it a lot and the band kicked ass. We had a fun number, but I think then I felt, “Get off, quick (laughs), jump onto the dance floor.”

Q: One other memorable jam – 1974 in Los Angeles, the jam in the studio with you and John (Lennon) Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, the whole crew. Was that the last time you ever played with John, and what are your recollections of that?

A: I think it was. If it was, it was great fun, great to just be part of that company. Looking back at it, I think it was a stoned moment. There was a lot of stoned-ness going on. When I say a lot, take that in capital letters and square it at least. I think I ended up on drums of all things. It was really just to have fun in the studio. It was good to see John. It was good to see Harry and Jesse Ed (Davis) was there. Lovely people, lovely, crazy (expletive) man.

Q: I think there’s only one photo of you and John together after The Beatles that’s ever been published. I believe it was taken around the same time as the jam out in L.A. with Keith Moon. Since Linda was a photographer, did you and John ever (have other photos taken). I know you got together sometimes at the Dakota or different places a few times.

A: Yeah (but) I’m not sure. I don’t think so. It doesn’t always come up, man, let’s face it. It depends what your relationship is. It’s not like guys getting together for a high school reunion and, “Let’s have a photo.” It’s just people that know each other running into each other, you don’t take pictures. You just hang with each other.

Q: It’s not hidden in the yard underneath the wall?

A: (laughs) Oh, come on, man.

Q: People like Tony Bennett and B.B. King have proved that one can still sing and perform with class into their 80s. Your voice seems to be holding up remarkably well. I mean, on the last tour you were even still doing “Helter Skelter,” which was a real vocal workout in your concerts. Do you ever think about that stuff?

A: Yeah. But as far as my vocals are concerned it’s always been a constant source of amazement to me – he said modestly (laughs) – please put that in, somehow, let me off the hook. My voice, I’ve never understood it. I remember when I was recording “Kansas City” with The Beatles. Weeks before that I said to John, we talked about my “Little Richard” voice, which is what it was to me. I said, “It just comes out of the top of my head.” He said, “Oh wow,” and we forgot about it. Later, I was trying to do “Kansas City,” and not doing too well, not catching the thing. He just came down to sort of help me and said, “Remember, it comes out of the top of your head.” That’s all I know, that’s the best thing I know about vocalizing. So to answer your question, I have no idea. But it is funny, I’m in the middle of one of these songs, like “Helter Skelter,” which has got some tortuous things. All I know how to do is go for it and hope for the best. I’m constantly surprised. But as you say, I take your point, wow, Tony and B.B. and Muddy (Waters) did great, these guys. And Mick Jagger, he’s very old, isn’t he? (laughs) He’s about 10 years older than me. (For the record, McCartney is 65, Jagger is 64). They’re all very good, though. You know what I mean. The great thing is, they’re busting rules. Tony Bennett. I don’t think anyone quite knows how, except my explanation would be the love of it, the love of what you do. Bennett’s very good. These boys, they can lay it on the line. They’ve got this finely honed skill. … What I find, it’s kind of surprisingly there. Something I’m having extra fun playing with it, if you know what I mean. But I have great hopes. Looking at Tony, one constantly thinks of the great Bennetto, he’s the man, he sings beautifully, lovely, and he’s a great painter as well. He had something just recently exhibited in the Smithsonian. Not bad.

Q: Your son James is working on an album. Is that an album by the two of you, or his album that you’re going to be working on?

A: No, that’s just him.

Q: Something you’re looking at for 2008?

A: Yeah, it’s just started. We just went in for a short period, to dip our feet in the water. We went in with (producer) David Kahne, and James and we had the most delightful week. I mean more than that, I think he’s very good. But you don’t want to go talking things up when they’re not formed. So it’s great. But you’re just waiting because you know I’d love to talk all about it, give you the week’s blow by blow. But I think for now, it’s great, we went in there, we enjoyed it very much, I think he’s very good.

Q: Fans. What’s your whole take on your fans? How do you feel about them? When you’re at the level of fame you’ve been at for so long there have got to be pros and cons to it all.

A: Yeah. Hmm, fans, I don’t know, I think it’s only pros really. I was just going to go for it and say, “Cons,” that would have put the cat amongst the pigeons. (laughs) But no really, my thought is you go from one end of the spectrum to the other. From the true meaning of fan which is fanatic, to the other end which is, sort of, friend. And so I’m kind of fascinated by it. I don’t like it when it gets intrusive, but I must say that my people don’t seem to do that. People who take an interest in me don’t seem to be too sort of crazy, they seem to be great. The amazing thing is, they know more about me than I do. No, seriously. They do. “Oh yeah, you went to the so and so ballroom.” I go, “Wow, really?” Because when you’re living it, c’mon you’re not sitting in front of a computer dialing it up.

Q: What are your goals for 2008? We’re almost at New Year’s.

A: Win the Olympics, single-handed. Hundred-yard sprint. If you’re looking at goals, that’s it. As to whether I can achieve it, I don’t know. You asked the question, you got it.

Q: Finally, why are you a Yankees fan?

A: Oh don’t tell me you’re not. What are you?

Q: I’m from Massachusetts, we’re Red Sox fans.

A: Oh, I know a lot of Red Sox fans, a lot of my family are Red Sox fans. If you want to know the answer, the true answer, I got free tickets. (“Saturday Night Live” creator) Lorne Michaels had some tickets to a game. I went there and the very first baseball game in my life I had seen was at Yankee Stadium with the New York Yankees in quite a cool year where I believe they won. So I obviously became a bit of a fan. That’s it. Hey, man, “Go Yankees. C’mon man, Go Yankees. Good team.” (laughs) I’m lucky, I’m British. I can appreciate it and I’m glad that the Red Sox won it. Like I said, I have a lot of Red Sox friends. I’m kind of not really partisan. But you pick a team.

Q: You’ve got to be loyal.

A: Yeah, man. It’s great, but my New York friends go, “Oh, we’re with the Mets.” Whoever, you know?

Last updated on September 1, 2020


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