- Album This interview has been made to promote the Egypt Station Official album.
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I first meet McCartney a few weeks earlier at the London office he has kept since the late ’70s in Soho Square in the center of town. Before we take a seat, he walks to the window; down below, Londoners are spread over the lawns in the square, eating and sunbathing.
“Welcome to my world,” he says. “This is where we stand and look at all the lunchtimers.“
Years ago I used to work close by, in my first real job, and this square was a place we’d sometimes go in the middle of the day, so—as much as anything to cover the oddity of standing here staring out a window with Paul McCartney—I mutter to him about how in the past I’ve been one of those people out there, lounging on the grass.
“Have you?” McCartney says evenly. “I haven’t. I’ve walked through, but I’ve not had the luxury of lounging. Probably not a good idea.“
We sit side by side on a sofa to talk. As we do, McCartney periodically reaches out and touches my shoulder to add some kind of emphasis to whichever point he is making. When he faces me, behind him is a rather disturbing sculpture in black leather of a wrestler wearing a balaclava. “I use it to intimidate people like you,” he says when I ask about it, then adds that actually he usually hangs his jacket over it.
It is not so difficult to get Paul McCartney to talk about the past, and this can be a problem. Anyone who has read more than a few interviews with him knows that he has a series of anecdotes, mostly Beatles-related, primed and ready to roll out in situations like these. Pretty good stories, some of them, too. But my goal is to guide McCartney to some less manicured memories—in part because I hope they’ll be fascinating in themselves, but also because I hope that if I can lure him off the most well-beaten tracks, that might prod him to genuinely think about, and reflect upon, his life.
And so that is how—and why—we spend most of the next hour talking about killing frogs, taking acid, and the pros and cons of drilling holes in one’s skull.
It begins gently enough, with McCartney taking measure of the distance he has come.
“Talk about: Pinch yourself,” he says. “I never thought I would be a singer-songwriter. Who dreams of that?“
I suggest that nonetheless there must have been a moment, back in his teens, when he began to imagine.
“I think with Elvis appearing I did think, ‘It’d be good to get a bit of that,’” he concedes. “And John was thinking that, and George was. When we got together, we sort of started to dream that. It was a bit of a far-off dream, and it was just a dream. It wasn’t anything that we really ever thought would turn out to be more than that.“
McCartney’s father was the kind of parent who had impressed upon his son the need to buckle down and get a job. At school, McCartney says, he was advised to think about going into teaching. That didn’t feel so great to him. He had a different fantasy, but one that in its own way shows a kind of eccentric pragmatism at work. The young Paul McCartney imagined himself as a long-distance truck driver—in particular as a truck driver fueled by a deep Catholic faith, a faith far stronger than the real McCartney had. “Just driving forever, going on these long journeys, full of faith in God and the world,” he says, remembering how he had felt back then. “To me, that would be quite good.“
Thinking of all this leads McCartney to explain, unbidden, that his actual faith, such as it is, has always involved cherry-picking from different religions the parts he felt were most valuable. “I mean, Saint Francis of Assisi was my big favorite,” he says. “And I turned out to be for animal welfare, animal lover and nature lover. But the picture of him in the Bible sitting on his throne-like chair, birds all over him, and rabbits, and they’re all interested in him—that was magical to me.“
This—McCartney’s reverie about Saint Francis of Assisi—offers me a convenient opportunity to bring up an unusual and discordant moment that has stuck in my mind ever since I saw it mentioned long ago in the semi-official McCartney biography Many Years from Now. Once I do so, our discussion—as you will now see—will head off, unstoppably, in a series of improbable twists and spirals. Perhaps surprisingly so, given that my initial question is about a phase McCartney went through as a boy in Liverpool in which he would catch frogs and kill them.
“Yeah. I still try and block that. Because I’m now devout animal welfare, wouldn’t kill a fly.“
But can you remember what that boy was, and why he did what he did?
“Yeah, I remember exactly why it was and what it was. We used to live on a housing estate called Speke, in Liverpool, just millions of houses, right on the border of woods and deep countryside. So I did a lot of that, went out in all that. But I was very aware that I would soon be joining the army, because all of us were called up for National Service. I was probably about 12, I was looking at being 17, which is kind of looming—it’s going to happen fast—and the one thing that I thought is: ‘I can’t kill anything—what am I going to do? Get a bayonet and hurt someone? I’ve got to kill someone? Shit, I’ve got to think about that. How do I do that?’ So I ended up killing frogs.”
What would you do?
“I do look for rational explanations—I do think, you know, kids are cruel. Kids swing cats. I was from Liverpool—you do that kind of shit. It’s dumb, it’s mean, it’s horrible, but you do that kind of shit. What is it? You’re trying to toughen yourself up? I don’t know. But I did. And I used to go out in the woods, and I killed a bunch of frogs and stuck them up on a barbed-wire fence. It was like a weird sort of thing that I kind of hated doing but thought: ‘I’m toughening myself up.’ I remember taking my brother there, once, to my secret place. And he was just horrified. Thought he had a nutter on his hands. And probably did.”
Did you think he’d be impressed?
“I wonder. I don’t know. He’s just my younger brother—I showed him what I was doing. I think he was horrified, but I think I was, too. It was a dark thing, but no darker than a lot of stuff that was going on on our estate. It was just my way. I remember very consciously thinking: ‘You’ve got to learn to harm things because you’re a sissy. So you’d better get in some practice.'”
So I guess that prompts the question: Did it stand you in good stead? Or was it a terrible thing?
“I don’t look back with pleasure on it, but I just think, you know, kids are mad. I did a lot of mad things when I was a kid that just maybe came with the territory. Stole things. Did all sorts of little things that little kids on our estate did. It’s all part of that weird thing of growing up. A lot of it I just don’t think about anymore, but suddenly something like that will come back and I go, ‘Shit.…’ But it was a little bit of a tough world, you know. Liverpool was no fairyland. We’d make catapults and put serious quarter-inch elastic on it from fan belts, and then you’d get a leather pouch, and you would put a fucking big, good-sized rock in there, and you would fire them at each other. Look back at it and you go, ‘Shit, lucky I never killed anyone.’ But it was a relatively tough world. Speke was quite a rough estate, and you were getting mugged and beaten up. You learn to be a runner.”
And now when you think about being that boy, inside your head are you thinking, “Yeah, that’s just me, and then a bit of shit’s happened since then,” or are you thinking, “Wow, that was a different person”?
“That is one of the things that intrigues me about a life. I just have a general sort of feeling of: I’m here now talking to you and this is this bit of life, a little while ago I was getting divorced and that was that weird bit of life, and before that I was living 30 years and raising a family with Linda, that was that bit of life, I’m now married to an American, Nancy, lovely girl, that’s this bit of life. And so if you keep rolling back, you go through Wings, you go through the Beatles, and then you get back to this wild territory which is youth, when you weren’t famous and you could get stopped in the street, or you’re in school and you were being abused—not in a sexual way but just in teachers being the mad nutcases they were and having that control over you and you had to go along with it. So there’s so much stuff been going on, and then I roll back before that, and I’m a really little kid. And I can almost feel that I remember things from my birth. I don’t know if this is true, this is probably just pure speculation, but I have a vision of a sort of white-tiled room, and chrome clinical instruments, and the clanking noise of those things on chrome trays…” (McCartney stops himself at this point and offers a commentary in the third person—”Come on! Is he crazy or not?”—before continuing.) “That couldn’t be me being born, could it? What I’m saying is, to me it’s a vast panoply of a wonderful legendary tapestry, life. There’s just so much in this story, and it’s still going on, it’s still changing, it’s still evolving. My feeling is that as long as I’m managing to proceed through it with some sort of pleasure, then that’s always been enough. Sometimes it’s been more than enough—it’s been vast prizes, vast satisfaction. I couldn’t really describe what it is, but it’s just time stretched out and all these millions of little occurrences that have happened, and that’s me. So yeah, I’m still that little kid. I really do still feel embarrassingly like that, because I know how old I am, and I look in the mirror, I see how old I am. It’s this ever changing thing, and I sort of vaguely find myself quite satisfied with it. I wouldn’t say totally, because that’s Valhalla. That’s asking for possibly too much. But, yeah, I have a lot of good things going on in my life and I generally have a pretty good time. And I feel amazed by all these things, you know. I mean, in the ’60s, when we were tripping away, I remember once in London taking acid and going through the trip—you know, all of that, as anyone who’s ever taken that shit knows what I’m talking about, just the whole intense vision of what the world is, other than how you see it normally. And I remember at the height of it seeing this thing that was like a spiral going up in, in my brain, and it was beautiful colors, like multicolored gems going up this spiral. And then, shortly thereafter, [scientists] discovered the DNA helix. I certainly have a feeling, not only my own birth, I’ve seen my own DNA.”
So you’re saying you discovered the structure of DNA before anyone else—you just didn’t tell anyone?
“God, I’m so glad someone’s picked up on that!” He laughs.
In that case, I’m surprised you don’t still take it.…
“Yeah, well, no, I was with a friend the other day, and the latest thing is microdosing. And he was microdosing.”
So have you tried that?
Are you tempted?
“Well. I was asked just the other day, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve got the grandkids and stuff. There’s enough going on. I’m okay.'”
But you don’t rule it out.
He smiles devilishly. “I’m not ruling it out.”
McCartney goes on to say that, nonetheless, when he was encouraged to microdose by his friend, “it brought back that feeling of peer pressure from the ’60s,” and this reminds me that out of the Beatles, McCartney was always painted as the reluctant one, the sensible one—and, indeed, he was the last of the four to take acid.
“Yeah. I heard it changes you and you’ll never be the same again. I thought: ‘Well, that could be a double-edged sword.’ You know, we could be ending up in a loony bin, and ‘Sorry, Paul—I didn’t mean to give you so much’ or ‘It was the wrong batch’ or something. I’m very practical, and my father was very sensible and raised me to be a sensible cat.”
And when you eventually did take it, were they right? Were you never the same again?
“Mmmm.” He nods. “But it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined, it wasn’t a sort of horrific thing. But you certainly weren’t the same again. You certainly had insights into what life might be.”
But ultimately you were pleased you did it?
He nods again. “Mmmm. Mmmm. I often wished it would end sooner.”
Thinking about that balance between caution and going full tilt makes me think of what you once said about you and John Lennon and the cliff’s edge. (“John always wanted to jump over the cliff. He once said that to me. ‘Have you ever thought of jumping?’ I said, ‘Fuck off. You jump, and tell me how it is.’ That’s basically the difference in our personalities.”)
“Yeah, that’s true. I’m more careful in everything. My dad is a very strong factor in this. He was an ordinary working-class guy, very intelligent, very good with words, but his whole philosophy was to think it out a bit. So that, that turned out to be my sort of way. Whereas John, you’ve got to remember, didn’t have a father. John didn’t even have an uncle. He went to live with the uncle—the uncle died. His dad had run away. So John felt like he was a jinx on the male line, he told me. I had a father. He was always spouting to be tolerant. Moderation. These were words he used a lot, and I think I listened.”
So, to take an extreme example, is it really true that John tried to convince you that you should both do trepanning?
He nods. “John was a kooky cat. We’d all read about it—you know, this is the ’60s. The ‘ancient art of trepanning,’ which lent a little bit of validity to it, because ancient must be good. And all you’d have to do is just bore a little hole in your skull and it lets the pressure off—well, that sounds very sensible. ‘But look, John, you try it and let me know how it goes.'”
But was he sitting there really seriously saying: ‘We should do this’?
“Yeah, but this is the good thing about John and I—I’d say no. And he knew me well enough that if I said no, I meant no, and I’m not frightened of being uncool to say no. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say, ‘You’re fucking crazy,’ because I didn’t need to say that. But, no, I’m not gonna trepan, thank you very much. It’s just not something I would like to do.”
And do you think if you’d said yes, the two of you would have done it?
“Who knows? I don’t think so. I don’t think he was really serious. He did say it, but he said all sorts of shit.”
Did he really come to that meeting near the end of the Beatles and say he was Jesus Christ?
“I don’t remember that. I think I would have remembered that. He was the kind of guy that could do that. I don’t remember him actually ever doing it. I mean, on the Sgt. Pepper cover he wanted Jesus Christ and Hitler on there. That was, ‘Okay, that’s John.’ You’d have to talk him down a bit—’No, probably not Hitler…’ I could say to him, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ He was a good enough guy to know when he was being told.”
Did he have a rationalization for why it was a good idea to put Hitler on there?
“No. It’s a laugh. We’re putting famous people on the cover: ‘Hitler! He’s famous!’ And it was like, ‘Yeah, but John, we’re trying to put heroes on the cover, and he’s not your hero. Winston Churchill’s your hero, John.’ He was a big fan of Winston. So he was just fucking about. That was John. He was very witty, very wonderful, and would like to push the envelope, and it was entertaining to be around someone like that. These are cool people. But you can’t always do everything they suggest.”
One of McCartney’s several homes is in the English county of East Sussex, close to the south coast. Nearby, he also has his own recording studio, situated in an old windmill on top of a hill with bracing views out over the sea. Right now, everyone is mingling around its tiny kitchen. McCartney, who is just back from a holiday in the Greek islands with his wife, listens to a ticket-sales update from his British publicist, Stuart Bell, for some big shows he is playing later this year.
“‘Sold out,’ best two words in the English language,” McCartney tells me.
Come now, I say, there are others.
“When you’re about to tour, there aren’t.” He reconsiders. “‘Stark naked’ is even better.”
McCartney leans over a table laden with vegetarian sandwiches and snacks, lifts a corner of the clear wrap off a plate of coffee-cake slices, and tries to extract a segment so that it will look as though he hasn’t. “I’m going to not have this,” he declares, mostly talking to himself. “I’m going to so not have this that you won’t even see me not have it. There we are. See!”
A few minutes later, he holds a pink rose under my nose—one he has just picked from the bush outside, a rose that is officially called the McCartney Rose. (Smells pretty good.) He then points to a 3-D printout of his head someone sent him from Brazil that’s sitting on a shelf next to a smaller figurine that I can’t quite properly see.
“I’m really embarrassed by this,” he says. “Especially as it’s alongside Mozart.”
“I notice,” observes Abe Laboriel Jr., the drummer in his band, “one head is a little bigger than the other.”
And so the midafternoon break goes, until McCartney straightens up and suggests to the others, “Shall we go and play some more?” There is also a shed-like outbuilding on this property—not a big one, but just big enough for McCartney and his band, crammed together, to rehearse in. That is what they are here to do today.
You’d have to be completely immune to the past 55 years of music history, and to Paul McCartney’s pivotal role in it, not to be somewhat mesmerized by watching him, just a few feet away, rehearse his way over several hours through 30 or so songs. Mostly, they are re-familiarizing themselves with old favorites, which they generally try to play as closely to the original records as possible, but they’re also still figuring out a handful of new songs, and occasionally they throw in fairly obscure cover versions—for instance, “Miss Ann,” a song from Little Richard’s first album that the Beatles would sometimes play in their pre-fame days. There are moments that seem even more surprising. When I walk in at the beginning of the rehearsal day, they are in the middle of a long instrumental jam, one that seems very loosely based around the verse chords of the Wings song “Letting Go,” during which McCartney noodles and solos on electric guitar at great length in a way that you never really see in public, as though he’s in a slightly more prim version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.17 At another point, near the end of the afternoon, McCartney calls for “We Can Work It Out,” but then, instead of starting the real song, he starts playing a weird robotic guitar riff over and over, and then singing in falsetto, to a completely different tune, first the phrase “check my machine,” then the complete lyrics to “We Can Work It Out,” chopping them up to fit in with this strange impromptu creation. It’s not a work of grand genius, but it’s captivating and deeply odd, and it exists only for these three or four minutes, never to exist again.
In between songs, McCartney keeps up an almost constant onomatopoeic babble of yelps and whoa whoa whoa‘s that seem to be for no one’s particular benefit, like an engine idling; during the songs, he’ll do occasional leg kicks, and at one point during an instrumental break in “Coming Up,” he actually starts pogoing backward. It’s hardly cool, but these kinds of moments, ones that can seem a little cheesy and over-eager in front of an audience, feel very different inside this room. As part of a private language of self-expression and enthusiasm, they seem sincere and touching.
When McCartney speaks during rehearsal, it’s often about minutiae of the songs, but sometimes other thoughts or memories will pop out. For instance this observation about the different terminology used by the Beatles’ peers. “We called it ‘rehearsing,'” he mentions to the band. “Whereas theWho called it ‘practicing.’ I like ‘practicing.'” And then sometimes, as people do, he’ll talk about something else entirely. “What about that guy in the newspaper, the L.A. guy?” he asks the band. “Was it cling film, wrapped up in? It was an S&M thing. He died. You’re gonna fucking die if you wrap yourself in cling film. He forgot to leave a hole.…”
The most striking moment of the afternoon comes, though, when they rehearse “A Hard Day’s Night.” They breeze through a version of the song, and then McCartney has a question, a surprising one given that he has played this song live in public at least 205 times.20 It is about what happens at the end of the first verse. McCartney, who is playing his famous Höfner bass, wonders whether he is supposed to stay on the G or move up to the D. The band debate it back and forth without coming to a firm conclusion. When McCartney says, “What did I do?” Brian Ray, one of the band’s guitarists, suggests that they listen.
And so they do. Someone quickly finds the original recording, presses play, and suddenly I am watching the surreal sight of Paul McCartney, 76, standing there in a small shed in the south of England listening to Paul McCartney, 21, performing the same song 19,816 days earlier. By the time the song reaches its middle eight—when I’m home, everything seems to be right—McCartney is mouthing along to the words, as though he’s just enjoying listening to it. Interestingly, the result turns out to be slightly inconclusive—they think they can maybe hear a D in there, but it might just be a harmonic. McCartney decides he’ll “just ride through on the G.”
A while later, after a climactic medley of the reprise to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter,” which he commits to with full roaring fury, McCartney says, “Okay, I reckon that’ll do it, guys.”
On his way out of the room, he says, as though to no one and everyone:
“We play way too loud. We don’t care.”
The new song McCartney and the band work on most carefully today, playing it twice, is a song that is listed on his new album under the title “Fuh You.” In some ways the song, a collaboration with the über-pop producer and songwriter Ryan Tedder, is the most obviously commercial and contemporary song on the record;21 in other ways it’s one of the more peculiar songs ever to be released by someone like Paul McCartney, principally because the climactic line of the chorus is built around a crude homophone. While McCartney will tell me that the official lyric sheet will read “I just want it fuh you,” I think most listeners will hear what I heard long before I was told that there was an alternative: “I just want to fu[ck] you,” with the consonants at the end of the penultimate word allowed to drift away, unvoiced.
I first bring up the subject by quoting to McCartney something he said in an interview about three years back: “Sex is something I prefer to do rather than sing about.… I suppose singing about sex is not really my genre.”
This no longer appears to be…
“…the case? Well, if I can work it in…” He guffaws. “Said the actress to the bishop. I mean, if I can do it, great. But it’s not that easy.” He offers examples: “‘You Can Leave Your Hat On,’ ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.'”
Or “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”
“‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ Who said that was about sex?”
Anyway, this new song is really called “Fuck You,” right?
“Not at all! I mean, if you’re lucky, when you’re creating you can have some fun. This song was coming to a close and we were just getting a bit hysterical in the studio, as you do when you’re locked away for long hours, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll just say, “I just wanna shag you.”‘ And we had a laugh. And I said, ‘No, I’ll tell you what we can do is, I can make it questionable as to what it is I’m singing.’ So the actual lyrics are You make me wanna go out and steal / I just want to fuck you or …I just want it for you.” It’s a schoolboy prank. Which we did a lot in the Beatles. And it brings some joy to your tawdry little life. If you listen to it, I don’t actually say ‘fuck,’ because I don’t particularly want to say ‘I just want to fuck you’—I’ve got, like, eight grandchildren.” He considers this. “Of course they’d probably like it better. But anyway.…” And continues. “So I just thought, I can fudge this easily. It was something to amuse ourselves. Hey, listen—when you make these things up, it’s not like writing a Shakespeare play. I mean, it’s intended as a popular song. So you don’t feel like you’ve got to adhere to any rules. And then you do ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ ‘tit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tit,’ ‘She’s a prick teaser.’ It’s kind of pathetic, but actually a great thing in its pathos because it’s something that makes you laugh. So what’s wrong with that?”
And is doing it when you’re 76 in any way different from doing it when you’re 26?
“Apparently not.” He laughs again. “It’s the same pleasure.”
Of course the very same things that bring pleasure often bring problems too. The song “Fuh You” is scheduled to be a single before the album’s release. McCartney explains onstage at Abbey Road, and also to me in conversation, that he has been told there is an American radio DJ who is both deeply Christian and deeply influential; he says that his record label is worried that she won’t play it and that others will follow her cue. (McCartney is relatively safe in discussing this, as both the broadcast of the Spotify concert and the publication of this interview will come after the song’s fate as a single has been decided, one way or another.)
“Whatever,” he says to me, for some reason whispering, as though it might somehow make a difference. “Fuck it. I’m not sure I care.”
Which I’m pretty sure is best interpreted not as meaning that Paul McCartney doesn’t care, but that he’s been around the block too many times, and done too much already in his life, and has realized along the way that he’s usually ended up happier when he’s stuck to his guns and followed his instincts than when he hasn’t, and that he actually cares far too much to second-guess what he should do and how he should do it every single time someone else has an opinion about how Paul McCartney should best go about being Paul McCartney.
Last updated on August 5, 2020