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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.”