- Published by:
- Los Angeles Times
- Interview by:
- Robert Hilburn
- Timeline More from year 2006
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An unparalleled career. Fabulous riches. Yet through it all, Paul McCartney has never been one of rock’s fools on the hill.
When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine.
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four.
from the Beatles’ “When I’m 64”
Paul McCartney’s Grammy nomination total stands at 64 on the eve of the annual music awards ceremony, as if anyone needed a reminder that the ex-Beatle marks a special birthday this year - June 18, to be exact.
“Are you serious?” he asks when told the Grammy total during an interview in his office complex in fashionable Soho Square. Everyone keeps track of Grammy wins (13 in his case), but no one keeps track of nominations – certainly not once they enter double figures.
“It was really an arbitrary number when I wrote the song. I probably should have called it ‘When I’m 65,’ which is the retirement age in England. And the rhyme would have been easy, ‘something, something alive when I’m 65.’ But it felt too predictable. It sounded better to say 64.”
Despite the Beatles’ constant invention, “When I’m 64” caught listeners by surprise when the jaunty singalong appeared on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album in 1967. In the youth-conscious world of ’60s rock, it stretched the imagination to think about being even 30. And here was McCartney singing about a lifetime beyond that.
John Lennon once scoffed that he would never have written something as quaint as “When I’m 64,” but it was the differences between the biting Lennon and the more comforting McCartney that made the Beatles’ songbook the most thrilling in rock history.
McCartney has aged well on many levels. Wearing a stylish pinstriped suit and munching bagels on a recent morning, he still has the charm and smile to remind you why all the girls thought he was so cute way back then. He’s slim, and he shows no signs of losing his hair – though it is now dyed, as he freely admits.
In fact, despite being one of the most revolutionary forces in modern pop culture, McCartney has always been driven by old-fashioned values, and he now credits them for helping him avoid becoming another of the many victims of pop fame.
Professionally, he’s on a roll. His “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” is up for album of the year in the Grammys - the awards ceremony will be held Wednesday at Staples Center - and every date on his 2005 U.S. tour was a sellout. Final gross: $77.3 million.
No other single figure from his generation can draw fans like that. The Rolling Stones can as a band, but neither Mick Jagger nor Keith Richards alone could sell out multiple-night arena shows. And Bob Dylan plays mostly theaters unless he’s got a strong support act.
More important, McCartney continues to represent, in his music and in his personal life, many of the ideals of the Beatles. His solo albums certainly don’t match the consistency or heights of the early days, but there is a similar sense of warmth, optimism and even social activism.
He shows little interest in the glitter of show business and tends to keep his personal life private. There’s no autobiography or memoirs, and he normally limits interviews to backstage at rehearsal halls or the studio and tries to avoid personal questions. As the interview moves from Grammys and songwriting to focus on aging and more personal questions, he sits forward and objects: “I think it’s time for me to begin pulling off this subject.”
But McCartney is basically too polite not to answer some of the personal questions, uncomfortable as they may make him feel. He even ends up volunteering a “When I’m 64” story.
“I met someone who plays piano in an old persons’ home, and he said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I play some of your songs, and the most popular one is “When I’m 84,” but I have to change the title to ‘When I’m 84’ because 64 seems young to those people. They don’t get it.'”
McCartney understands fully. “If I were to write it now,” he says with a sigh, “I’d probably call it ‘When I’m 94.'”
Wearing his knighthood lightly
The tourists checking out the historical marker in the park-like grounds that front Soho Square learn that the square dates to the 1680s and a few other obscure facts, but there is no reference to its most famous presence.
One hundred years from now, the marker will surely note McCartney’s years here, and tourists’ heads will turn to the five-story red brick building that has been his business home for 30 years.
The strangest thing about stepping inside McCartney’s office is getting used to the fact that he has an office at all. The lure of a rock ‘n’ roll life in the ’60s was the freedom of not having to report every day to an office or factory. Recording studios, stages and parties sounded like much more fun.
The first reassuring sign in McCartney’s case is that the receptionist refers to him simply as “Paul.” After all, he was knighted in 1997.
“At first, the whole thing was a bit embarrassing, to be honest,” he says of the honor. “Even the people on my farm went, ‘Do we have to call you Sir Paul?’ The great thing for me was that in sniffing around once it was announced, people seemed to like it. That incredible warmth was the best thing about the honor for me.”
McCartney’s suit with white sport shirt, open at the collar, is not his regular office attire. It’s for an appointment outside the building. As he relaxes in the top-floor lounge, an aide serves him tea.
When he opened the office, he started off modestly - just one room. As needs expanded, he bought the building. You don’t get the sense that McCartney spends a lot of time around Soho Square; he goes there mostly to handle meetings dealing with recordings, tours and related projects.
The Times of London estimated McCartney’s fortune last year at more than $1 billion - most of it generated though his own music. One of his great regrets is that he let Michael Jackson, whom he had tipped off to the value of copyrights, buy the Beatles catalog out from under him in 1985. Jackson and his business partners now receive 50% of the publishing revenue from Lennon-McCartney songs, while McCartney and the Lennon estate receive only 25% each. McCartney gets 100% of the publishing royalties from his post-Beatles work.
The singer also owns MPL (McCartney Productions Ltd.), one of the world’s biggest privately owned music publishing companies. Originally set up to handle McCartney’s solo compositions, MPL now holds the rights to the work of writers ranging from Buddy Holly to Harold Arlen. Among the titles: “Hello, Dolly!,” “Unchained Melody” and “The Christmas Song.” The company actively places movies in films, including Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” in “Brokeback Mountain” and David Mann and Bob Hilliard’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” in “The Matador.”
“The business thing was out of necessity,” he says, referring to the death in 1967 of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. “We suddenly felt naked when it came to the business stuff. The last thing I wanted to be is a boss. The boss is a hated figure. But I suddenly felt I had to. So I just told myself, ‘Just try and be a reasonable boss and not the stereotype.’ And I’ve tried to do that.
“Some of the people in the office have been with me 30 years. I’m actually very proud of the fact that I’ve somehow managed to combine this enjoyment of rock ‘n’ roll music with this idea of having an office.”
Good role models, solid grounding
To begin understanding how McCartney has come through the years of fame with so few visible scars, you have to go back much further than his Beatles days.
He’s not even sure his story is all that unusual. But a list of all the other rock stars who have been destroyed or warped by fame, from Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, finally opens him up.
“I don’t know what shaped my outlook,” he begins. “I’m grasping at straws when I try to talk about it. But a lot of it probably has to do with my family. I think I got a good grounding. I can’t even remember my parents having an argument. The biggest tragedy for me is that my mom died when I was 14.”
McCartney’s father, Jim, was an especially strong role model. “My dad was a very cool guy,” he says. “He was a musician, taught by ear, and very good with words. People admired him. You could count on his word, and he instilled good values in us, and I really feel blessed because of that.
“When my brother and I would go to the bus stop with him, he’d raise his hat to the ladies and he’d encourage us to raise our caps and to stand up for people on the bus. To this day, if I’m on the train and there is a pregnant woman or an old lady and there’s no seat, I’ll get up for her, and it’s not me trying to be noble. It’s just what you do.”
That grounding, he says, helped him to see all the craziness when he got into show business. “In the ’60s we were all doing too much drugs, pushing it to the limit,” he says. “At first it was kind of fun. Then it became not fun, and you had to go, ‘Wait a minute.’ This little sensible gene kicked in.
“I think my background made me a little more cautious. I’m not impetuous. Rather than rush into a thing, I’ll go, ‘Let me think about this.’ I never just pick up the phone and say, ‘I’ve just thought of something, and we’ve got to do it now.’ For me, if it’s a great idea, it’ll still be a great idea tomorrow.”
But nothing prepared him to deal with the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. It was such a devastating time, before he started Wings, that he wondered whether he even wanted to compete with the legacy of the Beatles.
“I toyed around for a while with this idea of [leaving rock and] being a composer with patches on my elbows, gnawing at a pencil,” he says. “It was a terrible period because I was also breaking up with old friends in an acrimonious way and having to sue them to get out. That was really more worry than ‘How do I compete against the Beatles?'”
McCartney credits the support of his first wife, Linda, with helping to pull him through the period. Together, they raised three daughters and a son. Stella is an award-winning fashion designer, and James has played guitar on McCartney albums.
Linda’s death in 1998 was another body blow. McCartney didn’t know if he would ever have another relationship. In 2002, however, he married Heather Mills, a former model and anti-land mines campaigner, and they had a daughter, Beatrice Milly, the following year. They now have a house in the Los Angeles area as well as homes in England.
“I wondered if this was where I sort of become a monk,” he says of the time after Linda’s death. “When love did come, it was totally unexpected. I feel very grateful and very blessed for Heather. She’s a very beautiful and kindhearted lady.”
Sticking with a low-tech approach
On the way back to the ground floor after the formal interview, McCartney leads me on a tour of the building, stopping only to sign some correspondence and huddle with a secretary. The walls are lined with photographs from various points in his career, including one from the ’60s of him and a grinning Lennon shaking hands.
Except for the odd computer on staff desks, there is little sense of high tech. McCartney has an iPod but tends to listen to it only on tour. At home and in the car, he prefers CDs. He doesn’t have TiVo, and he has no theories about the future of the music business. He just knows people will continue to write songs and others will respond to them.
“I’m not big on technology,” he says. “I don’t like to stare all day at a computer screen. I like to look around in the room. Similarly, earplugs smack of work to me. When I am at home, I don’t want earphones. When I jog, I prefer listening to the sounds around me.”
When he gets to his formal office, he points to a photo from the 1988 tribute dinner ASCAP threw for him. It was attended by scores of the greatest songwriters from mainstream pop, and they signed the photo. “There’s Stephen Sondheim,” McCartney says proudly. He also names Cy Coleman, composer of the musical “Sweet Charity,” as well as Mitchell Parish, who co-wrote “Stardust.”
Much like Bob Dylan, McCartney greatly admires the songwriters from the first half of the 20th century, and the best of his songs, including “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday,” have been built around melodies as graceful as those standards.
“A lot of people thought you had to throw out all the old values when you joined rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “But I never believed that. I thought you could embrace rock and still hold on to the old values, including songwriting craftsmanship. I learned a lot from those writers.”
McCartney’s next stop is in front of a flashy Wurlitzer jukebox, which plays vintage 78 rpm records. He presses one of the buttons, and the room is filled with the sound of Elvis singing “All Shook Up.” He taps along on the top of the jukebox until near the end, when he can’t resist singing along. He even does a couple of quick dance steps.
It may be as close as he comes to a public performance this year. Perhaps to avoid fueling the public fascination with his 64th birthday (he didn’t even do the song on last year’s tour), McCartney plans to maintain a low profile in 2006.
“I’ll do the Grammys…have a bit of fun there,” he says. “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Then I’m going to work on some projects. But no tour.”
Those projects will tap McCartney’s very active non-rock ‘n’ roll side. He’s a dedicated painter who moves between impressionism and abstraction. He cites American painter Willem de Kooning as an influence. For years, he kept his art private. But he finally held an exhibition in 1999 and has since allowed several of his paintings to be featured in a book. He also cowrote a children’s book last year and wrote a classical work, “Liverpool Oratorio,” that was released on record in 1993. This year he hopes to complete a classical choral work that he’s been toying with for years and to put some guitar sketches into an extended work.
Next year, though, he’ll surely think about another tour. He has done only five since the breakup of the Beatles but two in the last five years, and he’s more enthusiastic onstage each time around. Last year, for instance, he performed some 40 songs a night, reaching all the way back to a number that he, Lennon and George Harrison recorded before the Beatles days.
“A lot of people mentioned that I looked comfortable on the last tour, and that is true,” he says. “I love being onstage, working with a great band and feeling the affection. It never gets old.”