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- John Colapinto
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Memory Almost Full Official album.
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Paul McCartney’s music-publishing business occupies three stories in an elegant eighteenth-century building on Soho Square, in London. His office is on the third floor and is reached by a small elevator off the lobby or by a narrow staircase, whose walls are lined with framed photographs of McCartney and other sixties rock stars—including a black-and-white shot of a young Brian Jones taken by McCartney’s first wife, Linda, who died in 1998. The office, which overlooks the square, is furnished with a rolltop desk, a vintage jukebox, two large de Koonings, and a carpet featuring stylized musical notes—a Sammy Cahn-like touch that is nevertheless pure McCartney. Though he conceived the idea for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the first art-concept rock LP, he has never made a secret of his Tin Pan Alley inclinations. Besides being the surviving member of the most successful pop-songwriting partnership of the twentieth century, he is a music impresario whose company, M.P.L. Communications, owns rights to more than three thousand songs and Broadway shows, including Buddy Holly’s catalogue and the musicals “Annie,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “Grease”—all part of a show-business empire that, along with the royalty he earns on every Beatles record sold, has made him one of the richest men in England. While accountants on floors above and below him administer his musical properties, McCartney oversees various creative projects. When I visited him in May, these included a DVD compilation of his videos, including some Wings songs; a DVD of “Ecce Cor Meum,” a lush choral work; and his latest pop album, “Memory Almost Full,” a suite of deeply personal songs that reflect, often starkly, McCartney’s awareness of aging and loss as he approaches his sixty-fifth birthday, on June 18th. (It is a milestone that he admits he finds difficult to contemplate. “The thought is somewhat horrifying,” he told me. “It’s like ‘Well, no, this can’t be me.’ ”)
McCartney was sitting on a small sofa at one end of his office, peering at a laptop computer on the coffee table in front of him. He was dressed in a long-sleeved gray T-shirt, rust-colored pants in Glen plaid, and leather-free black running shoes. Arrayed in chairs around him were his project manager, Paddy Spinks; a female assistant; and five young men—employees of a Web-design company that is helping to promote “Memory Almost Full,” which will be released next week. Last year, McCartney decided not to renew his contract with E.M.I. Records, which had been his label since 1962, when the Beatles were signed by George Martin. McCartney’s new album will be the début release from Hear Music, a record label co-founded by Starbucks, and will be sold at the company’s coffee shops as well as at record stores and on iTunes—a first, since for years Apple Corps., the multimedia company that the Beatles founded in 1968, had been battling Steve Jobs over the use of the name Apple.
McCartney, who said that he had grown “sick” of the long lead times and “boring” promotional practices of conventional labels, decided to try this new method of distributing his music as “a way to get as excited about releasing a record as we used to be in the old days, with the Beatles.” He nevertheless seemed to find some aspects of the digital-download revolution difficult to adjust to. After looking at sample screen-saver images of himself lounging in a black armchair (the images will be available for download on his Web site), he and the Web team discussed how to promote “Nod Your Head,” a rousing rock tune on “Memory Almost Full.”
“Why not give the whole track as a free download and let people do their own videos?” Nick, one of the Web-team members, suggested. “They’ll post them on YouTube.”
McCartney glanced at Spinks, who sat just outside the circle. Nick, anticipating an objection, explained to McCartney that on the Internet you have to surrender a certain amount of control to fans, and see what happens. “That’s the essence of viral marketing,” he said.
“No, no,” McCartney said, eager to show a willingness to go along with the new methods. “I’m O.K. with giving the whole track free.” But he sounded a little uncertain. He looked again at Spinks.
“Let me think about it,” Spinks said.
McCartney turned to a video that the team planned to post on his Web site: shaky images of the New York studio where he recorded “Memory Almost Full.” As they huddled around the laptop to watch the clip, McCartney asked, “Shouldn’t we let people know I shot this?”
“We could, but—” one of the young men began.
“Because if Dylan shot that,” McCartney continued firmly, “I’d wanna know.”
The Web team began discussing ways to identify McCartney as the video’s author. One man suggested superimposing the word “PaulCam” over the images. McCartney said that he liked the idea. The meeting began to drift, and McCartney looked at his watch. The Web-team members quickly rose, and McCartney, dispensing pleasantries, ushered them, along with his assistant and Spinks, to the door. Then, putting on a suit jacket that matched his pants, he headed to lunch at a nearby restaurant.
McCartney’s hair, which he admits to dyeing, still falls in bangs over his forehead, but there are deep lines in his face, and the doe-like eyes that once set teen-age girls screaming have a rheumy quality. Yet, to a remarkable degree, his body retains its youthful vigor, and his stride, when he reached the sidewalk, called to mind the twenty-three-year-old who bounded across the grass at Shea Stadium in 1965, and the twenty-seven-year-old who strode barefoot over the zebra crossing on the cover of “Abbey Road.”
McCartney had not gone three steps on the sidewalk when a burly young man with a military haircut lunged into his path and thrust something at him: a CD—“The Beatles 1”—along with a black marker. McCartney took them and opened the CD’s jewel case.
“Put it to Lloyd,” the man said.
McCartney signed the CD and handed it back. “There you go, mate,” he said. Then, hands in his pockets, he resumed his walk.
The speed and violence with which the fan had accosted McCartney were jarring, and I remarked that the man could have been another Mark David Chapman.
“Yeah, or it could have been Jesus, come to give a blessing,” McCartney said. He added, “When your number’s up, it’s up.”
McCartney has recently suffered a series of tragedies, beginning with the death, from breast cancer, of Linda, to whom he had been married for twenty-nine years. George Harrison died of cancer in 2001, and, last year, McCartney separated from his second wife, Heather Mills, after four years of marriage. The split—and impending divorce—prompted ugly stories in the tabloids; several of them quoted leaked court papers in which Mills accused McCartney of drunkenness, and charged that he had pushed her into the bath during a quarrel and cut her on the arm with a broken wineglass. The week I arrived in London, the newspapers were filled with the testimony of a former bodyguard, who claimed that McCartney had been suffering from depression. McCartney told me that he usually tries to ignore the stories, but that he had seen those about the bodyguard’s claims. “This was actually in a shop where I was picking up another newspaper,” he said. “So you read it, and it’s just not true, and then you have to make the decision as to whether to counter it and say, ‘This is not true.’ But there’s too many of them. And I would just be spending my life not having lunch, not playing guitar, not making a record, just merely answering untrue allegations.” For this reason, he said, he has made a policy of not commenting on the divorce proceedings.
Still, there is an unmistakable sadness in McCartney’s gaze and muted manner, and even the up-tempo rock songs on “Memory Almost Full” are tinged with melancholy. The album’s penultimate track, “The End of the End,” is a fragile ballad in which he imagines his death and hopes that it will result not in grief among his survivors but in the telling of funny stories at his wake.
At Signor Zilli, a small, expensive Italian restaurant, McCartney was greeted by a grinning maître d’ with a comically pronounced Italian accent: “Ahh, Mister-a Paul-a! You come! You looka wonderful!” “It’s the medication,” McCartney quipped, glancing apologetically at the other diners. He was shown to a table near the front of the room; within a few minutes, a waiter appeared with an eggplant appetizer, a pasta entrée (he has been a vegetarian since the early seventies), and a glass of red wine. While he ate, McCartney talked about his life as a Beatle and his relationship with John Lennon. He recalled how Lennon had winced the first time McCartney played for him the opening lines of “I Saw Her Standing There,” which had originally been “She was just seventeen / She’d never been a beauty queen.” He mentioned that “If I Fell” was perhaps his favorite song by Lennon, and he expressed astonishment that the Beatles had ever come into existence. “What are the odds that those four guys would find each other?” he asked.
The chef, who had emerged from the kitchen, approached our table. He asked McCartney to sign his jacket. McCartney gamely autographed the front of the man’s uniform, then said that he had to return to his office. On the walk back to Soho Square, McCartney detoured down an alley, where, on the side of a shop’s wall, about ten feet off the ground, there was an enigmatic graffito made of tiny mosaic tiles depicting a television and, beside it, a primitive drawing of a head. McCartney had recently seen people photographing the images, and this had given him the idea of creating his own guerrilla graffiti campaign in the neighborhood, to promote his new album. He pulled out his cell phone and took a photograph of the wall. A man pushing a hand truck did a double take and stopped, staring.
“Hey,” McCartney said in a neutral tone.
“You want me to push you up the street, then?” the man asked, in a Cockney accent.
McCartney immediately relaxed. “Yeah,” he said, laughing. “I’ll just hop on.” A young man in tinted glasses appeared and gestured brusquely to McCartney with his cell phone. The man with the hand truck moved a step closer. McCartney realized that he was cornered. “Er—yeah,” he said. The man in the tinted glasses aimed his cell phone camera at McCartney, shifted his own head into the frame, and took a picture. Then, wordlessly, he took off. McCartney was clearly irritated. “O.K., I don’t usually do that,” he said, as he hurried up the street. The man with the hand truck caught up to him and asked for an autograph. McCartney, apologizing, said he had nothing to sign. The man complimented him on his 1983 album, “Pipes of Peace.” McCartney thanked him and began walking, even faster than before.
“That was my fault,” he said. “I stopped moving.”
The next day, McCartney was driven to Sussex, about two hours southwest of London, by his assistant John Hammel, who has worked for him for thirty-two years. McCartney owns a house in Sussex and has built a recording studio nearby. He had an appointment at the studio with Carlos Bonell, a classical guitarist who was helping him with some technical aspects of a guitar concerto. Bonell arrived a few minutes before McCartney did and waited in a small kitchen adjoining the control room. “Other pop musicians who have tried classical music often just tack together short, two- or three-minute snippets of melody to build up a nine-minute movement,” Bonell said. “Paul establishes a theme and knows how to develop it; he completely understands classical composition. Which is incredible in its way, because he can’t read or write music.” Bonell explained that his task in the studio is to transcribe on musical staff paper the passages that McCartney has composed on his guitar and on his computer. His first session with McCartney, in early May of last year, happened to fall on the morning when the British newspapers broke the news of McCartney’s separation from Mills. Bonell hadn’t heard. “I got here and before I met Paul I was asked by his assistant to ‘be discreet,’ ” he said. “I thought, Discreet? O.K., he’s a Beatle, after all. Then I met him and he told me straight out about it. Then he got down to work.” McCartney’s ability to focus on his music impressed Bonell. “You’d be in the middle of a passage, the phone would ring, and it would be Paul’s solicitor,” he said. “He would go and talk to him. Then, bang, it was right back into the piece.” Keith Smith, McCartney’s recording engineer, who was standing nearby, said that McCartney had come to the studio nearly every day for months after the separation. “He actually worked harder,” Smith said.
McCartney appeared in the kitchen just after 1 P.M., wearing a blue dress shirt and brown corduroys. He was in a jaunty mood. The previous evening, he had attended the Classical B.R.I.T. Awards, in London, where he had won in the category for best album, for “Ecce Cor Meum” (“Behold My Heart”), which he had begun composing in 1998, around the time that Linda was dying of cancer, and which he had completed, often in tears, he has said, after her death. I asked if he had gone out to celebrate after the ceremony. “No, actually,” he said. “Got a good night’s sleep, since I knew I was working today.”
He sipped some tea, then entered the control room, which was hung with batiks and dominated by a twenty-foot-long sixty-channel mixer. Bonell sat with a ream of staff paper in his lap; Smith was at the mixing board. McCartney faced them in a red swivel chair, and Hammel brought him a piece of whole-grain toast covered with melted cheese. While he ate, he talked with Smith about the awards ceremony, which they had both attended. Smith mentioned two female winners, who, he said, had been looking for McCartney afterward. “You’re kidding me!” McCartney said. “Ah,” he added in a mock-tragic tone, “they’re too young.”
Smith opened a sound file on his computer: a portion of the concerto that Bonell had recorded a year ago. No one in the room had heard the section since then. “Not since last May,” Smith said. “A bad time.”
“Not a wonderful month, no,” McCartney murmured. He leaned back and put his feet on the edge of the mixing console.
Smith clicked his mouse, and music poured from the speakers mounted above the console—a plangent swell of strings and brass overlaid by the precise embroidery of a classical guitar playing a melody with a Spanish influence. McCartney had used a synthesizer to create the orchestral sounds; later, he planned to assign real instruments to replace the computer-generated ones. “A very mellow trombone would get you that,” he said, as a soft, rounded tone joined the mix. “French horn, even. Very pianissimo.”
When the passage ended, an assistant entered the studio holding a CD recording of McCartney performing with Jools Holland, the British keyboard player and television host, and a small band on a recent radio program. McCartney instructed the assistant to put the CD in the player. The room filled with the sound of “Dance Tonight,” the opening track on “Memory Almost Full.” McCartney plays the mandolin and sings ostensibly happy lyrics (“Everybody gonna dance tonight / Everything gonna feel all right”), but his voice, once preternaturally smooth, has developed a rasp, and the song’s minor chords gave it a mournful air. McCartney listened, nodding in time to the music. When the song was over, Bonell pointed out that McCartney’s mandolin had been slightly out of tune.
“Yeah, I know,” McCartney said. “But I liked that. The Beatles always called it ‘a fairground sound’—the way music sounds when you hear it live. We used it on some of our early LPs.”
As Smith cued up a new section of the guitar concerto, McCartney continued to reminisce. “I remember when the Beatles first started to use orchestral arrangements,” he said. “George Martin would hire classical musicians to come to E.M.I. studios. There was a lot of smirking from the classical guys in the early days. When we were recording ‘Hey Jude,’ we asked them to add some handclaps in the sing-along at the end. One of them refused. He said, ‘I was not trained to clap.’ ” Bonell and Smith laughed.
Bonell began to transcribe a guitar passage while McCartney talked about his intermittent attempts to learn to read music: first, as a boy, when he briefly took piano lessons, and grew bored; and, later, as a Beatle, with the same result. “Now I don’t even want to learn,” he said. “The notes don’t seem to go with what I’m hearing.” He said that Lennon also could not read or write music. “Someone once told us that the Egyptian pharaohs couldn’t read or write—they had scribes to put down their thoughts. So John and I used to say, ‘We’re like the pharaohs!’ ”
After discussing the arrangement for a sweetly melodic movement called “Romance,” McCartney and Bonell went into an adjoining room with hardwood floors containing a concert grand piano, vibes, guitars, and other instruments. They sat beside each other on stools, facing a window through which they could see Smith in the control room. Both men picked up guitars and prepared to work on some passages that McCartney wanted to refine. But first he played the opening bars of a Bach bourrée. He said that he and George Harrison used to play it together as a “party piece” in the early sixties. He showed how one of the chords had become the opening notes to “Blackbird.” He played a snatch of that song, then stopped abruptly. “O.K., back to work!” he said. “That’s enough fun. It’ll end in tears.”
He asked Smith to play through the studio speakers a guitar phrase from the beginning of a movement called “Farmboy”—an ascending run of five notes that McCartney had recorded sometime earlier. Smith played the phrase. “O.K., stop there,” McCartney said. He turned to Bonell and explained that he wanted the figure to include “more notes.”
Bonell performed the phrase, adding more notes.
McCartney grunted. “I’m trying to get, like, twice the amount of notes in,” he said. “So instead of—” he played an arpeggio—“it should be. . . . ” He tried to play the sounds he heard in his mind, but stumbled.
Bonell’s fingers flew over the frets.
“Yeah,” McCartney said, still not hearing it. “Um, there’s a note on the way, a passing note.”
Bonell played a fancier run up the scale.
“Yeah,” McCartney said, dubiously. He attempted to sing the phrase but couldn’t capture it. “It just needs two notes for every one,” he persisted.
Bonell tried again.
“Yeah, that’s probably it,” McCartney said. But he didn’t sound sure. He suggested that they move on to another passage. They worked this way for almost an hour.
At 4:30 P.M., McCartney announced that the session was over. It was Friday, and Hammel was supposed to drive McCartney to Mills’s house in Brighton, to pick up Bea, the couple’s three-year-old daughter. McCartney, who has joint custody, never allows his work to interfere with his time with Bea. Last February, Steve Jobs invited him to play three songs at the public unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone. McCartney agreed, but reneged when he learned that the launch coincided with Bea’s nursery-school vacation.
McCartney’s father, Jim, was a cotton salesman and jazz trumpeter in Liverpool, who played local gigs with his group, Jim Mac’s Jazz Band, in the twenties. McCartney’s mother, Mary, a midwife, was the main breadwinner. The family moved frequently around Liverpool when McCartney was a boy, and was always strapped for cash, but McCartney recalls a happy childhood, in which music had a significant role. His father played jazz standards on the piano and took him to brass-band concerts. In his teens, McCartney started listening to local skiffle groups, and fell in love with Elvis and Little Richard. When he was fourteen, he traded a trumpet his father had given him for a guitar. That year, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and died soon after. Around that time, McCartney wrote his first song, “I Lost My Little Girl,” a love ballad. “I didn’t think I was writing anything to do with my mum,” he said. “But from this perspective I possibly was.” He explained, “She died when I was fourteen, so you get that terrible thing of not being able to picture her face, after a few years. It’s sort of a horrific feeling of slipping away.”
McCartney’s father, in an effort to get Paul and his younger brother, Michael, to go to bed on time, had rigged up a radio receiver and earphones in their room. Paul fell asleep each night listening to music and radio plays, and he has said that this “did incredible things to your imagination.” He told me that some of the sonic games on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” derived from his memories of listening to the radio. McCartney conceived the idea of opening the album with the sound of a crowd laughing when he recalled the excitement and mystery of hearing laughter from an unseen studio audience in a radio show. “You didn’t know what made them laugh. Did someone’s pants fall down? What was it? That’s what we were trying to re-create. Putting in those things that got your imagination going.”
On July 6, 1957, when McCartney was fifteen, his friend Ivan Vaughan persuaded him to attend the Woolton Parish Church fête, across town in Liverpool, to watch a skiffle band led by a student from Quarry Bank High School. McCartney was riveted by the band’s sixteen-year-old leader, John Lennon, who was playing banjo chords on an incorrectly tuned guitar and making up lyrics as he went along. After the show, McCartney joined the musicians backstage, sat down at the piano, and began to show off. He played a song by Jerry Lee Lewis, then, borrowing a guitar, played Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” A few days later, McCartney learned through a mutual friend that Lennon wanted him to join his band. Lennon later admitted to the Beatles’ early biographer Hunter Davies that he had struggled with the decision. “I’d been kingpin up to then,” he said. “Now, I thought, if I take him on, what will happen?”
McCartney taught Lennon how to tune a guitar and form proper chords, and after playing his first gig with the Quarry Men—a club dance—revealed that he had written a few songs. He played “I Lost My Little Girl” for Lennon, who responded by writing a song of his own. The two began skipping school, hanging out at McCartney’s house, and writing songs together. “If he did something good, I’d want to do something better,” McCartney said. “If I did something good, he’d want to do something better. It’s just the way we worked.” Later, he added, “None of us could read or write music, so it was all intuitive. That’s what was so exciting about it. You heard a chord and ‘What was that? What happened?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Do it again!’ ”
As aspiring songwriters who also wanted to perform their work, Lennon and McCartney had no role models; at the time, most rock musicians sang songs written by professional writers. Buddy Holly was an exception. “We loved him,” McCartney said. “I remember hearing ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and the lyric ‘That’ll be the day-hey-hey when I die.’ ” He paused. “Die? In a pop song? That was dark, man. We loved that.” McCartney also admired older songwriters—Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin—and was delighted to learn that Lennon shared his enthusiasm. “One of John’s favorite songs was called ‘Little White Lies’ ”—written by Walter Donaldson, in 1930—“and that always surprised me, when I met him. I went, ‘Ahh, wow.’ That was something we had in common.” They strove to incorporate the structural complexities, lyrical sophistication, and elastic chord changes of those classic songs into their rock-and-roll songwriting.
In the first year of their friendship, McCartney and Lennon wrote a hundred songs, two of which, “Love Me Do” and “The One After 909,” eventually made it onto Beatles albums. Meanwhile, McCartney was still attending grammar school, at the Liverpool Institute. On his daily bus ride, he had become aware of a schoolmate, almost a year his junior, who got on one stop after him. The boy wore rock-and-roll clothing and had an Elvis pompadour, which aroused McCartney’s interest. “But, being an older guy, you didn’t strike up a conversation,” he said. One day, the boy sat next to McCartney and introduced himself. His name was George Harrison, and he played the guitar. McCartney and Harrison got together to jam, and in 1958, at McCartney’s urging, Lennon invited the four-teen-year-old Harrison to join the band.
The Quarry Men was no longer a high-school band singing improvised lyrics but had become a well-rehearsed group with an accomplished lead guitarist, original songs, and professional ambitions. This transformation was largely the result of McCartney’s drive and focus, despite Lennon’s title as leader. When I pointed this out to McCartney, he shrugged. “I’ve got a lot to answer for,” he said.
In the summer of 1958, Lennon’s mother, Julia, was killed by a car driven by an off-duty police officer, and Lennon became, like McCartney, a motherless teen-ager. “That was a big bond for us,” McCartney told me. But the friendship was not highly demonstrative. “We were Northern boys, and you didn’t talk about your feelings. You didn’t sit around complimenting each other,” McCartney said. “So when he said something, you knew he meant it. I remember one time when we’d been skiing all day and we were back at the hotel room, and John and I were paired up in a room, and George and Ringo were in another, and we were listening to a cassette tape of ‘Here, There and Everywhere’—one that I wrote.” He paused. “Which album is that on? Is that ‘Revolver’? Anyway, I remember John was taking off his ski boots and he said, ‘That’s a good one, there.’ And I just felt great. That was true praise.”
In 1960, after playing at second-tier venues around Liverpool and doing a short tour in Scotland, the group (now calling itself the Beatles, a play on Buddy Holly’s backup band, the Crickets) was booked for several performances in Hamburg, Germany. With Pete Best on drums and Stuart Sutcliffe on bass, they played marathon gigs of several hours each, fortifying themselves with beer and amphetamines. The following year, they returned to Hamburg, where they began wearing their hair combed forward, in a style devised by Astrid Kirchherr, a German art student who was Sutcliffe’s girlfriend. In Liverpool, the Beatles had become the main attraction at the Cavern Club, where, in late 1961, Brian Epstein, the manager of a local record store, saw them play. He became their manager, and, on June 6, 1962, the Beatles secured a record deal at E.M.I. Four months later, with Ringo Starr on drums, they released their first single, “Love Me Do.” It reached No. 17 on the British charts. In January, 1963, they released their second single, “Please Please Me,” which went to No. 1, and the following February the Beatles came to America to play the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
McCartney owns a house in London, on a secluded street in St. John’s Wood, a short walk from the E.M.I. recording studios, on Abbey Road. (He divides his time between London and Sussex.) He bought the house in 1964, and wrote many of the Beatles’ most famous songs there, with Lennon and on his own. The house, an unpretentious, three-story Edwardian, is shielded from the street by a ten-foot brick wall and an automatic safety gate, which McCartney operates by remote control. McCartney arrived at the house at midday on Tuesday, after spending the weekend and Monday, a bank holiday, with Bea. Later that afternoon, he was to meet his eldest daughter, Mary, a photographer, who planned to take pictures of him that would be used to promote the new album. (McCartney has two other children by Linda—Stella, a fashion designer, and James, a musician—and he is the adoptive father of Heather, Linda’s daughter from a previous marriage, who is a potter.)
McCartney was dressed in a gray-brown suit, the knot of his tie pulled down, his shirt collar open. He unlocked the front door and showed me into a wide entry hall, which was lined with framed photographs, many of them taken by McCartney himself, including one of a road worker in India wearing a psychedelic-looking costume, and spattered with mud. There was a large bouquet of flowers in a vase on a table, and, in the kitchen nearby, McCartney’s flower arranger was trimming the stems of still more blooms. (The bouquets are changed each week.) His housekeeper, Maria, was at the stove. McCartney greeted them cheerfully and led me to a large living room at the back of the house. The immaculate room contained a big square wooden coffee table, a couch, several armchairs, and a bookcase, and the walls were hung with modern art: a canvas by Philip Guston, another de Kooning, and an expressionistic oil painting of a steer, by McCartney himself; he pointed out, with pride, the sinuous freehand line with which he had drawn the animal’s horns. A pair of French doors at one end of the room opened onto a sunlit garden. A winding central path led to a small geodesic dome, which McCartney had built in the sixties to use for meditation.
In a corner of the room was a well-polished upright piano with yellowed ivory keys. “This was my dad’s piano,” McCartney said. “More amazingly, it was bought from Brian Epstein’s father—Harry Epstein—when none of us had ever heard of the Epstein family. But they had a shop in Liverpool that sold musical instruments. It was called North End Music Stores—NEMS—which is what Brian’s company was. We, the Beatles, were signed to NEMS enterprises. My dad bought this when I was a boy.” McCartney leaned over the keyboard and played a rippling arpeggio. The piano had a warm, old-fashioned tone. He launched into the barrelhouse introduction to “Lady Madonna.” After a couple of bars, he stopped and straightened up. “I had in here, in the sixties, a Steinway that I have in my house in the country now, a baby grand, which I wrote most of the Beatles stuff on,” he said. He added that in this room he and Lennon had worked on the sequence for the medley on the second side of “Abbey Road.”
McCartney moved to a set of bookshelves that held two small framed photographs of him and his brother, Michael, as children, posing with their parents. He pulled out a hardcover copy of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and opened it to the flyleaf. “This is from Auntie Dil,” he said. The book was inscribed “To Paul” and dated 1953. “I didn’t like it at all,” he said, replacing it on the shelf. “I liked that Auntie Dil gave it me. Trying to keep me on the straight and narrow.” He turned and walked toward the kitchen, calling to his housekeeper by crooning, “Maria, I just met a girl called Maria.” He asked her for tea with soy milk, and soon she appeared in the living room, carrying a teapot and cups on a silver tray. “Would you like me to pour?” she asked.
“We’ll pour!” McCartney said, sounding aghast.
When McCartney was about sixteen, he wrote the song “When I’m Sixty-Four” on his father’s piano. “It really is weird,” he said. “You get to sixty-four, you go, ‘Why did I write a song called “When I’m Sixty-Four”?’ ” For years, the song was a bouncy instrumental, without lyrics. “It was like a musical spoof,” he said. “But then what happened, years later—another great thing about John and I having known each other so long and so intimately is he would often say to me, ‘What about that tune, that thing you always used to play on the piano? You should do something with that.’ ” McCartney wrote the lyrics in his twenties, and recorded the song for the “Sgt. Pepper” album. “It was the right time to write the lyric,” he said. “It’s a more sophisticated lyric than I would have written at sixteen, that’s for sure. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, which helps. ‘Stating point of view.’ ‘Fill in a form.’ It’s quite cool. It’s quite an economical lyric. I heard it recently.” He laughed. “Obviously! Heard it a lot recently—I wonder why?
“But another one John said to me was ‘Michelle,’ ” McCartney went on, referring to the ballad from “Rubber Soul,” which contains several lines in French. The song’s melody dates to the Beatles’ first days together, when Lennon was attending the Liverpool College of Art, and would invite McCartney and Harrison to parties with his classmates. “We used to go in black turtleneck sweaters and try to look enigmatic and older,” McCartney said. “All the girls were older. And one of the things I used to do was sit in the corner with a guitar and try to look interesting and French.” He would play the chords that would eventually become “Michelle,” and mutter pseudo-French phrases. “So John said, years later, ‘What about that “French” song you used to do? That’s got a good tune.’ ” His friend Ivan Vaughan was married to a woman who studied French. “So I’d go round her house and say, ‘Gimme some clues. I’ve got this idea for “Michelle.” What rhymes with that?’ She’d go, ‘Belle,’ and I’d go, ‘O.K., wait a minute: ma belle. Oh yeah, good.’ ”
As the Beatles matured, Lennon and McCartney collaborated less directly on songs, but they continued to trade ideas. McCartney began writing “Paperback Writer” in 1965, after reading in the Daily Mail about an aspiring author—possibly Martin Amis, he said. He imagined the song as a would-be author’s pleading letter to a publisher. One day, he arrived at Lennon’s house, in the London suburb of Weybridge. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve got an idea here, it’s a letter.’ He said, ‘Yeah, what?’ I said, ‘Something like this: “Dear Sir or Madam” ’—and I virtually read out this letter to him. And he said, ‘Good, that’s it.’ I said, ‘Well, we could—’ And he said, ‘No, that’s it. Done it!’ That’s a good collaborator.”
The melody to “Yesterday,” also from 1965, came to McCartney in a dream. He brought it to Lennon, unfinished, with nonsense lyrics as a place holder: “Scrambled eggs, oh my, baby, how I love your legs.” The song became a standing joke between them for days while they tried to find words to fit the melody. McCartney finally wrote the lyrics during a three-hour car trip from Lisbon to the south of Portugal which he took with his girlfriend at the time, Jane Asher. “The words are quite mature for a kid,” McCartney said. “Rather kind of dark. Yet it doesn’t communicate itself as too dark somehow. But again I wonder, psychologically, looking at that now, I sort of think of the words ‘Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say. I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.’ Was that harking back to my mum?”
McCartney was no less accomplished as a bass player than he was as a songwriter, though he took up the instrument only after the Beatles’ original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, quit the band, in 1961. “I thought, O.K., I’m lumbered with it, let’s think of something to do here,” McCartney told me. “And James Jamerson, the Motown bass player, provided the answer. His bass lines were so seriously good.” However, McCartney developed a unique style, using his gift for melody to compose counterpoint bass lines that added to the Beatles’ songs a movement and depth still unequalled in popular music. Lennon told an interviewer in 1980, “Paul was one of the most innovative bass players who ever played bass.” McCartney’s other notable talent was his singing voice, which he could alter to fit whatever style of song he was playing: throwing his voice into an ecstatic high register, like a young Elvis Presley, on a song like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or belting like Little Richard on “I’m Down.” “I’m very lucky with my voice,” McCartney said. “I have no idea how it happens.”
Between 1963 and the end of 1965, the Beatles wrote and recorded six albums: “Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Beatles for Sale,” “Help!,” and “Rubber Soul.” They also toured regularly, and starred in two movies, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” This productivity was possible, in part, because of the system then in place for making records. “In the very early days, we were just told by the grownups—George Martin and the producers—what they wanted,” McCartney said. “They’d say, ‘We need so many songs, you come in at ten o’clock, you’ve got a half hour to have a cup of tea and tune up, we’ll start recording at ten-thirty, you’ll go to one-thirty. You’ve then got an hour break until two-thirty, then we’ll record until five-thirty. In that morning section, we’ll do two songs, and in the afternoon two more.’ It was fascinating. Often, George and Ringo hadn’t even heard the song. John and I would say, ‘Goes like this’ ”—he sings the chorus to Lennon’s song “Girl,” from “Rubber Soul,” in which Lennon intersperses each yearning sigh of the word “girl” with a long, hissing inhale. “And John would say, ‘I want a breathing thing. I want to breathe in.’ All the ideas would spill out there and then. Obviously George and Ringo were so brilliant that they would just go, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ They wouldn’t go, ‘What do you mean?’ None of that. Ringo would stand there with his sticks, do a couple of beats. We’d just go to our things and play.
“Because of that way of working,” he continued, “you knocked off at five-thirty, so now you had time for an evening. Very civilized. I was living in London, so I’d go to the National to see Colin Blakely in ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ go to the movies, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd,’ go to an exhibition, a reception. All these great things. So the next morning, when you’re having your cup of tea before recording, you’d be talking about that, and you’d be informed by it.”
His new record includes a song called “That Was Me,” an upbeat rock tune on which he demonstrates that his voice is still capable of startling clarity and range. The song contains a verse about his Beatle days: “That was me / Sweating cobwebs / Under contract / In the cellar / On TV / That was me!” I mentioned that the song seems to express amazement at the life he has led.
“That’s exactly it, and I am amazed,” he said. “How could I not be? Unless I just totally blocked it off. There were four people in the Beatles, and I was one of them. There were two people in the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, and I was one of them. I mean, right there, that’s enough for anyone’s life. And there was one guy who wrote ‘Yesterday,’ and I was him. One guy who wrote ‘Let It Be,’ ‘Fool on the Hill,’ ‘Lady Madonna’—and I was him, too. All of these things would be enough for anyone’s life. So to be involved in all of them is pretty surprising. And you have to pinch yourself. That’s what that song is about.”
At the same time, McCartney said, the Beatles’ legacy can be a burden. “You’re always doing stuff in the shadow of something, and obviously if you’ve been in the Beatles you’re in a big shadow,” he said. “So that now I can write a song and I must admit that there is an element of naturally dismissing it. Thinking, It’s O.K.” Nevertheless, he added, there are a few songs on his new album, such as “The End of the End,” which he can listen to and say, “Shit, that’s really good.” In particular, he said, he likes the ingeniously circular lines:
On the day that I die
I’d like jokes to be told
And stories of old
To be rolled out like carpets
That children have played on
And laid on while listening
To stories of old.
“But no,” he went on. “There is this sort of inevitable perception that takes time to wash off. It’s like a layer of dust that naturally attaches itself to whatever you do. Dylan said it well when he was asked if he’d ever write another song like ‘Tambourine Man,’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t—that was then.’ I think there is a huge truth in that. You couldn’t. I’m not going to be as interested, perhaps, in the subject of a young paperback writer now as I was then, because I was a young paperback writer, sort of. My age group was. So ‘Paperback Writer’ in itself wouldn’t happen now.”
My last meeting with McCartney took place in Regent’s Park, near his London home. He had suggested that we meet at a small café beside a boat pond on the park’s western edge. I arrived a few minutes early. The sky was overcast and threatening rain, and the park was deserted. In the distance, I saw McCartney enter the park, wearing a chocolate-colored suit and a blue shirt. He stopped and gazed at an empty children’s playground. Then he saw me, waved, and joined me at a table on the patio of the café. This seemed an appropriate setting to discuss the Beatles’ breakup, which began after the recording of “The Beatles” (known as “The White Album”), in 1968, when Lennon had fallen in love with Yoko Ono, and conflicts over business decisions were dividing the group. In 1969, Lennon persuaded George Harrison and Ringo Starr that the band should hire Allen Klein, an abrasive, tough-talking American, as its manager. (Brian Epstein had died two years earlier.) McCartney wanted to hire his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, a lawyer. The other Beatles felt that this arrangement would give McCartney an unfair advantage, and accused him of trying to exert too much control over the band. The three other Beatles signed with Klein, but McCartney held out. In May, 1969, Klein renegotiated the band’s contract with E.M.I. The new agreement called for the group to produce two new albums a year until 1976, at an unprecedented royalty rate (up from thirty-nine cents per LP sold to fifty-eight cents, until 1972, after which it would increase to seventy-two cents).
In January, 1969, the group had begun filming the movie “Let It Be,” which was intended to show the Beatles happily recording a new album. Instead, it documented the group’s dissolution, portraying Harrison as surly and bitter, Starr as morose and listless, and Lennon as withdrawn from everyone except Ono, who was always at his side. McCartney is shown repeatedly trying, and failing, to inspire camaraderie and excitement in his bandmates. Ono’s presence at every session was clearly an obstacle.
I suggested to McCartney that it’s difficult to know whom to blame for Ono’s presence at the sessions—Lennon, who brought her along, or Ono, who stayed when she was obviously unwelcome. “Let’s not blame either of them,” he said. “It’s a long time ago and it’s water under the bridge. They were . . . in love. And that excuses an awful lot of things.” Lennon, it has since been reported, was also using heroin at the time, which didn’t help communication between him and McCartney. I asked McCartney how significant Lennon’s drug habit was. “I actually don’t know,” he said. “John and I never talked about it.” He added that he can’t bear to watch “Let It Be.”
In late 1969, when the differences among the Beatles proved insoluble, the band broke up (the split was made public a few months later), and McCartney suffered what he has described as a breakdown. “Withdrawal from the band,” he told me. “But it wasn’t just that the band had broken up. It was the circumstances under which the band had broken up. I actually had to sue them. There was no other way. I tried for months to find some other way. I tried originally to sue Allen Klein, to get him out of the picture and just sort of tidy up. But he wasn’t a party to any of the agreements. And they said the only people you can sue are the other Beatles. I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that.’ So this then plunged me into sort of—not a depression, but a difficult, a very difficult time, where I was going to meetings and it was three against one. And that’s not fun. When they’re your friends.
“There are people still, to this day, who say, ‘He sued his friends,’ ” he continued. “As if I did it lightly. Like it was a fun thing for me to do.”
Suddenly, a young woman was standing nearby. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but can I take a picture of my sons with you?” Her two small boys stood some way off. McCartney, unhappy about the intrusion, said politely, “I’d rather not, actually, if you don’t mind. I’ll shake hands with you. But I don’t do photos.”
“I want to send to my parents—”
“I know, darling, you and everyone. But I don’t do it. That’s why. I hope you don’t mind. I hope you don’t think I’m being big-headed—”
“No!” she said.
“But I think your sons are wonderful.”
Eventually the woman went away, and McCartney said, “Everyone’s got a camera. Everyone’s got a phone, man. It’s not just the paparazzi—which I’ve had two of this morning. And I’ve had two requests from the public as well, to take a photo with them. And I don’t want to take a photo with every single person in the world—especially when I’m having a private moment.”
I returned to the subject of the Beatles’ breakup. “It really was hellishly tough times and I very nearly went under,” he said. “I was suing my friends, I wasn’t working, I was drinking in the daytime to try to sort of pretend I was ‘partying,’ and I wasn’t. And Linda was my savior. Linda was absolutely my savior. Strong woman. She just was able to hang in there and help me hang in there.” I asked if any songs had come out of this dark period. He thought for a moment, and said, “ ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ ”—a power ballad about his need for Linda at a time in his life when, as he sings in the song, “I’m a lonely man who’s in the middle of something that he doesn’t really understand.” The song appeared on his first, extraordinary solo album, “McCartney,” which was released in April, 1970, days after the Beatles announced their breakup.
In March, 1971, the British High Court ruled in McCartney’s favor in his case against Lennon, Harrison, and Starr, and the Beatles’ business affairs were put in receivership, effectively disempowering Klein. “Then it was all finished,” McCartney said. “We got rid of Klein. Over the years, our friendship came back. And the guys, one by one, thanked me.” By 1972, the other Beatles had grown disenchanted with Klein and did not renew their contracts with him. Klein sued the Beatles for breach of contract, and they countersued. (The cases were eventually settled out of court.)
In the mid-seventies, McCartney and Lennon, after not having seen each other for years, got together in New York, where Lennon had moved. “He was clean and wonderful,” McCartney recalled. “I’d meet him when I’d go through New York often—to regain the feeling we had in our early days was a great, full-circle type thing.” By the time of Lennon’s murder, in December, 1980, they were friends again. “Which is something that I’m eternally grateful for,” McCartney said. “That would have been really difficult if we hadn’t.”
A cold drizzle began. McCartney suggested that we go into the café, which was empty. We sat in a corner. I was curious to know whether he thought of the sixties as a magical time. “I think I remember it in that way,” he said, without conviction. “But, like everything, there’s the juxtaposition. When I wrote ‘Let It Be,’ for instance”—a song that begins “When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me”—“I’d been partying too much. I had a sort of dream where my mum came to me and said, ‘It’ll be O.K. Let it be.’ That’s where the song came from. So I obviously wasn’t doing too great. It was not just the golden memories.”
The mention of his mother—whom he referred to in his conversations with me almost as often as he did to the Beatles—reminded me of something McCartney had said on our first meeting in his office at M.P.L., five days earlier. That day had been sunny and mild, the kind of beautiful spring afternoon in London that had inspired him to write the joyous “Good Day Sunshine,” from “Revolver.” We had been talking about the many losses he has lately suffered.
“I’m the same as anyone else as far as all that’s concerned,” he had said. “Losing my mum when I was fourteen was a major tragic event in my life. But, when I think about myself, I am, over all, pretty optimistic, pretty enthusiastic, pretty much into getting on. One of the reasons being, she would want that. I know for certain she would want that. I know Linda would want that. I know John would want that, and George would want that. My dad would want that. They were very, very positive people. And the idea that their deaths would plunge me into some sort of morose depression would bother them. I know that for a fact. So that helps me to not go there. ” As he spoke, his eyes moved to the large window overlooking Soho Square, where the sunlight flickered in the new leaves. “When the sun is shining, as it is today,” he said, “I’m in love.”