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I’m having a private audience with SIR PAUL McCARTNEY backstage at Japan’s famous Tokyo Dome, where he is preparing to perform for 50,000 in less than two hours. His wife Nancy Shevell lingers nervously outside, waiting to feed him a slice of cake even though he doesn’t like eating before gigs. This particular show has been delayed nearly a year.
Last May the 72-year-old legend ended up in a Tokyo hospital instead of on stage, struck down by a mystery virus that made headline news around the world, prompting serious fears for his health. But Macca insists he’s “fitter than before” and has given me unprecedented backstage access for two days to his Out There tour so I can understand his drive to keep up such a relentless schedule.
Incredibly, 2015 has been Macca’s most successful year in some time, with FourFive Seconds — his collaboration with rapper KANYE WEST and megastar RIHANNA — topping the charts. He’s started playing for me to illustrate how he helped create the song with KIM KARDASHIAN’s husband. And in a revelation sure to make many loyal Beatles fans bristle, he compares the process to writing with JOHN LENNON, someone he rarely talks about.
Paul explains: “When I wrote with John, he would sit down with a guitar. I would sit down. We’d ping-pong till we had a song. It was like that.”
He recalls: “We sat around and talked an awful lot just to break the ice. One of the stories I told him was about how I happened to have written Let It Be. My mum came to me in a dream when she’d died years previously. I was in a bit of a state — it was the Sixties and I was overdoing it. In the dream she said, ‘Don’t worry it’s all going to be fine, just let it be.’ And I woke up and thought, ‘Woah’ and wrote the song. I told Kanye this and he said, ‘I’m going to write a song with my mum.’ So then I sat down at the piano.”
At this point, Paul picks up the guitar again and sings the lyrics of the pair’s single Only One.
He says: “That’s about his mum. And his daughter North comes into the lyrics too. But it’s from the point of view of his mum in heaven singing to him, saying you’re my only one. It’s a very emotional song.”
Paul admits he was initially reluctant to get involved with firebrand Kanye and insisted on an agreement where all their work could be binned if he wasn’t satisfied.
He says: “My first thought was, ‘Woah, what am I going to get into here?’ He is amazingly talented but controversial and can make eccentric moves. I realised if it didn’t work out we’d just say so and shake hands and leave.”
Paul wasn’t worried about causing a bit of outrage, like the fact he co-wrote the song Kanye performed at the Brits that included repeated use of the N-word. In fact, I sense he relishes it. He smiles and says: “It was like when we got MBEs off the Queen — some people objected. They didn’t like the idea of four scruffs getting the same honour they got. We didn’t think anything of it. With The Beatles, there was always something. There was always someone complaining. They’d say, ‘Oohhh, their hair’s too long.’ We got used to it. We just rode it out.”
When Paul and Kanye’s track was first released, much was made of a tweet from a young Kanye fan who credited the rapper for “discovering” some new singer called Paul McCartney. Macca says: “It’s the best story so we should go with that, it got to be a big Twitter fight. In actual fact the fans who started it then admitted it was a joke. But the point is made. Kids who didn’t know me suddenly did because of Kanye and Rihanna.”
Paul chomps down on a few mixed nuts as we chat. He is very slight in person, barely filling out a fitted pink Vivienne Westwood shirt. But he looks healthy, something he credits to his strict vegetarian diet, which he enforces on the 300-strong crew he takes on the road. He beams when I tell him many assumed the worst last year when he was admitted to hospital because he has a reputation of being like Superman on tour. Nodding, he replies: “People thought it must have been something serious. I don’t cancel concerts, you know.”
Initially, Paul tried to battle through the illness. He says: “Our first thing was a soundcheck. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go.’ But I just got to the door and ran back and threw up. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll do tomorrow.’ But as the days went by I was just constantly sick. I was laid out for about a week. I didn’t eat — that’s one way to lose weight. Not recommended.”
Was it your body sending a message that you needed to slow down? “Could be, yeah,” he answers, before quickly brushing off the suggestion. “But I just think I got ill. In actual fact, it was quite a good thing.”
That’s because the notorious workaholic actually had to take an extended period of time off.
Paul explains: “Everyone said to me, ‘Oh, you’re going to hate that.’ But once I had this enforced rest it was really cool. I read everything I never had the time to read — my son-in-law’s film script. I could just sit down for three hours. I had fun gradually building my fitness up. After a week I was jogging.”
His enjoyment of the time off, of course, begs the question: Why continue with such a hectic touring schedule? After all, this is a man who has nothing left to prove. But Paul shakes his head at the mere implication he might slow down any time soon.
He says: “You know, this is what I do. This is what I love to do. When you see the show and see the reaction, it is pretty far out. It actually seems to get better and better.”
Paul lets me roam the hallways and chat with his crew, who refer to him affectionately as ‘the boss’.
It quickly becomes clear these people are like his extended family, many of whom view Paul as a brother or second father. His personal assistant and best friend, John Hammel, who has been on the road with Paul for 40 years, is the only other person allowed to handle his precious Hofner bass, which he has played since his time in The Beatles. Other than that, there are no demands. Apart from a margarita with a dash of orange liqueur after the show. Paul insists on leaving the hotel every morning with Nancy or John, usually without security.
He says: “I like to get fresh air and get away from the bubble. It’s easier than people think. We often go biking. We can get away fast.”
After a light lunch, Paul arrives at the venue at 3pm for a soundcheck concert, where he performs little known B-sides and album tracks for an hour to diehard fans. In the next three hours, he meets dignitaries, records local TV shows and plans that night’s setlist. There are some odd requests too. On one of the days I’m with him in Tokyo he has agreed to a photograph with a superfan, who is paying £17,000 to one of Paul’s favourite animal charities for the privilege.
The only time the vibe turns anything other than friendly is when I bring up recent comments from John Lennon’s late wife YOKO ONO, saying that RINGO STARR was “the most influential” member of The Beatles. He shakes his head and grunts with no affection whatsoever: “Good old Yoko is all I can say to that.”
But then he’s swiftly back to work. After all, this is a man who doesn’t have the time to look back — he’s got 39 songs to perform again tonight.
Macca says: “In Liverpool when I was 14 I saved up months of pocket money to buy a ticket to BILL HALEY & HIS COMETS. That was rock’n’roll hitting England. But I felt a little bit cheated because there was another act on the first half that I didn’t particularly want to see, they weren’t the whole bill. I’ve always had the sensibility — give people good value for money.”
Two-and-a-half hours later he bounces joyfully off stage, pops on a blue dressing gown, high fives the crew and jumps into his tour bus with Nancy and his band for celebratory drinks back at the hotel. It’s clear Macca never intends for his lifelong rock’n’roll tour to end.
Last updated on March 4, 2021