Interview for AARP Magazine • April 2006

You Say It's My Birthday?

Interview of Paul McCartney
Published by:
AARP Magazine
Interview by:
Anthony DeCurtis
Timeline More from year 2006

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What could Paul McCartney possibly have known about being sixty when, as a teenager, he wrote one of his most famous songs, “When I’m Sixty-Four”? The Beatles later recorded the tune when McCartney was 24, and, from that youthful vantage, 64 could only seem a time of cute, dithering romance as a hedge against loneliness (“You’ll be older too/And if you say the world/I could stay with you”), dead-end domesticity (“Don’t the garden, digging the weeds/Who could ask for more”), and a steady descent into mortality (“Yours sincerely, wasting away”) – all with a wink and a nudge. London was swinging, and the Beatles were the avatars of a seismic youthquake. Come on, who was ever going to get old? As it turns out, all of us. If not old, we have – the lucky ones – at least gotten older. Nearly 40 years after the release of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which appears on the Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, many of us are only a stone’s throw from that number – as is the eternally cherubic Sir Paul, who turns 64 June 18. Understandably, there was much about the future that McCartney could not foresee back in the halcyon days of peace and love. For one thing, he would have had a hard time imagining that he would still be playing rock’n’roll in his 60s. In an interview I conducted with him in London in 1987 for Rolling Stone, McCartney looked back on the Beatles’ early days and noted, “You see old interviews with us now, and Ringo says, ‘Well, you know, I might get lucky and have a string of hairdressing salons.’ That was the apex of his vision at the time. And John and I are talking nervously: ‘There might be 10 years in this.’ Remember, we were 18, 20, maybe, saying this. We couldn’t see playing rock’n’roll beyond 30. Of course, by the time we were 30, it was still all happening.” And today McCartney rocks on. Last year he released Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, a solo album that found him near the height of his creative powers. Many critics – including me, in a lead review for Rolling Stone – compared it favorably to McCartney, the album he put out in 1970 that essentially marked the end of the Beatles. More personally, he’s in a new marriage, and less than three years ago he became a father again. So, as he approaches 64, Sir Paul is hardly wasting away, as his song so pessimistically predicted. If anything, he’s experiencing reinvention and growth – but not without having been served his share of sorrow and doubt along the way. When I interviewed McCartney a second time, in 2001, once again for Rolling Stone, he described the emotional devastation he suffered when his first wife, Linda, died of breast cancer in 1998. Their union was enviable by any standard, but for a celebrity marriage it was an exteme rarity, and not only because of it’s longevity. During their 29 years together, the couple rarely spent time apart – the the point that Paul enlisted his wife to play keyboards and sing in his band, Wings, even though she was a photographer by trade, not a musician. Linda was roundly mocked, but Paul shook off the barbs. Having Linda in Wings just made the band more fun for him. Their greatest performance, though, was as parents. Paul and Linda had three children together, and he also adopted Heather, Linda’s daughter from a previous marriage. All four children have gone on to lead stable, productive lives, a tribute to the grounded, unpretentious way in which they were raised. Heather is a renowned potter whose work is sold and exhibited around the world; Mary, like Linda herself, has become a well-known photographer; Stella has made a prominent name for herself as a fashion designer; and James is a guitarist who has played on his father’s albums. “I must say that is one of the things that Linda and I always said: ‘Our greatest achievement is our kids,'” McCartney once told singer Chrissie Hynde for a story in USA Today Weekend. “People say that they are really good people.” Beyond that, Paul and Linda shared a passion for vegetarianism. They determined to give up meat for one day after making the emotional connection between the leg of lamb sitting on their meal plates and the lambs they were watching gambol on their farm in Scotland. Along with establishing a successful line of frozen vegetarian meals, Linda became an ardent animal rights activist, a commitment that Paul shares and continues to honor. Fame, wealth, and accomplishment did not shield McCartney from the wracking pain brought about by the death of a spouse. “I thought, ‘How the hell do I deal with this?'” he told me. “For about a year, I found myself crying – in all situations, anyone I met. Anyone who came over, the minute we talked about Linda, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry about this. I’ve got to cry.'” But McCartney, the man who famously advised “Take a sad song and make it better” slowly began to rebuild his life. He resumed his work as a musician and songwriter, and he explored other aspects of his creativity as well. He published Blackbird Singing, a collection of his poems and lyrics, and Paintings, a portfolio of the work he had done privately as a visual artist for nearly two decades. Most important, however, he fell in love again. He first spotted Heather Mills, a model and anti-land mines activist, about a year after Linda’s death at a charity event where they were both presenters. He initially contacted her about her work, but their relationship soon grew personal. McCartney then went on the sort of complex emotional journey that will be familiar to anyone who has once again sought romance after a beloved husband or wife has died. In his conversation with me in 2001, he called it “the married guilt.” “I beat myself up about that,” he said about finding himself attracted to Mills. Eventually, though, he came to understand that Linda would have wanted him to be happy. “So I started going out with Heather,” he recalled, “starting having a laugh, feeling good. ‘Oh, my God. Am I dating? I don’t believe it. I haven’t done this for 30 years! Can I do it?’ And it was, ‘Yes, you can.’ I started to fall for Heather. And that was it. That reawakening brought back a lot of energy.” McCartney’s new romance did not sit entirely well with his children, at least if you believe the tabloids, which have, in particular, gleefully reported feuds between Mills and Stella. Keep in mind, too, that Mills was 31 when she and McCartney met, barely older than McCartney’s biological children and younger than the daughter he had adopted. Given Mills’s age, the couple’s engagement also raised the prospect of a new family, something that is often hard even for adult children to accept. Publicly, at least, all the principals vigorously deny any rifts, and the press seems to have let up a bit. McCartney and Mills married in Ireland on June 11, 2002, in front of 300 family and friends. And, on October 28, 2003, Mills gave birth to their daughter, Beatrice Milly – just the thing to keep McCartney young. Indeed, McCartney has sought youthful influences in all areas of his life. In an admirable attempt to freshen up his approach to record making on Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, he collaborated with producer Nigel Godrich, who is 30 years his junior. Godrich, who was personally recommended to McCartney by the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, had earned his own reputation working with bands such as Radiohead and Travis. He proved anything but a yes man. McCartney recalled walking out of a session because Godrich dismissed one of his songs as “crap” – a word that McCartney had probably not heard spoken to his face since the breakup of the Beatles. But he checked his ego and wound up making an album that is both mature and bracingly contemporary. Chaos and Creation garnered McCartney three Grammy nominations, and Godrich was nominated for Producer of the Year. In addition, the Beatle who most enjoyed performing live enthusiastically hit the road last year, once again to rapturous reviews. McCartney was backed by a small group of mostly younger musicians who played as if they were in sweaty clubs rather than sold-out sports arenas. He toured for ten weeks and sold $83.2 million worth of tickets, making him one of the top-ten live performers of that year. And he had started off 2005 earning nearly $3.5 million for performing just four songs during the Super Bowl halftime show – that is more than $800,000 per song, a handsome rate even for a billionaire like Sir Paul. Given all that, you’d be forgiven if you thought that, having overcome some setbacks, Paul McCartney is now living a perfectly untroubled life. But no one’s life is a fairy tale, and even rich, happily married knights struggle with insecurities – at least McCartney does. He has begun to think about posterity, about the legacy he will leave behind. He has been shaken by unflattering comparisons made between him and John Lennon since Lennon’s murder in 1980. And it’s true – after Lennon died, some people foolishly seemed to believe that in order to praise him, they had to denigrate McCartney. “The minute John died, there started to be a revisionism,” McCartney explained to me in 2001. “There were some strange quotes, like ‘John was the only one in the Beatles.’ Or ‘Paul booked the studio.’ I don’t want to get into who said what, but that was attributed to someone who very much knew better.” It rankled McCartney, who recalled all the slights: “‘John was the Mozart; Paul was the Salieri.’ Like John was the real genius, and I was just the guy who sang ‘Yesterday’ – and I got lucky to do that.” “I tried to ignore it, but it built into an insecurity,” he continued. “People would say, ‘Paul, people know.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but what about 50 years in the future?’ If this revisionism gets around, a lot of kids will be like, ‘Did he have a group before Wings?'” McCartney’s proposed solution to this problem was far worse than the problem itself. Over the past ten years he has engaged in a protracted and often public battle with Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, to have the writing credits on a number of Beatles songs changed in various ways from the traditional Lennon-McCartney citation to reflect that McCartney was either the primary or the sole writer. To support his case, McCartney would point out, for example, that he wrote “Yesterday,” one of the most popular songs of all time, entirely on his own, and none of the other Beatles even played on it. But the Lennon-McCartney credit represents something far greater than either of the two men individually. While it might be interesting, and even important, for scholars and experts to determine the precise nature of each Beatle’s contribution to their songs, making too much of it diminishes the magic of the Beatles’ unrivaled collaborative achievements. For the moment, thankfully, McCartney seems content to leave the credits as they are. So, if age brings experience, satisfaction, and at least a modicum of wisdom, it does not, alas, deliver ideal happiness. But that’s precisely what makes an artist with the drive and ambition of Paul McCartney strive for more. And more will certainly come – more milestones, more awards, more honors – all in recognition of a body of work seldom equaled. And so best wishes on your 64th birthday, Sir Paul. It’s been a long and winding road for all of us, one made all the richer by the music you’ve provided to light us on our way.


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