As Paul McCartney strolls along Manhattan's Sixth Avenue on a spectacular fall day, he leaves a trail of stunned people in his wake. Some just stop dead in their tracks and stare slack-jawed as he walks by. Some smile and nod. Others call out to him – "Hey, Paul!" – or shake his hand. Wearing sunglasses and a navy blue V-neck sweater over a white T-shirt, with a sharp blue jacket slung over his shoulder, McCartney has a good word or a thumbs up for everyone. He's weaving that old Beatles magic, and he knows it.
He also knows that New York needs it. He watched the Twin Towers burn on September 11th while seated in an airplane on the tarmac at Kennedy airport with his fiancée, Heather Mills. The plane never left the ground. Instead, McCartney and Mills retreated to their house on Long Island and continued to watch the devastation on TV. "There was a sense of shock being here," he says after sitting down for lunch at a restaurant on West Fifty-seventh Street. "The normal ebullient mood wasn't there. It was much more somber."
About a week after the attack, McCartney and Mills quietly visited Ground Zero. "Heather and I went out to dinner," he recalls, "and when we finished, I said, 'Would you like to get a cab and see how near we can get?' So we took a cab, and we went down to Canal Street, and then we started walking. It was raining. We went up to the police lines and asked, 'Could we go down here?' A few of the guys recognized me and said, 'Well, you can come through, Paul!'
"It was that kind of spirit," he continues. "It was like, 'Good, you're down here,' and I was like, 'It's great what you're doing.' Of course, the nearer we got, the smoke was in our clothes, in our eyes. You could see all the spotlights. We just stood there, said a little prayer, and that was it. Then we went to this bar nearby, which was nearly empty; maybe a couple of rescue workers were there. I said, 'I need a stiff drink.'"
Then McCartney became determined to help revive the city, taking his cues from Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I thought Giuliani was really good about saying, 'We've got to get back to work,'" he says. "If we don't, the terrorists achieve one of their objectives. I think he came out of this looking really good." Most prominently, McCartney headlined and helped organize the Concert for New York City, which raised more than $30 million for relief efforts. But perhaps just as important, he was a continual, visible, inspiring presence in the city, including at Yankee Stadium, where he could be seen on national television drinking Budweisers, cheering enthusiastically for the Yankees and leaping up to sing along with the chorus of "I Saw Her Standing There," which blared over the PA in his honor. "That was only my second time at Yankee Stadium," he mentions, as we walk along Sixth Avenue, adding with a wink, "though I've been to Shea Stadium a couple of times."
All that activity capped what has been a stellar year, even by the standards of a former Beatle. First of all, the Beatles collection 1 went to Number One in thirty-four countries around the world and was one of the best-selling albums of the year. Then the double-CD Wings compilation, Wingspan (with an accompanying documentary film, to be released this month), not only fared well commercially but served an important emotional purpose. "It was therapeutic," McCartney says, "seeing Linda in Wings. I know she wanted a record of that. Once you do that, then you do have a form of closure on it." He published a collection of his poems and lyrics called Blackbird Singing. And, finally, he has also just released Driving Rain, his first album of new songs in four years. And does anyone not know that he got engaged? No wonder, when it's said that he's had quite a year, McCartney simply responds, "Already." There's a few weeks left, after all.
You've had an amazing burst of energy this year.
Well, it all goes back to losing Linda [in 1998]. When that happened, obviously, my world collapsed. We'd been fighting a battle [with Linda's breast cancer] for about a year and a half. All our efforts, every single thing, had been to beat it. And in the end, we lost the battle. It was just staggering. Linda and I had been together for thirty years. Four kids. It was... shocking. I thought, "How the hell do I deal with this?" 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." People had said, "Immerse yourself in work," and I said, "I don't think so." I ended up toward the end of the year doing Run Devil Run, the rock & roll album, because Linda had wanted me to do it. That was a good jumping-off point.
You also did some work on her solo record.
That's right. Anything that was Linda-related I could just about cope with. Then, once the seasons had gone around once, I started to notice a lightening of my mood. I was coming out of my shell a little bit, because I had thought that I was going to be, like, a monk. Linda was my only love, and it was very unlikely it was going to happen again, so I thought, "I must just pull away and retire." But after a year or so, I started to think, "Maybe not."
Then I met Heather, and I noticed that I liked the way she looked. I said, "Wait a minute, you're looking at other women." Immediately it was like, "Uh-oh. You can't do that." The married guilt. I beat myself up a bit about that. But I referred it all to Linda, and I started to get the message that it was OK, that she wouldn't mind.
She communicated with you?
Nothing you'd really want to go into, because it's very private, but there were strange, metaphysical occurrences that seemed to mean something. Animal noises. Bird noises. You'd ask yourself a question under the stars, and, like, there'd be like an owl in the valley going whoo-whoo-whoo. Things like that.
So I started going out with Heather. Started having a laugh, feeling good. "Oh, my God — am I dating? I don't believe it. I haven't done this for thirty 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. I started to write quite a bit more, and I thought, "Ah, I'll make a new album."
"Driving Rain" traces some of that emotional journey.
But it's not obvious. I mean, someone said, "We expected it to be very somber, very serious," and I had an idea that maybe it would go that way. But I let it flow, and it didn't. Also, I hadn't had a good play in a while. When you're a musician, you do love to play, which you forget sometimes when you're doing other stuff. So it was good to just get back with a few guys and sit around and go [moves his hands as if he's fingering a bass] dum-dum, dum-dum.
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