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Paul McCartney: Yesterday & Today

Rolling Stone's March cover story on what makes a now-70-year-old Beatle run

June 18, 2012 2:25 PM ET
Paul McCartney: Yesterday & Today
Paul McCartney on the cover of Rolling Stone
Nadav Kander

This story is from the March 1st, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

On his way to work this morning, Paul McCartney had to wait for some pedestrians at a white-striped crosswalk. They stood in groups, cameras in hand, blocking a tree-lined London street. As McCartney sat patiently in his SUV, none of them looked his way – the tourists were too busy taking pictures of themselves crossing Abbey Road.

"It's happened to me a few times," McCartney says later, with a small laugh. "It's a moment I quite enjoy. There's a good, strong metaphor there. But there's so many metaphors in my life – I don't look for them. The life of a Beatle is full of metaphors."

Resisting an urge to jump out of the car and pose with his fans, he instead heads straight onto hallowed, if distinctly musty-smelling, ground: Abbey Road's Studio Two. "Welcome to my world," McCartney says, striding through double doors at the back of a high-ceilinged, rectangular, gymnasiumlike room. He's chomping on a piece of gum. "Ancient and modern. Every time I come in here, I unravel the whole story again. This is where it all happened."

The Beatles recorded most of their music, from "Love Me Do" to "The End," in this unglamorous, white-walled basement space – and passed their initial EMI audition here almost exactly 50 years ago. Aside from some newish acoustic baffles and a different clock, it's hardly changed. In one corner, McCartney yelped, "One, two, three, faw!" to start "I Saw Her Standing There"; in another, he slammed an E-major chord on one of the many pianos heard at the end of "A Day in the Life."

Right now, for no particular reason, he's playing drums. Within moments of his arrival, McCartney dashes over to his kit, grabs a pair of sticks and crashes through a few bars of a fast beat, heavy on the high-hat. It sounds distinctly Beatle-ish, or at least Wings-y.

McCartney points up at the corner staircase, which leads to the windowed control room where George Martin and the engineers worked. "That was where the grownups lived," he says. "Those stairs were so iconic it's engraved in your memory like a dream."

It's a windy late-January day, but in keeping with his eternal boyishness, the 69-year-old isn't wearing a jacket – just a black North Face vest over a pressed denim button-front shirt that's neatly tucked into his dark jeans, possibly also ironed. On his feet are black running shoes with white trim: If a Hard Day's Night mob scene should break out, he's ready to move. His ever-fab hair is more tousled than usual, and he looks a little pale today – he's been working too hard.

"This has so many memories for me, you couldn't imagine," McCartney says. "It's unbelievable." He points to the back corner "John standing over there, doing 'Girl.'" He sings the hook, imitating Lennon's sharp intake of breath and miming a deep puff on a joint. "People thought it was that – it wasn't! We just liked the sibilance of the sound. All the legendary stories that got created aren't true. I just saw some Beatles program the other night, and in the first five minutes were four mistakes. This is why we don't know who Shakespeare was or what really happened at the Battle of Hastings."

As the crosswalk incident suggests, a mythic four-headed shadow sometimes threatens to obscure Paul McCartney, actual living human – newlywed, near-billionaire, strict vegetarian, father of an eight-year-old girl (and four adult children), ageless performer of three-hour rock shows, frenetically active songwriter and recording artist, composer of ballets and symphonies, knight of the realm. With his new album, Kisses on the Bottom, McCartney is adding "crooner of standards" to that list – it's a jazzy collection of pre-rock tunes, with a couple of McCartney originals in that style snuck in.

He had delayed the standards album for years, in part because other people – from Ringo Starr in 1970 to Harry Nilsson in 1973 to Rod Stewart for what feels like the past thousand years – kept doing it. He also was hesitant to reinforce the once-prevalent image of him as a mere sentimental balladeer, the supposed flip side to John Lennon's raw rocker. "I am over it," McCartney says. "If people don't know the other side of me now, it's too late." Still, Kisses is a one-off. A week before the album's release, McCartney is already working on a new rock record. So far, he's been playing all the instruments himself: The bass, guitars, keyboards and drum kit set up in Studio Two are all his. "The plan was to do what I'm doing now, which is to almost immediately start into another studio album, so people don't think that that's it, I'm now in the jazz genre."

Today he's recording a song for that next album called "Hosannah" – an acoustic ballad that wouldn't be out of place on his first solo LP, 1970's McCartney (another one where he played everything). As he puts headphones on and gets down to work – summoning that trumpetlike tone from his familiar old violin-shaped Hofner bass, pounding his foot to the beat – it's almost hard to hear him with all the ghosts hanging in the air.

But McCartney doesn't see it that way: He likes working here, and he wears the past as lightly as he can. "As far as things hanging over it, that's something you live with," he says. "I live with that. When I write a song, I have my other songs hanging over it. I suppose the minute you write a decent song, that's a curse. You're always like, 'Oh, shit, I've just written "Eleanor Rigby," how am I going to top that?' I think you go, 'I'm not.' You just realize you're not going to top it, but you write 'Blackbird.' You go in another direction or whatever If you're lucky. I've always been aware of that phenomenon, but I've never let it block me."

McCartney is sufficiently self-aware to grasp another irony: Unlike other pop and rock artists who've recorded standards albums, he was responsible for knocking the Great American Songbook off its shelf in the first place (with help, of course, from Lennon and Bob Dylan). "We noticed it happening," he says. "We would see people we had admired saying, 'Oh, the Beatles have ruined it for us,' and we didn't mean to do that. We were just getting on with our own thing.

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