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Paul McCartney: Yesterday & Today

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"We didn't want to lay waste to the past, but it happened that way, so that people like Harold Arlen, who we greatly admired for writing things like 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' fell out of fashion as we came into fashion, and there was no longer such a desperate call for great writers like Leiber and Stoller, because people were starting to copy us and write their own stuff. So the Hollies and the Stones would then start writing, thinking, 'This is kind of a cool idea.' So, yeah, it did start a fashion, which tended to wipe out, regrettably, some of our favorite people."

It's the day after his recording session, and McCartney is back in Studio Two, sitting on a folding chair at a small wooden table, right between the vintage keyboards he's brought in. He's eating a bagel topped with a mix of hummus and the salty British condiment Marmite, periodically exercising what must be a knightly privilege to talk with his mouth completely full. He insists I try some of the hummus – "It's the best in the world, very creamy" – scraping a bit onto a corner of his plate: "Dip your finger in that and try it, come on!" I comply, noticing my finger shaking slightly on its way: Beatle hummus!

McCartney has been thinking lately about pre-rock standards' heavy influence on the Beatles' songwriting – he and Lennon were already in their teens before they first heard Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. "We grew up watching Fred Astaire films, and then it was kind of swept aside by rock & roll," he says, biting his bagel, "but we still have that influence. The Rolling Stones were influenced by the blues, and we were influenced by rock & roll – blues, to some extent – but also, without knowing it, the melodic element of the Beatles, and some of the structural elements, came from the backs of our brains, which was this old stuff that our parents had sung."

McCartney's father, Jim, was a jazz trumpeter who had a band in the Twenties. He was also an amateur pianist, and some of Paul's earliest musical memories are of lying on the floor by his piano, listening to his father play the kind of songs Paul sings on his new album. "There's no recordings of my dad," he says. "But my soul's camera has got it. I think he was very good, but he wouldn't have thought he was good enough to be a professional. The people who hired his band obviously didn't think they were very good, because he had to keep changing its name to get another gig." Later, his dad would lobby to have the Beatles cover Gershwin's "I'll Buy a Stairway to Paradise" – instead, they did songs like "Your Mother Should Know" and "When I'm Sixty-Four." "Granny music," Lennon would call it – though McCartney is quick to note that John liked the old songs too.

McCartney recorded Kisses on the Bottom with a veteran standards-and-jazz producer, Tommy LiPuma, who brought in pianist Diana Krall as musical director. McCartney already knew and liked her: He had attended her wedding to his old collaborator Elvis Costello "at Elton's house." They mostly worked in L.A.'s Capitol Studios – where McCartney sang through a microphone used by Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole – and in New York, where McCartney insisted on going to the studio on the day Hurricane Irene was supposed to hit. "What's missing in a lot of people who interpret this music," says Krall, "is that they just think, 'Hey, we're just singin' standards, babe,' and it's not that. It's heavier than that. Paul finds his own story in it."

One of the McCartney originals, "My Valentine," was written for Nancy Shevell, the glamorous 51-year-old American businesswoman he married last October. The first line – "What if it rained/We didn't care" – comes from something she said on a Moroccan vacation. McCartney ran over to an old piano in their hotel, where the song came out almost all at once. After two very public marriages, McCartney is reluctant to talk about the third – but he admits it's brightened his outlook.

"It has, yeah," he says, with a slow nod. "I believe in love. The Beatles sang about it; I've sung about it; everyone else sings about it. Probably you and your wife believe in it. It's a pretty popular idea, this thing! So now to find love after a divorce is great, it's very refreshing. And Nancy's great, she's intriguing, interesting, lovely, smart, emotional and all the things you would want in a mate. She's absolutely beautiful. She's funny, she's canny, she's great, it's all there."

Shevell's reaction to McCartney's latest silly love song was understated. "She's a little shy, so she just dimples shyly," he says. "But I know she likes it. She didn't go crazy – 'Listen to this, it's a song he just wrote for me!' – but I know she appreciates it."

Up in Studio Two's control room, the most melodic songwriter of his generation is making some seriously horrifying noise. McCartney is twisting knobs on an ancient tape machine, messing with a loop of a guitar lick he just played. He speeds it up until it becomes a beyond-Yoko shriek, slows it down until it sounds like droning sludge. He punches "stop" and smiles. "We do have fun, don't we?"

He's working with producer Ethan Johns – the tall, bearded son of producer-engineer Glyn Johns, who worked on Let It Be – on potential tape-loop overdubs for "Hosannah." In the corner is a Pro Tools setup, though Johns is also recording on analog tape. "Is that enough?" McCartney says after a few more licks. "I could go all day!"

He puts down his '57 Les Paul ("There was a time when I had just one," he says when Johns admires it. "Changed me own strings!") and picks up a microphone. He loops some reverb-y "whoos" that sound like a ghostly Little Richard, then brings Johns over to harmonize on some "aaahs" and "mmms." Sped up or slowed down, they sound like a trippy nightmare. McCartney laughs as he heads down the staircase, ready to overdub some bass. "All that, and no drugs involved!"

McCartney says he's quit pot altogether, after many years and many inconvenient busts – most notably in Japan, when he famously ended up in jail for nine days. "I did a lot, and it was enough," he says. "I smoked my share. When you're bringing up a youngster, your sense of responsibility does kick in, if you're lucky, at some point. Enough's enough – you just don't seem to think it's necessary."

Did he expect it to be legal by now? "Well, I certainly requested it a bunch of times," he says. "I don't know, it's such a difficult argument. I feel like I've done my bit, and yeah, I am a bit surprised that it's not legalized. You know the argument that if booze is legal, why not that, and then the argument against it is that we don't need another [legal drug], but the argument against that is that you've got it, so don't pretend you haven't. I'm not going to be the judge of how to deal with it, somebody else can figure that out."

McCartney's "lavatory reading" these days is Keith Richards' Life. He hasn't gotten to the part about himself yet – and the book hasn't succeeded in persuading him to write a memoir of his own (though he did participate extensively in Barry Miles' authorized 1997 biography): "I've got really too much going on to sit around and write stuff about my past. So all of that ends up with me going, 'I can't be bothered.'" He confirms that he and Richards struck up a belated friendship a couple of years back, and batted around ideas for collaborations that will most likely never come to be. "We had some really funny ideas, and I kept saying, 'You know, Keith, this is a dangerously good idea, this is ridiculous, bordering on the brilliant.'"

McCartney doesn't share Richards' self-image as a rock & roll outlaw. Unlike Lennon, McCartney never mailed back his Member of the British Empire medal in protest of anything, and he happily accepted a knighthood in 1997 – Richards was incensed when Mick Jagger received the same honor. "As a guy in a rock & roll band, you do ask yourself, 'Is this cool to do?'" McCartney says. "But I saw all sorts of working-class guys who were proud to be honored by the queen. That was more impressive than the supercool dudes who said, 'No way, man.' I see their argument, but it seemed to me that it's a pretty cool prize to be given by a pretty cool lady."

He's still convinced that Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl – and will perform at her Diamond Jubilee concert, marking 60 years on the throne, in June. "You have to see it from the perspective of kids who grew up with her coming to the throne," he says. "I remember being on a bus in Liverpool and hearing some kid yelling, 'The king is dead!' like in a movie. Suddenly it was this Princess Elizabeth, who we always saw as a bit of a babe. We were the right age, and we were quite impressed by her bust! Then when we met her, it was like, 'She's OK, she's cool.'

"I've always admired the way she's handled this massive job she's got. I see the argument of anti-monarchists, because it's an amazingly old-fashioned affair, but I say to people, 'Who are we going to have lead our country in the big celebrations, opening the Olympics: David Cameron? Tony Blair?' I'm not sure about that."

McCartney can be something of a small-c conservative: Chatting about the state of the world in Studio Two, he delivers a disquisition about government debt that's hard to imagine coming from any other rock god: "There's this whole idea of 'borrow forever,' whereas my theory, which was instilled in me by my dad, was, 'Don't get under an obligation to anyone, ever. If you need anything, wait until you can afford it, then get it.'"

He's no right-winger, however: McCartney is baffled and angered by climate-change deniers, and vastly prefers Barack Obama to George W. Bush. He infuriated Fox News pundits when he visited the White House in 2010: After playing "Michelle" for the First Lady, he said, "It's great to have a president who knows what a library is." He even removed his turgid post-9/11 anthem "Freedom" from his set lists in the wake of the Iraq War. "When I said, I will fight for the right,' I meant, 'We shall overcome.' But unfortunately, immediately after that, I realized it would get construed as more militaristic. So we don't play it."

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