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Paul McCartney: Yesterday & Today

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Twenty years ago, when McCartney turned 50, he remembers his then-manager pushing the idea of retirement. "It's only right," he was told. "You really don't want to go beyond 50, it's going to get embarrassing." In June, McCartney will be 70 ("I'm never going to believe I'm 70, I don't care what you say," he says. "There's a little cell in my brain that's never going to believe that"), and he still has no plans to stop touring or recording. "You get the argument 'Make way for the young kids,'" he says. "And you think, 'Fuck that, let them make way for themselves. If they're better than me, they'll beat me.' Foo Fighters don't have a problem, they're good. They'll do their thing.

"If you're enjoying it, why do something else? And what would you do? Well, a good answer is 'Take more holidays,' which is definitely on the cards, but I don't seem to do that. I love what I do so much that I don't really want to stop. I'm just kind of casually keeping an eye on how I feel, and onstage, it feels like it's always felt. So for the time being, the band's hot, I'm really enjoying myself, still singing like I sang, not experiencing, touch wood, any sort of problems to speak of. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

It doesn't hurt that his touring schedule has been reduced to shorter, intense bursts in recent years, largely because of his shared-custody arrangement for his eight-year-old, Beatrice. "We don't do the big sloggo tour, we don't do the big U2-Stones go-out-forever thing, and get a bit fed up with it," says McCartney, who's planning some dates for later this year. "What we do now is events and selective dates. Because of my custody situation, I can only do that. At first, we thought, 'Oh, God, is this going to be a problem?' and it's actually turned out to be some kind of a blessing."

He can see himself rocking well into his eighties. "I can imagine it," he says. "As to whether my imagination will come true, I don't know. The last couple of years, I've gotten into guitar – so there's all sorts of little things that crop up that entice you forward, and you go, 'Hmm, I'd like that.'"

I broach the idea of actually dying onstage – would he be into it? He recoils slightly, then smiles. "What kind of question is that? I must say, that's not in my imagination. Rocking on until a grand old age... the only thing would be when it's not pleasant anymore, then it would be 'That's a good time to stop.' But it's way too pleasant at the moment. And it pays. Good gig, man. But I know exactly where you're coming from, though. How long can this go on...?"

In the corner of the attic study of McCartney's private studio in the English countryside, he's playing rockabilly riffs on a bulky old stand-up bass with white trim on its edges. The instrument traveled a long way to get here: It belonged to Bill Black, Elvis Presley's original bass player. "This is it, man – come and touch it," McCartney says. "I have an image of this and my little Hofner bass, big and little. The amount of music that we like that's been played on those two instruments..."

The bass was a gift from his late wife, Linda; on the other side of the room, the early-afternoon light shines through a stained-glass image of B.B. King in mid-solo ecstasy, adapted from a photo she took. Next to the bass is a tiny old wooden desk – taken from the Liverpool school McCartney and George Harrison attended at the same time Black was strapping that bass to the top of a 1951 Lincoln to tour the South with Presley and Scotty Moore.

By the staircase is a chunk of a recently torn-down London concert venue that the Beatles played – McCartney sent another piece to Starr for his birthday. "I wouldn't be allowed to keep all of this in the house," McCartney says. "Guys can be hoarders – we don't want to chuck anything out. And mine is Beatle hoarding, so I really don't want to throw anything out."

Settling on a cheery yellow couch near a vase of fresh flowers, he mentions being struck by Harrison's openness on the psychological havoc wreaked by Beatlemania – a frequent topic in Martin Scorsese's Harrison film. "I think we all experienced the trauma that George vocalized," McCartney says. "I liked to hear George talking about it, because he's getting it out in the open. For me, it's something that was more internalized, and my upbringing would lead me to say, 'Yeah, OK, it's a trauma, but get on with it.' It's like, "Yeah, what are you gonna do, sit around and moan? You were just in the most famous band in the world. You wanted to be, it pays good money, you've had a lot of great times, and some shitty times, so what are you going to do, concentrate on the shitty times or just deal with it?'"

McCartney has seen a therapist, but not for that stuff. "I've done therapy, yeah, in divorces and things, and losing your wife. It's not to do with the Beatles, believe me."

While all four Beatles were still alive, the idea of getting back to where they once belonged was never off the table. "There was talk of re-forming the Beatles a couple of times," McCartney says casually, "but it didn't jell, there was not enough passion behind the idea. There was more passion behind retiring the Beatles than there was about re-forming. We'd all said, very convincingly, 'We've come full circle.'

"And more importantly, it could have been so wrong that it spoiled the whole idea of the Beatles, so wrong that they'd be like, 'Oh, my God, they weren't any good.' So the re-formation suggestions were never convincing enough. They were kind of nice when they happened – 'That would be good, yeah' – but then one of us would always not fancy it. And that was enough, because we were the ultimate democracy. If one of us didn't like a tune, we didn't play it. We had some very close shaves. 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' was a pretty close shave."

Lennon and McCartney did once get together in a recording studio well after the Beatles' breakup: In 1974, McCartney stopped in while Lennon was working on Pussy Cats with Harry Nilsson in Los Angeles. Eventually, they tried to play some music along with Nilsson, Stevie Wonder and others. As immortalized on the infamous bootleg A Toot and a Snore in '74 (which McCartney has never heard), the results were horrendous. "I'd imagine it's not very good," says McCartney. He finds the story more comic than tragic: "We were stoned. I don't think there was anyone in that room who wasn't stoned. For some ungodly reason, I decided I'd get on the drums. It was just a party, you know. To use the word 'disorganized' is completely understating it. I might have made a feeble attempt to restore order – 'Guys, you know, let's think of a song, that would be a good idea' – but I can't remember if I did or not."

This morning, downstairs in his studio, Paul McCartney sat down and wrote a new song. It's what he does. Whether he's newly divorced or newly married, happy or sad, the music arrives. "I had some thoughts last night, I woke up this morning, and took my daughter to school. I was thinking in the car, coming back. I put the words together, and I just did the melody while you were waiting in the kitchen." He's working with Mark Ronson today – one of several producers he's considering for the record – so he decided to write something appropriate. "Mark DJ'd at our wedding reception, so I'm thinking 'party' – I came up with a song, 'The Life of a Party Girl.'"

If anything, songs come too easily to McCartney, which may explain how the Beatles-level songs in his solo catalog can coexist with throwaways like "Let 'Em In." "I have to be careful that something just doesn't come out too bland," he says. "Paul Simon works his music much more than I do, with a first draft, a second draft, third draft. I do that as well, but not as much as he does. It's different kinds of music. I'm not sure that Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup thought too much about 'That's All Right, Mama.' [Allen] Ginsberg used to say 'First thought, best thought,' and then he'd spend hours editing his work. I do sometimes write one and look at it and shudder and say, 'I don't like that.'"

At the deepest level, McCartney has little idea where all the melodies come from. He still hasn't figured out how he wrote "Yesterday" in his sleep. "I don't like to use the word 'magic,' unless you spell it with a 'k' on the end, because it sounds a bit corny. But when your biggest song – which 3,000 people and counting have recorded – was something that you dreamt, it's very hard to resist the thought that there's something otherworldly there."

Does he feel like God sent him a giant check? "Or, I unwittingly sent it to myself," he says. "I have this sort of theory that all the time you're inputting your computer with information from the world, and one day it prints out for you. I think in the case of 'Yesterday,' it was an involuntary printout. On the other hand, it might be God, I'm not ruling that out."

McCartney always seemed to be the least spiritually inclined Beatle (or the second-least – who knows what was going on with Ringo). There's no "My Sweet Lord" in his repertoire – not even an "Across the Universe." "I believe in a spirit, that's the best I can put it," he says. "I think there is something greater than us, and I love it, and I'm grateful to it, but just like everyone else on the planet, I can't pin it down. I'm happy not pinning it down. I pick bits out of all the religions – so I like many things that Buddhists say, I like a lot of things that Jesus said, that Mohammed said."

And in the end, McCartney is convinced it all boils down to a very brief message, which he reveals with great Liverpudlian gravity: "Be cool and you'll be all right," he says. "That's rock & roll religion."

Related
The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney: Best of the Solo Years
Readers' Poll: What Is the Best Paul McCartney Song of All Time?

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