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.
You have said that you just wanted to be the bass player again.
Well, with the Beatles I was the bass player. So it occurred to me, “What a nice, clean idea: I do bass and vocals. Let’s go back to that if I’m going to make a new record.” It was a bit of a release, really. I didn’t have to think about much, because it’s very instinctive for me.
There’s a great thing about bass playing and singing. There’s only a few people who do it. It’s like this [rubs his belly and pats his head], particularly something like “Day Tripper,” where I had to go [sings the bass part] “dum, do-do, do-do-do, do-do, do-do-do,” and [sings] “She’s a big teaser/She took me half the way there.” It’s a very strange feeling at first. But you do it so often, you learn how.
With all the success you’ve enjoyed, what are your hopes for this album?
I’d like it to have the same effect on people as it has on me. You get a good feeling off it. I would like it to communicate that good feeling. It seems quite positive.
And, for that reason, very appropriate for the times.
I’ve approached records in millions of ways. This one was approached in a very offhand way, and I don’t mean that in a bad sense. I like the result, and I believe in that approach — in life. [Painter] Franz Kline said, “Don’t make so much of it,” and I always liked that. That’s the sort of expression I latch onto.
Of course, I’d also like the album to do well, because… I’m used to it. I’d like people to like it, on a lot of levels.
Will you be touring next year?
It’s likely. I just don’t know how. People are starting to talk about smaller gigs, which I like the idea of. But then you get into that vicious circle of, well, they say 5,000 people in Cleveland couldn’t get in. And you go, “Oh, we should’ve played a bigger gig then.” Then it’s 20,000 couldn’t get in in New York. So it’s always a trade-off against the intimacy you want, which is a little club somewhere, and people being disappointed because they couldn’t get in.
But it’s not a terrible problem to have. A worse problem would be, nobody shows up. [Laughs] So I’m definitely thinking about it. I like the idea of getting out — getting out of the house.
On another subject, there was a panic this year when a tabloid newspaper in England fabricated a quote from George Martin that George Harrison, who had been undergoing treatment for cancer, was about to die.
I spoke to George immediately after that. He said, “I suppose you’re ringing about [the newspaper reports].” I said, “Not really, but I’m concerned.” He said, “I just got an e-mail from George Martin, who said, ‘I promise you, George, I really didn’t say that. I wouldn’t ever.'”
I don’t really like to talk about [George’s health] because I don’t know enough about it. I don’t really like to pry. Obviously he’s had problems, and I’m not sure of the current stage of things. But every time I ring him, he’s very upbeat. So I just cross my fingers and pray that things will be all right.
The Beatles 1 collection was one of this year’s biggest records. Since, unlike George and John, you never went through a phase of disparaging the Beatles, do you see this kind of success thirty years later as something of a validation?
Like, “That’s why I always loved this group?” Yeah, that’s probably true. And I did always love it. Sure, you go through things — fame is very difficult to deal with. I think George once said, “It cost me my nervous system,” and I know exactly what he means. But I try and rationalize things — that’s my way. You wanted to get famous and rich. What did you expect? You expected it to be the same as being infamous and poor? [Laughs] So I accepted it.
I was thinking the other day about the achievements people want in life. It was sort of shocking as I started to think of some of mine. Let’s say, imagine being the guy who wrote with John Lennon? Jesus Christ, I mean, what about that? The guy.
Let’s just go over this again: The guy that wrote with John Lennon. Are you kidding? I have such an admiration for John, like most people. But to be the guy who wrote with him — well, that’s enough. Right there, you could retire, and go, “Jesus, I had a fantastic life. Take me, Lord.”
There was a major televised John Lennon tribute show this year. Were you asked to participate?
No. But I do get asked to appear in a lot of John tributes. It’s difficult for me. I don’t have the best relationship with Yoko and, obviously, to be in those things… it would help. So I generally pass and just wish everyone well.
It’s really a pointed affair for me. For most people, it’s great. They love John. You go, you play a John song, it’s beautiful. If I was anyone else, I’d do it. It just feels difficult.
It seemed that after John died, people often felt that part of praising him meant putting you down.
The minute John died, there started to be a revisionism. 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. “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. Even with John in that song [“How Do You Sleep”], when he sang, “The only thing you done was yesterday.”
I tried to ignore it, but it built into an insecurity. People would say, “Paul, people know.” I said, “Yeah, but what about fifty years in the future?” If this revisionism gets around, a lot of kids will be like, “Did he have a group before Wings?” There may come a time when people won’t know.
It was only after we’d stopped working together it even reared its ugly head — the whole idea of who wrote what. You remember the story of John getting pissed because he went into a restaurant and the pianist started up with “Yesterday”? Really, John once said to me, “I wonder how I’ll be remembered.” I was kind of shocked. I said, “I’ll tell you how you’ll be remembered: You’re great. But you won’t be here. It won’t matter to you, so don’t worry about it.” And I thought, ” Why’d he get into that?” But now I understand.
But what can you do about it?
I apologize in advance for this — this is a crazy little pet peeve of mine. I’ll try and keep it short. “Lennon-McCartney” was always cool. I like it. It’s a logo. But what was happening was, for example, my poem “Blackbird” appeared in an anthology, and it appeared as “By John Lennon and Paul McCartney.” I mean, wait a minute, I wrote that.
Sort of like “Yesterday,” which none of the other Beatles even performed on.
Same thing, but this was being reproduced as a poem. I thought, “That should really say, ‘Written by Paul McCartney.’ Or at the very worst, ‘Written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.’ I should get front billing.” So when the [Beatles] Anthology came out, after thirty years of always having John’s name in front, I thought it should say, ” ‘Yesterday,’ by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.” So I rang up and asked Yoko. This is when Linda and I were going through our real horror times. I rang Yoko up and said, “Couldn’t I, on the Anthology, just on this one song, put my name in front? Could we put, ‘Written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon’? It would be a great favor to me.” Linda actually rang her and said, “Do this as a favor.” Well, it became a major issue — and listen to me talking about it, like I’m trying to make it little. But in the end, she just said no.
Then, after that, I was in Rome, late at night in a bar. And there was a pianist’s fake book in the corner. Well, I have to go and look at it, don’t I? I open the page, and it says, ” ‘Hey Jude,’ written by John Lennon.” There was no room on the page, and “Paul McCartney” got left off. That was the killer blow. It was like, “Awwrrrgh!” So I thought, “This is what’s going to happen.” This is what I meant when people said, “Don’t worry, Paul.”
So I say: Put me first, man. But, listen, I’m in deep therapy. I’m seeing a therapist every three hours about this. [Laughs] No, no, seriously, I do think it would be not a bad thing for me to be allowed to do that — and only when our names are used in full. When it’s Lennon-McCartney, John should always come first.
How would that ever happen?
Yoko has to say, “What a good idea, Paul.”
It’s slightly unlikely. [Laughs] But this is why we don’t have a great relationship. That, and the fact that Linda rang her personally during the height of her chemo shit and asked her, and Yoko said, “That’s never going to happen.”
And, you know, I don’t have a hard time with her. She’s a good lady. She’s a great artist. [Looks away and laughs] I should get off it — there are more important things in the world. But it’s become sour, and it never was when John and I worked together. We were the two guys who knew it didn’t matter. So, that’s enough gossip for one day, loves!
You talked about possibly touring. What else is coming up for you next year?
I’m getting married.
You’ve set a date?
Well, we did, but we didn’t tell a date. [Laughs] We just said to people, sometime next year. So that’s the main thing for me. You know, my nephew’s wedding was a week after the bombing, which actually worked out fine because people wanted a release. You had to do the “In these difficult times…” speech, but after that, everyone was, “Ah, let’s try and enjoy ourselves.” Which is one of my big philosophies.
Years ago when the Beatles were with the maharishi, he gave us a book. He wrote in mine, “Radiate bliss consciousness.” I thought, “That’s pretty good.” And then he just put, “Enjoy.” I took that to heart. If at the end of each day — or most days — you could say, “That was a good one,” it builds into a reasonably successful life. So I do try and enjoy, even when things are looking grim, as they have been for the last mo11th. If you can, try and enjoy it, because it’s moving by fast. And in the meantime… [laughs] listen to my record!