If you’re curious what Beatlemania looks like in the year 2013 – dubious, perhaps, about whether it looks like much of anything at all – watch what happens when Paul McCartney throws a free concert on the street in Los Angeles. Hours before he’s even due to take the stage, check out the mob of sweaty people jammed shoulder to shoulder on the second-story balcony at the Sun Taco on Hollywood Boulevard. Look higher, at the heads dotting every rooftop and window in sight; even higher, at the news chopper thrumming its blades in a low hover over the boulevard; and higher still, at the three small planes slowly circling – gawkers with pilot’s licenses, gate-crashing from on high. Down on the street, scan the tall swaths of cyclone fence lining the sidewalk, draped with black vinyl sheeting, which mark the perimeter of a two-block audience enclosure that will contain 10,000 screaming people tonight.
McCartney’s performance, outside the El Capitan Theatre, will cap the season premiere of Jimmy Kimmel Live! McCartney is here to promote his 24th post-Beatles album, New. When Live! originally contacted the city about shutting down Hollywood Boulevard for this premiere, the musician attached to perform was Justin Timberlake – and officials rejected the request. When the show asked again, this time floating McCartney’s name instead, the no became a yes. (Timberlake ended up playing the next night.) But there are still regulations to meet. Kimmel’s music booker, Scott Igoe, is out front awaiting the fire marshal, who needs to give his sign-off on McCartney’s pyro rig. Igoe approaches McCartney’s longtime production manager, Mark Spring, to remind him of the marshal’s visit. “That’s fine,” Spring says, “though I’m not sure we’re even using pyro tonight. It’s here in case Paul shows up and decides he wants it.”
Just past 3 p.m., McCartney exits a car behind the theater and falls into step with a security crew led by his bodyguard Mike, an oak-chested fiftysomething who could pass for one of the Expendables. McCartney’s in a tailored indigo button-down and a pair of skinny jeans that he wears with more panache than a 71-year-old man has any right to. His physique is long and trim, the result of decades of vegetarianism and a regimen of yoga and strength training he adheres to even on tour, doing handstands in hotel gyms with his security dudes posted nearby keeping oglers at bay. His hair, dyed a rich auburn, fans jauntily across his collar, his age squaring neither with his appearance nor with the spry, impish pleasure he still clearly derives from the fact that he is Paul Motherfucking McCartney. Spotting fans camped out at either end of a back alley, he busts out some elaborately hammy air-guitar moves for them.
He snakes through the show’s downstairs corridors, accumulating an entourage as he goes, passing through a room where quinoa wraps and tofu sandwiches spill from Whole Foods bags marked “Paul McCrew” – at McCartney gigs, his employees are free to eat all the bacon cheeseburgers they like, provided they do it elsewhere. He takes a staircase up to street level, climbs the stage and, acknowledging the shrieks sailing down from Sun Taco, waves and shimmies in that direction, doubling the fans’ volume. “He gives everyone their moment,” Chris Holmes, McCartney’s touring DJ, says. “When we’re on the road, he’ll come up to the stage manager and dance with him a little bit, and for the rest of that guy’s life he can say, ‘This one time I danced with Paul McCartney.’ That’s just who Paul is. It’s not something he turns on for the cameras.”
Onstage, the band launches into “Matchbox,” a roaring blues number that McCartney has been covering since 1962. A few weeks ago, he was fighting a cold, and he got nervous about his voice, but he mainlined vitamin C and used a throat remedy that Little Richard, whose scream inspired McCartney’s own, taught him ages ago. “You get a boiling pot of water, you put Olbas Oil in it” – leaning over, he mimes putting a towel over his head – “and sniffff – gahhh! It knocks the back of your head off,” McCartney says. “I first saw him do it in Hamburg, and he’d come up from in haling, look in the mirror and go, ‘Richard, you’re so beautiful!'” Today, McCartney’s baritone is sounding weathered but strong, his howl still startlingly sharp. He keeps dreading the day when he’ll reach into his vocal arsenal for a long-beloved weapon and come up empty, “but it hasn’t happened yet,” McCartney says. “I just recently met Billy Joel. He said, ‘Are you still singing em in the same key?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’ve had to drop mine by, like, a half-tone.'”
After a slashing New track called “Save Us,” McCartney frowns; the rhythm section sounds significantly more monstrous than usual. “The danger when it’s all loud and crazy is that you’re fooling yourself, and it’s going to come through on telly like shit,” he says. He turns and calls out to his drummer. “Abe, let’s just do a drum and bass thing to make sure we’re not distorting the hell out of this.” They lock into a groove until McCartney nods. Turns out he just forgot what a stage this small sounds like: “I’m closer to my amp than usual,” he says.
McCartney’s band members are seasoned industry pros, and they know him as an exacting bandleader. “There are no mistakes when you’re working with Paul – no mistakes,” says Barrie Marshall, McCartney’s tour promoter since 1989. “Or rather, you can make a mistake, but if you do, you have to own up. Raise your hand, look him in the eye and tell him, ‘I fucked up.’ And then don’t ever do it again!”
As McCartney hurtles into “Drive My Car,” the fans on the wrong side of the enclosure have had all they can stand: They tear down the black sheeting and begin slamming their shoulders into the fence, jostling it forward. Nine burly crew dudes rush over to cram everything back into place, ballasting the fence with extra sandbags.
“Thank you, small but vociferous crowd!” McCartney bellows, taking it in stride. “Thank you, random citizens!”
After giving the crew his notes – spoiler: no pyro tonight – McCartney gazes around Kimmel’s studio, then requests some technical modifications. “They’re bringing some more lights out,” says John Hammel, McCartney’s guitar tech, sometime chauffeur and general aide-de-camp. Hammel indicates the underside of his chin. “For young people, a shadow here is cool. For us old men, un-unh. Gravity takes over!”
A Live! producer soon arrives with a script for McCartney’s approval: The show has asked him to appear in a bit during the monologue. An original proposal, riffing on the old “Paul is dead” craze, had McCartney admitting that the crackpot theories were true, and that he is actually an impostor named Gary. Instead, McCartney agreed to a simpler sketch in which he helps Kimmel’s sidekick, Guillermo, take a Beatles song-title quiz. McCartney’s dialogue has been cut down from a half-dozen lines to one word, “to make it easier for you,” the producer says. “Not much to rehearse there!” McCartney replies.
The writers also want McCartney to join Kimmel up on the roof, remarking on the massive crowd down below for a prerecorded cold open. McCartney is game, aware that this will only contribute to the evening’s sense of momentousness. “Just lead me around by the ring in my nose,” he tells the producer.
A segment producer named Ken approaches. “I’m going to be doing the pre-interview with you, just a conversation so you know what Jimmy’s bringing up,” he says. McCartney squints and purses his lips. “Uh, or not, if you would rather not have said conversation,” Ken continues. “Let’s not,” McCartney says. “I prefer not knowing what’s coming.”
As showtime nears, McCartney disappears into his dressing room. His typical warm-up routine includes the boiling-water trick and a saltwater gargle. His wife of two years, Nancy Shevell, arrives, an elegant brunette with an aquiline nose and a faux-snakeskin purse designed by McCartney’s daughter Stella. Much of New consists of love songs, including the bouncy title single, and “Save Us,” which is about “the savior aspect of having a good woman,” McCartney says. As the show begins, husband and wife stand together beside one of two oversize couches in the greenroom, watching Kimmel’s monologue on a huge flatscreen monitor. Everyone else stands several feet behind them. McCartney slides his hand up the back of Shevell’s jacket, resting it toward the bottom of her spine, laughing at a couple of Kimmel’s Emmys jokes, impassive otherwise. When McCartney gets the cue to head out for his interview, Shevell says, “I love you, babycake.” “I love you,” he replies. (A few minutes later, when the show throws to commercial with a weird synthesizer arpeggio, Shevell, a trucking-company scion who is clearly up on her deep cuts, yells, “Temporary Secretary!'” correctly identifying track two from 1980’s McCartney II.)
Before McCartney steps through the stage door, his makeup lady, Lauren, adjusts his bangs and applies some spray to the back of his head. Opposite Kimmel, McCartney pivots with finesse from lighthearted (he gets off a cheeky sex joke early on) to poignant, describing the dangers of shedding tears during live performances of “Let It Be.” When he returns to the greenroom, he’s met by hooting from his entourage.
“Time for a drink!” he shouts.
Everybody applauds again.
New” started taking shape a few years ago, with McCartney sketching out ideas at Hog Hill Mill, the studio he keeps in the English countryside, a 20-minute drive from the organic farm he calls home some of the year. Work began in earnest when McCartney decided to audition producers. At times in his career, McCartney has wanted to work with others on music, and at other times he has wanted nothing more than to be off in some room banging ideas together by himself – McCartney and McCartney II he made on his own, the latter while holed up on a Scottish farm with a bunch of synths and an endless supply of marijuana.
“Writing was originally on my own, because I didn’t have anyone,” McCartney says. “It was me, sitting in the little house I lived in when I was a kid. Then I met John and he’d been doing the same thing, so now we were collaborators, and pretty much everything that came then in the Beatles, there was no reason to write it on your own – great. But after that had gone away, after the Beatles had had quite a success, we weren’t in hotel rooms together all the time. He would live somewhere, I would be somewhere else, and it separated off again. So I’ve really known both ways, as far as writing is concerned, and they were both good.”
For New, he was feeling social. His first stop was at the London studio of Paul Epworth, the young producer and songwriter best known for his work on Adele’s 21, which McCartney, like so many millions, adored. McCartney arrived empty-handed. “I was like, ‘OK, what am I going to do here?'” he recalls. “I’m very open – I just don’t wanna bore myself.” Epworth was assertive. He mouthed a muscular, hurtling rock beat, telling McCartney that this was the tempo and energy he should hit. “I said, ‘That’s a good idea, let’s get lively, let’s not get all deep and serious,'” McCartney says. “So he jumped on the drum kit, I jumped on the piano, we multilayered it, I put chords in, structured it a bit, and started blocking out the words. Normally with me it’s melody and lyric at the same time – I’ll follow the train of thought, and the lyrics and melody all come at once. But when you’re improvising, you don’t have words, you don’t know what the song’s about. You just know how it feels and how a vocal might sound, so you go wada bada bada wado biddo woo in order to get the melody, then you find words that fit the blocking.” The session yielded “Save Us.”
Next up was the producer Ethan Johns. “He’d done Kings of Leon records, so I knew there was an authenticity and a realness about what he did,” McCartney says. “I brought him ‘Hosanna'” – a tender, tentative acoustic ballad – “and I said, ‘I wrote this song.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go in and sing it?’ So I did that and said, ‘Should I do it again? Should we fix it up?’ He said, ‘No, that’s beautiful the way you did it. I think that’s enough.’ I thought, ‘OK, this is the way he works: He’s gonna be very raw, he’s gonna want it to spill out, don’t think about it too much, just say it.'” After that came auditions with Mark Ronson, whose work with Amy Winehouse McCartney admired, and who DJ’d his wedding to Shevell, and Giles Martin, son of longtime Beatles producer George, who’d worked with McCartney closely on the 2006 Beatles Love remixes, for a Cirque du Soleil show. Finally, rather than choose just one producer for the album, McCartney hired all four, divvying up the track list.
There was another collaborator in the room, McCartney says, who’s been there for decades. “If I’m at a point where I go, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ I’ll throw it across the room to John,” McCartney says. “He’ll say, ‘You can’t go there, man.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re quite right. How about this?’ ‘Yeah, that’s better.’ We’ll have a conversation. I use that; it’s a very valuable thing. I don’t want to lose that.”
The day after the Live! performance, McCartney climbs into an SUV, leaving the Rolling Stone cover shoot, headed to the Beverly Hills Hotel for some tea. He got on well with the photographer, to the point that he couldn’t help thinking about getting on better with her. “That was fun,” he says. “She was great, she was cool. I kept thinking, ‘If this was in the Sixties, I’d try and be pulling her.’ And it would probably show in the pictures. But I’m a granddad and I don’t do that stuff anymore.” He grins mischievously. “I can think it, though. I knew she wanted that. She said she wanted me to be fun, but badass. I said, ‘Well, you know, that’s me, baby.'”
McCartney has long hated the clichéd take on the Beatles in which John is the far-out genius and Paul merely the benign, dimple-cute sidekick. This view certainly obscures one important fact about him: The man has written tons of songs about sex and lust. “I’m rather obsessed by those subjects,” he says. He recalls scrounging up cash back in Liverpool with buddies to buy nudie magazines. “You’d search for any information you could get,” he says. “There was one called Health & Efficiency – what a fascinating title! – which was devoted to nudism, naturism, but to us it was naked women. I once baby-sat to earn a couple bob, and I would look at the parents’ books – there was a sex manual, which we didn’t have at home. This was a more liberal thinker, whoever I was baby-sitting for. I’d look through and see things like ‘mons veneris,’ and it would fire up my adolescent imagination. All those things have stuck with me.”
It’s a theme that’s only grown more pronounced in his songwriting over time, extending from “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” about humping madly in public, to 1971’s “Eat at Home,” to 2007’s “Nod Your Head,” readily interpretable as a feverish tribute to oral sex, to numerous moments on New. “‘Nod Your Head’ wasn’t conceived as that, but obviously these things achieve double meanings – it’s a reasonable assumption,” McCartney says coyly. “If you’re building your case against me for sexual perversion, that could be submitted as evidence, but I would deny it strongly.”
We arrive at the hotel, where McCartney has been hanging out almost as long as he’s been coming to Los Angeles. As he enters the Polo Lounge, fully half the restaurant’s staff seems to have gathered up front: “Welcome back, Mr. McCartney!” A guitarist is hunched in a corner – the evening’s musical accompaniment, about to launch into easy-listening takes on Otis Redding and U2 – messing with sound cables. “I’ve done this once or twice!” McCartney calls over fraternally. Taking a corner booth, he orders green tea and an Evian. He says he doesn’t smoke weed anymore, and while he still enjoys a drink, he’s booked a massage later on and wants to go in clean. “I would like to have alcohol, but it wouldn’t work,” he says. “I’ll regret it.”
Late-afternoon massages notwithstanding, McCartney says he has a hard time fully relaxing. He feels like he can’t rest on his laurels; inertia agitates him on a deep level. When the Beatles were falling apart in 1969, he suffered from depression – staying in bed, forgoing shaving, drinking too much, taking consolation in little beyond his marriage to Linda Eastman. “At a certain point I asked myself, ‘Are you going to sit around doing nothing, or are you going to make some music again?’ So I’d be at home sitting around, doing something on guitar, and Linda would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do that!’ Then I’d be drumming – ‘I didn’t know you could do that!’ So I got back into it just to impress Linda, really. I wanted to prove my usefulness again.”
Proving his usefulness is part of why McCartney still plays concerts that last longer than The Hobbit; part of why he’s still cranking out albums in his seventies; why he still remains hard on himself. Whether it’s conjuring Lennon’s ghost or some other no-bullshit inner voice, “I’ve always got the critic in my mind,” McCartney says. “It’s a constant, at exactly the same volume. He keeps me on my toes – ‘Don’t just get blasé about it.’ I don’t want to become too smug, to think I’m great. Let’s face it: I’m cool. Everyone tells me I am. I’ve got a track record. You’d think I’d stop wondering whether anything I do is any good. I’ve got a pretty good mountain of awards, of successes. But for some reason, I don’t have an awards room. People say, ‘Where are all your gold discs?’ I don’t do that. I just don’t wanna get smug – but of course, on the other hand, I want to think I’m great. Because when the hell am I going to bask in this? What am I going to do, wait till I die and go, ‘Oh, fuck, I should have taken a week!'”
Working gives him pleasure, but so do acts of simple reminiscence. His recall is formidable. He remembers, for instance, scavenging for discarded cigarette packs in Liverpool, a hobby that inspired a backward-glancing lyric on New. “I lived at the end of a bus route, and our version of baseball-card collecting was cigarette packets,” he says. “You’d rip the front of them off and have a wad of them, trade them with your mates. The bus came from the financial district of Liverpool, right through to the end where we lived, the posh areas to the poor areas. So you’d get the poor cigarettes, the middle-class people’s cigarettes, the rich people’s cigarettes. Those were the higher-value ones: Passing Clouds, Russian Sobranie. Then you get down to the Craven ‘A,’ Senior Service, Player’s Navy Cut, and you’d go right down to the Woodbines, which were the workingman’s cigarette. We knew them all.”
He thinks back to taking long country walks as a kid, going down Dungeon Lane, at Liverpool’s verdant southeastern edge, consulting a copy of The Observer’s Book of Birds. “It’s an airport now, but then it was pristine countryside,” he says. “The thing I’d see that I don’t see now is a skylark rising. Have you ever seen that? It’s beautiful. What they do is rise up singing” – he whistles – “and they go very high, gotta be 100, 200 feet, in a straight line, and he’s singing all the time. Then he goes whoosh, swup, swip and glides to another place. And why he’s swooping is he’s leading you away from his nest. I was fascinated by things like that. When I wrote ‘Blackbird,’ I was probably imagining the blackbird doing that. It’s all brain fodder. It lodged in there. I grew up being informed with that kind of stuff, just looking at the wonder of it – nature, music, society, people. I’ve always had this sense of wonder; still have.”
McCartney applies his wonder equally, he says, to old and new songs. He’s played “Blackbird” and “Yesterday” zillions of times by now, but fresh mysteries and meanings present themselves with each performance. “Logically, I ought to get sick of them, and I expect all the time to feel like that,” he says. “But it hasn’t worked out like that. What it is, is I’m actually trying to play the song like I know it effortlessly, but there is a pattern that I must not miss, and there are words that I must put with that pattern, so I’m normally still trying to get it right. And what I find myself doing is re-examining the work of this twentysomething. It’s like it’s not mine. It’s not a dawdle. There’s hardly anything where I switch to autopilot. Instead of being bored with a song, I’m still trying to look at it – what the hell is this thing? Why did I do this?”
He doesn’t have his wad of cigarette packs anymore. Today he amasses Beatles memorabilia, alongside modern and contemporary art: de Kooning, Picasso, Philip Guston. The title of a new song, “On My Way to Work,” came from perusing a Damien Hirst book. “I was looking through it for inspiration,” McCartney says. “I’ll look anywhere, open up a book and hope the first paragraph I see has a killer line.” When it came time to conceive the album cover for New, he summoned his creative team, which includes Stella’s husband, Alasdhair Willis, and a consulting duo who go by Rebecca and Mike – “ideas people, crazy student-y types,” says McCartney. They hashed out a sleek design, rendering the album’s title with nine fluorescent rods in homage to the minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin. “I like his stuff,” McCartney says. “I haven’t bought any, but I just like the idea when you see it in a gallery space.”
Another artist whose work he admires? Yoko Ono. “She’s badass,” McCartney says. He and Ono worked together on Love, along with Ringo Starr and Olivia Harrison, and he says that after years of harboring recriminations and bitterness toward each other, they hit it off. “Time, the great healer,” he says. “I thought, ‘If John loved her, there’s got to be something. He’s not stupid.’ It’s like, what are you going to do? Are you going to hold a grudge you never really had? We were just pissed that the Beatles were breaking up, that something was different, that there was a girl in the studio. There’d never been that. John wanted Yoko there, and the three of us bristled. So I had to just sort of, in the end, say, ‘Let’s just see how I get on with her,’ and we got on fine the minute I decided there was no grudge.”
The more McCartney thinks about the end, the more he thinks about reconciliation, forgiveness, putting old beefs to bed – with Ono, with Lennon, with anyone. “George would say to me, ‘You don’t want stuff like that hanging around in your life,'” he says. The impulse has its limits, though. I ask if he could ever think of forgiving Mark David Chapman. McCartney inhales deeply. Perhaps we don’t have the time to answer that question fully, I add. “We do,” he replies. “The answer’s no. That was the action of a complete jerk. That was not just someone you didn’t particularly get on with. That was much more, whether it was evil or just deranged – it was unforgivable. I think I could pretty much forgive anyone else. But I don’t see why I’d want to forgive him. This is a guy who did something so crazy and terminal. Why should I bless him with forgiveness?”
You want a shot of tequila?” McCartney asks. The green tea is nice, but it isn’t quite cutting it. “Come on. Get him over here. Gotta do it.” He whistles for the waiter, and soon two glasses of Patrón arrive, massage be damned. “Here’s to us – health and happiness,” McCartney says, giving me my moment. We take deep swigs. “Hi-yahh!” he says, returning his glass to the tablecloth. “Oh, baby.”
McCartney has a house near this hotel, but he spends most of his time in England, close to his nine-year-old daughter, Beatrice, over whom he shares custody with his ex-wife, Heather Mills. Beatrice has established herself as a crucial sounding board for new songs. When McCartney first picked up the mandolin a few years ago and tried to learn it, he struck upon a spiraling, upbeat riff that would become the 2007 single “Dance Tonight.” “I was hitting the floor, singing, and she came running in, dancing around,” he recalls. “I went, ‘Whoa, there’s my proof.'”
He organizes his performance and recording schedule around Beatrice. They like watching animation together, from the old Disney films to Pixar releases. McCartney is currently set to return to the road in November, playing several shows in Japan. He’s in the process of working out the stagecraft. “I’ve got an idea cooking,” he says. “When I knew the title for the album would be New, I got this little vision – you know, like you get waking up in the morning – of me in front of a forest in a checked shirt, kind of lumber jack-y, just like I’m having my picture taken by a neighbor. Only right next to me, with his arm around me, was a robot, this very shiny guy. So I’m working on the idea, at the moment, of having this big guy onstage. I like the idea that I’ve got a big mate who’s a robot.”
The best reference for how the robot looks, he says, is The Iron Giant – a favorite of his and Beatrice’s. To design the robot, McCartney commissioned the same firm that made the elaborate puppets for the stage version of War Horse. “It’s a highly speculative idea,” he says. “Why would you build a robot? Just because you imagined a picture of yourself with one? But that’s what you do: You have ideas and you try to bring them to fruition. You have an idea for a song and you try to bring it through.”
He thinks for a moment. “Well, this idea has to do with newness. I’m the outdoorsman, sort of a country guy, living out in the woods…” He smiles. “But I have this friend, and he’s the modern world. In fact, he’s the future.”