LA Times Interview
Classic Beatles songs, such as 'Let It Be,' take on different
meanings for him now. 'Sometimes they surprise me,' he says. By Geoff
Boucher LA Times April 12, 2009
Reporting from New York -- A chilly morning wind was blowing down
Sixth Avenue, but it was warm inside Radio City Music Hall even though
the grand old palace was hushed and its balconies deserted. A
production team was busy preparing for the night's concert, an
all-star charity event, and a few dozen lucky VIPs were loitering in
the back and craning their necks to see the stage. There, loose-limbed
and cheery in the spotlight, stood Paul McCartney, a performer who has
been in the ear of the world so famously and for so long that it's a
bit startling to see him in a quiet moment and realize that he is in
fact an actual human being, not just a songbook with a voice and a name.
After playing the brassy Beatles classic "Got to Get You Into
My Life," McCartney sat at a piano and, without looking down, his
fingers found the familiar first notes to "Let It Be." It's
a song that could make a bare cinder-block building feel like a
cathedral, but there, echoing in the regal hall's empty corners, it
had witnesses dabbing their eyes. After the church-steeple finale, a
cheer went up and McCartney acknowledged what might be one of the
smaller ovations of his career: "Thank you for that ripple of
kindness pouring down the red-velvet rows. . . . "
Less than an hour later, sitting backstage, McCartney mentioned
that "Let It Be" sounds very different to him now than when
he recorded it in 1969. "In truth, a lot of them mean new things
to me, I hear stuff I didn't hear in the past," said the
66-year-old singer. Like a man thumbing through a box of old love
letters, he sees unexpected between-the-lines messages, such as hints
of mysticism he now detects in the simple lyrics of "Got to Get
You Into My Life."
"I remember roughly what I meant when I wrote them and
sometimes they surprise me," said McCartney, who was relaxed and
munching grapes with a gently puffing humidifier at his feet.
McCartney certainly has the old songs close at hand; he and the
other gatekeepers of the Beatles industrial complex signed off on a
series of legacy projects in recent years that put the classics in new
contexts on film, television and the stage. There's more coming this
September when the entire Beatles catalog will be reissued in
remastered form and also featured in a new video game, "Rock
Band: Beatles," a venture that has him especially excited (even
though, he confessed, he's "not a video game guy and probably
won't be any good at playing it").
Friday, McCartney will bring the Beatles songs to the California
low desert as the headliner for the opening night of the Coachella
Valley Music and Arts Festival, a franchise usually defined by
alt-rock heroes, not knighted senior citizens. It's not an entirely
foreign sector to McCartney -- he played England's massive and muddy
Glastonbury Festival in 2004, for instance -- but he seemed intrigued
by the challenge of finding more young listeners and new meanings.
"I enjoy playing the old songs, and some of them, as I say,
like 'Long and Winding Road,' have new things for me," he said.
"What it means to me here and now, from this perspective, when it
has been a long and winding road for me, well, it's so different. When
I wrote that song, it already had been a long road, you know, from my
youth up to that point. We were going through quite a lot. But now I
look back and that song . . . "
His voice trailed off. The road has certainly had some brutal
patches. He lost his wife of 29 years, Linda Eastman McCartney, to
cancer in 1998. In 2002 he married former model Heather Mills but that
ended with a nasty separation in 2006 and a firefight that continued
through last year's legal settlement. The court awarded Mills about
$50 million, but the biggest beneficiary was Fleet Street, which over
the course of turmoil sold a mountain of tabloid pulp. McCartney, who
had always been guarded in interviews anyway, may still be rattled; as
he answered questions, two publicists leaned on a nearby wall in case
of topic emergency.
McCartney was the cute Beatle, the sunny one as well, a description
that certainly wasn't a compliment in the churning late 1960s. He
acknowledged that the last few years tested that old expectation.
"It's not easy, but it's never easy to stay positive," he
said. "But to do that -- I think it's my natural character. You
get into situations that can be difficult. But my natural reaction
isn't to then go swinging a hatchet. I don't like that. Even though
things get difficult I try to stay positive. You do come out the other
side of it, and if you've been positive the whole time, you're glad
He paused again and then seemed to compare his two famous divorces.
"The breakup of the Beatles was very difficult. The separation of
the last couple of years was difficult. But I think you look to the
positive things. I've tried it the other way, and you kind of get
down. 'This is going nowhere. OK, what can we do about this? What is
good about this? Ah, that,' and you just grab hold of it."
McCartney was at Radio City for a fundraiser for filmmaker David
Lynch's foundation, which aspires to teach meditation techniques to a
million at-risk youngsters around the world. Given the deep list of
modern global calamity, that inspired some eye-rolling from the union
guys working backstage, but plenty of big-name stars came to play for
the cause, among them Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow and Donovan. The
biggest draw, though, was clearly McCartney and an old friend: Ringo Starr.
There are four living former U.S. presidents but only two surviving
Beatles. Seeing the two Beatles, it's impossible to not think of the
missing John Lennon and George Harrison, and despite any past
rivalries or icy years, McCartney is now in a place where he speaks
about them only with ease and affection. Asked about how he writes his
music these days, his first instinct was to compare it to those
long-gone years with Lennon.
"I do it in the same form that John and I used to do," he
said. He said he has about 20 new songs written and, elaborating on
his method, he said: "There's a spot in my house. It's like my
den. There's my piano and my acoustic guitar. The piano is the old one
that I wrote 'Let It Be' and 'Hey Jude' on, so it's an old friend of
mine. A good old friend."
At the rehearsal, McCartney stood alone on stage, with his voice
(which, it must be said, remains supple and evocative) echoing in a
spectral-sounding reverb, and sang an acoustic version of his 1982
song "Here Today," a poignant what-if conversation with the
late Lennon: What about the time we met? / Well I suppose that you
could say that we were playing hard to get / Didn't understand a thing
/ But we could always sing.
The screen behind McCartney filled with famous Beatles photographs,
the present backlighted by the past. Then Paul asked his crew,
"We going to do the one with Ringo now?" Out walked the
world's most famous drummer, looking tan, lean and unhurried in
sunglasses, like a well-heeled tourist on holiday in Greece. McCartney
feigned as if he would kiss Starr full on the lips, and Starr
responded with a mock sneer and a pantomime slap. Then they sang
"With a Little Help From My Friends."
Later, at the actual concert, McCartney introduced Starr as
"Billy Shears," a wink to the Beatles lyric, and the crowd
went wild. The pair led an all-star jam on "I Saw Her Standing
There," an ode to the beguiling charms of a 17-year-old girl who,
of course, must now be eligible for Social Security. Whoever she is,
she'd be lucky to look as good as McCartney who, like Starr, is trim
and fit. The man who wrote "Yesterday" may dye his hair, but
his hours spent running and riding horses show in his nimble
navigation of the stage.
Talking about his touring band these days, all players in their 20s
and 30s, McCartney sounded as eager as ever: "We have this sneaky
feeling that someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say,
'You've played long enough, you've had too much fun, you been bad
boys.' We enjoyed turning people on and that seems to happen, touch
wood. I love playing with the band. I'm lucky to have them."
Some megastars, like Bob Dylan or Michael Jackson, put up layers of
mystery or masquerade, but McCartney the showman is far too eager to
please to ever wear a shroud in the spotlight. Still, he enjoys
occasional flirtation with anonymity (he used to check into hotels
under the name Paul Ramon, which would inspire the name for the
Ramones), and he had some of that with the Fireman, the moniker for
his ongoing electronica moonlighting with music producer Youth (a.k.a.
Martin Glover of Killing Joke). They had two albums in the 1990s that
didn't have the former Beatle's name printed on the packaging, but the
third collaboration, last year's "Electric Arguments,"
featured McCartney's unmistakable vocals and was openly promoted as
"We had such fun, it was like improvisational theater,"
he said. "You're reaching into the void and pulling ideas out.
It's like a game. People say you've been working and I laugh and say,
'No, I've been playing.' "
The album was well reviewed and McCartney said he might weave some
of it into his Coachella set. Then he seemed to have second thoughts.
"It seems like the natural spot for it, but I'm not saying too
much because when we rehearse if we don't like the noise we make,
it'll get cut."
The time at Coachella, of course, might be better served in the
name of legacy. "People come up and say, 'You're the soundtrack
of my life; thanks, man, for the music,' and they all have a little
story. Now a lot of the time it's not even the Beatles songs, it's
[the 1971 album] 'Ram' or Wings . . . I like that. Of course I like that."