Listen To What The Man Says
Still basking in recent Beatles success, PAUL MCCARTNEY returns with a Wings TV special and greatest-hits CD — and a host of remarkably candid, emotional stories about John, Linda and the woman he now loves
By Lisa Bernhard and Steven Reddicliffe
May 1, 2001
It's still a good five years until Paul McCartney turns 64, but so far he doesn't even come close to resembling the simple elder of his 1967 Beatles song. He may very well be handy "mending a fuse," but for McCartney, who turns 59 next month, it's likely to be the one he blew in a recording studio while working on his new solo album, due this fall. If anything, McCartney is on a creative surge, exuberant and expressive in many media. His artwork, mostly abstract paintings, has been compiled in a catalog, Paul McCartney Paintings. Fans recently flocked to signings of his poetry collection, Blackbird Singing: Lyrics and Poems 1965-1999. Following last year's best-selling book The Beatles Anthology, there was 1, the CD of Beatles No. 1 singles, which, as McCartney proudly says, "went to No. 1 in 34 countries." On the heels of the Fab Four resurgence, McCartney, on May 8, releases Wingspan, a CD of greatest hits from his '70s band, Wings. The group, which charted 13 Top 10 singles in the U.S., was something of a family affair, with Paul's wife Linda on keyboards and the couple's kids accompanying the band on tour. This week, ABC airs the documentary Wingspan, an intimate account of those years, co-produced by McCartney's daughter Mary, 31, and her husband, Alistair Donald. (McCartney's other children are Heather, 37, a houseware designer; Stella, 29, a top fashion designer; and James, 23, a musician.) Upbeat and gracious in his London office, which is adorned with a painting by Willem de Kooning (one of his heroes) and a Wurlitzer jukebox, McCartney reflects on his professional success and personal tragedy — most profoundly, Linda's death from breast cancer in 1998. Last year, he found new love with former model Heather Mills, 33. An ardent campaigner for the rights of the handicapped (she lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 1993), Mills also works with McCartney to abolish landmines worldwide. So, what's left to do when he really is 64? We can't wait to find out.
Most people start slowing down as they get older. Yet here you are, a regular Renaissance guy.
I just think I'm an enthusiast. I just like to do a lot of things. Suddenly, I had a lot of poetry sitting in a pile. So it made me think, "Maybe you should do a book." I had 600 paintings in my studio. Someone happens to come 'round and say, "I think you should do an exhibition." I can see how it would be quite cool to be focused and just do one thing and make it simple for everyone, including myself. I am a Gemini; this might be a clue. If I've got a spare moment, it's my thing to just go up to a piano and start noodling around. And then, unfortunately, a song comes out. It's a problem a lot of people wish they had.
You said in a recent interview that you have a sense of wonder about the world.
I do, yeah. I've always been a bit like, "Wow, isn't that amazing?" I'm constantly getting updated with facts. I saw one of those Stephen Hawking [shows], and I think I heard him say that when you get down to DNA and molecular structure, that we're made of the same stuff that stars are made of. Now to me that is like, "Aaaah!" That's the kind of thing that gives me a sense of wonderment. I'm a lover, and I really do love the things I love. Everyone's got that, but I think maybe I've just got a bit more of that than other people.
Tell us about the Wings special. How did the concept come about?
What happened originally was that Linda and I were sitting around, and, like every couple, we have millions of home movies and photographs of when the kids were little. I said to her, "When are we planning to look at this?" We said, "On our anniversary. That'd be a good day." And we were going to be out in Arizona at our place there. [This was] a couple of years before Linda died. I had arrived and secretly had brought the old snapshot albums. But she secretly had had new ones made up — and a video that had been done by my son-in-law [Alistair] of all the home movies. He'd actually put it together, being a film man, [and] put music on it. We were like, "Ooh, ooh" — we got very emotional, had a couple of drinks, had a great anniversary. Then at the end of it [we] said, "That almost could have been a TV thing. Why don't we think of doing this with Wings?" — which largely covered that period.
How differently do you feel looking back at the Beatles era — the Anthology, the CDs — compared with reminiscing about the Wings years?
Well, [Wingspan] is a family thing; it's more personal. In a way the story is a little more dramatic because it was this daunting thing of following the Beatles. In the Beatles, we used to be quite pleased when anyone tried to follow us. We were like, "Take your best shot! You want to do better, be my guest! Ha, ha!" So, when the Beatles broke up it was like, "Uh-oh, my God! If I want to continue in music I'm now in that position of these wannabes." Plus the loss of these guys as my friends. But it was all offset by Linda and I getting married and having the babies and starting to go that route. Whereas the Beatles were like a phenomenal success story with four guys, [Wings were], like, follow that and raise a family at the same time.
With the members of the Beatles having been close friends, does it tug at your emotions to listen to 1?
Yeah. I love it, actually. Some of [the songs] are emotional. Depends upon what stage of the evening it is. Often [with] these records that are compilations, you don't really listen to them much, because it's your old work. But I thought, "I'll check it out," and I was really pleased with it. I'd been involved in setting it up, seeing it in a business way, but I'd not really got into it in an artistic way until I actually listened to it. The main thing I thought as a craftsman was how well-structured the songs were — that there was nothing that shouldn't have been on them, and you couldn't have put one extra thing on. And then, emotionally, it just brought back really great memories of these lovely friends of mine and all the great times we had recording. And obviously with John being dead, there were certain things where it was really sad to hear him singing. But I think the overall feel of the album is so optimistic and so clean that I really enjoyed it.
Do you have a favorite Wings song?
"My Love" is one of them. "Maybe I'm Amazed," and one called "Daytime Nighttime Suffering."
Your daughter Mary worked on the Wings special. James, your son, played guitar on your 1997 album, Flaming Pie. Would you produce an album for him?
I don't think he'd want me to — I know he would want to strike out on his own. I don't think he'd like people to think his old man did it, and I understand that. And I actually admire him a lot for that. He knows the offer's there.
Were you like that with your dad, who was also a musician?
Yeah. In my case my dad couldn't really have helped. He was very cute, my dad, but he didn't know anything about London or rock and roll. He actually did help me a lot, because a lot of my musicality is through his genes. His dad was [also] musical... Stella's a very good singer. She's amazing, [but] she's busy at the moment. [Smiles]
Yes, we read a little something about that.
But my dad did write a song, and as a fun thing I once recorded it with Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer when I was in Nashville. I played bass, Chet played guitar, Floyd played piano. The name of the record is "Walking in the Park with Eloise." I took it back to my dad and said, "Remember that song you wrote?" He said, "No." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Son, I didn't write it, I made it up." And I said, "Oh, we call that writing."
How much of your success was motivated by trying to do him proud?
Quite a lot of it. And I was certainly able to in his case. I wasn't with my mom, unfortunately. She died before I sort of did anything. She never really got to see any success. Well, who says she didn't? I like to think that [she did].
You lost both your mom and Linda to breast cancer. What comes up for you when you think of that?
Yeah, terrible. When Linda was ill it triggered memories [of] my mom — I tried to put it in the back of my mind because we were always hoping that [Linda] wouldn't die. So I blanked 'em out. One particular one: My dad used to say to my mom when she'd get tired, "Why don't you go upstairs and have 40 winks?" And you better believe I never said that to Linda. I'd say, "Do you want to nap?" I never used the expression "40 winks." You get superstitious in those circumstances. So yeah, there were all too many echoes of it, really.
Did you use your music as your therapy?
Yeah, you try. It was suggested to me that subconsciously I wrote "Yesterday" for my mom. I got the tune in a dream, so that could be. When you think of [the words]... "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away/Now it looks as though they're here to stay" — my mom's died — "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be/There's a shadow hanging over me" — my mom's died — "Why she had to go I don't know she wouldn't say/I said something wrong now I long for yesterday." My mom's gone. And I certainly have written things consciously about Linda since she died. For the new [solo] album, there are a couple of pieces on that.
You've often talked about how every love song you've written was for Linda. When you write a love song now, what is your frame of mind?
Yeah, when Linda and I were together they were basically all for Linda. That was like 30 years' worth. And then since, for about the first year and a half, they were still about Linda. But now some of them are about my new relationship [with Heather Mills]. It's [whomever] I'm feeling strongly about.
Is the new album a happy one?
Yeah, it's quite upbeat. I was wondering [whether] it might be quite downbeat in some of these songs, but there are only a couple, as it turns out. I don't even know if they'll make the album yet.
I was in L.A. recently, and I [rented] a little Corvette — which is what I do when I'm in L.A. — and I went driving. I went out in the rain, and we were driving up [along] the beach, Malibu, me and my new girlfriend. And when I got back I wrote a song about the experience, about the rain, and my record-company guy loved the song and said, "I'm sure glad it rained." So, you know, these kinds of things happen alongside us. Not all my songs particularly are about my experiences. Sometimes they're about other things, other people.
What gives you your drive, so to speak?
I think I've always been ambitious. It's just part of my character. When I was at school, if they wanted people to collect jam jars for some cause, I would say, "Yeah, I'll do it." I was a Boy Scout, and we used to do a thing called 'Bob a Job' where you got a shilling, a bob, for every job you did. I like doing things. I'm not a great one to be sitting on my own just vegetating.
Your own kids seem incredibly well-adjusted. How did you and Linda achieve that?
Linda and I were both very keen on bringing them up straightforward. Linda had come from quite a well-to-do family — I hadn't. Even though she came from this well-to-do society, she thought that some of the values could be improved upon. So, we would be like, "What do we want from our kids?" And one thing we always said was we wanted them to have good hearts. She'd kind of had a good education, I'd had a good education, but we'd not excelled academically. So we didn't mind if the kids weren't excellent academically. It turns out they all did very well without us pushing it.
Are there qualities of yours that you're glad they didn't inherit?
I think the answer is yes. I don't need to go beyond that. [Pauses] I argue, and always after it I wish I hadn't. And you always say things you don't mean. But I think everyone does that. I would love to get to a point where I didn't. If I get upset, I get upset. And I probably would like to be able to control that. "I hear you. I understand where you're coming from." But I'm not like that. I'm some guy from Liverpool, and it sometimes shows.
Talking about your kids, was it weird for them to see you begin a relationship with Heather?
Yeah. I think two things were weird: That I was having any relationship was weird, because they were used to me just being with their mom for 30 years. And, let me tell you, for me it was even weirder, because I was really used to being with Linda for 30 years. So the idea of a new relationship was very puzzling and confusing. But I happened to see someone I liked and started getting into a relationship. And then I think the big shock for them was her age. That she's actually younger than one of them — than my [daughter] Heather, strangely enough. But I think they dealt with it very well, actually. I think anyone who knows these situations knows this isn't easy for anyone, and that for a marriage of 30 years, it was never going to be easy. But we got through the worst phase, and they're very mature, my kids. If [my girlfriend] Heather and I are to have a good, permanent relationship, I know the kids will be there for us.
You've written songs about strong women. Does Heather fall into that category?
I'm afraid so. [Laughs] She certainly does. She's very strong. She's very determined. She had to be strong to have got over what she's got over. But she is strong in a very good way. A very positive person.
Are there any goals you'd still like to accomplish?
I've always wanted to do [my own] full-length animated film, so I'm kind of working on one at the moment with people, and that will be quite exciting. Linda and I were big Disney fans.
What about writing with George Harrison? Would that be a goal?
That's an interesting idea. George would have to want it. I wouldn't sort of go around selling the idea to him. But if he ever sort of said, "Hey, I'd like it." The thing is, we had that opportunity during the Beatles and we never picked it up, so maybe that says something. But if he wanted to write something I certainly would give it a go. It would have to come from George. I wouldn't want to hawk myself about and have him say, "No, thanks." I wouldn't fancy that.
Do you think the Beatles' 1 was a healing album?
Yeah. There were some others. The Anthology [CDs were] that. I think the only unhealing one really was Let It Be, because that was like a crisis laid bare. The White Album had some difficulties, but I think it's a great album. 1 is certainly a big healing, a big Band-Aid.
Did you have a moment where you, George and Ringo got together and said, "1's at the top of the charts — this is pretty cool?"
Yeah, we met recently. We met for an Apple meeting the other day, and we talked about it. We all exchanged anecdotes. "I signed copies for Spielberg's kids!" "Woo-woo!" We were all very pleased.
"Yesterday" and "Michelle" are among the most-played Beatles songs. Which do you think will end up being the most popular Wings songs?
I think "My Love" is already one of the most played. I think "Live and Let Die" has attracted a lot of attention, with Guns N' Roses doing that. "Jet" is a song people like. One I really like that I almost had forgotten is "Take It Away" [from McCartney's 1982 solo album, Tug of War].
At the time of Wings, how competitive were you with your former Beatles bandmates?
Really competitive. I don't think any of us would have ever admitted it. I know we would listen to what each other was doing and [think], "Oh, my God, that's good." I know for a fact John did once with [my] song "Coming Up." It was on a documentary, I think, about John, where his recording manager at the time said John listened to it and went, "Oh, I'll have to go back to work." I found that a very nice fact that I egged John into doing something.
Do you think about him a lot?
Yes. I dream about him frequently, yeah. He's such a central character in my life.
Do you have vivid, inspiring dreams of people you love?
I do, really, yeah. There was actually one a couple of years ago where John... There was a song that I was listening to John do in the dream, and when I woke up, I thought, "I don't know that song." It was like it was a new song, and I was going to write it with John. I did vaguely remember it and tried to put down a little demo of it, but it didn't really click. But I still have a little demo. And it was quite cute. I do dream about John quite often. It's always very nice.
And do you dream about Linda?
Yeah. I love meeting people who've passed away; it's a very special thing about dreams. It allows you to be with them again.
What music do you listen to? Do you listen to Eminem?
I listen to stuff mainly on the radio. I'm not a great record buyer. If I buy records it tends to be, like, Nat King Cole, just because I love him. But I think Eminem is very clever. I think the "Stan" record is a really clever idea, because we all know about the fan thing, and I think he finally put it down in a very good track.
Given what music and society is like today, could there ever be another phenomenon like the Beatles?
I think it would be very difficult. I think we had timing on our side. It was postwar Britain, where for the first time ever society had this chance to open up. America was opening up, getting liberal. So I think we were very lucky with the timing. And I think yeah, it might be difficult now for someone to go quite that far. But having said that, I think there is a lot of excellent music out there.
Does anybody out there today remind you of yourself?
He's nothing like me really, but in some ways I see some strands with Sting — certain interests, certain things. Going further back I think Billy Joel was sort of shades of me. Some of the Oasis stuff had shades of the Beatles. Liam [Gallagher] was John and it seemed to me that Noel [Gallagher] was me, a bit.
Are there Wings and Beatles songs that you listen to still when you're in different moods, that give you solace when you're sad or that you enjoy when you're happy?
Yeah. Most of this new [Wings] album really does stuff to me. I just remember touring, particularly the '76 tour, which I always thought was the highlight. [With] some of them like "My Love," "Bluebird," the love songs, I remember Linda and get a nice feeling, maybe bittersweet now that she's not here. I normally remember the best bits. I remember writing it and being with her. And [with] the other songs I remember that we did OK — that was always the hardest thing in the world; because we were always in the shadow of the Beatles, we didn't think we did OK. Wings did its whole career thinking we didn't do too good. So I'm really very happy to look back at Wings and think, "Faced with the challenge of following the Beatles and bringing up a family — you know, we did good."