'Truth Is, I'm the Same Guy I Always Was'
'You can't replace someone like John, and I don't think he could have replaced someone like me.'
June 11, 2007
Better All the Time: McCartney, in good spirits despite recent difficulties. (Photo by Max Vadukul.)
Paul McCartney hasn't slowed down. in the midst of a messy divorce, the 40th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper" and preparations for his 65th birthday, McCartney is releasing his 22nd post-Beatles studio disc, "Memory Almost Full," on Starbucks' Hear Music label. Nostalgic yet inventive, it's his most vibrant record in years-and the first one to come out on Apple's iTunes store. McCartney spoke to NEWSWEEK's Andrew Romano and Daniel Klaidman last week by phone while driving through the English countryside to rehearse with his band for an upcoming series of (shh!) secret, small-club shows. Excerpts:
McCARTNEY: Good morning to the two of you. Welcome to our little soiree.
NEWSWEEK: Let's start out with the new record, "Memory Almost Full." It's absolutely fantastic-your best, I think, in some time. I hear a definite Wings influence.
McCARTNEY: People are saying Wings, but I must admit that I can't see it. Then again, I'm the worst analyzer of my music ever.
NW: When a song evokes Wings or The Beatles, is that spontaneous or a conscious decision?
McCARTNEY: I don't think I ever say, "Let's write a Beatles song." But the truth of it is, I'm the same guy I always was. I use virtually the same bunch of tricks that I always have used-and add a few as I go along. Sometimes they resemble Wings or the Beatles just because that's who I am. No other reason.
NW: How do you see the songs you're writing now as different from the songs you were writing when you were, say, 24?
McCARTNEY: Some aren't that different, but some have a more mature viewpoint. I'm more mature. More water has gone under the bridge. Still, I look back and say, "Man, I was writing 'Yesterday' when I was 24 or something." Talking about "I'm not half the man I used to be" as if I'm an old geezer or something. Even though I was 24 ... You find it in 24-year-old novelists. They talk like they're old people, when they're patently not. If there is a difference, I think "The End of the End" is something I wouldn't have tackled then. Because it's about ... death. Which then I might have thought was too tricky a subject, or just something to avoid.
NW: Is mortality something you've thought about more recently?
McCARTNEY: [Laughs] I think so, yeah. I wrote this song "When I'm Sixty-Four" not expecting to be here. Of course, little did I realize that I would not only reach that mark but still be here working, and highly embarrassed at the attention that song would bring to my age. But, you know, it's actually passed off relatively peacefully. In a few weeks I move on to actual retirement age. Sixty-five! Luckily, I still have a sense of humor-and some hair.
NW: What would the Paul who wrote that song in 1967 have thought of the 64-year-old Paul? Would he have been surprised?
McCARTNEY: I think he would've been surprised, yeah. We were always surprised that the Beatles lasted at all. I remember being 17 and looking at a guy who went to John's art college who was 24 and thinking, God, that's awfully old. He had a 5 o' clock shadow, and I really felt very sorry for this guy. But when I became 24, I thought, This is a fabulous age. And 34, similarly fabulous. And 64, too. It doesn't seem to have bothered me that much. It would be great to be physically younger. But then again, I wouldn't want to think any younger. I'm happy with the way I think right now.
NW: Has it been any harder to age as a Beatle, as an emblem of the youth culture?
McCARTNEY: I think there may be an element of that. All the iconic images of me and [tone of mock nostalgia] "the boys" are of these very young, you know, moptops. There's that comparison, inevitably. It doesn't seem to bother me, really. I keep expecting it to, but, you know ... I certainly love doing what I do: writing, singing, recording, playing. I just finished a week of rehearsing with my band. We're going to be doing some little secret gigs to support the album, small clubs and things. It's just a joy.
NW: Do you ever look at any of these so-called biggest bands in the world-U2, or Coldplay, or Oasis-and think, Oh, please. You guys have no idea?
McCARTNEY: [Laughs] Well, I think they know that themselves. I actually don't think I have to point it out to them. When they started out, Oasis in particular, they said they were going to be bigger than the Beatles. And I felt sorry for them. Because everyone who says that, it's a prediction that doesn't come true. It's a fatal prediction. I sort of sit by and go, Good luck, son.
NW: Many bands have been referred to as Beatle-esque-do you think any of them are particularly good?
McCARTNEY: I don't mean to be mean, but no.
NW: The competition between you and John was the engine that drove the Beatles. Has it been hard, after the Beatles, not having a John to compete with?
McCARTNEY: Yeah, it always was. I've worked with other collaborators. Elvis Costello, for instance, was great to work with, and we did some great work together. But I'm sure Elvis himself would easily acknowledge that John is a hell of an act to follow. And now I realize that. It couldn't have been anyone. For years, I might have thought, Well, there may be someone. John was pretty good and we worked well together ... But you've got to remember, John and I knew each other when we were teenagers. We listened to the same records. We grew up to those records. We wore the same clothes. We admired the same kind of people. We had the same tastes. That informed the whole business. John and I were like twins. To find someone like that is pretty impossible. And hey, we were also damn good. We just got it on. We were hot. You can't replace someone like John, and I don't think he could've replaced someone like me.
NW: There are these caricatures of you and John that have persisted: John is rock, you're pop.
McCARTNEY: The combination of our two personalities produced a personality more than the sum of the parts. There could be times when John was the biggest softy ever, and I would be the hard nut. That might happen more in private than in public. But I think John would've gotten annoyed working with a softy all those years, and I would have gotten annoyed working with a hard man. The fact was that we were actually quite similar. We both had a hard and a soft side.
NW: Is it difficult to feel proud of a new song when you've got stuff like "Maybe I'm Amazed" in the back catalog? To be working in that shadow?
McCARTNEY: I'll tell you one thing that's great. Normally, rehearsing with my band, singing the new songs, they always seem a bit second-rate compared to the other hits I'm doing in the set. These don't. We're doing "Dance Tonight," "Only Mama Knows," "House of Wax" and "That Was Me" at the moment. I must say, they feel as if they match up.
NW: So many people are awed by your music. What songs are you in awe of?
McCARTNEY: It's a wide spectrum. What immediately comes to mind is "Cheek to Cheek," the old Fred Astaire song, which I love-it just has something that blows me away. "Stardust," the old Hoagy Carmichael, which is a masterful piece. Things like "My Funny Valentine." I think some of John's songs. "Imagine," I'd have to put up there. Some of George's songs: "The Inner Light," "Isn't It a Pity." I like Sting's "Fields of Gold." I always like Billy Joel's [sings] "don't go changing." And there are an awful lot from the rock-and-roll era.
NW: You wrote the most-covered song ever: "Yesterday." Do you ever get sick of it?
McCARTNEY: Not really, no. If you'd have written "Yesterday," would you? [Laughs] It's one of those, man. Come on! It's one of the most mystical things that ever happened to me, waking up one morning with that tune in my head. I mean, that's pretty far out. Recently, though, I realized I'd hardly heard any of these 3,000 cover versions. [Laughs] So I had someone make me a CD of the 10 most amazing covers: you know, Frank Sinatra, Elvis [Presley], Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles. The funniest thing was, three or four of them changed the lyric very subtly. Fabulous! In the middle I go, [sings] "I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday." I own up: "I said something wrong." But they don't! They go, [sings] "I must've said something wrong." [Laughs] Like, "I doubt very much whether I did. I must've. 'Cause she's gone." Check 'em out. See if they do "I must've said something wrong." Certainly Elvis does. He's not admitting a thing.