He overcame losing the love of his life and survived a disastrous second marriage. So what continues to torture him? In his most revealing interview yet, Sir Paul McCartney confronts the ghosts of his past.
Portrait: Terry O’Neill
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Sir Paul McCartney is sitting outside his dressing room, a tent actually, which he shares with his new American girlfriend, Nancy Shevell. It has been erected backstage with its own intimate tea lights, and one hour from now, on this September night, he will perform live before 50,000 fans in Tel Aviv. He’s relaxed, biding his time, an already busy day behind him spent meeting Palestinian and Israeli peace activists. He downplays his contribution to harmony in the Middle East.
“It was just some geezer showing up, who happens to be a musician. I am trying to do my own little bit and find out more.” Some geezer?
“Yes, I am allowed to say that. In my mind I am just an ordinary guy.”
The most famous “ordinary guy” in the world enjoys a £400m fortune, travels in a private jet, owns a dozen or so homes around the globe and has an entourage to attend to his every whim. For this night’s work the “ordinary guy” will earn $4m. He has been voted, questionably, the greatest composer ever, ahead of Mozart or Beethoven, and Messrs Putin, Blair, Bush and Clinton have courted him. The meeting with Barack Obama hasn’t happened yet, but McCartney says he will find room in his diary when the moment arises.
For decades McCartney has been written about, talked about, parodied and analysed, most recently during his divorce from Heather Mills, a split that revealed more about his private life than he has ever allowed. There’s nothing ordinary about this “geezer” and hasn’t been since 1962, and yet it is a theme he will return to time and time again, enough to beg the question, why? What’s bugging him that he needs us all to reappraise him?
In a scruffy, dusty street in Bethlehem, a small music school has been set up by the conductor Daniel Barenboim. The school is intended to bridge the cavernous divide between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Here there are no autograph hunters, no paparazzi. It is just McCartney, Nancy, a handful of staff and a bodyguard. Inside, McCartney plays the boogie-woogie intro to Lady Madonna on a Steinway. The children he has come to visit are politely baffled. For once, McCartney really is an ordinary geezer. Nobody has heard of him in this dirt-poor district.
During an unscheduled stop at the Church of the Nativity, he and Nancy light candles for peace. He pauses for autographs and a group of students interrupt the reverence with a rendering of Yellow Submarine in Spanish. He apologises to those who have come to pray. Someone shouts: “You’re fantastic, Paul!” “No, you’re more important than me,” he replies, warmly. His manner with ordinary people is intuitive and yet polished. At the church he teases a group of women: “Make sure you behave yourselves, ladies”. They purr gratefully. I can safely predict them dining out on what a nice guy he is for the rest of their lives.
At 66, McCartney is still the man your mum would want to meet. But when he is not parading before his public, he is on guard, and he politely ignores questions he deems uncomfortable. We have to remember that he is an old hand at this — he has been famous for nearly 50 years. He is still recording, but not, he says, making much money out of the new releases. Increasingly he has been building up his music-publishing interests. He still paints, and his classical works have sold well, although critics have been sniffy. More than anything, he loves performing. “I never want to get jaded. It’s still exciting for me to see people lining the route and waving out of the car. And yes, it is ego.”
But he keeps pushing the message of the ordinary guy from an ordinary house in Liverpool who’s still modestly perplexed by it all. That ordinary house, paradoxically, is now owned by the National Trust. McCartney has not been back since. “It gets dangerous when you start believing your own legacy. That’s why I’ve not gone back.”
Legacy is a tricky issue for him. He doesn’t want to be seen to be bothered by it, yet clearly it bugs him. Wherever he makes an appearance, he is followed by his own video crew; every minute of every public moment is recorded. Two stills photographers are part of the team, and he retouches and vets every image they release to the media. He even did this in the hubbub of Tel Aviv. Why? To preserve his legend for prosperity? The question draws a defensive response.
“I just don’t like to see terrible photos of myself…it’s straightforward vanity. You tell me someone who wants to see terrible photos of themselves.”
I hesitate to say I know a lot of women who’d agree, but not many men who are that bothered.
The Beatles were together for just eight years, until the split in 1970. McCartney has spent the greatest part of his life and career as a solo performer, with painfully less success than he enjoyed with Lennon. He concedes that he will probably never again write songs with the luminescence of Here, There and Everywhere or Eleanor Rigby.
It becomes clear during our sporadic conversations over five months that McCartney feels real, tangible, lingering pain about the Beatles, and particularly the fact that he has carried the blame for their break-up. It might be guilt, it might be hindsight and it might just be a desire to clear his name. It might be the reason he is so intent on presenting himself as the “nice ordinary geezer” who teases old ladies — as if to rehabilitate himself. It’s possible that the McCartney who was cast as the villain in the break-up wants redemption, and with only two Beatles left, he’s keen that posterity records his side of the story.
Those who really know McCartney say there are those who are overawed by him, those who are intimidated by him, and those who just want a piece of him. When he visited Washington a few years ago, George Bush and Colin Powell were squabbling over a book McCartney had autographed for Powell. Staff were dispatched to obtain a second copy for the president. When Tony Blair heard that McCartney was to attend a Children of Courage lunch in 1999, he kept the cabinet waiting while he posed for a picture with the former Beatle. When McCartney played Red Square, Putin invited him to hang out with him. McCartney allowed one tea and a tour of the Kremlin; he was busy. His musical legacy is guaranteed, but that of “the man who broke up the Beatles” because he couldn’t be the boss, haunts him, as does his relationship with John Lennon — the blame for the break-up still has traction 38 years later. Whatever the catastrophic nature of his marriage to Heather Mills, a line has been drawn, but with Lennon it is still untidy, unfinished business, and it’s the one personal issue McCartney doesn’t duck. Indeed, he seems driven to seek an acquittal — a pardon won’t do.
The roots of the Beatles’ break-up go back to 1967, with the death of Brian Epstein. The group’s finances soon became chaotic and McCartney pushed for the Eastmans, his in-laws, to take over their management. Lennon opposed McCartney’s desire to control the band’s destiny and legacy, and proposed a new manager, Allen Klein, with whom he, George and Ringo had already signed.
Stalemate ensued. McCartney wouldn’t budge, nor would Lennon. By then all four were ready to go their separate ways. McCartney sued to legally wind up the band, ensuring it couldn’t reform without him and leaving none of their legacy under Klein’s control. The split was messy and brutal. McCartney probably said “I told you so” when Lennon subsequently fell out with Klein, but by then his intimate relationship with Lennon was beyond repair.
In 1971, Lennon released a song called How Do You Sleep? It was aimed at McCartney — a bilious, vituperative attack, mocking him, accusing him of possessing a petit bourgeois, suburban mentality and being under his wife Linda’s thumb — “You live with straights who tell you you was king… Jump when your mama tell you anything…”
The fact that George and Ringo also played on the track made it more painful. To his credit, McCartney tried to build bridges, contacting Lennon whenever he was in New York, but sources say he was systematically and rudely rebuffed. In 1972 they did meet briefly — and frostily. Lennon’s biographer Philip Norman refers to a guarded truce that soon evaporated, though McCartney still wanted to reach out. He would call Lennon regularly, often to be greeted with “What the f***, do you want, man?” For some reason Lennon was particularly annoyed by McCartney’s tendency to talk about his young children. John said that the man he once dismissively described as the best PR in the business had become “all pizza and fairy tales”. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Lennon could be a boorish snob. They played together just once after the break-up, at Lennon’s house in Santa Monica. McCartney and Linda arrived and they joined an all-star jam session.
The one-time friends met for the last time over an awkward dinner in New York about two years before Lennon’s death: one person who was there said they had nothing left to say to each other.
McCartney seems painfully conscious of the shadow John still casts over his life three decades later. He would live to regret the insanely glib remark he made on TV when asked about John’s death: “Drag, isn’t it?” A clip of it has ended up on YouTube; McCartney appears callous, but those close to him defend him vigorously. McCartney was in shock at the loss of his closest-ever friend, they say, and for once his composure deserted him. Two years later when the BBC filmed McCartney recording a special edition of Desert Island Discs, he wept as he talked about Lennon.
Throughout our conversations McCartney is keen to return to the subject of Lennon. There is the overwhelming sense that their prodigious, at times toxic, relationship is never far from his mind. I ask if he would ever consider performing Lennon’s How Do You Sleep? He doesn’t take the bait. “Maybe I wouldn’t do that one. I doubt it,” he answers with a wry smile. But it sparks an attempt to set the record straight, to varnish the epitaph and insist that the Lennon/McCartney friendship survived and endured. “The answer to John was well — I was sleeping very well at the time.
“Before John died I got back a good relationship with him. That was very special. The arguments we had didn’t matter. We were able to just take the piss about all those songs; they weren’t that harsh. In fact, I have been thanked by Yoko and everyone else for saving the Beatles from Allen Klein. Everything comes round in the end.” I ask him why it still matters so much. “I was placed in the most awkward position I’ve ever been placed in. I had to fight three mates to save their legacy, their money, as well as mine, and I did so knowing it would put me in a very dodgy position.” He goes on, eager to impress his defence upon unforgiving or undecided Beatles fans. He only sued his mates to stop Klein destroying them. “Anyone who didn’t thoroughly review the whole thing would be forgiven for thinking ‘What a tosser’. So yes, that matters to me, it is still a haunting episode… It was pretty scary having to say to Johnny, Georgie, Ringo, I’m suing you!”
When he started touring with Wings in the 1970s, McCartney refused to sing any Beatles songs. Now the set he has brought to Israel, one of a series of special gigs this year, consists mainly of the songs he wrote and recorded with Lennon. “I love John’s songs. In the Beatles, if you said it was one of your songs, it basically meant it was your idea. So Eleanor Rigby was my song, but John helped me finish it. A Day in the Life was his, but I helped him finish it. He came up with ‘I read the news today’ and I came up with ‘he blew his mind out in a car’. At the end of the song in Tel Aviv, McCartney segues into Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, which in recent years he has quietly appropriated.
McCartney’s decision to play in Tel Aviv has prompted huge controversy, pushing him onto the front pages for the first time since the divorce settlement that cost him £24.3m. Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical sheikh based in Syria, makes death threats. “I don’t get worried — if I did I’d get worried about walking across the street and getting run over in London.” The Israeli ambassador to the UK has already publicly apologised to McCartney and Ringo for banning the Beatles in the 1960s — their music was deemed too decadent — and the government is milking this visit. McCartney, meanwhile, has decreed that he wants to meet some Palestinians.
We wait for hours in the hotel lobby for McCartney to emerge from his suite. He has had a long lie-in. His famous love of punctuality doesn’t always apply to himself. If you arrange to call at his office, a member of his staff will send a nervous text five minutes before asking: “Where are you?” As he finally enters, he cannot resist a tinkle on the piano. He strides purposefully; he has learnt to walk faster than most over the years, which may be why he wears trainers with suits.
For a 66-year-old, he looks relaxed and fit, with not a grey hair on his head. He and Nancy get into a bomb-proof Land Rover, the rest of us in a Mercedes minibus. We drive into the West Bank.
The trip gives us a snapshot of vintage McCartney: it shows how he operates and how he has survived for so long. He is not a great political thinker, but in politics, as in so many things, his approach is instinctive and pragmatic. He is disarmingly honest. “I’m not very politically aware of the situation, I suppose like the average British person. We do know there’s a conflict, but we didn’t know all the ins and outs. You don’t have to visit a refugee camp to know there are a lot of Palestinians who have become dispossessed.”
On tour, as at home, with staff, officials, crew and the public, he is polite and warm. When faced with the dull prospect of a “meet and greet” with local bigwigs before the concert, he still manages to pretend he is enjoying himself. The mayor of Tel Aviv is here, anxious to be seen — and photographed — shaking McCartney’s hand. “It’s okay. I understand why it has to be done. I know it’s not going to go on for long. It’s not entirely boring.”
There is a part of McCartney that relishes being famous, even now. He enjoys ringing people up out of the blue. “Most people think it’s Frank from the office having a laugh. But then I say, ‘No, it’s Paul, you know, She Loves You?’” I’m not convinced he could cope with being the ordinary guy he claims to be. “This morning,” he says, “I was walking into a cafe. A girl shouts, ‘Hi Paul, you are fantastic. I really love you.’ I take it with a pinch of salt, but I am honoured. I am pleased she didn’t say, ‘You’re a total arsehole and I hate you.’ I am pleased I have got a compliment, and I can still walk around Soho as I’ve always done.”
People who know him say there is the real McCartney and there is Beatle Paul. “I’ve learnt to compartmentalise,” he says. “There’s me and there’s famous Him. I don’t want to sound schizophrenic, but probably I’m two people. I’m the guy who does shows in Israel, but I’m also the guy who goes home to the kids. There I am just Dad.
Apart from the “ordinary guy”, McCartney is also the “family guy”. He is close to all his children. “They’ve not been cloistered — Linda and I were very conscious of that. They’re likable people.” But they are different from others, financially at least. “If you’re as well off as I am, inevitably they will benefit. They’ve never understood hunger, like I did. I’m still hungry because I had that hunger, I’ve never lost it. It’s good to have.”
One of his gripes with Heather was not the money but his wish that their daughter Beatrice did not grow up in “a gilded cage” with 24-hour security, which his other children never had. There’s that ordinary guy again. I wonder why he needs it so much.
Throughout his public life McCartney has appeared calm and in control. Even when his ex-wife was portraying him as a cannabis-smoking, wife-beating Scrooge, he kept his cool. But there are times when he loses it and the ordinary guy can be ruthless. In 2003 he let rip in public, getting annoyed with a photographer. At the time he was out at Tower Bridge in London watching the illusionist David Blaine, and referred to him as a “c***”. For McCartney, it was unprecedented: a moment of uncontrolled rudeness exposed to the world. His relationship with Heather was unravelling at the time. “We’d been out with a bunch of mates eating and drinking and going at it out late. We had our publicity guy there. He went out to tell the press ‘there he is’. I was more angry with him than anyone else. But I lost it that night. Yes.”
McCartney fired Geoff Baker, his press officer, that night, but reinstated him the following day. A year later he sacked him properly after 15 years’ service. McCartney himself put out an uncharacteristically mean press release: “Over the past few months, his behaviour has not reached the professional standards I had come to expect.”
Baker now says working as McCartney’s press officer in the Heather phase of his life had driven him to drugs and drink. “The pressure was massive… there’s the world there, Paul and Heather here, and I was in between. Nobody can blame my addictive failings on Paul or Heather or anything like that. But the pressure was unreal.”
The Blaine episode was trivial in itself, but revealing, in that it was McCartney’s first and, to date, last public explosion, although there have been gaffes, not least his response to 9/11. “Are you gonna do a bombing campaign? How dare you! If you want to take my kids out — well, screw you. Come and talk about it, right in my face, baby,” was his public challenge to Osama Bin Laden. Unsurprisingly, Bin Laden never got back to him.
In 1984, four years after the drugs bust in Japan that sent McCartney to jail and finished off Wings, he spoke about drugs: “Cannabis is a lot less harmful than rum punch, whisky, nicotine and glue, all of which are perfectly legal.” Now, he told me, “Things have changed. A lot of people started on heroin because John did.
We didn’t know the dangers of overindulgence. The problems of cannabis have escalated and it really is more dangerous. “I’ve lost too many friends through drugs. I still believe basically the same things, but I don’t want to be a spokesman for legalisation.” When pressed, for the first time in our conversations, he is irritated. “I think I’ve made my views perfectly clear.”
His prickliness over the drugs issue is an example of his refusal to deviate from his own agenda. I mention that I have recently interviewed the widow of Mal Evans, the Beatles’ long-standing roadie who felt let down by the group when they broke up — the comment is simply ignored as though he didn’t hear it. In McCartney’s world, he has to have the last word, and there is no doubt he is always right — probably because there is nobody ever there to say he is wrong.
We talk about the perceived wisdom that he only employs yes men. At his office, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, but he is unquestionably the boss. His entourage call him, without irony, the Big Man, a contradictory term for someone surprisingly slight and skinny. “In any situation with a high-ranking official, any boss, it’s not always a good idea to tell him he’s crap. But I try to encourage people. We all have meetings — the best ideas carry the day. If someone goofs up I tell them off. There have been one or two moments when somebody has been out of order.”
Before a concert he is a stickler for detail: the music, the visuals, how he looks. But he can’t keep on top of everything. One crew member who joined him on stage told me: “Nancy should have done something about his nose hair.” Those who work for him tend to remain loyal, not least, as Baker says, because they enjoy being part of the inner sanctum. “He’s not the king of England; he’s not going to have you executed. But too many people don’t want to offend him, because they don’t want to be dropped.”
Probably the closest person to him other than family is his “executive personal assistant”, John Hammel, who began working for him as a roadie in the 1970s. On stage he still hands him his instruments and adjusts his strap, but he is now also his driver, confidante and maybe even his best friend. “It’s funny, but no one has ever asked me to reveal all. And I never would. I’d never give an interview, I’d never write a book. I’m too loyal to Paul.” It’s hard to tell who is close to McCartney. Since the death of Lennon, nobody has filled the void who doesn’t work for him. It is remarkable how so few of his intimates have kissed and told. Jane Asher has never spoken of their relationship, and Neil Aspinall, the Beatles roadie who went on to run Apple, also remained loyal. When Aspinall retired McCartney gave him a gold watch, but, more tellingly, he also paid for Aspinall’s cancer treatment. McCartney flew to New York to say goodbye to him just before he died.
One thing does emerge from talking to his friends and associates: McCartney can be controlling, difficult and demanding, but he is fundamentally decent.
In the 1960s, the Beatles biographer Hunter Davies asked the group if he could keep some handwritten song lyrics they’d left lying around in Abbey Road, which would otherwise have been thrown out by the cleaners. They all agreed, but McCartney forgot about it until he took his daughter Mary to the British Museum and spotted a lyric in his handwriting in a case. (Davies had given them to the nation.) He wrote to Davies asking for the lyric back; they eventually agreed between them that McCartney would leave it in the museum. Someone who has known him well for years says: “Rich and famous people like him are always bugged about something. The relationship with John was hard. He was in awe of him. He doesn’t care when people mock his art or his music. But more than anything he has the Beatles legend looming over him.”
There are subjects that McCartney flags up firmly as no-go areas. On Heather, he will not say a word. He doesn’t have to. During and after their separation, he maintained a dignified silence. Mr Justice Bennett described him as “consistent, accurate and honest”. Perhaps the only lingering question anyone wants answered is why someone as worldly as McCartney would fall for a serial stalker of publicity, wealth and fame. The answer could be that nobody had the nerve to tell him about the real Heather Mills. His children are thought to have tried, but it would have been easy for him to dismiss their objections as loyalty to their mother. One source says McCartney’s explanation after the divorce was simple and nearer the truth: he was thinking with the wrong head. In his judgment, Mr Justice Bennett was kinder; he said McCartney was “still very emotionally tied” to Linda when he met Heather.
One day in October, when I call to see him at his London office, an assistant is mailing out the pink invitations to Beatrice’s birthday party; McCartney speaks of his daughter fondly. He is more circumspect about his new relationship with Nancy Shevell, a rich American businesswoman who is separated amicably from her husband. She is notoriously publicity shy. I asked her if she finds McCartney’s fame stressful. “I don’t find it stressful. I’m a cancer survivor, I run a trucking company and I’ve got a 16-year-old to raise. That’s stress.”
Nancy clearly idolises him. As McCartney performed in Tel Aviv, she looked on adoringly. It didn’t bother her that his set includes the song My Love, which he dedicates to Linda — Heather used to stomp out when he played it so he took it out. Nancy is confident, sophisticated and McCartney clearly feels safe and comfortable with her. “I just like being in love,” is all he’ll say on the subject.
It has been an insightful few months. The ordinary guy, the geezer from Liverpool, the rock’n’roll legend, the goodwill ambassador, they’ve all been on show, and what emerges is a man comfortable with his fame, even with his notoriety. It’s curious he doesn’t feel embarrassment over the questions his Heather episode pose about his judgment.
He has almost breezily drawn a line under the messiest divorce in decades, and yet his role in the split from the Beatles still cuts deep. McCartney is clearly in touch with his mortality, and he doesn’t want his immortality tarnished.