Reflections of a Renaissance Man: An Interview with Paul McCartney
From Astaire to T-Pain, from Little Richard to de Kooning, McCartney talks to PopMatters and covers it all, including his uncertainty about what kind of send-off he'd like.
Paul McCartney suddenly requests a warm beverage and, to my astonishment, it is not a cup of tea. "Have I got my Starbucks? This is only 'cause I wanted a coffee and there's one across the road. This is not a commercial," he assures me, minutes after we sit down for our interview. Nestled inside the recording studio of David Kahne, who produced McCartney's 21st non-Beatles album Memory Almost Full, he admits, "I've become more of a coffee person, though not because of Starbucks." This scenario illuminates a couple of facts: one is that, even in the self-consciously hip Meatpacking District where Kahne's studio stands anonymously, you can hardly turn a corner in New York City without encountering that annular logo of the meditative mermaid. The other is that for coffee drinkers and sexagenarian musicians alike, all roads eventually lead to Starbucks.
In a joint venture with Concord Records, Starbucks' Hear Music imprint promises what Paul McCartney's old record company, EMI, cannot: frontline sales in the 10,000 stores Starbucks operates worldwide, serving a constituency that doesn't frequent record stores like they used to. (Though Concord is an independent label, it's served by a major label's distribution system -- Universal -- in traditional retail outlets.) About the increasingly antiquated structure of major labels, McCartney observes, "I think that they admit themselves that they're in a very awkward time. They had it all their own way for a number of years. They've got huge stables of acts and artists on their books so it's very difficult to get singled out as an artist. You can't get arrested. You've got a good album and no one will listen to it just because they've got to listen to 300 other albums. I think that's the phenomenon that people are getting fed up with." Majors, are you listening? Pop music's statesman has spoken.
Cradling his cup of Starbucks, Paul McCartney has a lot on his mind and it's not just the java. The night before our chat above Gansevoort Street's cobble-stoned pathway (a few blocks south from his designer daughter's boutique), McCartney gave a "secret" concert at the Highline Ballroom. Nearly 800 lucky fans and industry folks stood at maximum capacity and reveled in a rousing set of new rockers from Memory Almost Full and vintage Beatles material alike. The intimacy of the venue reminded McCartney of the small and steamy venues in which the Beatles, to borrow a phrase from "That Was Me", used to "sweat cobwebs". He says, "When we were starting out, all our gigs were like that. They were all little ballrooms or little clubs. It's almost like a family party as opposed to a big arena show. I just like the intimacy and the sweatiness and the one-on-one. In fact, I wish it were a bit sweatier!"
McCartney seems particularly keen to ruminate about his past on Memory Almost Full, or at least create compelling music from it. "My Ever Present Past" and "You Tell Me" conjure different feelings about the past -- one somewhat desperate, the other bittersweet -- while a suite of five songs frames the past as a place to visit but not dwell. "Vintage Clothes" advises, "Don't live in the past / Don't hold onto something that's changing fast". Could the edict apply to popular music and how it continually recycles motifs from 40 years ago (see Amy Winehouse) or pays homage to entire decades (see Rod Stewart)? McCartney suggests that musicians don't so much hold onto the past as refer to it. "I think everyone kind of does that", he says. "We used to do that. We would refer to Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly a few years before we made it. We referred to it and then moved on from it, so I think it's a good jumping off platform."
Some listeners do, however, resist moving beyond, say, their well-worn vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper's and dismiss contemporary music, a situation McCartney cautions against. "There are some people, maybe older fans, who will say to me, 'Your music's so much better than anything they've got today. It's rubbish today'. I think, 'No, no. That's dangerous talk'. I think it's just too cheap a shot to say, 'It's better than all this hip-hop stuff'. I have a very wide taste in music. I will go back before my father's era to Fred Astaire and right up to hip-hop." In fact, on this morning of our interview, the Billboard charts reveal that Memory Almost Full trails close behind a hip-hop act: T-Pain's Epiphany, which held the top spot (Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad sat in between at number two). The news alights McCartney's ageless visage, as if he scored a hit album for the first time. "It's really cool! It's nice to be in the Top 3. It never hurts. I think it's kind of interesting to be up with contemporary acts like that. It's a good sign."
At 65, McCartney has survived music trends of all kinds, outlived the combined lifespan of countless hot upstarts, and remained relevant even if critics have sharpened their pencils to a stiletto point over the years. Peruse any number of reviews and you'll see "erratic", "self-indulgent", and even "sloppy" describe his solo output. McCartney offers a balanced perspective about the criticism: "After the Beatles and during the Wings period, I think there might have been a period there where I just wasn't as into what I was doing and so they might be right about certain periods there. On the other hand, they might be wrong. A lot of people surprise me because I'm ready to buy that theory: 'You're not great all the time'. What will happen is someone will say, 'No, Paul that is my favorite songs of yours'.
"I remember talking to Trevor Horn on this subject and I said, for instance, 'I've written a song called 'Bip Bop'. The lyrics are 'Bip-bop-bip-bop-bib-n-bam'. He said, 'My fucking favorite of yours, man'. I go, 'Alright, well let me re-examine this again.’ He said, 'It's not about the lyric. It's the song, man. It's great'. My son singled that one out as something he liked, but it was criticized as being banal."
Typical of a new Paul McCartney album, the verdict on Memory Almost Full is generally favorable across the spectrum of music criticism, with only a few factions reproving the album. (One reviewer proclaimed, ridiculously, that any McCartney album with a three-word title is cursed with inferior music.) On the quality of his work, McCartney confides, "I write everything thinking it's good. I think some of it is probably better than other bits. I'm sure there's a pecking order of what I've written, but I stand by it all and it interests me that some people stand by it more than I do and will single out a piece and say, 'I love the way that's kind of loose and sort of flaky. I like the way you did that'. I'm encouraged by that."
One area where pop music critics might be less qualified to adjudicate is classical music. Since the early '90s, McCartney has scored quite a few pieces, dating back to Liverpool Oratorio (1991) and continuing through the recent Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart) (2006). For a man who cites Little Richard as an influence, McCartney actually doesn't see much of a separation between the environs of rock and classical:
"It's still the same sort of land to me. What [classical music] gives me is a new ballgame in which I haven't really explored ... but it's still music, so I still am doing what I do but in another area. For instance, I don't have to sing the songs, normally. I've had sopranos, soloists, choirs singing it. It's very interesting to grapple with another kind of music, although, like I said, I don't see any barriers. It's more long form, so it's more like writing a novel ... the pop song is more like the short story form. What I have to think about when I write more the classical stuff is to not write a collection of short stories. I have to actually realize that I want 'through flow'. I believe it's called durchkomponiert in German: 'through-composed'. It's a nice idea -- not just rejecting a melody because you're onto the next track. You can bring a variation back."
Outside the realm of music -- pop, classical, or otherwise -- McCartney has extended his sensibility to fine art. McCartney's mastery of the brushstroke stems from his schoolboy days when he would draw and sketch for his mates. He cites a particular conversation with renowned abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning as his inspiration to pursue painting. He remembers about de Kooning, "He was so off-hand about the meaning of one of his paintings. I said to him, 'Bill, what is it?' He said, 'I don't know. It looks like a couch, huh?' and it just totally flipped me. It just relieved me of every block and every sort of worry I had about 'Oh, it must be Hugely Significant'. It was like no, it's paint." The liberation of unconstrained creating is what links McCartney's artwork to his music. "Freedom", he says, "is the relationship" between the two artistic expressions. One need only hear McCartney (1970), for example, to experience a kind of freeform sound collage. As a musician, he is the master of stringing together different ideas within the constraints of the pop song. Even on his biggest hits ("Band on the Run", "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"), McCartney is like a painter brushing the canvas with unconventional colors and shapes.
McCartney's artistic eye also informs Memory Almost Full, right down to the label art (a curious arrangement of paintbrushes, a horse, and a wooden car). The video for "Dance Tonight" is also a rather unique aesthetic experience. Directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the video depicts a band of ghosts frolicking with a mandolin-playing McCartney. Interestingly, those "apparitions" are sometimes felt internally for McCartney. After living more than 40 years under the watchful eye of audiences, a dichotomy between the public and private self exists within: "All those ghosts are kind of in me rather than floating around. People are seeing me as 'Paul McCartney' but I'm James Paul McCartney. I'm this kid that was born in Liverpool. Inside me I'm still that kid, but I have to be aware that I've got this film, this 'apparition' of fame. I have to take that onboard. It'd be kind of stupid for me to go, 'Please stop looking at me.' That's not gonna work." Like his video counterpart, McCartney is inclined to make merry with those "apparitions" rather than deny their existence.
McCartney has also made peace with his mortality, having survived the premature deaths of John Lennon, George Harrison, and the love of his life, Linda. On the "End of the End", the last tune in the five-song suite, he looks death in the eye and smiles:
"On the day that I die
I'd like jokes to be told
And stories of old
To be rolled out like carpets
That children have played on
And laid on while listening
To stories of old".
How does McCartney reconcile his own eventual passing?
He says, "I'm kind of fatalistic about it really. I know when John died, people sort of said, 'Are you really worried?' I said, 'No'. When your number's up, it's up. I concentrate on living day to day. I don't know what I'd like my funeral to be outside of the track on the album ['End of the End'] and I'm not even sure if I want that. It'd be kind of good for people to ... celebrate your life rather than sit around moaning. It's something I don't really think about too much. I'm too busy living. I just enjoy what I do and get on with it."
Paul McCartney didn't need to record Memory Almost Full. He didn't need to perform at the Highline Ballroom, and he certainly didn't need to speak with me about what it all means. Whether holding a paintbrush or a guitar, he's constantly driven by the muse. Despite a batch of new songs that reflect and remember, McCartney is completely engaged in the present moment. In times of adversity, he remains an optimist. If he wakes up to an overcast, rainy day in England, he thinks, "It's great recording weather." He won't stop recording anytime soon. He's interested in hip-hop, Jackson Pollock, and his audience. He knows no boundaries to the scope of composing and recording music. He's mastered the art of living ... and he takes his Starbucks with two sugars.