The soundcheck over, Paul McCartney – he rarely uses the Sir – stares out across the empty seats of the ice-hockey stadium, eyebrows raised in that way of his, lost in thought. In two and a half hours these chairs will be filled with Americans waving the Stars and Stripes; holding up lighters; crying, singing, hyperventilating; greeting the latest concert of his 19-city tour with what the press have been calling ‘Maccamania’. He hands his guitar to a roadie and picks up his jacket, flipping it over his left shoulder in the same movement. Taking the stairs two at a time, he steps down off the stage and greets me with a cold, dry handshake. ‘Art,’ he says bluntly. ‘You’re here to talk about art, right?’
‘Here’ is Long Island, New York, and it’s news to me that I’ve flown all this way just to talk about his paintings. ‘Among other things,’ I answer, trying not to show the alarm in my eyes. What about the juicy stuff? His children’s feelings about his marriage in a few weeks’ time to a former swimwear model who lost a leg and became a charity campaigner? His bitter feud with a dead man, John Lennon? What about George? Linda? And, of course, what about the Beatles, a band ‘bigger than Jesus’ that broke up more than 30 years ago and yet still sells as many records each year as it ever did, a billion at the last count? At least he didn’t add ‘and poetry and classical music’, the other art forms in which he has taken to dabbling.
As he leads the way along a corridor, a crowd – road crew, hangers-on – mills around him briefly, jostling for position like petitioners in a Tudor court. When we pass through a door at the end, their progress is blocked by a security guard and I notice Paul McCartney’s walk: it is loose, swaying, almost a swagger. He will be 60 next month but, apart from a few crow’s feet around his bovine-big eyes and an interesting chestnut tint to his hair, he shows little sign of it. ‘I think someone must have falsified my birth certificate,’ he says, his flat Liverpudlian vowels softened by 30 years of marriage to an American. ‘Joke! It’s just I feel as youthful as I’ve ever felt. And pretty fit. I used to have to wring out my shirts after shows. Now I hardly sweat at all.’ He is indeed looking lithe, tanned and moisture-free – and a little shorter than I’d imagined. I’ve read that he is 5ft 11in; but we all remember that conspiracy theory about how he died in a car crash in 1966 and was replaced by a taller double, only to give the game away by walking barefoot – a Sicilian symbol of death – on the zebra-crossing outside the Abbey Road studios.
Backstage we sit on sofas in an ashram-like room draped with black curtains, lit by candles, heavy with the smell of joss sticks. McCartney scoops up a handful of nuts from the coffee-table. ‘Excuse me if I eat these while we talk,’ he says between crunches. ‘I usually nibble at this time before a concert.’ We have an hour before he has to change for the show – less if he feels the talking is putting a strain on that golden voice of his.
Alongside the bowl of nuts are copies of the Sun and the Daily Mail, just arrived from England. Both carry full-page features about how, after 11 September, Americans are saying McCartney is ‘healing’ them, just as the Beatles did in 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination. Healing, Paul? Healing? ‘I know! I know!’ McCartney says, the puffy curves of his lips smoothing out into a grin. ‘Better than bad reviews, I guess. Actually, I don’t read them, because they have an affect on me: I either think I’m too great or I get paranoid.’ The glowing reviews in the American press may have something to do with the fact that he has not toured for a decade; also that the show includes 21 Beatles songs; in the past McCartney has refused to play more than one or two of them at his concerts. ‘I used to get pissed off when people called me “ex-Beatle Paul McCartney”,’ he says, tossing another handful of nuts into his mouth. ‘Now I’m more comfortable with it.’ He chews and swallows. ‘JFK had died a few months before the Beatles’ first tour and there was a sense then of America wanting to get back to normal after a world-shocking event. The same is happening now, though I feel more connected with it this time because I was in New York when the terrorist attack happened.’
Entering into the spirit of the thing, I ask if this tour is also about ‘healing’ Paul McCartney – after all, he has said that he ‘cried for a year’ when his wife Linda died of breast cancer in 1998. ‘Yes, there is a lot of that for me. And I have a new woman in my life who I’m going to marry, so that’s part of that, too. Heather has made me feel more at ease with things. After two full years of horror and doctor’s offices and scares and diagnoses…’ He trails off. ‘In truth when you have been through that and come out at the end…’ He trails off again. ‘I’m grateful not to have to spend my days doing that any more. And I’m lucky to have found a good woman who is strong like Linda and beautiful and positive and funny.’
He found it odd dating again after so many years of marriage and he felt guilty, too, but soon rationalised that it would be what Linda wanted. With the 33-year-old Heather Mills, he tells me, it was ‘big attraction at first sight’. Then, ‘I really started to fancy her.’ The marriage will take place at his home in the Hamptons, near New York, on 6 June, three days after he performs at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace. His daughter Stella, a celebrated fashion designer, won’t be designing the wedding dress. And there are rumours that his other children – Mary, James and, from Linda’s first marriage, Heather – are not wildly enthusiastic about the union either. ‘I think a second marriage is hard for the children,’ McCartney says, nodding gravely. ‘No matter who it is: people in my position are told not to worry, that time will heal. But it’s very difficult. It’s difficult for all of us. They find it difficult to think of me with another woman. But it’s how it is and how it must be, and I think that, more than anything, they want me to be happy – and this is what makes me happy.’
It’s a steely remark, as cold and dry as his handshake. McCartney once said, ‘I’m not really tough. I’m not really loveable either.’ He was half-right. You don’t stay at the top for as long as he has without being pretty tough and single-minded. His comment about how his children will just have to lump it seems to reflect this, as do his thoughts about his reaction to George Harrison’s death last November. Looking distraught, McCartney went before the cameras to pay tribute to his ‘baby brother’. Was he wanting to make amends for the flippant comment he made in 1980 when John Lennon was shot? ‘It was definitely to do with that, yeah. I was conscious of that. I was just as distraught when John died, probably more so because it was a shocking murder. I knew George was going to die. I’d seen him and I knew. He had terminal cancer…’ He shakes his head at the memory. ‘But you’re right. When John died I didn’t know whether to stay at home and hide or go to work. I decided to go to work, as did George Martin, and at the studio we talked about John and cried and when I was leaving that night, in the dark, in the London traffic, I had the window slightly open and someone pushed a microphone in and asked me what I thought about John dying. I said, “It’s a drag.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. And, in print, it looked so heartless. When I saw it written down I thought, “Jesus Christ.”‘
It was not just in print. He said it with a shrug, as if in an attempt to be cool. And the callousness of the comment seemed to confirm what many suspected McCartney really felt about Lennon. When the Beatles broke up in 1970 the world blamed Yoko Ono. But John, George and Ringo blamed Paul, partly because he had, they thought, become too bossy, partly because he refused to work with the band’s sinister new manager Allen Klein (later imprisoned for tax fraud), partly because he was the first to tell the press – much to the annoyance of John Lennon, who had already told the others in private that he was planning to leave the band and wanted to break the news himself. Feeling angry, unemployed and bewildered, McCartney retreated to his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, grew a beard, drank too much and had what he later described as a nervous breakdown. Eventually he recovered his composure, became a vegetarian, sued the Beatles, recorded the gorgeous ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, formed Wings – with Linda on keyboards and vocals, much to everyone’s amusement – and had a long run of chart-topping singles and albums. He also wrote ‘The Frog Chorus’.
Lennon, meanwhile, moved to New York, became a junkie and revealed himself to be the borderline psychopath many had always suspected him of being. He embarked on a hate-campaign against McCartney, comparing his former partner to the cabaret artiste Engelbert Humperdinck. McCartney would try to patch things up and have ‘very frightening phone calls’ with Lennon which always ended with one telling the other to ‘fuck off’ before slamming the phone down. In 1976 Lennon said of McCartney: ‘He visits me every time he’s in New York, like all the other rock ‘n’ roll creeps.’ McCartney felt hurt, not least because, as he said in 1987, ‘I always idolised [John]. We always did, the group. I don’t know if the others will tell you that, but he was our idol.’
If George was his baby brother, was John his big brother? McCartney smiles, causing crinkles to arc downwards from his hazel eyes. ‘Yes, definitely, although not in the Orwellian sense. John was older than me and, in the good sense of the phrase, he was a big brother. He was a lovely guy. But we were very competitive. Looking back on it, I think it’s…’ He purses his lips. ‘It’s awkward. You don’t always say to people what you mean to say to them when they are alive. And with John, we had a guy relationship, loving each other without saying it. We never looked at each other and said, “I love you,” but people would ask us, “What do you think of the rest of the Beatles?” and we would say, “I love them.” So we knew indirectly, peripherally.’ He rubs his hands together to brush off some crumbs. ‘We were brothers. Family. Like an Irish family. It’s not unusual to get brothers fighting, but we did it in the spotlight – everyone got to look at the O’Malleys arguing. We gave and took a few good blows. But with John, we made it up by the time he died and I was very thankful for that. We were talking normally about baking bread. And cats – he was a cat man. He would talk about going round his apartment in his “robe” as he called it by then, dressing-gown to us. So, ordinary stuff.’
But there’s more to it than that. For years now Lennon’s role in the Beatles has been talked up and McCartney’s down. Lennon is portrayed as being deep and cool, McCartney shallow and cheesy. Yoko Ono has played a large part in this. Most witheringly she said four years ago, ‘John was the visionary and that is why the Beatles happened. Paul is put into the position of being a Salieri to a Mozart.’ McCartney has been trying to counter this, to make his version of the Beatles story the official one, most notably in an authorised biography, Many Years From Now by Barry Miles. He wants it to be known, for instance, that he, not Lennon, was the one who introduced the Beatles to Stockhausen and the avant garde.
Does he feel he has finally set the records straight? ‘I became more comfortable that my contribution was being recognised, yes. And George’s. Sad that he had to pass away before people really saw it… There was a re-writing of history after John’s death. There was revisionism. Certain people were trying to write me out of the Beatles’ history, as well as the other two. George was reduced to the guy standing with his plectrum in his hand, waiting for a solo and, as John would have been the first to admit, George was very much more important than that, as a character, as a musician. And Ringo is now being sidelined because he wasn’t a composer. We all needed each other. We were four corners of a square. There were people close to John, saying, “Well, Paul just booked the studio,” – which was galling. The trouble is’, he says, scooping up another handful of peanuts and speaking indistinctly through them, ‘I became worried that the John legend would totally wipe out any of our contributions. I’m sure I got paranoid about it, but, hey, that’s normal for me.’
Such was McCartney’s paranoia he even tried to have the Beatles songs he wrote retrospectively credited to McCartney-Lennon (as oppose to Lennon-McCartney, a brand as revered as Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein). Yoko Ono, who inherited Lennon’s estate, refused to give permission for this. ‘I didn’t want to remove John,’ McCartney tells me, ‘just change the order round. I don’t mind Lennon-McCartney as a logo. John in front, that’s OK, but on the Anthology (1996), they started saying “Yesterday” [a tune that came to McCartney in a dream] by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and I said, “Please can it be Paul McCartney and John Lennon for the sake of the Trade Description Act? Because John had no hand in that particular song.”‘ He jiggles his knee up and down in agitation. ‘I recently went to a hotel where there was a songbook and I looked up “Hey Jude” [another McCartney song] and it was credited to John Lennon. My name had been left off because there was no space for it on the page. Do I sound obsessive?’
Just a bit. Everyone knows who wrote which Lennon-McCartney composition because the songwriter always took the lead vocals. And he’s Paul McCartney, for goodness sake. His boyhood home has been preserved for the nation by the National Trust. According to the Guinness Book of Records, he’s the most successful songwriter in history. Bigger than Elvis. Bigger even than John, now. How can he possibly feel insecure about his reputation? ‘I know! That’s what people say to me. Because I’m fucking human. And humans are insecure. Show me one who isn’t. Henry Kissinger? Insecure. George Bush? Insecure. Bill Clinton? Very insecure.’ It’s a curious crew to compare yourself to – the model for Dr Strangelove, a Texan to whom English is a second language, a philanderer – but perhaps it makes sense in light of something McCartney said at the height of Lennon’s war of words: ‘John captured me so well. I’m a turd. I’m just nothing.’
Improbable though it may seem, Paul McCartney appears to have suffered periodically from low self-esteem. Linda McCartney once said: ‘I don’t dwell on what people say about me. I dwell on what people say about Paul, for some reason. Maybe it’s because he can’t handle it.’ For all his chirpy optimism, mannered blokiness and double thumbs-up gestures, he is, it seems, prickly about his reputation. As Private Eye discovered when he reacted with cold fury to the inclusion of one of his poems in Pseud’s Corner recently, he takes himself very seriously. His ‘fucking human’ comment is intriguing in another respect: it suggests that, in his professional life at least, he suffers from Paradise Syndrome: having a perfect life he needs to find something to feel anxious about. It’s not enough that he’s credited jointly with writing the soundtrack to our lives, he wants his name to come first. It won’t suffice that, since he was 20, millions of his fans have been calling him a genius – he needed to hear it from his ‘big brother’, his musical equal, his idol, John Lennon.
But you can’t help feeling that he should be, that he can afford to be, a bigger man. He shouldn’t rise to Yoko Ono’s bait. It looks so petty. Worse than that, his attempts to control not only the Beatles’ history but also their mythology have come across as boastful, petulant and self-serving. Perhaps it is just that, for all his gifts as a lyricist, he frequently expresses himself badly in conversation, often hitting the wrong note, not saying what he means. His mother died when he was aged 14: his first response? ‘What are we going to do for money now?’ He has regretted that line all his life. Even his heartfelt tribute to his ‘baby brother’ George seems a little patronising and ill-considered. He must have known that Harrison always hated being thought of as the baby of the band, not least because when the Beatles first formed Lennon used to refer to ‘that bloody kid hanging around’ – and Harrison, long after the Beatles broke up, said he thought that was how Lennon still regarded him.
Perhaps McCartney’s insecurities only seem undignified – even indecent – because in so many other ways he is such a dignified, decent man. He pays his taxes, he doesn’t wear leather shoes on principle, he sent his children to the local comp, he was faithful to his wife for 30 years (something almost unheard of in the priapic world of rockstardom), he does his own shopping at Selfridges, he travels on the Underground. The superstar next door image he has tried to cultivate may seem like a tragic affectation given that he is worth £713 million, but at least he tries. ‘You said I have this thing about wanting to be seen as an ordinary man: well, I’m sorry but I am,’ he tells me. ‘It’s just too bad – I can’t be anything other. I’m a lucky ordinary guy, it’s true. I’ve done a lot of things and fulfilled a lot of my dreams, but it doesn’t mean…’ He smiles ruefully. ‘I assumed, like you, that when I met someone who had done well that they would be saintly and just say, “Thanks, I know I am OK now.” But it doesn’t work like that.’
Yet, to the outside world, he seems so positive and well-adjusted. ‘Yeah, but my worst fear is being found out… I don’t want to elevate any higher than I am now. Sir Paul McCartney is as elevated as I ever wish to go – in fact, it is a little too high. It was a great honour and all that but… I need the people around me to know I am still the same and I want to feel the same, because I like who I am. A bit insecure. So I don’t go, “Fuck you! How dare you tell me that. I’m better than you.” It would be easy to do but I don’t want to get like that. Know why? Because I’m working-class [his father was a cotton salesman, his mother a nurse, and he grew up on a council estate]. If I got like that now, people, the crew out there, would be doing this [he flicks the V-sign] behind my back as I walk past.’
He checks his watch pointedly. ‘Now,’ he says. ‘The Walker Gallery, Liverpool.’ There is an exhibition catalogue for it on the coffee-table and as we flick through the paintings – bold colouring, some abstract, some figurative – I nod approvingly. Pretty disturbing, though, some of them. ‘Oh. Yeah, a lady friend once walked through my studio and said, “Paul what would a psychiatrist make of all this?” Here,’ he says stopping at one. ‘It’s red, so I suppose you could say “demonic, red, hell,” but I just like red. In the Rorschach test, some people see a butterfly, some see a devil. You are supposed to betray yourself in painting. But that’s OK. I don’t try and hide anything about myself.’ He turns to a warmer image. ‘These beach paintings aren’t disturbing, though. That was just a memory. Shark on Georgica is somewhere I used to sail. I knocked the paint pot and a shark appeared. I like that accident. Perhaps it betrays some hidden fears.’ Freud said there are no accidents. ‘Exactly.’ He flicks on a few more pages. ‘The curator picked this one out and says it’s very sexual. I’m not sure what he means but I’ll go along with that. That could be phallic.’ He gives a thin laugh and moves the page round to view the painting from a different angle. ‘When I was a kid I used to draw nude women and feel guilty. Now when I look at nudes in photographs and paintings I don’t giggle. I had to get over that block, get over the smutty stage. I started painting seriously when I was 40, when I had children, and that was when I got over it. To have babies we do have to do certain things…. Here’s a nude of Linda. Why not? I was married to this woman for 30 years.’
Has he painted any of Linda since she died? ‘No, I haven’t painted too much in the past couple of years. Well, I’ve done one or two and they are a bit disturbing. But they would be, wouldn’t they? I was disturbed.’ He grieved properly for Linda, he says, something he didn’t do when his mother died from breast cancer. ‘I certainly didn’t grieve enough for my mother. There was no such thing as a psychiatrist when I lost her. You kidding? I was a 14-year-old Liverpool boy. I wouldn’t have had access to one and I do now. I saw one when Linda died and he said, “A good way to grieve is to cry one day and not cry the next, alternate days so as you don’t go down one tunnel.” I took his advice.’
McCartney has said that in the months following Linda’s death he thought he might die from grief; did he mean he considered taking his own life? “No. I was very sad. In deep grief. But never suicidal. I’m too positive for that. After a year… It was as if the seasons had to go right through, as if I had to feel like a plant. A couple of months after the end of that cycle I began to realise I was also having other feelings, that I was emerging…’
That all you need is love? ‘Mmm. I am a romantic. I like Fred Astaire.’ Me, too, I interject. ‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘Now I feel I can open up to you. I always say to young guys, “Be romantic,” because not only do women love it but you’ll love it, too. English men are so reserved, though. The idea of being caught with flowers on the bus! You hide them under your jacket.’ He mimes hiding a bunch and looking nervous. ‘Well, I’m not like that any more.’
McCartney looks at his watch again. Nearly time to go to his dressing room. Presumably the big difference between touring America in 2002 and 1964 is the seats; audiences today don’t wet them quite as much. ‘I think the main differences is the age range of the audience,’ he says with an easy laugh. ‘The Beatles audience was essentially our age or younger, a lot of screaming girls. Now the audience is layered: people the age I am now, but also their children and grandchildren. They were holding up babies the other night, which was like, What?’
I say I imagine people bring their babies along because they want them to have a stake in history – like watching the Queen Mother’s funeral procession. ‘Yeah, there’s probably something in that. People want to be able to say, “I was there.”‘
Later I make my way upstairs to take my seat for the concert. The excitement of the crowd is palpable and infectious. And when a giant silhouette of Paul McCartney’s violin-shaped Hofner bass appears on a screen on the stage, everyone goes nuts. The screen lifts, the crisp, heavy, opening bars of the Beatles song ‘Hello, Goodbye’ are heard, and thousands of hairs on the backs of thousands of necks stand on end, mine included.