David Horovitz , THE JERUSALEM POST
A full half century after The Beatles began to take shape, Paul McCartney still sounds awed, modest and appreciative when discussing the lasting resonance of their music. Ahead of his Tel Aviv concert on Thursday, McCartney talks here to The Jerusalem Post about his beliefs, about how he copes with near-universal fame, about the puzzling, even "magical" inspiration for some of his songs, and about his abiding, insistently optimistic outlook on life.
Paul McCartney, just turned 15, was introduced to John Lennon, all of 16, at a church fete in Woolton, Liverpool, at which Lennon's skiffle group, The Quarrymen, was playing. The older boy, so legend has it, was impressed by McCartney's familiarity with rock and roll music and his facility with a guitar. For one thing, he knew how to tune it properly. The year was 1957.
McCartney, who had already started penning his own songs (he still sometimes plays his first ever composition, "I Lost My Little Girl"), soon joined Lennon's band, and the two began writing music together. As other Quarrymen came and went, they recruited a skilled 15-year-old guitarist, George Harrison. It was 1958 - 50 years ago - and, though they had not yet found their name, The Beatles were on their way.
Variants on The Beatles moniker were introduced in 1960 by Stuart Sutcliffe, an artist who reluctantly became their bass player but who died, of a brain hemorrhage, in 1962. With Pete Best on drums, the band honed its live skills at endless gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg, failed an audition at Decca Records in London in January 1962, made a better impression on producer George Martin at Parlophone a few weeks later, drafted the adept Liverpool drummer Richard Starkey in place of Best that August, recorded their first single, "Love Me Do," in September, and set off to change the course of musical history.
Somehow managing to survive a ban by the State of Israel (which probably did not block their appearance here in 1965 because it feared they might corrupt our nation's youth, but more likely because of protekzia in the shape of pressure by one concert promoter who was jealous of the rival who had signed them), they went on to sell more than a billion records worldwide and so dominate global culture that when Lennon remarked in a 1966 interview that they were "more popular than Jesus now," he was being matter-of-fact as well as provocative.
And now, finally, with Lennon dead (murdered outside his Manhattan apartment block in 1980), Harrison dead too (from cancer, seven years ago) and Ringo "otherwise engaged," McCartney, 66, is bringing their music, and his own, to Israel. Some here have called it the greatest cultural event in our 60-year history. He blokily describes it as an opportunity to come to a region he's been interested in visiting, to "see what's what."
A ridiculously gifted musician, songwriter and vocalist who has spent five full decades, to quote from a 1968 composition, "sitting singing songs for everyone," McCartney's has been a life lived at an unthinkable level of fame, which he says he has generally found a way to enjoy. But however divinely gifted, and unspeakably wealthy, he has not led any kind of charmed existence.
His mother, a nurse, died of cancer when he was only 14. Lennon's assassination was both crushing and personally terrifying, bringing the fear that he might be next. His first wife, Linda, the love of his life from whom he was truly inseparable for almost 30 years, died in 1998. His recent second marriage, to Heather Mills, was disastrous, and very publicly so.
But McCartney, it would seem, is one of nature's undimmable optimists, earnestly glad to be alive, marveling at his growing band of grandchildren (six, as of daughter Mary's third son's birth last month), and rather humbled by nature.
His voice, down the phone on Friday from England, where he has been rehearsing ahead of the trip to Tel Aviv, was unmistakable even in conversation - melodic and cadenced. He did not sound unduly concerned about the Islamist threats of violence his visit has prompted. This, after all, is the lyricist who wrote, in 1967, about "the people standing there who disagree and never win, and wonder why they don't get in my door."
I don't know if he was being unworldly or self-calming in suggesting similarities between the extremists' objections now and the marginal hostility to a recent appearance he made in Quebec or to shows played at Tokyo's Budokan martial arts arena. But he wanted to stress that his message is one of humanitarianism and friendship. Indeed, this week's show, the latest in a series of one-offs that has seen him play to almost 700,000 people in Liverpool, Kiev and Quebec, is being promoted as McCartney's "Friendship First" concert.
As we hung up the phone, after an exchange of Shaloms, I could just hear him beginning to explain to someone in the background what the word means. On Thursday, Tel Aviv plays host to the earnest musical genius who told me that "the human spirit is a great thing" and feels "the world is a magnificent place and that we are blessed to be on it." Shalom, of course, will have a lot more meaning when everybody internalizes those words of wisdom.
Is that Paul?
Yeah! How're you doing man?
I'm great. It's lovely to speak to you. I have to tell you my sister and my mum were in the enthralled masses at Hammersmith Odeon in 1965…
I remember them well! (Laughs)
All they could hear was screaming, they said.
I know - that's all we could hear too... I must say, even though we couldn't hear anything, it was pretty exciting times.
You're the soundtrack to my children's lives as well. My daughter, who's 11, has just started learning bass and she's learning "Let It Be." That's the first thing they've got her working on.
Wow. It is fabulous, eh. We never, ever, thought that it would last this long. But, you know, it's a great tribute that it has lasted and that kids play it these days. I'm very proud of that fact.
It's third time lucky for Israel, right, after our brilliant government banned you and then the Wings dates fell through [in the 1970s]? Is this somewhere you've particularly wanted to play?
Yeah, you know, I'm always interested in visiting places I've never been to before, just as a tourist. It's always interesting to go to a new region. The offer of a gig came up. And it was somewhere that I'd been interested in. I'd like to go there and see what's what. I hear from a lot of people that Tel Aviv is a great place.
Israel is glorious and frenetic! Are you going to get to tour, get to Jerusalem…?
I'm not sure. Everyone says to me, "Oh you must go to Jerusalem, it's so beautiful. It's such ancient history." I don't think I'm going to have time, realistically… I have to be back in England for other things. But what happens is you go to these places and you think "I really must come back, I've got to explore more." So often these are good jumping off points.
Well, maybe you'll come back incognito. I have to tell you: Everybody who heard that I might be speaking to you, just has wanted to say hello, basically, and tell you how well they think of you and that you come over as such a decent person.
Oh, that's very nice. Thank you. And I say Shalom to them!
How has it been for you to live a whole life where everywhere you've been, people have known who you are. Almost universally, they've liked you and it's been nice feelings that they've had for you - but to live this life where everyone has known who you are, everywhere?
It's a kind of strange feeling, but I've grown up with it. I had to make a decision in my early 20s.
I was talking to someone about this just last night, actually: I went on holiday in Greece [in 1963] with my then girlfriend, who was Jane Asher, and Ringo and his then fiancée Maureen, who he later married. The guy who was talking to me last night said his mother and her friend met us there. And I told him this story: We weren't recognized in Greece and in fact I had a hard time telling the hotel band that we were in quite an up-and-coming group back in England. They seemed more famous at the hotel than we were.
So I always thought of Greece as one place that we could sort of get away from it all to. And I thought, well, that'd be okay, there's always certain places in the world you can get away to, and Greece will be a nice one to do that.
And then, it must have been about a year later, somebody said, "Hey, you're number one in Greece!" And I went, "Oh god, you know, there goes the bolt hole."
So I had to make a decision then: You either want to continue with music and this is going to be the price, or you should just retire gracefully right now. And obviously I made the decision to stay with music. So I've always known what I was letting myself in for, in a way. I then determined to try and enjoy it. And that's sort of what I do. It occasionally gets to be a nuisance. But I've more or less found a way to handle it so I enjoy my fame.
Is there a particular song that you've thought, "Hey, I really ought to play that in Israel?"
We have a couple of songs that we've brought back for Israel. We've changed the set slightly. But the set is normally based on what I think people will enjoy hearing. So a lot of it remains quite constant.
I always sit down and think first of all what I think the audience will like. And there's a certain set of numbers which I know people will know. I know they're hits. If I go to an artist's concert, I generally like to hear their hits. And then, secondly, I choose some material that I think will be interesting - may not be as big a hit but it will be interesting for people to hear. So we mix it. We mix and match the whole thing.
You're not planning any incredibly dramatic surprise like bringing Ringo or something?
No. I think he's otherwise engaged.
Well next time you speak to him, we'd love to have him here. I think people here will be familiar even with the less obvious stuff because they've been playing your music basically non-stop every hour on every station here for days.
Really? Oh well that's great. You can never assume that the whole of the audience knows all of your repertoire. You have to think there are going to be some people there who just know the main hits. But you're right, there are always plenty of people who sort of say "Oh, I'm really glad you played that one, that's my favorite." And they may be slightly obscure pieces. So we try to put a few of those in, just to make the whole concert interesting and to give it a good balance too.
Apropos life in the goldfish bowl, on the bigger scale, how worried have you been about the Islamists' threats - saying you shouldn't come and play here?
You have to realize that any high profile event brings with it some worries. But I have a very good team of people. And I think that most people understand that I'm quite apolitical and that my message is a global one and that it is a peaceful one. So I just have faith in that aspect of what I do.
Obviously you have to consider these things but I don't worry. I mean when I went to Quebec there were certain comments from people who said they thought it was entirely inappropriate for an English guy to be playing in a French Canadian city. I tend to just ignore those things and think there's always a voice in a crowd that will say that.
When we first went to Japan there were people who were very upset that we were playing in the Budokan because it had sacred connotations for them. [The Beatles were the first rock band to play in the arena, in 1966.] But I think the vast majority of people don't think like that. My mission, if I have one, is humanitarian, and concerns all people, not just a few.
When you think back 40 years ago, and you were writing songs about love and giving peace a chance and exploring freedoms and pushing boundaries, is it a darker world today than it looked back then?
I think it is. There certainly are problems that didn't exist then. But at the same time you have to remember that we had grown up in the shadow of World War II, which was a pretty dark time. So everything's relative.
It's certainly not as carefree a time as the '60s was, but it's a better time in many ways than World War II was, particularly for someone where I lived, like Liverpool, which sustained a lot of bombing. And my parents grew up in that. I think it gives you a sense of perspective.
There are a lot of things that aren't great about modern life, but I still feel there's a lot of stuff that is. And I try to focus on that and try to encourage people to look for the good in each other and address the best.
I think you have managed to create that sense. When people think of you and your music, they do think that it encompasses a fundamentally optimistic outlook on life…
Well I do hope so, because that's sort of how I am. Obviously if you look at individual difficult situations and just concentrate on them, it is going to give you a very down view of the world at any given time. There are still massive problems everywhere. You look at Africa and places like that. It's hugely difficult.
But then, you think, there's someone like Bono or there's the efforts of someone like Bob Geldof and people like Brian Eno and War Child [which focuses on children affected by war]. There are lots of people who are trying to focus on helping. So I'm optimistic.
I think the human race is a pretty amazing thing. I think the human spirit is a great thing. So I have faith that things will work out well.
Since you've moved onto that: You're coming to this part of the world that is so central to the great monotheistic religions. Where does faith figure in your outlook? What are your thoughts about the divine gift of life and the human spirit?
I'm not so much religious as someone who likes to think I take the best from many religions, the best of what they all have to say. They obviously have a lot of things in common. I always think of myself as spiritual rather than religious as such. I'm not too dogmatic about things. But I do feel that the world is a magnificent place and that we are blessed to be on it. And as I say, the human spirit is a great thing.
My daughter [Mary], for instance, has just had a baby and I see that as a miracle. It's not a religious miracle but it still is a miracle to me!
Amen to all that.
Yeah (laughs), how does all of that happen, man? Through the simplest of methods comes the most divine of results!
I remember having exactly the same sort of feeling when my kids were born, and you know it's not something that could possibly have come about by any process that you can understand.
Yeah. It's absolutely magical. I'm reading a book at the moment that I've been sent by the Dalai Lama [The Universe in a Single Atom], which is comparing some Buddhist philosophy to modern quantum physics. It's quite striking that modern science has many things in common with some of the ancient religions.
I think we're at a very interesting stage in human development and I just hope for the best and I'm optimistic about it.
I have to ask you some music questions: What are your favorites, of The Beatles' and subsequent songs and albums? Which do you listen to…?
I have many favorites, really. I can now talk without seeming conceited about The Beatles' "body of work." When we were writing it, it was a difficult to say, "You know I think it's great," because that just came off as immodest. But now that I'm able to look back on it, I think there was a lot of really good stuff there. I have favorites amongst John's work, George's work, my own work and The Beatles' generally.
If I have to pick one, I have to pick up the theme of the last question and say that for me "Yesterday" is a pretty special song, the main reason being that it arrived kind of magically because I dreamt the melody. I woke up one morning and I had this tune in my head and I spent the next week asking people what it was and nobody could define what it was. So I eventually realized I, in some way, had written it. So I put some lyrics to it after that. And it's been a very special song for me.
It's almost impossible to choose my favorites, because the other thing is your favorites vary. And, as I say, there's so much that John and George and Ringo did that I have great affection for. But of my own stuff, I would have to choose "Yesterday" because of the way it arrived. And for me it's been very lucky. Over 3,000 people have thought it a song that was fit to cover. It's been a pretty special song, and I don't even know how I wrote it.
I have to ask you what "Let It Be" is about, if only because my daughter's teacher has asked them…
Well that's a very special song to me as well. The story behind that was again something to do with a dream. I was going through some difficult times as a young guy in the '60s. There was plenty of partying going on and I'm sure I was overdoing it. So it led to occasionally feeling a bit sort of fried or whatever. I felt like I'd sort of overdone it.
But in one of my dreams, this particular dream, my mother, who had been dead for the 10 years previously, came to me - it's always a great thing when you see somebody that you've lost in a dream. And because she could see I was feeling a bit down, she said to me, in the dream: "Let it be." So I took this as very inspirational and woke up and wrote the song "Let It Be."
It's a big favorite with gospel choirs. I mean it mentions "mother Mary," which obviously a lot of people take to mean the Virgin Mary. But my mom's name was Mary. When I say mother Mary, I mean my mum.
I feel very blessed to have had those things happen and slightly puzzled as to how they did happen.
Let me ask you about "Maybe I'm Amazed." Is that a song that you feel very passionate about, as passionate as it sounds when you sing it?
"Maybe I'm Amazed" was written when I first met Linda [in the late 60s]. It tries to capture some of the feelings that she inspired, and so obviously that has a special place in my affection.
Paul, thank you for speaking to The Jerusalem Post and we wish you Shalom and see you in Israel.
All right (laughs). Thank you. I've got a question for you: Most of the audience is going to understand English, yeah? … If I'm announcing [songs] and talking and just telling anecdotes, people are pretty much going to understand me?
I think they will. I mean the Liverpool accent will be comparatively rare, but this is a country that speaks a lot of English.
Great. Okay. Well, Shalom!