Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Paul McCartney Opens Up

By the time it reached Osaka, Japan, in late April, Paul McCartney's "Out There" tour had been on the road for nearly two years. It had played to close to two million people, from Montevideo to Winnipeg, Nashville to Warsaw, with crowds in Seoul and Marseille and Stockholm still awaiting its arrival. "Out There" succeeded the "On the Run" tour, which itself followed closely on the heels of the "Up and Coming" tour, which began at the start of this decade. I could keep rewinding through his past in this way to make my point about McCartney's tireless globetrotting, but not with anything like the energy and enthusiasm the man himself can summon for each retrospective spectacular. He plays up to 40 songs at each gig, from a catalogue that stretches back more than 50 years. Each show lasts nearly three hours. The intense demands this places on him would have been remarkable in 1965, when he was 23, so it's anyone's guess how he does it now. Not that he shows any signs of stopping, or even slowing down.

There are long breaks in the schedule, of course, and there have been years when McCartney didn't perform in public at all, but at least since the turn of the century he has been out there (if not, until recently, "Out There"), with much the same band and much the same crew and friends and associates in tow, singing the songs that made him rich and famous and adored, many of which you and everyone you know and millions of people you'll never meet can sing word for word. Really, who doesn't know the opening lines to 'Yesterday'?

McCartney's flight landed at Kansai International at 7am on 20 April, and was met with the same tightly controlled arrivals-hall hysteria he's been causing since the early Sixties. One suspects an unsparing internal investigation would be launched inside Camp Macca were the boss ever to arrive anywhere unnoticed. How would Japan learn of his presence without a minor scuffle at the airport? What's a rock star without a hyperventilating frenzy to follow him around?

It's hard to get a sense, from the shaky video clip I see on his publicist Stuart Bell's phone later that day, of the number of people who greeted him at the airport (estimates vary between 500 and 800). What's certain is that most had been waiting for him since the early hours, in heavy rain, holding aloft notably polite homemade placards – YOU ARE MY SINGER; THANK YOU PAUL, YOU CAME BACK – and that when he did at length appear, in the traditional manner they screamed and shook and palpitated and covered their mouths with their hands in tremulous overexcitement.

Accompanied by his wife, Nancy, McCartney stepped off the plane in his current off-duty uniform: dark jeans and a denim jacket over a white shirt, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. He was carrying the Hofner violin bass guitar that is one of his trademarks – he has had this one since the Royal Variety performance of 1963 – and that travels everywhere with his personal assistant, John Hammel, who has been with him almost as long. Like Hammel, the Hofner gets its own seat. (Later, backstage, a friendly guitar tech lets me inspect it and, expert that I am, I can confirm that it is indeed a guitar.)

McCartney had flown in from Cleveland, Ohio, where the previous evening he had inducted Ringo Starr into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (McCartney: "As my daughter said when I got inducted, 'About fucking time.'") He slept well on the plane, he said, and by the time he arrived at the Kyocera Dome, a baseball stadium where the following evening he and his band were booked to play to a sell-out crowd of 55,000, he seemed rested and relaxed.

His touring routine is well established: breakfast, a workout, perhaps a massage, then meetings with his team. If the weather's clement and security conditions are favourable, a bike ride around the locality of the hotel. If there's water nearby, he might try to get out on it in a boat. Today, he will rehearse with the band, then have a quiet early dinner with Nancy and a few friends from the touring party. Tomorrow's soundcheck will be any time between 3pm and 4:30pm. Then, as show time approaches, he will retreat to his dressing room to watch trashy American TV. After the concert, a drink, dinner, bed. And up early to travel to Tokyo for the next show.

"It's what I do," he told me, when I asked what kept him at it all after all these years. "It's my life."

I am introduced to McCartney in a corridor backstage at the concert venue, on the afternoon of his arrival in the city. As expected, he is slim and spry, his handshake vigorous, his gaze direct, his movements swift and decisive; this is not a man who wants to be detained long, in a corridor or anywhere else.

Any of us should be so lucky to make it to McCartney's age – 73 by the time you read this – in such fine fettle. But there's a cruelty to growing old in public. McCartney was the most cherubic of the Fabs, doe of eye and cheeky of grin. No septuagenarian looks the same as he did at 20, and McCartney is not an exception. He dresses like a younger man: today, grey jeans, a casual blue shirt with the cuffs rolled back, black skate-style slip-ons. The chestnut hair is reliably ageless: flicky, collar-length, grey only at the sideburns. But the Bambi eyes are hooded now, the lips, once pouty, are pursed. His face is lined, craggy. Those high, arched eyebrows seem coolly appraising; one gets the feeling of being sized up: Is he OK? Can we trust him? Should we let him in?

The (mostly) fond caricature of McCartney as pop culture's slightly embarrassing uncle – Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft, as Smash Hits famously had it – seems pretty comprehensively wide of the mark. Yes, in public when the mood takes him he makes silly faces and strikes ironic poses and gives the double thumbs-up. But in private, it seems to me, there is a seriousness of purpose to him. Nobody suffers fools gladly – that's a ridiculous idea – but most of us do suffer them, out of necessity if for no other reason. McCartney, one guesses from his brisk, no-nonsense manner, is unwilling to suffer fools at all. He certainly has the effect on me of making me want to raise my game, so as not to irritate him, or bore him.

That said, once one is past the initial bedazzlement – Jesus Christ, it's Paul fucking McCartney! – he's extremely good at putting people at ease, loose and chatty and good humoured. He asks questions, makes small talk, cracks jokes, so that it's almost, almost possible to forget that you're looking into the eyes of one of the most recognisable people on the planet. (...)

Each generation struggles to escape the shadow of the one before it. McCartney, I think, rather than an embarrassing uncle, is a sort of dad figure to pop culture, someone whose influence we can't help but acknowledge, someone we admire – love, even, without always wanting to admit it – but also someone to criticise; someone whose minor faults are exaggerated and whose abundant qualities are diminished or overlooked. Dads can be mortifying, and our relationships with them can be fraught. Paul McCartney, unlike Keith Richards or Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or, for that matter, John Lennon, grew up to be a respectable family man, happily married, nicely turned out with lovely manners and clean fingernails. He is not a rock renegade. He was never a drug addict, or a womaniser, or a trasher of hotel rooms. He's a great cultural ambassador for Britain – which is admirable, but not very rock'n'roll.

Whatever feelings you have about McCartney, conflicted, contradictory, or otherwise, before you file him away consider this. He wrote, among many others, the following songs: 'Hey Jude', 'Blackbird', 'Jet', 'Band on the Run', 'Good Day Sunshine', 'Yesterday', 'Penny Lane', 'And I Love Her', 'Helter Skelter', 'Hello Goodbye', 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Maybe I'm Amazed', 'Live and Let Die', 'Let it Be'. And he kept it together well enough to be able to play them to millions of people around the world into his seventies.

How to fit it all into a magazine interview? What to ask the man who's been asked everything? And, worse luck, answered it all obligingly, and at considerable length.

by Alex Bilmas, Esquire | Read more:
Image: uncredited