Does Paul McCartney need an introduction at this point? Probably not. But it's worth noting that the now 65-year-old former Beatle is enjoying a higher-than-usual profile this year with a catchier-than-usual new album (Memory Almost Full) and an aggressive new record label, Starbucks' Hear Music. While in New York, McCartney sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about his funeral, among other things.
The A.V. Club: In "The End Of The End," you describe your funeral. People singing, laughing, telling stories… It sounds like it's gonna be great.
Paul McCartney: [Laughs.] It does, yeah. I wish I was there. It's taken from the Irish idea of a wake. They don't get morbid. They all just say, "Ah, he's a great fellow. You want another drink?" And they tell each other jokes and things. And coming from Liverpool, which we sometimes describe as the capital of Ireland, I've always enjoyed that idea. It's not like my tradition, which would be more serious, with hymns and sermons and things. So I kind of liked that, and I was looking for an end of a five-song medley that I had going. And I thought that would be a good thing to do. But, yeah, I discovered in writing that song how I would like people to be at my funeral. I'd never really thought about it before.
AVC: It seems like you just keep getting sunnier as you get older. When you were 23, you were writing about longing for yesterday, and Eleanor Rigby being buried alone in a church graveyard. Aren't you supposed to be darker now?
PM: Well, y'know, it's not unusual for writers to address those kind of subjects. It's also not unusual for writers to look backward. Because that's your pool of resources. If you were to write something now, I bet there's a pretty good chance you'd call on your teenage years, your experiences then, stuff you learned then. You're gonna write about girls, for instance, I bet you'd call up memories of then. Because that's a very rich period. So I think that's all it is, really. "Eleanor Rigby," I was looking at lonely old women, of which I'd seen a lot of in my childhood in Liverpool. And I was kind of friendly with a few. I don't know what it was. Maybe my parents had kind of encouraged me.
My dad was a particularly polite kind of guy, very courteous. So when we got on a bus, he would always encourage me and my younger brother to get up and offer our seat to an old lady. I grew up kind of liking that, thinking, y'know, that's a nice thing, that's a courtesy. The old ladies always liked it. So I would go around to neighbors and just sort of say to some old lady, "Would you like me to do your shopping for you?" I wasn't trying to be all goody-goody, it just felt like a nice thing. And the great side effect was that I would get a lot of information from talking to them about how it was when they were kids. I remember one old lady made a crystal radio, which people used to do in those old days. She had this fantastic little device, looked to me like from the future. But it was a real radio. Kzzz-rrrrrr-ggggghh! So I drew on that for things like "Eleanor Rigby." I don't really see it as dark. I see it as an aspect of life that an artist might be drawn to. "Penny Lane" is dealing with an area. But again, it's retrospective. It's looking at my youth. It's an area where I used to meet up with John. It was just a bus depot.
AVC: So you see it more as nostalgic than melancholy.
PM: Yeah. I do. But with writers, there's nothing wrong with melancholy. It's an important color in writing. It's not too cool just for everything to be "Jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly." It's kind of nice to be able to put "Jolly, jolly, jolly… darrrrk." It just helps.
AVC: A number of reviews have described Memory Almost Full as a Wings-y album, as compared to Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, which was supposedly more Beatles-y. Do you think in those terms when you're recording?
PM: I don't, actually. But I listen when people say it. It surprises me. I don't think in those terms, and I don't write in those terms. But I am me. So it's natural that I'm gonna echo periods I've already been through. I find out when people tell me, in the feedback, somebody saying, "That was very Wings." I go, "Was it?"
AVC: Do you think they're just reading into it?
PM: I don't know. They could be right. I don't really think of it like that. I just think, "Well, it's me." I'm really not an analyst of what I do. But obviously other people are, because they've got the objective view of it that I haven't got. I'm inside it. So I just write it, get on with it. I don't think whether it's melancholy or jolly. Like, there's a song on the new album called "You Tell Me" which people said was very melancholy. To me, it's just about great summers. The great, golden summers of your youth. Or just the past. So to me, a bright red cardinal flying down from a tree, there's no melancholy at all. I suppose I sing it a bit sad, and it's slowish…
AVC: Maybe it's just that quality your voice has.
PM: Yeah, it's a quality in the voice. And I guess, the idea of, "Were we there? Was it true?" It's a bit like I'm in some sort of dream. A waking dream. So maybe that's what gives people the idea. But to me, it's like a mix. Sort of happy-sad.
AVC: Speaking of your voice, it's amazing how good your voice sounds for, y'know…
PM: An old git?
AVC: I didn't want to say that, but—
PM: I did. [Chuckles.]
AVC: You pretty much sound like you did in 1965.
PM: It's very weird, because I've never known anything about my voice. My old school in Liverpool is now a performing-arts school, and I kind of teach there—I use the word lightly—but I go there and talk to students. And the music teachers there are very into the technical thing. And I just say to them, "I don't know anything about it, I just hope it's there, that it's—"
AVC: You think it's just good, clean living?
PM: I don't know if it's clean living. I'm not that clean. [Laughs.] But you know, I think it's, for me, trying not to think about it that much. I just kind of do it and expect it to be there. Touch wood.
AVC: In Rolling Stone last month, Bob Dylan said, "I'm in awe of McCartney. He's about the only one I'm in awe of."
PM: That was so cool. Because I'm in awe of Bob. Y'know, people say, "Who's your hero?" And he's always been… In The Beatles, he was our hero. I think he's great. He hit a period where people went, "Oh, I don't like him now." And I said, "No. It's Bob Dylan." To me, it's like Picasso, where people discuss his various periods, "This was better than this, was better than this." But I go, "No. It's Picasso. It's all good." Whether it's bad or good, it's all Picasso.
AVC: What was the first Bob Dylan you ever heard?
PM: The original record where he's got the black cap on. That was great. I had that at home as a kid. As a teenager. And that was just [Imitates Dylan.] "The folkie! Mr. Folkie!"
AVC: Doesn't the story go that the Dylan influence kicked in around Help!
PM: No, no, no. It kicked to another level then. But we were all aware of Bob early on. I remember in my little Liverpool home, having his album. Vinyl. With that cool cover, where he looks very young. He sort of almost doesn't look like Bob Dylan. And then, obviously, I loved things like "Mr. Tambourine Man." And then he went electric. I remember seeing a fantastic concert of his at the Albert Hall where all the folkies didn't like the second half of the show because the first half of the show—
AVC: The famous Royal Albert Hall show? With the guy shouting "Judas"?
PM: It was sort of folk first-half. And then he went electric, with The Band.
AVC: Who'd you go with?
PM: The guys, I think. The Beatles. It was, y'know, a mass pilgrimage to Bob. If he was in town, we would be there, man.
AVC: When he went electric, were you and John and the guys booing?
PM: No, man! Are you kidding? I couldn't understand why anyone didn't get it. I mean, the electric stuff? It was just fantastic. And let's face it, he was playing with The Band. So they had a pretty shit-hot sound.
AVC: Well, somebody booed 'em.
PM: Yeah, the folkies. The die-hard folkies. I don't think he was really booed, actually. I think he was criticized later. I don't remember anyone booing.
AVC: This year is the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For years, it was always the top Beatles album on those all-time-greatest-albums polls. But lately, it seems like people are ranking Revolver ahead of it.
PM: Yeah. And Rubber Soul, I think it's a good one, too. And then a lot of people single out The White Album as well.
AVC: What do you think?
PM: I think Revolver and Rubber Soul have good songs. It's the early period. I think it's a classic Beatle period. But, again, I think The White Album's got some real classics. They're just different facets, so it's kind of hard to choose. It's like, "Do you choose the young Elvis or the later Elvis?" They're both good.
AVC: Are there any songs of yours that you think deserved to be bigger than they were?
PM: There's quite a few, actually. I like… There's one called "Daytime Nighttime Suffering," which I think's really cool. One called "Waterfalls," I think is nice. In fact, somebody had a hit, a few years ago, using the first line, "Don't go jumping waterfalls / Please stick to the lake…" And then they go off into another song. It's like, "Excuse me?"
AVC: TLC ripped off Paul McCartney? I had no idea!
PM: I think so.
AVC: When one of your songs comes on the radio, what do you do? Sing along? Turn it off?
PM: I listen. It's just a great feeling, man. I mean, it's like you're a kid again. In fact, it happened just the other day. I was in London, and "Dance Tonight," the lead track of the new album, came on, and I rolled down the windows and almost started shouting at this lady, "Hey! That's me! On the radio!" I resisted, but I wanted to. I thought she might think I was being a bit stupid. But I very nearly did it. That's still the feeling I get.
AVC: You still get that charge?
PM: Why not, man? Yeah, it's great. "They're playing it on the radio!" We love the radio.
Rob Siegel is a New York-based screenwriter. He also used to edit The Onion.