The world is finally coming around to the fact that Paul McCartney shared equal billing in the creation of the Beatles legend. “He’s about the only one that I’m in awe of,” Bob Dylan said of McCartney in a recent interview. “He can scream and shout as good as anybody, and he can sing a ballad as good as anybody. And his melodies are effortless… that’s what you have to be in awe of.”
On Memory Almost Full, McCartney shares in that wonder with tracks that celebrate his now legendary status from the perspective of a scruffy kid from Liverpool. “That was me, in the cellar, sweating cobwebs,” he sings on a track that reads like a spirited flip through a photo album. “When I think that all this stuff can make a life, it’s pretty hard to take it in.”
Memory Almost Full comes on the heels of a string of brilliant new McCartney recordings—2005’s critically acclaimed Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2006’s Ecce Cor Meum (a concerto that deals with the grief of losing his wife Linda to cancer) and Twin Freaks—the hard-to-find collection of mashed-up and remixed McCartney classics that pre-dates The Beatles Love and Yoko Ono’s similarly-conceived Yes I Am a Witch by two and three years respectively.
Tracks like “Gratitude,” “Dance Tonight” and “You Tell Me” show what this maestro is capable of achieving when he strips away the veneer, lets his guard down and pours his heart into a song.
Paste: The new issue of Paste, which coincides with the release of your new album, is titled ‘Can Rock and Roll Save the World.’ So I guess that’s my question to you. Can rock and roll save the world?
Paul McCartney: I think it has (long pause).
I dunno. I was just winging it there (laughs).
No. I think it has. To me it speaks of freedom of thought and individualism. And when we’re all thinking, we can save the world. So in some ways, I think rock can save the world and in other ways it already has. It’s helped, put it that way.
In 1998 you said “if anyone wanted to save the planet all they need to do is stop eating meat.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
Yeah. Well, one problem that is bound to affect this planet is overpopulation. We’re not going to get less people on this planet, or so it looks. So then the problem becomes how to maintain this planet and yet have so many people. And if that is a true fact that you can feed twenty times the amount of people by you know, being vegetarian—which is something I’ve been over thirty years—then I think that’s the sort of valid avenue for people to explore. And I think that now there is even more of an argument for going veggie than ever before. Because if you take things like An Inconvenient Truth, you see it’s the little things that are screwing up our nest. I hope that’s not mixing too many metaphors.
You’re the first artist to appear on the new Starbucks Hear Music label. That’s sure to raise a few eyebrows. It’s quite a non-traditional approach to distributing music.
Yeah. I’ve become a bit disillusioned with, uh, the major record labels and the way they operate. I think they themselves are going through problematic times and my friend and producer David Kahn said they were a bit like the dinosaurs sitting around discussing the asteroid, and that really struck me. We’re in a new world now so the idea is that music isn’t bought traditionally through record shops anymore. I mean, this has been happening for years. I’ve known for years that my records have been selling in Best Buy and Walgreen’s while Tower Records is closing. So you see this shift.
But for me that was coupled with, I was not looking forward to releasing the record, the physical release of it, because it can be very boring when we just go through the motions. So I was looking for things that could be exciting and David happened to know the guy who had just been appointed one of the heads of music at Starbucks. He was an old friend of David’s and David said, “he’s a fan of yours… and what’s more, he’s a bass player…” And I thought “whew! That just about sews it up!”
So I met him. He was called Alan Mintz and he was very exciting. He just started saying “we could do this, and what about that…” so it actually just interested me, because what are we trying to do anyway? To reach people, and I don’t actually mind whether it happens through the Internet, through record stores or supermarkets or through a coffee chain. It doesn’t much matter to me, you know? As long as there is some excitement.
So I eventually met them. I met Howard Schultz and the Starbucks team, and they were just really excited. Excite-ted. They all came into this meeting, about six of them, down in a basement studio in New York where we were finishing up Memory Almost Full and they all walked in carrying Starbucks. It was hilarious. I said “Guys. Next time I come to a meeting with you I’m going to get me and all my guys come walking in with a copy of my album under our arms.” They just displayed this passion and an interest that I hadn’t seen in awhile.
And your catalog was released recently on iTunes.
Right. It’s the same thing when I talked with Steve Jobs about iTunes and the whole Apple thing. It wasn’t just that it was a great idea, from a business standpoint. It was more than that. It was a great thing to be doing. It was an exciting way to do things.
You’ve been on a great run, with Chaos and Creation and Ecce Cor Meum, but some critics still hold you accountable for songs like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and a string of lackluster albums from the eighties. A common refrain is, “How could the guy who wrote ‘Hey Jude’ write ‘Spies Like Us’?”
Well, you know, I’m multi-talented, Brent (laughs). No seriously… not to be frivolous.
Yeah, but some of your best songs seem to come from a really personal place…
Oh, like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Love in Song,” “Here Today…”
Yeah… I think it’s not just one side of my character that interests me. I’m not always in that kind of mood. You know, it can be a bright summer’s day and I can just be in a happy-go-lucky mood and want to write something to dance to, and it’s not as easy to write something like “Hey Today,” to dance to. Hey… a little coincidence. I’m actually upstairs in my mill here where I wrote that song, many, many years ago. In sort of the exact space. Funny you should mention that.
Anyway… those songs, you’ve got to be in that mood, and you’ve got to want to write like that. So I’ve either got a choice to say, "Ok, you’re in a sort of fun-loving mood, don’t write something. Just go and have a swim or something," or "Hey, write something and publish it and be damned. It doesn’t matter." So that’s me.
It has led to the criticism that some of my songs will be more meaningful than others. And you know, I don’t actually see that as a bad thing. And it doesn’t apply to everyone. There are some people around whom I’ll go, "Oh, God. I’m actually a bit ashamed about that song…’ I remember talking to a producer friend of mine about (switches to the voice of Spinal Tap’s Derrick Smalls) “Bip. Bop.”
I actually like that song…
Right. I was talking to a producer about that song and he said “That’s actually one of my favorites!” And you couldn’t call that meaningful. That is, “bip bop, bip, bip, bop, bip bop bip bop and bam!” You know? But it’s just a mood thing. When I wanna to write those, I don’t resist the urge and I write them. And so they come out alongside things that are perhaps better. But I don’t worry about it too much.
One of the best songs on the new album is “Dance Tonight.” I like that song because it has a certain kind of rawness to it. Even though it’s lighthearted, it’s very honest. And fresh. It’s almost like playing the mandolin has put you in a different place and challenged you in a different way.
Yeah. Well, that is exactly true. Yeah. So, that’s what I mean. You have that choice. If you took yourself very seriously, you wouldn’t write “Dance Tonight.” You’d just think. “OK, that’s fine, that’s a little fun thing. Over the Christmas, you’d just play that to your friends in the kitchen,” Or, I have, a little 3-year old girl who dances her head off to that one. So, I have the choice of thinking, "Yeah, well, it’s fun, but don’t use it. Just keep it as a goofy thing you do," or I can record it. You can never tell. You can never tell.
In time, I can’t tell which songs will be considered better than others, so I just write ‘em as they come. And uh, they’re all a pleasant experience to write. I pretty much enjoy writing them all and so, some of them will mean more to certain people than they will to other people. You just have to realize that. Perhaps people who take themselves and me too seriously might not like some of those songs, but there are also a huge group of people in the world that don’t take themselves too seriously, or me too seriously, and it might appeal to them. So there you go. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
One of the tracks that really stands out on your new album is “You Tell Me,” which could almost be seen as an answer, forty years later, to “Things We Said Today.”
It’s a cool track, man. Yeah. It’s really about the summers I spent in Long Island. I was there when I wrote it, and I’d actually just listened to a Leonard Cohen album that I liked. Very simple. Straightforward. I just started writing, and as I wrote, a bright red cardinal flew down from the tree, and he just worked his way into the song.
It’s to do with beautiful golden summers that I’d experienced in that particular location. It’s not an answer to anything though. I don’t analyze myself like that, you know. That’s your job (laughs). I’m the guy who gets to write it, you’re the guy who gets to write about it.
On this new album, there’s a general tone in songs like “Ever Present Past” and “That Was Me” of ‘Holy Shit! I was a Beatle!’ Do you ever stop to think about the chain of events that led you to the position you are in today? I mean, by any cosmic flip of the coin you could have been a geek that writes about music for a national magazine or a kid starving on the streets of Darfur.
I actually don’t allow myself to realize I’m Paul McCartney. In my mind, I’m James Paul McCartney, this kid from Liverpool.
I was talking to this guy in a young band the other day about just that very thing, and we both agreed. He’s already accomplished so many of his dreams, you know, he’s in a band, he made a record, and on this particular day he got to hang around with Paul McCartney. But you know, he has to keep a watch… (breaks into Johnny Cash) “I keep a good watch on this heart of mine…” You have to keep a watch on all that, or—as we’ll both agree—your head will explode. It’s just too much.
I said to him, you’re just starting. Just think about me. I wrote “Let it Be.” Now that’s enough for your head to explode, just in one lifetime. But I also wrote “Hey Jude, Long and Winding Road, Lady Madonna, Fool On the Hill… “ And I was in the Beatles. I was one of four Beatles. I was the guy who wrote with John Lennon. Stop me, or I’m going to explode! And it really is true. You have to watch it. You just have to kind of… This is possibly why I don’t take myself too seriously. If I did, I just might explode.
I imagine it could do odd things with your sense of identity. Have you ever seen a Beatles tribute band?
No. I’ve just never come across them. I’ve seen them advertised, but none of us has ever been to a Beatles fest. We sort of frowned on them in the beginning. But now we kind of realize it’s a tribute. But still, I’ve never been to one. I’ve kind of run into Beatle bands at places, funny enough. People come up to me and say, “Hi, Paul. I’m you.” I’m like, “Great, nice to meet me.” It’s pretty bizarre.
I imagine it is… do they look like you?
No. Never. But they’re always cool people. It’s a huge tribute. It’s an honor, really.