Meet The Beatle

I got to shake the hand of Paul McCartney.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer and I went to New York City to meet the guy who made and influenced so much of the music that I love. The story we were doing was about his new project The Fireman, an inspired collaboration between McCartney and musician Martin Glover, a.k.a Youth. The CD they've put out, Electric Arguments, is worth hearing: It's 13 songs recorded in 13 days over the course of a year.

I'm not usually eager to meet the musicians I love; the music is fine enough for me. My gut attitude is not to be intrusive, but that sort of goes against the fact that I'm also a music journalist. Also, the prospect of putting together a story about this record for Morning Edition — a story that would hopefully have Paul McCartney describing the process of putting The Fireman's record together — had me overlooking my more considerate side.

Linda was going to do the interview and I was the producer/engineer, which means that I came up with ideas for the conversation and later would cut that interview and mix it with the music. You can hear the results here. As a producer, I'm very comfortable — I did that for 19 years at All Things Considered — and as an engineer, I'm somewhat at ease, having played around in studios long before my radio days. I've had my own home studio for plenty of years.
This was different, however: It's one thing to accidentally forget to record that guitar part on a song, but you don't want to forget to hit the record button when you're sitting with Paul McCartney.

We were to meet McCartney at Radio City Music Hall sometime early Saturday evening. He was in New York City for the holidays to see family, and to see a show at Radio City Music Hall, but he was also squeezing in three interviews between the show and his dinner plans. Linda and I arrived at Radio City, went in the back entrance and rode up a freight elevator filled with Rockettes and little people and other theater mavens.

We were escorted to a room to wait, since we were the last of three interviews; Stephen Colbert and ABC News were ahead of us. The room we had was something like a big boardroom, with fluorescent lights, a brown table and unremarkable furniture — not the atmosphere I'd have chosen, but it would do.

As a producer, it's important that I make Linda as informed and comfortable as possible. Not that she couldn't do that on her own, but you just do your best to make everything work. Unfortunately, I wasn't really happy with the room: The refrigerator hummed and the string quartet in the next room was distracting, so I began to scout for other spaces. And, with the help of a gracious Radio City escort, I found the Roxy Room. The atmosphere was a knockout, with great lighting, Christmas decorations and original Art Deco decor. It was perfect.

I found a few comfy chairs and set them up by the Christmas tree, and hooked up my Flash recorder. Once the microphones were set up, Linda and I were ready. Linda had been sick with a cough now settling nicely in her chest; she only hoped to curb the cough long enough to do the interview.

I wondered what McCartney would be like. With four gazillion interviews behind him, how could this possibly be fresh? Just before he walked in, I found out that he was running late for dinner plans and that we needed to be quick — maybe 15 minutes tops. Hardly time to make friends.

McCartney walked into the the flatteringly lit room looking great for a 66-year-old guy. When introduced to Linda, he offered his hand and a friendly smile. Linda turned his hand away, telling him that she had a disease he wouldn't want; he said not to worry and extended his hand a second time. She refused, at which point he put out his paw as a compromise.

"Gracious," is how I'd describe Paul McCartney; as for me, I was a bit scared of mucking up the recording. I held a fish-pole (a pole with a microphone at one end) in my hands, my recorder around my neck. I must have looked down at the digital display a dozen times to make sure it was counting up; in the land of digital, that's your only reassurance.

The conversation was going well: Paul was telling good stories about working with his collaborator, about digging into poetry books for lyrics, about coming to the studio with a blank slate and walking out at the end of the day with a song. Then, somewhere about 12 minutes into the conversation, Steve Martin (the publicist who arranged this meeting) pointed to his wrist. I signaled to Linda as best I could — using gestures with my head, since my hands were full — that we were short on time. Then, I signaled to Steve that I had a camera on my bag behind me on the floor, and to get a shot of all this. (My sister told me that if I didn't get a picture with McCartney, she'd disown me.)

When the interview was done, despite his time crunch, Paul McCartney gathered for the picture you see here.

Bob Boilen, Paul McCartney, Linda Wertheimer in the Roxy Room of Radio City Music Hall

We quickly left Radio City for the train home, and in the middle of Rockefeller Center, while the skaters did their thing and the tree sparkled with crystal and lights, I pulled out my Flash recorder. Amid a thousand people trying to relish their Christmas moment in the New York streets, I hit play and heard the interview. Whew! I spent my time on the train home transcribing the interview — and then, a few days later, cutting 15 minutes to about four minutes of conversation and three minutes of music. It's how we make radio, and an utter pleasure.

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