Paul McCartney: From Pop Music To Prose

Paul McCartney and President Barack Obama i i

President Barack Obama presents Paul McCartney with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at the White House on June 2. Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McCartney and President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama presents Paul McCartney with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at the White House on June 2.

Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, singer-songwriter Paul McCartney received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song — the American government's highest honor for pop music. Later that night, he was feted at a White House concert by Stevie Wonder and Jerry Seinfeld, among others. Fresh Air pays tribute to McCartney with highlights from an April 2001 interview.

Paul McCartney has written some of the most famous song lyrics in pop history, including those for "When I'm 64," "Yesterday," "Fool on the Hill," "Paperback Writer" and many more. They're collected, along with his poems, in a volume titled Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics 1965-1999.

The collection celebrates his song lyrics alongside old and new poems, several of which are about McCartney's late wife, Linda.

Meeting John Lennon

One poem, titled "Ivan," is about McCartney's late friend Ivan Vaughn, who introduced him to John Lennon.

"Ivan said to me, 'Come along to this village fair.' That was in the village of Walton where John and Ivan lived," McCartney says. "And he said, 'Why don't you come along? It'll be quite a bit of fun, you know.' He said, 'And my friend's playing in one of the bands.' So I arrived there and saw John, and so I was introduced. So it was Ivan who actually introduced me to him."

Lennon was playing with a band called The Quarrymen when McCartney first heard him play.

"They had a repertoire of kind of folksy sort of bluesy things mixed with early rock 'n' roll," McCartney says. "And John and the band were playing a thing called 'Come Go With Me,' which was a record for a group called The Del Vikings. It was an early rock 'n' roll record. But John obviously didn't have the record, and he probably heard it a few times on radio. And being so musical, he just picked it up. And so he was doing a version of it. But what impressed me was, even though he didn't know the words, he would make 'em up and he'd steal words from sort of blues songs."

McCartney says he quickly noticed Lennon's talent.

"So instead of the real words, which I don't know, but he was singing, 'Come go with me down to the penitentiary,' which was more off Big Bill Broonzy or somebody, you know. But I thought, 'You know, that's inventive. That's ingenius.' So I warmed to him immediately hearing that."

'The Night That We Cried'

Another poem, "Here Today," was based on a song McCartney wrote shortly after Lennon died. In it, he refers to "the night that we cried." He says this was based on a night in Florida when Lennon and McCartney had some downtime and stayed up all night talking.

"We were supposed to play a gig in Jacksonville, and we couldn't get in because there was some great hurricane. So we had to spend a night or two in Key West," McCartney says. "That's where we ended up, anyway. And at that age, with that much time on our hands, we didn't really know what to do with it except get drunk. And so that was what we did.

"And we stayed up all night talking, talking, talking like it was going out of style," he says. "And at some point early in the morning, I think we must have touched on some points that were really emotional, and we ended up crying, which was very unusual for us, because we members of the band and young guys, we didn't do that kind of thing. So I always remembered it as a sort of important emotional landmark."

McCartney says they probably ended up talking about losing their mothers at a young age.

"My mother died when I was about 14, and his died shortly after — about a year or so after, I think," McCartney says. "So this was a great bond John and I always had. We both knew the pain of it, and we both knew that we had to put on a brave face, because we were sort of teenage guys, and you didn't talk about that kind of thing where we came from."

The Sentimental Lennon

McCartney says that Lennon had a soft side.

"He was quite a sentimental guy," McCartney says. "I think he had to cover it up more. I was very lucky. I had, and still have, a very large, supportive family. I've got relatives who are breeding as we speak. But John had quite a small range. He had a very strange upbringing, actually, which didn't help his emotional profile. He didn't live with his mother. He was brought up by his auntie. And then his Uncle George died.

"I remember him telling me once that he felt he was some sort of jinx on the male side of his family," McCartney says, "because his father had left home when John was 3. So I think John always felt somehow guilty about that kind of stuff. So I'd always had the strength of my family. I had people to talk to. So I think I'd be more open about that, and John wasn't able to talk about that quite so well, I think, until he was much older and therapy helped him."

A Deep Love Of Music

Lennon and McCartney's love of music was something they had in common, McCartney says. "As to what our differences were, I don't know, really. I don't really think about our differences. I prefer to think about what drew us together."

McCartney's father was an amateur musician, but there weren't many records around the house when he was growing up.

"We listened to the radio and he played piano in the house," he says. "But in actual fact, I can't remember him having one record, let alone lots. "

He says the songs that he grew up with that his father played, or that he listened to on the radio, affected his sense of song structure — particularly the kind of chords he'd use in a song.

"I loved listening, as a kid, to him play the piano," McCartney says. "I can still remember now, sort of lying on the floor with my chin cupped in my hands, listening to him play. He played from another era — songs from another era. One of my favorites he played was a song called 'Lullaby of the Leaves.' He used to play things by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.

"So I loved all those songs," he says. "You know, I loved hearing him. And he would actually take me and my brother, and he would educate us in his own primitive way, because he didn't know how to read or write music. He'd learned by ear, but he was very musical. And so we'd be listening to the radio and he'd say, 'Can you hear that deep noise there?' He'd say, 'That's the bass.' So he'd pick out things for us to listen to. And he would sometimes show us how to do a harmony. He'd say, 'Now, here's a tune and this is the harmony to it.' So in The Beatles... In the early days of The Beatles, I was very keen on us doing harmonies, and I would have to put that down to him.

"I would always encourage The Beatles to do harmonies or, if John had a song, I would immediately harmonize to it. And you can hear that right the way through The Beatles' career," McCartney says. "I'm often harmonizing a third above John, or we're often harmonizing as a group. So I think my love of harmony came from him actually sitting my brother Mike and I down and saying, 'This is how it goes.' "

'Lost'

One of the last poems in his book is called "Lost," and is about McCartney's late wife, Linda.

"One of the things about poetry for me is that it seems a good way of dealing with grief," McCartney says. "And when I'm feeling low — when I was feeling low, particularly after Linda died, words came to me in the form of poems. One of the two came in the form of songs. But mainly they were just words and things ... that I felt I had to set down, so quite a few poems, as you said, at the end of this book were words that occurred to me then."

The poem reads, "I lost my wife. She lost her life. Until then, the luxury of no responsibility chopper wouldn't fall that night as clinched inside a glove we sucked each other's energy."

"I was married for 30 years, and in a good marriage, you've got plenty of responsibility. But if you're lucky, you don't feel like you've got any," McCartney says. "So even though I had a lot of responsibility, obviously with the kids, Linda was cool enough to make me feel like I didn't really have any. I had the freedom — all the freedom to do whatever I wanted. So that's really what that line is about. It should perhaps be the luxury of feeling I didn't have any responsibility. But it came out in that shortened version."

Echoes Of The Past

Linda died of cancer, as did McCartney's mother. He didn't find out that his mother had cancer until after she died.

"We just had to face up to it by then, because it was a different era, a different civilization," McCartney says. "We knew that, for instance, we would have to talk to the kids about it; whereas, in the era I was brought up in, postwar Britain, it wasn't the kind of thing that women talked about. And there were a lot of things that women didn't talk about. Periods, for instance, were completely forbidden for a mother to talk to her sons about.

"I think there are still a lot of people like that, but it was particularly that way," he says. "So when she got ill, she just got ill. And when she went to hospital, she was just in hospital for a short while. And it was all not spoken about it. And it wasn't until much later that I learned that she had, in fact, died of breast cancer. So it's particularly chilling when Linda contracted it. And there were plenty of echoes that I actually tried not to notice."

When asked what he means by "echoes," McCartney replies, "All sorts of things. I mean, my dad... I remembered my dad saying to my mom when she would get tired, because of her illness, 'Why don't you go upstairs and have 40 winks?' So that was something that I was very careful never to say to Linda out of sort of superstition, you know. I just thought, 'No, don't ever say that. Whatever you do.' So I would say, 'Why don't you take a nap?' You know, that kind of thing. So there were all sorts of echoes. And obviously, we were hoping that she would pull through and she would conquer it. We didn't realize how serious it was. So we stayed very optimistic and very positive right up until the end."

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