DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Former Beatle Paul McCartney doesn't need any more awards or accolades, but just got another one - the Gershwin Prize, awarded to him this week at a White House ceremony and concert honoring his lifetime of songwriting.
Many of McCartney's song lyrics are collected in a book called "Blackbird Singing," which also includes samples of old and new poems. Here's the song that inspired that book title, "Blackbird," performed here by its composer at an MTV Unplugged concert in 1991.
(Soundbite of MTV concert)
Sir PAUL MCCARTNEY (Musician): (Singing) Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise. Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these sunken eyes and learn to see. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free. Blackbird, fly. Blackbird, fly into the light of the dark black night.
BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Paul McCartney in 2001, when his book "Blackbird Singing" was published. She asked him about meeting John Lennon, his songwriting partner in the Beatles.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Do you remember what the band was playing the first time you heard John with the band the Quarrymen?
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah, they were - they had a repertoire of kind of folksy sort of bluesy things mixed with early rock 'n' roll. 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'd probably heard it a few times on radio. And being so musical, he'd 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 them up and he'd steal words from sort of blues songs. So instead of the real words, which I don't know, but he was singing: Come go with me down to the penitentiary.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Which was more off Big Bill Broonzy or somebody, you know. But I thought, you know, that's inventive. That's ingenious. So I warmed to him immediately hearing that.
GROSS: And how were you invited to play with the band?
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, they were doing two sets. There was one in the afternoon when I first of all saw them, which was outdoors. And then there was to be one in the evening. And meantime, they had all this time to fill. So they went into the village hall where the evening gig was to be. And they were sitting around, and with all this time on their hands, John, who was one and half years older than me, had got hold of some beer from somewhere and was having a little drink. And we were sitting around and just playing various songs. And even though I was left-handed, I'd kind of learned to turn the guitar upside down and just about play songs, 'cause my friends wouldn't let me retune their guitars, obviously - too inconvenient for them. So I'd had to learn this left-handed method.
So I turned the guitar around - I think it was his guitar - and I played a song - an early Eddie Cochran song, which was called "Twenty Flight Rock." And I must have done it quite well, because a couple of days later I was cycling around Walton, which was the area where I met John. And one of the friends, a guy called Pete Shotton, cycled up to me and said: Hey, we were talking about you. You know, we enjoyed that "Twenty Flight Rock," and would you like to be in the band, you know?
So I said, well, I'll have to consider this. You know, this is a big move to me. I'd never been in a professional outfit before. I'd never actually even hardly sung on stage before. I think I just did it once at a holiday camp somewhere. And so I said I'll get back to you on that one. And a couple of days later I did and said yeah, you know what, it wouldn't be a bad idea.
GROSS: You have a poem for John in there. It's called "Song for John." It's actually a lyric for a song that you recorded in 1982. I was wondering if you could read it for us.
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Okay. This poem is called "Here Today." It was originally a song I recorded for John Lennon.
And if I said I really knew you well, what would your answer be if you were here today? Well, knowing you, you'd probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart, if you were here today. But as for me, I still remember how it was before and I am holding back the tears no more. I love you. What about the time we met? Well, I suppose you could say that we were playing hard to get. Didn't understand a thing, but we could always sing. What about the night we cried, because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside? Never understood a word, but you were always there with a smile. And if I say I really loved you and was glad you came along, then you were here today, for you were in my song, here today.
GROSS: When did you write this?
Mr. MCCARTNEY: I wrote that shortly after John died.
GROSS: What was the night that we cried that you refer to in the poem?
Mr. MCCARTNEY: I seem to remember we had some time off in Key West, Florida, and it was because there was a hurricane and we'd been diverted, I think from Jacksonville. So we had to spend a night or two in Key West - is where we ended up anyway. And at that age, with that much time on our hands, we really didn't 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. 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 a band and young guys, we didn't do that kind of thing. So I always remembered it as a sort of important emotional landmark.
GROSS: Do you remember what you were talking about that led to that?
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Probably our mothers dying, because John and I shared that experience. My mother died when I was about 14, and his died shortly after -about a year or so after, I think. 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.
GROSS: Now, that's the kind of thing that John really acted out through his music. I mean he had a couple of songs that were really about that and were...
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...were very emotional. It's not the kind of thing you really did, though. None of the songs as far as I know were really about your mother.
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, no. Mine's veiled. My style is more veiled. And also, at the time the songs were written that you're talking about, like "Mother," John was going through primal scream therapy.
GROSS: Exactly. Right.
Mr. MCCARTNEY: And, you know, that's going to get it out of you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MCCARTNEY: I didn't actually go through any of that. So my stuff tended to be more veiled, or I would tend to talk to friends, relatives, loved ones about it in private. Mine would emerge, I think, probably in songs like "Yesterday." It's been put to me, although it's kind of subconscious, but it's been put to me that the song "Yesterday" was probably about my mother: Why she had to go, I don't know. She wouldn't say. I did something wrong, now I long for yesterday. That's yesterday, all my troubles were so far away.
I'm sure that was to do with my mother dying. But, as I said, kind of age group we were then, it wasn't the done thing to talk about things like that. And it was much later when John got into therapy in America that he wrote some songs that directly dealt with it.
GROSS: Now, your songs were co-credited, you know, in the Beatles era. My understanding, and correct if I'm wrong, that many of the songs were written by one of you or the other, although the other would do some editing on the song, but a few of the songs were actually true collaborations. Is that right? Is that accurate?
Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah. Well, what happened was, in the early days they were pretty much - the very earliest days were separate. We wrote one or two separately before we actually got together. But when we got together and actually started writing the earliest Beatles stuff, everything was co-written. We hardly ever wrote things separate. But then, after a few years, as we got a bit of success with the Beatles, and didn't actually live together or weren't just always on the road together sharing hotel rooms, then we had the luxury of writing stuff separately.
So John would write something like "Nowhere Man" sort of separately in his house outside London. And I would write something like "Yesterday" quite separately on my own. And as you say, we would come together and check them out against each other. Sometimes we would edit a line of each other's. But more often we'd just sort of say, yeah, that's great. And very often, a line that one of us was going to chuck out we would encourage the other not to chuck out because it was a good line. I had a line in "Hey Jude" much later that said: The movement you need is on your shoulder. And I thought that was me just blocking out the line. And I said I'll change that. He said you won't, you know. That's the best line in it.
And similarly, I would encourage him to keep lines in his songs that he didn't think were very good. And I'd say no, that's a really great line. There was a song of his called "Glass Onion," where he had a line about the walrus, here's another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul. And he wanted to keep it but he needed to check it with me. He said, What do you think about that line? I said it's a great line. You know, it's a spoof on the way everyone was always reading into our songs. I said here we go, you know, we give them another clue to follow. So we would check stuff against each other, and it was obviously very handy for our writing to be able to do that.
BIANCULLI: Paul McCartney speaking with Terry Gross in 2001. This week he was rewarded the Gershwin Prize for songwriting at a White House concert honoring him that will be televised by PBS in July.