Early evening in late summer, the golden hour in the village of East Hampton. The surf is rough and pounds its regular measure on the shore. At the last driveway on a road ending at the beach, a cortège of cars—S.U.V.s, jeeps, candy-colored roadsters—pull up to the gate, sand crunching pleasantly under the tires. And out they come, face after famous face, burnished, expensively moisturized: Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Buffett, Anjelica Huston, Julianne Moore, Stevie Van Zandt, Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi. They all wear expectant, delighted-to-be-invited expressions. Through the gate, they mount a flight of stairs to the front door and walk across a vaulted living room to a fragrant back yard, where a crowd is circulating under a tent in the familiar high-life way, regarding the territory, pausing now and then to accept refreshments from a tray.
Their hosts are Nancy Shevell, the scion of a New Jersey trucking family, and her husband, Paul McCartney, a bass player and singer-songwriter from Liverpool. A slender, regal woman in her early sixties, Shevell is talking in a confiding manner with Michael Bloomberg, who was the mayor of New York City when she served on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Bloomberg nods gravely at whatever Shevell is saying, but he has his eyes fixed on a plate of exquisite little pizzas. Would he like one? He narrows his gaze, trying to decide; then, with executive dispatch, he declines.
McCartney greets his guests with the same twinkly smile and thumbs-up charm that once led him to be called “the cute Beatle.” Even in a crowd of the accomplished and abundantly self-satisfied, he is invariably the focus of attention. His fan base is the general population. There are myriad ways in which people betray their pleasure in encountering him—describing their favorite songs, asking for selfies and autographs, or losing their composure entirely.
This effect extends to friends and peers. Billy Joel, who has sold out Madison Square Garden more than a hundred times, has spent Hamptons afternoons over the years with McCartney. Still, Joel told me, “he’s a Beatle, so there’s an intimidation factor. You encounter someone like Paul and you wonder how close you can be to someone like that.”
In July, 2008, when Joel closed Shea Stadium, as the final rock act before the place came under the wrecking ball, he invited McCartney to join him and perform “I Saw Her Standing There.” Shea Stadium is, after all, where Beatlemania, in all its fainting, screaming madness, reached its apogee, in the sixties. For the encore, “Let It Be,” Joel ceded his piano to McCartney. I asked him if he minded playing second fiddle to his guest. “I am second fiddle!” he said. “Everyone is second fiddle to Paul McCartney, aren’t they?”
McCartney knows that, even in a gathering of film stars or prime ministers, he is surrounded by Beatles fans. “It’s the strangest thing,” he told me. “Even during the pandemic, when I’m wearing a mask, even sunglasses, people stop and say, ‘Hey, Paul!’ ” He’ll gamely try to level the interpersonal playing field by saying that, after so many years, “I’m a Beatles fan, too,” often adding, “We were a good little band.” But he also knows that fandom can curdle into malevolence. In 1980, Mark David Chapman, a Beatles fan, shot John Lennon to death outside the Dakota, on Central Park West. Nineteen years later, in Henley-on-Thames, west of London, another mentally troubled young man, Michael Abram, broke into George Harrison’s estate and stabbed him repeatedly in the chest.
McCartney is a billionaire. A vast amount of that fortune can be ascribed to the songs that he wrote with Lennon before the first moon landing. Yet his audiences usually exceed those of his most esteemed peers. Bob Dylan’s catalogue of the past forty years is immensely richer than McCartney’s, but Dylan generally plays midsize theatres, like the Beacon, in Manhattan; McCartney sells out Dodger Stadium and the Tokyo Dome.
He continues to write and record, just as he continues to breathe—“It’s what I do,” he told me. Recently, “McCartney III Imagined,” a remix of his latest album, was No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums Chart. Although he admits that he’s “not very big” on hip-hop, he once holed up at the Beverly Hills Hotel with Kanye West to collaborate on a few songs. West’s “Only One,” inspired by his late mother, Donda, and his daughter North, came out of a session with McCartney. Another collaboration with West, “FourFiveSeconds,” was a hit for Rihanna. When she ran into McCartney on a commercial airline flight a few years later, she took out her phone and posted a video on Instagram: “I’m about to put you on blast, Mr. McCartney!”
The party shifted into a new phase. A platform had been laid over the swimming pool, and rows of folding chairs were set up in front of a large screen. McCartney took his seat in the makeshift theatre flanked by his daughters Stella, who is fifty years old and a fashion designer, and Mary, who is fifty-two, a photographer, and the host of a vegetarian cooking show. It was time to screen a special hundred-minute version of “The Beatles: Get Back,” a three-part documentary series more than six hours in length made by the director Peter Jackson, and scheduled to stream on Disney+ during the Thanksgiving weekend.
The event had been billed as a sneak preview, but it was also an exercise in memory. “Get Back” is a remake of sorts. Nearly everyone at the party knew the story. In January, 1969, the Beatles assembled at Twickenham Film Studios, in West London, to rehearse songs for their album “Let It Be.” The idea was to film their sessions there, perform somewhere in public—proposals ranged from an amphitheatre in Syria to Primrose Hill—and then release the edited result as a movie. By the time the eighty-minute documentary, also called “Let It Be,” appeared, in May, 1970, the band had come to an end. Most fans have always thought of the documentary as “the breakup movie,” a dour, dimly lit portrayal of bitter resentments and collapsing relationships. Jackson and his team combed through sixty hours of Beatles film and even more audiotape from more than half a century ago to tell the story anew.
The lights in the back yard went down. An audience of luminaries turned into dozens of anonymous silhouettes. First came a short, featuring Jackson, who made his name and fortune with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, speaking to us from his studio in New Zealand. He explained that he had relied on cutting-edge techniques to enhance the soundtrack and the imagery. And, even in the opening images of “Get Back,” Twickenham seemed less gloomy, the Beatles more antic and engaged. Gone was the funereal tone. “They put some joy in!” Ringo Starr told me later. “That was always my argument—we were laughing and angry.” Jackson was clearly in synch with McCartney’s hope that the new documentary would alter the narrative about his life and the final days of perhaps the biggest pop-cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century.
To retrieve the memories and sensations of the past, Proust relied mainly on the taste of crumbly cakes moistened with lime-blossom tea. The rest of humanity relies on songs. Songs are emotionally charged and brief, so we remember them whole: the melody, the hook, the lyrics, where we were, what we felt. And they are emotionally adhesive, especially when they’re encountered in our youth.
Even now I can remember riding in a van, at five, six years of age, headed to Yavneh Academy, in Paterson, New Jersey, and listening to “She Loves You” on someone’s transistor radio. The older boys wore Beatle haircuts or acrylic Beatle wigs. Neither option looked particularly dashing with a yarmulke.
My father, an exceedingly quiet man, found his deepest connection with me through music. And, because he did me the honor of listening to the Beatles, I listened when he played records that he said figured into what seemed so new: Gilbert and Sullivan, English music-hall tunes, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, the jazz of the thirties and forties, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard. In the same spirit of exchange, we watched Beatlemania take shape on television—news footage from Shea Stadium and airport press conferences. My father did not fail to mention that all the hysteria reminded him of a skinny Italian American singer from Hoboken. But this, he admitted, was much bigger.
Some years later, I began to see how music, and the stories of musicians, could play an uncanny role in our lives. One afternoon, I came home from my high school to report that a friend of mine was the son of a piano player. “He says his father is someone named Teddy Wilson,” I added.
I might as well have told my father that my classmate’s father was the Prince of Wales.
Wilson, my father explained, was the most elegant pianist in jazz. He had played with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young. In the mid-thirties, he joined Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and Gene Krupa, forming a swing-era quartet that was as remarkable for its integration as it was for its syncopated wildness. In 1973, my classmate invited my father and me and some friends to the opening of the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall, where the old Goodman quartet was reuniting. We were allowed backstage beforehand, shyly watching as Teddy Wilson massaged his hands and fingers and slowly rotated his wrists. “I ask my fingers to do a lot,” he said, “but these days they don’t always answer in time.”
One afternoon this summer, I went to meet McCartney at his midtown office, a town house near the Ziegfeld Theatre. It was a hot Saturday, and the Delta variant had broomed away most of the tourists and weekend wanderers. Although I was early, he was there at the reception desk to greet me.
McCartney is seventy-nine, but—in the way we’ve grown to expect of public performers with rigorous regimens of self-care—he is a notably youthful version of it. There are now gray streaks in his hair, though it’s still cut in a fashion that is at least Beatle-adjacent. In the elevator to the second floor, we went through the ritual exchange of vaccine assurances and peeled off our masks. McCartney has slight pillows of jowl, but he remains trim. Most mornings, he said, he works out while watching “American Pickers,” hosted for more than twenty seasons by two guys, Mike and Frank, roaming the country and searching for junk and treasure. He mimicked their line: “How much are you going to want for that?”
No one in the public eye lacks vanity, but McCartney is knowing about it. We reached a large sitting room, and, as he plopped down on the couch, a hearing aid sprang out of his right ear. He rolled his eyes and, with a complicit smile, used his index finger to push the wormy apparatus back in place. The space is decorated with just a few mementos: a deluxe edition of “Ram,” his second solo album; a small photograph of McCartney and Nancy Shevell with the Obamas taken the night he performed for them at the White House; a brick from the rubble of Shea Stadium; a striking portrait of Jimi Hendrix taken by McCartney’s first wife, Linda, who died of breast cancer in 1998.
In our conversations, McCartney struck me as charming and shrewd, an entertainer eager to please but intent on setting the story straight. He has navigated a life with little precedent, one in which a few home-town friends played a pivotal role in the rise of rock and roll, the invention of the teen-ager, youth culture, and the sixties. Not everyone took part in global Beatlemania—there were not many Black fans in the Shea Stadium news footage—but the band was at the center of the closest thing we’d ever had to a pop monoculture after the Second World War. The rewards for this have been unimaginable, and yet, even at this late date, McCartney wants the history of the Beatles and his place in it to come out right. This is clearly part of the motivation for “Get Back,” and for the publication of “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present,” a new two-volume compendium in which McCartney provides the personal and musical stories behind a hundred and fifty-four of his songs. Robert Weil, the editor-in-chief of Liveright, pursued McCartney for years to do the book and, in the end, helped put him together with the poet Paul Muldoon, who conducted dozens of interviews.
The resulting collection of essays is arranged alphabetically, as if to defy any obvious arc to McCartney’s evolution, and to dissuade the reader from thinking that matters peaked in the summer of 1969, with “The End.” The oldest song in the anthology is “I Lost My Little Girl,” composed on a Zenith guitar, in 1956, when McCartney was fourteen. “You wouldn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that the song is a very direct response to the death of my mother,” he says. His mother, a midwife named Mary, had succumbed to breast cancer earlier that year. McCartney told me that he didn’t have many pictures of his mother, although he recalls her approaching him with a red rubber tube and a bowl of soapy water telling him it was time for an enema. “I was crying and begging to not have this torture!” he said. But Mary––the “Mother Mary” of “Let It Be”––occupies a sainted place in his mind.
“One nice memory I have of her is her whistling in the kitchen,” he said. And when she became ill, he went on, “I remember her sort of seeming a little bit tired, a little bit pale, but we were too young to make anything of it.” The word “cancer” was never spoken. “There were all sorts of little euphemisms. But one thing I remember vividly was on the bedclothes there was some blood.” It was a moment of realization: “Oh, God, this is worse than I’d been thinking.”
His father, Jim, was a cotton salesman and an amateur jazz musician. Although Paul grew up in Liverpool on a working-class housing estate, he went to a good secondary school where he caught the bug for literature from his teacher Alan Durband, who had studied with F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. But, after a “pretty idyllic” childhood, his mother’s death cast a pall over the house that lasted for many months. Paul could hear “this sort of muffled sobbing coming from the next room, and the only person in that room was your dad.”
His own room was filling with music. In “The Lyrics,” McCartney talks about his delight early on in matching a descending chord progression (G to G7 to C) with an ascending melody and speculates that he might have picked up maneuvers like that from listening to his father, who had led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band—and from his “aunties” singing at holiday parties at home. In those days, though, a kid playing his first chords on a guitar and furtively writing his first lyrics was unusual. To turn this lonely preoccupation into something bigger, he had to go out looking for a friend and a band.
On July 6, 1957, McCartney, now fifteen, rode his bike to a nearby fair to hear a local skiffle group called the Quarry Men. He paid the threepence admission and watched them play “Come Go with Me,” by the Del Vikings, as well as “Maggie Mae” and “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie.” He noticed that there was one kid onstage who had real presence and talent. After the set, McCartney got himself an introduction; the kid’s name was John Lennon. McCartney nervily asked to have a go at his guitar, banging out a credible version of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.”
They had more in common than their talent and ambition. Lennon’s mother, Julia, died after being hit by a car, in 1958. (His father left the family when John was a child.) Lennon, more than a year older than McCartney, masked his wound with cocksure wit. And now he made a cunning, history-altering calculation. “It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line if I let him join,” Lennon said years later, “but he was good, so he was worth having.” McCartney was now part of the band.
Not long afterward, McCartney brought in a school friend, George Harrison, a younger guitar player. “George was the baby,” McCartney says. In 1960, the Quarry Men renamed themselves the Beatles and, two years later, nicked a crack drummer from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes named Richard Starkey, who went by Ringo Starr. All were working-class Liverpudlians (though John was posher, Ringo poorer). They had grown up listening to Frank Sinatra and Billy Cotton on the BBC. They heard their first rock-and-roll performers—Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter—on Radio Luxembourg, a commercial station that broadcast American music. They liked what McCartney calls the “slim and elegant” shape of Chuck Berry’s songwriting. Together, they figured out guitar chords as if they were ancient runes. When Paul and George heard that someone across town knew the fingering for the B7 chord—the essential chord to go with E and A for every blues-based song in the rock repertoire—they got on a bus to meet the guy and learn it.
First in Liverpool, and then for seven, eight hours a night in Hamburg, the Beatles cut their teeth, learning scores of covers and building a reputation. When they grew bored with singing other people’s songs and wanted to avoid overlapping with the set lists of other bands on the bill, they became more serious about their own songwriting. At first, the songs were nothing special. McCartney heard Joey Dee’s hit “Peppermint Twist” and answered it, writing “Pinwheel Twist.” But the seeds of originality were there. Lennon had worked out “One After 909,” which ended up on the “Let It Be” album, when he was about fifteen. “Fancy Me Chances with You,” a comic song they slapped together in 1958, ended up on the “Get Back” tapes, complete with exaggerated Scouse accents. What was clear from the start was that writing would be a matter of Lennon and McCartney.
“I remember walking through Woolton, the village where John was from, and saying to John, ‘Look, you know, it should just be you and me who are the writers,’ ” McCartney recalled. “We never said, ‘Let’s keep George out of it,’ but it was implied.”
As the Beatles gained a following, the sophistication of their songwriting deepened. McCartney, for instance, was taken with epistolary songs like Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” On a tour bus, he thought of the imperative phrase “Close your eyes” and went on from there. “We arrived at the venue, and with all the hustle and bustle around me—all the various bands and tour crews running about—I made my way to the piano and then somehow found the chords,” he recalls in “The Lyrics.” At first, it was “a straight country-and-western love song,” but then Lennon provided a unique swing to the verses by strumming his guitar in a tricky triplet rhythm. The result was “All My Loving.” The Beatles recorded the song in 1963, and when they came to New York the following year they played it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” More than seventy million people watched. Within two months, they had the Top Five songs on the Billboard charts and Beatlemania was under way.
The Beatles revelled not only in their music but in the fun, the just-us camaraderie, the inside jokes. “I don’t actually want to be a living legend,” McCartney once said. Fun had been the idea. “I came in this to get out of having a job. And to pull birds. And I pulled quite a few birds, and got out of having a job.” Lennon compared their tours to Fellini’s “Satyricon.”
What was striking about the Beatles was the inventiveness of their melodies and chord progressions. Every month, it seemed, they became more distinct from everyone else. The development from album to album—from three-chord teen-age love songs to intricate ballads to the tape loops and synthesizers of their psychedelic moment—both caught the Zeitgeist and created it. And they had a sense of style to match: the suits, the boots, the haircuts all became era-defining. Even classical mavens were impressed. Leonard Bernstein went on television to analyze the structure of “Good Day Sunshine.” Ned Rorem, writing in The New York Review of Books, compared a “minute harmonic shift” in “Here, There and Everywhere” to Monteverdi’s madrigal “A un giro sol,” and a deft key change in “Michelle” to a moment in Poulenc.
McCartney waves away such high-flown talk, but he isn’t above suggesting that the Beatles worked from a broader range of musical languages than their peers—not least the Rolling Stones. “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are,” he told me. “I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.”
The Beatles worked at a furious pace. Their producer, George Martin, brought deep experience to the process, along with an unerring ability to help the band translate their ideas into reality. As McCartney recalls, “George would say, ‘Be here at ten, tune up, have a cup of tea.’ At ten-thirty you’d start.” Two songs were recorded by lunch, and often two more afterward. “Once you get into that little routine, it’s hard, but then you enjoy it. It’s a very good way to work. Because suddenly at the end of every day you’ve got four songs.”
By 1966, the Beatles had tired of the road. The fans nightly screaming their hysterical adulation sounded to McCartney like “a million seagulls.” As the band came to think of themselves more as artists than as pop stars, they saw performing in stadiums as an indignity. “It had been sort of brewing, you know, this distaste for schlepping around and playing in the rain with the danger of electricity killing you,” McCartney told me. “You kind of just look at yourself and go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a musician, you know. I’m not a rag doll for children to scream at.’ ”
On August 29, 1966, the Beatles played Candlestick Park, in San Francisco. The band stood on a stage at second base, far removed from their fans, and ended their half-hour set with Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “It was just a dispiriting show, we just went through the motions,” McCartney told me. They came off the stage, he said, and “we got loaded into a kind of meat wagon, just a chrome box with nothing in it, except doors. We were the meat.” The Beatles never played for a paying audience again.
The divorce rate among musical collaborators is high, and the breaking point is hard to predict. In 1881, Richard D’Oyly Carte, a leading impresario of the West End, built the Savoy Theatre, on the Strand, to showcase the comic operas that made W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan famous. Nine years and many triumphant openings later, Gilbert, the librettist, took umbrage at the extravagance of the rug that Carte had installed in the Savoy’s lobby, and wound up in an intense dispute with Sullivan, the composer. After the inevitable unearthing of other resentments, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan, “The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived.” They soldiered miserably on for a little longer, petering out with a mediocrity, “The Grand Duke.”
The Beatles never sank to mediocre work; they went out on the mastery of “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road.” Nor did the band’s dissolution have any singular trigger—any carpet. But perhaps the problems started when in August, 1967, their manager, Brian Epstein, died of a drug overdose. Although Epstein was only thirty-two, the band saw him as a unifying, even paternal, figure. Eventually, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr hired the Stones’ manager, Allen Klein, to run the group’s affairs; McCartney sensed that Klein wasn’t to be trusted, and insisted on doing business with Lee and John Eastman, the father and the brother of Linda Eastman, his soon-to-be wife.
The band’s creative core was also drifting apart. Lennon-McCartney was no longer an “eyeball to eyeball” collaboration. Once, they had worked in constant proximity—on tour buses or in shared hotel rooms. Now Lennon wrote at his estate in the suburbs, McCartney at his house in North London. They still got together to give each other’s most recent songs a polish, or to suggest a different line, or a bridge—the “middle eight.” The results could be sublime, as when McCartney added “woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head . . .” to Lennon’s “A Day in the Life.” But the process had changed. And Harrison, who was developing as a songwriter, was growing frustrated with his modest quota of songs per album. After hanging out in upstate New York with The Band, he believed he had glimpsed a more communal and equitable version of musical life.
All these stress fractures could be felt in 1969 when the Beatles gathered at Twickenham after the New Year’s holiday. Usually, they came to the studio with fourteen or so songs more or less ready to be recorded. Not this time. “John had no songs, and Paul had no songs,” Ringo Starr told me from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s the first time ever we went into the studio like that.” McCartney’s song “Get Back,” for instance, was so skeletal that at one point it took shape as an attack on Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant politics. “We never learned so many new numbers at once,” Lennon said.
In the documentary “Let It Be,” we see intervals of careful, creative work, ebullient playing, and purposeful noodling, but they are interrupted by long passages of chilly tension and joyless boredom. Then, there was the presence of Yoko Ono, who freely offered her thoughts. Like the “dramatic” possibility of having the Beatles perform to “twenty thousand empty chairs.” At one point at Twickenham, McCartney says, “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing, like, in fifty years’ time, you know: ‘They broke up ’cause Yoko sat on an amp.’ ” Feminism was not a powerful strain in the Beatles, and Lennon’s bandmates struggled with the constant presence of a girlfriend in the sacred space of the studio.
One of the more memorable moments in the film—it also appears, with less emphasis, in “Get Back”—is an exchange in which Harrison bristles at McCartney for telling him what to play. McCartney takes pains not to come on too bossy, but he wants what he wants:
McCartney: I’m trying to help, you know. But I always hear myself annoying you, and I’m trying to—
Harrison: No, you’re not annoying me.
McCartney: I get so I can’t say—
Harrison: You don’t annoy me anymore.
Harrison was increasingly brittle. After a week of rehearsing, Lennon was derisive of Harrison’s “I Me Mine,” a song that broadly hinted at the egos at work in the Beatles:
Harrison: I’m leaving . . .
Harrison: . . . the band now.
After another sour moment, Harrison made good on his threat, heading home to his estate in Surrey. “See you around the clubs,” he said by way of farewell. That afternoon, he wrote “Wah-Wah,” lamenting his bandmates’ failure to “hear me crying.” Lennon seems unfazed. “I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play,” he says.
When I asked Starr about Harrison’s walkout, he laughed and said, “It wasn’t that huge in our eyes. We thought he’d gone for lunch like the rest of us. Then I got on the drums, Paul got on his bass, John on the guitar, and we were like a heavy-metal band. . . . That’s how we got that emotion out.” Although Lennon, Starr, and McCartney initially drew on their wit and the catharsis of playing to cope, their inability to get through to Harrison, who decamped for a couple of days to Liverpool, weighed heavily on them. “So, cats and kittens,” Lennon says, “what are we going to do?” The end now seemed a little more real.
At Twickenham, Lennon could be unfocussed and petulant; he “was on H,” as he put it, sporadically using heroin—not injecting it but probably sniffing it. And he was clearly defensive about Ono. “I mean, I’m not going to lie,” he tells McCartney one day. “I would sacrifice you all for her.”
Eventually, Harrison got over his snit and returned to the fold. After the Beatles moved from Twickenham to more familiar studio space at Apple headquarters, at 3 Savile Row, the situation calmed considerably; Billy Preston, a keyboard player from Ray Charles’s and Little Richard’s bands, joined them and lifted up the band’s sound and its collective spirit. The Beatles were having fun again. Now, amid yellow teacups and overflowing ashtrays, there was progress and even greater collaboration. When Harrison looked for help with the lyrics to “Something,” Lennon told him to play Mad Libs: “Just say whatever comes into your head each time: ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower,’ until you get the word.”
No matter what troubled them, the Beatles thrived when they were making music together. “Musically, we never let each other down,” Starr says. They also recognized that McCartney had become the band’s insistent engine, the one pushing them to get the work done. “We’d make a record, and then we’d usually be in my garden, John and I, hanging out,” Starr recalls. “It’s a summer’s day—you get three a year in Britain—and we’d be relaxing and the phone would ring and we would know by the ring: it was Paul. And he’d say, ‘Hey, lads, you want to go into the studio?’ If it hadn’t been for him, we’d probably have made three albums, because we all got involved in substance abuse, and we wanted to relax.” And yet when they put down their instruments their problems were hard to ignore. To recall a moment from Twickenham:
Harrison: I think we should have a divorce.
McCartney: Well, I said that at the meeting. But it’s getting near it, you know.
Lennon: Who’d have the children?
The Beatles finished recording “Abbey Road” in August, 1969. At a business meeting a few weeks later, Lennon told McCartney that his idea of playing small gigs and returning to their roots was “daft.” “The group is over,” he declared. “I’m leaving.”
“That was sad for all of us,” McCartney told me. “Except John didn’t give a shit, because he was clearing the decks and about to depart on the next ferry with Yoko.” McCartney made the breakup public when he included a short interview with the release of his first solo album.
Lennon was now fully engaged with a new outfit, the Plastic Ono Band. Starr recorded an album of standards and then one of country tunes. Harrison, who promptly made “All Things Must Pass,” the best work of his career, was especially glad to get on with his post-Beatles life. The band, he said, “meant a lot to a lot of people, but, you know, it didn’t really matter that much.”
It mattered plenty to McCartney. He and Linda went off to a farm in Campbeltown, Scotland, where McCartney drank too much, slept late into the afternoons, and then drank some more. He’d always enjoyed a drink or a joint. And when he took acid, he told me, he had visions of bejewelled horses and the DNA helix. But now, he said, “there was no reason to stop.” He was depressed. “The job was gone, and it was more than the job, obviously—it was the Beatles, the music, my musical life, my collaborator,” he told me. “It was this idea of ‘What do I do now?’ ” In McCartney’s absence, a rumor that he’d died began on a Detroit radio show and spread across the world. Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis sent a telegram inviting McCartney to record; a Beatles aide replied that McCartney was out of town. When a reporter and a photographer from Life showed up on the farm, McCartney threw a bucket of water at them. “The Beatles thing is over,” he told them after settling down. “Can you spread it around that I am just an ordinary person and want to live in peace?”
The crackup was raw and public. Lennon, who was undergoing Arthur Janov’s primal-scream therapy, was not prepared to muffle his pent-up grievances. Seven months after the “Let It Be” documentary was released, he gave a long and acrid interview to Jann Wenner, the editor and co-founder of Rolling Stone. The Beatles, Lennon said, “were the biggest bastards on earth.” McCartney and Harrison, especially, had shown nothing but contempt for Ono. He took aim at journalists who wrote about her looking miserable in the documentary: “You sit through sixty sessions with the most big-headed, uptight people on earth and see what it’s fuckin’ like.”
Lennon went after McCartney in particular. “We got fed up with being sidemen for Paul,” he said. The documentary itself was evidence of McCartney’s self-serving manipulations, he thought. “The camera work was set up to show Paul and not to show anybody else. That’s how I felt about it. And on top of that, the people that cut it, cut it as ‘Paul is God’ and we’re just lying around there. . . . There was some shots of Yoko and me that had been just chopped out of the film for no other reason than the people were oriented towards Engelbert Humperdinck.” Lennon was so disaffected that when Wenner asked him if he would do it all over again he said, “If I could be a fuckin’ fisherman, I would!”
That period was intensely painful for McCartney, but he had to laugh when I read him that last line. “John talked a lot of bullshit,” he said.
As a showman, McCartney likes to “please the average punter,” playing the hits and playing them precisely as recorded. But in the first few years after the breakup of the Beatles he avoided the songs he’d written with Lennon. You didn’t get “Day Tripper”; you got “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” You didn’t get “Ticket to Ride”; you got “Hi, Hi, Hi.” No matter. He sold tickets. He sold records. Mixed in with the music, however, were gestures of mockery––or, in Liverpudlian terms, taking the piss. Long before the hip-hop diss-track era, McCartney put out “Too Many People,” a song from the “Ram” album that scowled at Lennon: “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.” Not long afterward, Lennon lambasted McCartney on the “Imagine” album in a far more scathing song called “How Do You Sleep?” “The only thing you done was yesterday,” he sang at his old friend. “The sound you make is Muzak to my ears.” Lennon’s son Sean told me that his father eventually came to recognize that he was as upset with himself as he was with his friend. “Those were crabby moments, but people made too big a deal of it,” he added. “It didn’t reach the level of Tupac telling Biggie Smalls that he’d slept with his wife” in “Hit ’Em Up.”
With time, relations improved, and McCartney, who guards his sunny public image carefully, allowed that neither man was his cartoon image. “I could be a total prick, and he could be a softie,” as he put it to me. There were phone calls between the two and some visits to the Dakota, where Lennon and Ono had an apartment. When Lennon separated from Ono, in 1973, and went on an eighteen-month bender with May Pang, the couple’s assistant—Beatles Studies scholars refer to this as the “lost weekend” period—McCartney went to Los Angeles to see his friend, and encouraged him to go home. They even played some music in a studio with Stevie Wonder and Harry Nilsson. Here and there, rumors spread of a Beatles reunion. Starr told me a story about a promoter who offered them a fortune to play a concert but also mentioned an opening act that would feature a man wrestling a shark. “We called each other and said no,” Starr said. “We were taking our own roads now.” By the late seventies, Lennon and McCartney talked from time to time about domestic matters—raising children and baking bread. When Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” went on the air in 1976 and jokingly offered the Beatles three thousand dollars to come on the show, McCartney happened to be visiting Lennon at the Dakota and they were watching the program. They were tempted to go to the studio, at Rockefeller Center. “It was only a few blocks away,” McCartney told me, “but we couldn’t be bothered, so we didn’t do it.”
Then, on December 8, 1980, Lennon was murdered. Four months later, Philip Norman published “Shout!,” a best-selling biography of the band built around the idea that Lennon was “three-quarters of the Beatles” and McCartney little more than a cloying songwriter and a great manipulator. And Ono did not relent, remarking that Lennon had told her that McCartney had hurt him more than any other person had. McCartney was hamstrung; how could he respond? Lennon was now a martyr. People gathered outside the Dakota to sing “Imagine” and leave behind flowers or a burning candle.
McCartney kept his counsel for a while. Otherwise, he told me, “I’d be walking on a dead man’s grave.” But in May, 1981, he called Hunter Davies, who had once published an authorized Beatles biography, and unloaded about Lennon and Ono: “No one ever goes on about the times John hurt me. When he called my music Muzak. People keep on saying I hurt him, but where’s the examples, when did I do it?” McCartney went on like this for more than an hour. “I don’t like being the careful one,” he said. “I’d rather be immediate like John. He was all action. . . . He could be a maneuvering swine, which no one ever realized. Now since the death he’s become Martin Luther Lennon.” Then, there was the issue of who wrote what: “I saw somewhere that he says he helped on ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Yeah. About half a line. He also forgot completely that I wrote the tune for ‘In My Life.’ That was my tune. But perhaps he just made a mistake on that.”
He wavered for years, savoring his partnership with Lennon and declaring his love and his sense of loss, but also relitigating old resentments, to the point of challenging the order of their trademark: “Lennon-McCartney.” (Indeed, in “The Lyrics” McCartney has the credit lines for “his” Beatles songs read “Paul McCartney and John Lennon.”) It was a struggle for reputation, for the narrative of their lives together and apart. And yet, even in his rant to Davies, McCartney made plain that he could see the absurdity of it all: “People said to me when he said those things on his record about me, you must hate him, but I didn’t. I don’t. We were once having a right slagging session and I remember how he took off his granny glasses. I can still see him. He put them down and said, ‘It’s only me, Paul.’ Then he put them back on again and we continued slagging. . . . That phrase keeps coming back to me all the time. ‘It’s only me.’ ”
For years, McCartney thought about writing a memoir but, he told me, it seemed like “too much work.” Instead, he authorized an old friend, Barry Miles, to write a biography, which appeared in 1997 as “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now.” Miles took pains to counter the notion of McCartney as a soapy balladeer and, by inference, of Lennon as the group’s sole intellectual and artistic radical. The book provides accounts of McCartney hanging out with William Burroughs, Harold Pinter, Kenneth Tynan, and Michelangelo Antonioni; discussing the war in Vietnam with Bertrand Russell; and listening to Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and John Cage. There is also a tender account of McCartney’s marriage to Linda Eastman and the grief he felt at her loss.
Popular music is an arena of partisanship and posturing; your identity is wrapped up in both what you love and what you can’t stand. But the Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, who in 2013 published the first of a planned three-volume biography, “The Beatles: All These Years,” has established a reputation for Robert Caro-like research and a disinclination to judge. Having listened to more than ninety hours of audiotapes of the sessions at Twickenham, Lewisohn, like Peter Jackson, takes the view that the “Let It Be” documentary exaggerated the discord at the studio; and that collaboration, exuberant and vital, was at the heart of things. I called Lewisohn, who lives just outside London, and has managed to sustain a generous view of all the Beatles. He speaks respectfully of the McCartney songbook of recent decades. There are ups and downs, he allows, but McCartney “has been dropping diamond gifts into the world for sixty years now, and that work will endure.”
The rock-critic establishment has not been so generous. Jann Wenner was a Lennon partisan and, for years, Rolling Stone reflected that view. The Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, sometimes known as the dean of the guild, once called “Red Rose Speedway,” McCartney’s 1973 album with his new band Wings, “quite possibly the worst album ever made by a rock and roller of the first rank.” In truth, McCartney often seems inclined to issue everything that he has had occasion to record, and much of it is undercooked and sentimental. He sometimes joins in the criticism. The song “Bip Bop,” on “Wild Life,” the first Wings album, from 1971, “just goes nowhere,” he once said. “I cringe every time I hear it.” In some cases, though, the critical reception has been revised upward over the years, as with the album “Ram” or the single “Arrow Through Me.”
Not a few peers will speak up for McCartney, including his post-Beatles work. “He can do it all,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone, in 2007. “And he’s never let up. He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm, and he can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody. . . . He’s just so damn effortless. I just wish he’d quit!” Taylor Swift has also noted the “seemingly effortless” quality of McCartney’s work. “His melodies both confound you and also feel like the most natural sounds you’ve ever heard,” she told me. “Mostly, what I’ve learned from Paul is that he never fell out of love with music because he never stopped creating it.”
When I asked Elvis Costello, who has collaborated with McCartney, about the highlights of the post-Beatles catalogue, he reeled off “Jenny Wren”—“That’s just one melody that could stand next to the greatest songs written while Paul was in the Beatles”—as well as “Every Night,” “Let Me Roll It,” and “That Day Is Done.” He also cited “If I Take You Home Tonight,” which McCartney wrote for Costello’s wife, Diana Krall. “Take a listen to that melody and you will hear an indelible harmonic signature,” Costello said. And his own memories of working with McCartney speak to an undimmed penchant for collaborative creativity. “We were pulling words and notes out of the air, finishing songs, and recording them in his studio, downstairs, minutes later,” he told me, describing their work on the songs that ended up on the album “Flowers in the Dirt.”
As a young man, Costello had a Lennonesque edge, and I wondered if that informed their collaboration. “Paul McCartney and John Lennon were teen-age friends who went to outer space together,” Costello told me. “Nobody could imagine themselves in that place. . . . If he got the innocent line and I got the sarcastic line in a duet dialogue, it would be, like, ‘Hold on a minute, I’ve seen this movie before,’ and we’d laugh and change it around.”
The desire to change things around has sometimes led McCartney to make curious decisions; and critics have, at times, suggested that he stay in his lane. When McCartney’s classical foray “Liverpool Oratorio” made its American début, in 1991, Edward Rothstein, of the Times, ended his review by recalling the story of George Gershwin approaching Arnold Schoenberg for lessons in composition. “Why do you want to be an Arnold Schoenberg?” Schoenberg supposedly asked. “You’re such a good Gershwin already.” Yet McCartney, while being a well-compensated conservationist and travelling performer of the Beatle past, is intent on exploring whatever moves him. When he’s living in the English countryside, as he often is, he will work out in the morning and then head for his studio to write and record.
As a musician and a performer onstage, McCartney remains phenomenal, playing three-hour concerts—five or six times longer than the Beatles’ shows in their heyday—to enormous crowds. He sings Beatles songs in their original keys and at the top of his register: “I can’t be bothered to transpose them.” He seems eager never to disappoint. As his daughter Mary told me, “Look, he’s an entertainer! You’ll see him play ‘Live and Let Die’ and he’s surrounded at the piano by all these pyrotechnics, all these flames, and I’m, like, ‘Dad, I can feel the heat from those flames! Do you have to do that?’ But he says the audience loves it. I say, ‘Don’t do that to yourself, it’s a huge risk!’ But he won’t be told.”
When I watch McCartney perform, I can’t help thinking about that Newport Jazz concert my father and I attended in 1973. When we were backstage, Gene Krupa, the drummer for Benny Goodman’s band, sat slumped in a chair, silent, staring at a space in the carpet between his shoes. He seemed racked with dread and very old. Then, onstage, he shook off whatever weighed on him and came alive to the sound of his old friends: Goodman’s sinuous clarinet, Hampton’s glowing vibes, Wilson’s liquid runs on the piano. Just before “Avalon,” the customary closer, Krupa had his moment, beating his mother-of-pearl tomtom to open “Sing, Sing, Sing,” a standard that Goodman and Krupa had made into an extended improvisational set piece. Krupa was a runaway train. The hall throbbed to his foot at the bass drum. There was something ominous, even frightening, about the spectacle of this sickly man, now come dangerously alive, at the edge of abandon. When Krupa was done, and the applause rained over him, you could see that his shirt was drenched.
After the show, we waited by the stage door on Fifty-sixth Street, hoping to see Teddy Wilson and thank him. The door banged open and an immense security guard burst onto the sidewalk. He was carrying an old man, seemingly unconscious, in his arms. It was Krupa, wrapped in towels. A cab pulled up, and the guard funnelled him into the back seat. Less than four months later, we read in the paper that Krupa had died, after struggling for years with leukemia. He was sixty-four.
For a time, the melodies just seemed to pour forth from McCartney, as if he were a vessel for something unearthly. He is still able to locate the magic occasionally. “McCartney III” is not “The White Album,” but there is a homemade, easygoing quality to his music, the work of a contented family man, a grandfather many times over. On songs like “Long Tailed Winter Bird” and “Find My Way,” he is a craftsman who comes across with infectious, play-all-the-instruments zest. He knows as well as any critic that the essential songs were almost all done with the Beatles. But why bang on about “Bip Bop”? Who among the living has brought more delight into the world?
Paul Muldoon, McCartney’s collaborator on “The Lyrics,” observes, “For every Yeats, who did pretty well into old age, there are a hundred Wordsworths. Most poets and songwriters fade as they continue. Look at the Stones or the Kinks or Pink Floyd. It’s very hard to keep on doing it. But Paul is kind of engineered to do it, to keep going.”
And maybe there are other factors. Stevie Van Zandt, who has been playing guitar in Springsteen’s E Street Band since the early seventies, said, “The rock generation has changed the concept of chronological time. I personally know seven artists in their eighties still working. And the entire British Invasion is turning eighty in the next few years. Nobody’s grandparents made it past their sixties when we grew up.” He sees “the birth of something I call ‘wisdom art’—art that the artist could not have created when they were young . . . so there is a legitimate justification for continuing to create. You perform as much of your latest work as you feel like. Then you play ‘Hey Jude’ so everyone goes home happy.”
It’s a good deal: McCartney continues to explore his creativity in the studio, but, when it comes time to perform, he knows that his magic trick is to reach across time and put the coin into the jukebox. The melancholy of age and the power of memory have always been central themes for McCartney. He wrote the tune for “When I’m Sixty-four” at the age of sixteen. “Yesterday,” one of the most covered songs of all time, is a melody that came to him almost six decades ago, in a dream.
The morning after the party, I returned to McCartney’s house on the beach. He’d been up late. Once the film was over, there was dancing to a string of boomer hits—“Hey Jude,” “We Will Rock You,” “Miss You”—and he occupied the center of the floor, shimmying for all he was worth. Also, he’d had a few drinks.
“I’m a bit knackered,” he admitted, greeting me at the door. His complexion was pale, his eyes droopy. As we walked into the kitchen, he said in a comic stage whisper, “Coffee! Coffee!”
Nancy Shevell came by, dressed in a bathrobe and reading texts on her phone. For a few minutes, they did a post-party rundown, assessing the thank-yous from their guests. Outside, workers were loading up the glassware and the folding chairs. Shevell went to inspect their progress. McCartney smiled. “Nancy loves it,” he said. “She’s a little sad that it’s over, I think.”
Stella McCartney was in tears when she watched the film with her father. “It did occur to me, watching it, that we spent a lot of our childhood with Dad recovering from the turmoil and the breakup,” she told me. “Can you imagine being such a critical part of that creation and then having it crumble? And, as children, we were part of a process in which our dad was mourning. It was not an easy thing for Dad, and it lasted for a lot longer than we probably knew.”
Sean Lennon, who was five when his father was killed and who now, with Yoko Ono’s having withdrawn from public life, represents the family’s interests in the Beatles business, told me, “Time has sort of made us all grow to soften our edges and appreciate each other much more. Paul is a hero to me, on the same shelf as my dad. My mom loves Paul, too, she really appreciates him. They’ve had tensions in the past, and no one is trying to deny it. But all the tension we ever had, hyperbolized or not, makes it a real story about real human beings.”
McCartney sat down to talk on a screened porch. Projects lay ahead, some of which he’d be completing as he hit eighty. There’s a new children’s book just out: “Grandude’s Green Submarine.” He’s collaborating with the scriptwriter Lee Hall, known for “Billy Elliot,” on a musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There’s even a quasi-Beatles song to finish. After Lennon died, Ono gave the surviving members demos that he’d recorded at home. McCartney, Starr, and Harrison worked on three, but added tracks only to “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” Now McCartney wants to fill out the last of them, “Now and Then,” even though Harrison had declared the song “fucking rubbish.” McCartney also wants to go back on the road, a life that he finds invigorating. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “So another me takes over: Professional Performing Paul—the triple ‘P’!” If the question is “Why do you keep at it?,” the answer is plain: “I plan to continue living. That’s the central idea.”
But the pandemic has been persistent, and McCartney was immersed in the business of the past, with getting the narrative right. The screening had been emotional. He watched images of Linda as a beautiful young woman, pregnant with Mary, who was now sitting beside him. And he saw himself with his friends, at the end of the film, performing not at a Syrian amphitheatre or in a London park but on the roof of the Apple building, running through sublime takes of songs they’d been working on, nailing them at last. Forty-odd minutes of music that ended with Lennon’s immortal announcement: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.” Down on the street, people heading out to lunch stared up in wonder, unaware that they were hearing the Beatles play together in public for the last time.
The performer was now the spectator, the observer of his younger self and his “fallen heroes.” Amid that footage of the Beatles, dressed in woolly winter getups, playing with pace and precision, all the bad stuff seemed to melt away. Even for McCartney, there’s been a shift in perspective—in part, a literal one. “Whenever I was in the band, playing live, I’d be facing out,” he said. “John was to the left or to the right of me, so I never got to sort of see him perform so much. Except in the film. And there he is in massive closeup. I can study everything about him.”
Here and there, as McCartney watched, he got a flash of the “old feeling”—Why is Yoko sitting on that amp!—but time, coupled with a new framing of the past, has allowed him, and the audience, a more benign view of things. They were a gang, a unit, even a family, and happy families are a bore, if they exist at all. “The elder brother does shout at the younger brother, and then they have fisticuffs, or whatever,” McCartney said. “It’s all very natural.” He raised his voice above the sound of workmen outside packing up the tents. “Buying into this myth that I was the bad one, it bothered me for years. But I sort of feel like it doesn’t bother me now, because I feel like a lot of people sort of get it.” If he’s not entirely over it, it’s because he’s still in it. ♦