Has Paul McCartney ever said anything interesting? Sometimes? Now and then? A couple of times? Once? No. Rock’s most distinguished bore has always chuntered on, yapping and jawing, blathering and babbling, the words pouring out of him like water through a seive. Nothing ever holds. It’s a kind of disease, a neurological disorder. He needs his head examined. Music journalist and hack author Paul du Noyer peers inside it, in his new book Conversations with McCartney, based on numerous interviews he’s conducted with the ex-Beatle since 1989, and finds – nothing. The famous head is as empty as The Cavern.
Du Noyer asks him about religion. McCartney jaws:
I like some stuff in Christian religion, some stuff in Buddhist religion and Hindu religion. I suppose I’m a magpie, I pick up various things that seem to work for me. I think I’ve seen enough, I’ve been to enough places, and I’ve seen enough so-called coincidences to know there’s more to it.
How do you sleep? Actually, how do you stay awake? Du Noyer just sits there, for the past 25 years, putting up with that kind of dreary shit. But at least he sits in pleasant surroundings. Most of the interviews took place in McCartney’s office in a narrow townhouse overlooking Soho Square. “We were rarely interrupted,” Du Noyer writes, “except for tea and chocolate biscuits.”
Nice. But then a terrible drone starts up. It’s his master’s voice, McCartney yapping and jawing, revealing a decent, modest, complaining old coot. It’s not enough that he’s rich, famous, a living legend, a warrior of rock. He wants respect. He complains the critics don’t appreciate his work. He complains they liked John too much. He complains about the reception for his mindless, sickly duet with Stevie Wonder.
They didn’t like Ebony and Ivory, the critics. But for Christ’s sake it was number one, you know? You find yourself justifying your successes. It’s a funny state of affairs.
It’s not that funny. It’s a clear case of guilt. He knows he’s written some of the most worthless songs in rock history. Throughout the biography, he keeps whining: But I’m cool. I’m cool, right? He’s not cool. The prima facie evidence is on ‘Revolver’. This is the John and George album, both of them at a psychedelic peak; with their wives, they visited George’s dentist, ‘Dr Robert’, and got totally out of it when he spiked them with LSD. George’s guitar on the song is like a knowing accomplice to John’s lyric. The two of them were in on the act. McCartney’s bass, meanwhile, plods along earnestly in the background, his face pressed up against the glass.
He’s boring talking about the craft of songwriting. He’s even boring talking about the time he got busted for pot in Japan, and put in jail. But du Noyer ferrets out an important new Beatle-fact about room service.
Q What did a Beatle eat?
A Steak and chips.
The fact glows like a nugget. Finally, something to have and to hold. Treasure it, because all else is massive windbaggery.
“Genius,” announced John Lennon, “is pain.” Genius, in the startling case of Paul McCartney, is banal. The standard moral question concerning great art made by a total ass – typically, someone violent, a mean drunk, hurtful and cracked; someone like John Lennon – is whether you can separate the artist from their art. With McCartney, the struggle is to reconcile the apparent fact that the man who made so much incredible music was a prattling dickhead.
This is the guy who screamed Charles Manson into action on ‘Helter Skelter’. He was avant garder than Lennon. He played that amazing lead guitar solo on ‘Taxman’, his bass is the best thing throughout ‘Sgt Pepper’, them big fat piano chords that roll out in the first five or six seconds of ‘Hey Jude’ are one of rock’s purest moments. His first five or six albums after the Beatles contain a lot of his best work. ‘Ram’ was his masterpiece. ‘Band on the Run’ was so good that it actually provokes McCartney into telling du Noyer something – okay, so it happened once – interesting.
Most people don’t arrange songs that way anymore. People often have a straightforward approach to a song, but Band on the Run, it’s editing, it’s cutting. It’s like a radio play that moves around.
Du Noyer takes it way too far. “Probably only Picasso,” he writes, “could rival Paul McCartney’s claim to stylistic breadth.” God almighty. How do you write a sentence as fucked in the head as that? Do you do it with your eyes closed? McCartney made a lot of junk. He also made some great records. It seems that he couldn’t tell the difference for a while. Du Noyer asks him about Wings, and McCartney says something – okay, so lightning struck twice – interesting.
We lived in fear, all those years, we just thought what we were doing was bad. We listened to our critics. We never thought we did anything good, which is a pity, because there was good stuff there….We’d get slagged off everywhere and it was intimidating. It is nice now to come out of the tunnel and feel we did something good.
The band did a lot of things good, even great. Musically, McCartney was more inventive and adventurous with Wings than as a Beatle. He was the band’s one true light. With the Beatles, there was always Lennon – actually, to be precise, there was always Lennon and McCartney, together. The two songwriters, the two who were at the heart of it. McCartney makes a speech about that to du Noyer. It has the familiar tone of complaint; it threatens to be boring; but it rights itself, and he says something simple and true and really interesting.
The great thing about me and John is that it was me and John, end of story. Whereas everyone else can say, ‘Well you know, he did this and so-and-so and so-and-so.’ The nice thing is that I can actually think, Come on, when we got in a little room it was me and John sitting down. It was me and him who wrote it, not those other people who think they all know about it. I must know better than them. I was the one in the room with him.
He was the one in the room with him. And Lennon was the one in the room thinking, surely, sometimes, more than once or twice, For the love of God let me out of here.
Conversations with McCartney by Paul du Noyer (published by Hodder & Stoughton) is available at Unity Books.
Feature image wizardry by José Barbosa
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.