May 3, 2001
PAUL MCCARTNEY FINDS A NEW MODE FOR EXPRESSING LOVE AND LOSS
By SARAH LYALL
Some years ago, Paul McCartney, famous musician and fledgling poet, took
a deep breath and showed a selection of his poetic works in progress to
his old friend Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg, who was visiting Mr. McCartney at his house in Sussex, England,
had some thoughts. "He was all for economy," Sir Paul, as he has been
known the last few years, said recently in his friendly Liverpudlian
lilt, recalling his frisson of fear when Ginsberg took out his pencil and
began cutting and tweaking. "He said to me: `Never use the word "the."
And also try to avoid "ing" -- don't use "singing," but use "sing"
When Ginsberg suggested he change a poem beginning "Two doors open on the
18th of June" to "Two doors open. June 18," the lyricist put his foot
down. "I said it's great, but you're making me into a New York Beat
poet," said Sir Paul, who kept a copy of the scribbled-over "Ginsberg
Variations," as he calls them, for posterity, though he took none of
Sir Paul is so used to having critical control that he submits to editing
only reluctantly. "Sometimes I've made small suggestions for cuts or
changes, and sometimes Paul's accepted them," writes his editor in
Britain, the poet Adrian Mitchell, in the preface to Sir Paul's first
book of poetry, "Blackbird Singing," which has just been published in the
United States by W. W. Norton. And so the poems in the book are very much
his own, expressing his familiar obsessions with love and loss and life's
vicissitudes in language that is generally simple and direct.
In the flesh for an interview at his office in New York, he could not
help appearing startlingly familiar, as if he were a cousin who just
happened to be really famous. While the other surviving Beatles seem to
have grown sharper and craggier, Sir Paul, 58, has softened. His face is
still boyish and open, albeit creased with minor wrinkles. Discussing his
poems while sitting on an immaculate black couch across from a de Kooning
painting, he was dressed in a T-shirt, plaid pants and the sort of clogs
that a hipster surgeon might wear on hospital rounds.
He is a canny manager of his empire and career, whose net worth,
according to The Sunday Times of London, stands at more than $1 billion.
In 1997 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, which made him officially Sir
Paul. But it is as strange to think of him that way as it is to think of
the rock star Bob Geldof -- a knight as well, and far scruffier than the
always clean and shiny Paul McCartney -- as Sir Bob.
One of the striking things about "Blackbird Singing" is the bold
inclusion of some 50 of the former Beatle's lyrics among more than 40
poems, a decision that cannot help but raise the old question about
whether lyrics stand as poetry in their own right. Sir Paul is not so
sure, though he was cheered when Ginsberg told him, long ago, that "
`Eleanor Rigby' is one hell of a poem." (Its lyrics appear in the book,
along with those of "Hey Jude" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," among
Though they emanate from the same impulse, poems and songs come to him in
very different ways, Sir Paul explained, mostly having to do with whether
he has a musical instrument on hand.
With songs he generally works through the lyrics and melody
simultaneously, he said, illustrating his point by re-enacting on an
imaginary piano how he hashed out the beginning of "Eleanor Rigby."
"I was sitting at the piano vamping on the E minor chord," he said. He
sang some of the notes, then began: "Da da da da da -- Eleanor Rigby
picks up the rice . . . And in actual fact, it wasn't Eleanor Rigby, it
was something else, because I got the name Eleanor Rigby later. Sometimes
the real words arrive, and sometimes I have to kind of go back and fix
"It's like `Yesterday,' " he continued, starting to sing again. "At first
it was `Scrambled eggs/ Oh my baby how I love your legs,' which I
thought, `That's gotta be fixed. Can't go with that one.' " Similarly, he
said, "Hey Jude," written for John Lennon's son Julian when his parents
split up, was originally called "Hey Jules" until he decided that Jude
In poems, he said, the language tends to come and stay put. He wrote
"Jerk of All Jerks," for instance, after being immersed, along with the
rest of the world, in the news coverage of Lennon's murder in 1980. "The
one phrase that came to my mind was that the guy who did it was the jerk
of all jerks," Sir Paul said.
The only other explicit reference to Lennon in the book comes in the
lyrics to "Here Today," from 1982. It is an affectionate song, alluding
to his and Lennon's mismatched temperaments and to Lennon's spikiness,
but also to their underlying love. The two put aside their differences
before Lennon died. "We had been arguing about stupid stuff -- money and
things, things that weren't really important in our relationship but were
the kind of things people argue about," Sir Paul said. But then they
began to talk again. "We talked about him baking bread, him putting the
cats out, him padding around the apartment in his robe and slippers, him
bringing up his baby, Sean," he recalled. "It was really intimate and
mature, good real talk between friends."
In a way, Lennon's ghost -- the ghost of what might have been -- haunts
the book, as does the spirit of Sir Paul's wife, Linda, who died of
breast cancer in 1998 and who inspired some of his sweetest love poems
In 29 years of marriage, Mr. McCartney never spent a night apart from his
wife except when he was in a Tokyo jail on drug charges in 1980, and he
spent the year after her death in nearly constant grief, he said. He now
has a girlfriend, Heather Mills, 33, a feisty former model whose leg was
severed in an accident and who campaigns for land mine reform.
As he discussed his wife's death and his new life, his volubility fled
for a moment, and he jumped up to adjust a chair on the other side of the
room that was not sitting perfectly in line with the carpet. "It was
perhaps unlikely in my life that I would have two strong women who I felt
so strongly about," he said carefully. "Even though it's early days in my
new relationship, I do feel lucky to have met someone strong and
interesting and beautiful."
"Blackbird Singing" has been a best seller in Britain, but the critical
reaction been mixed, as always happens when Sir Paul embarks on a new
venture. Some critics were delighted: "Unlike more rarefied poets, who
communicate mostly with each other in obscure crannies of our culture,
McCartney writes as freely (and often as beautifully) as a blackbird
sings," Stephen Logan wrote in The Sunday Times of London.
But others have made it clear that they think his talents are strictly
musical. "They're not bad so much as unfinished and inconsequential,"
Mark Hertsgaard wrote of the poems in The Los Angeles Times.
The new poet tries not to care. "It's not as if I'm not used to it," he
said. " `She Loves You' was called banal when it came out -- it was the
first time I had ever heard the word." And a review in The New York
Times, he said, judged "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" "a very
bad album," in Sir Paul's words. "But," he said, "I just get on with it."
And, judging from Mr. McCartney's two poetry readings, one in Liverpool
and the other at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, he is in no danger of
losing his extraordinary appeal. Charming the onlookers out of their
seats with engaging anecdotes, he ended both readings with rousing
audience-participation recitations of "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?,"
included partly as a retort to critics who said some of his lyrics would
not stand up to the rigors of being read aloud.
In Liverpool he kept his cool even amid the most frenzied of fans. Swept
up in a crowd of more than 1,000, he was greeted by a teenage girl who
wore a vintage Beatlemania button that said "I slept with Paul
"Oh, really," said Mr. McCartney, flashing a huge grin, "When was that?"
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