Beyond The Smile, by Paul Du Noyer.
WHEN people are famous enough to be written about in the media, they develop two selves. One is the self they possess, the other is the hologram that they read about. For more than half a century, Paul McCartney has read about himself as if there were a separate, fictional character with the same name.
Out in the world at large, it’s different again. He was chatting to my wife one day and described going into TJ Hughes, the Liverpool department store, to buy some decorations for a relative’s wedding car. "How do you manage in a crowded shop like that?" she asked. "You just keep moving," he replied. "Smile, and just keep moving."
How, then, does Paul McCartney see Paul McCartney?
‘It’s funny,’ he says. ‘I’ve come out with the safe image. People don’t look beyond the smile. They look at the thumbs-up and they think it’s a safe image. It isn’t. Beyond the thumbs-up, there’s more to it than all that. Which I know about, obviously, because I lived the fucking shit.’
The term ordinary people crops up in a few of your songs…
‘Yeah. What are ordinary people?’
It does beg that question.
I’d ring up and say, Have you got a table? “Sorry sir, we’re fully booked.” It’s Paul McCartney here. “Oh! Certainly! Mr McCartney, please! Come at 8 o’clock!”
Oh yeah? You’ll let me in now, will yer? Bastard. I don’t like that
‘What is ordinary, you mean? What is normal? Well, you really know. We know. Ordinary people? It’s all those people out there. All those people who just do ordinary things. I sometimes hear myself in interviews, going, “I’m just an ordinary guy, really.” And I think they go away and think, “Did he really say he was an ordinary guy?” Cos there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. No ordinary guy is as famous as I am. Or has the money I’ve got. So, difficult to claim you’re ordinary.
‘But inside I feel ordinary, and inside is where I come from. It’s what’s speaking. It’s what’s in here, not the exterior. I go back to Liverpool, I really like the earthiness: “A’right Paul? I don’t like that jacket, where d’yer get that? Fuckin’ ’ell!” I just go, “Yeahhh, fuck off.” I’m comfortable there, I’m not as happy when it’s [well-bred voice] “Hello Paul, really super jacket. From Paul Smith’s?” I just don’t seem to get on as well with those people.
‘So that’s this obsession with ordinary. It’s just that I’ve never really found anything much better. I’ve looked, believe me.’
McCartney has never lost this inclination to identify with the mass of humanity. Of his 1990 tour, he said to me: ‘We put Pittsburgh specially on the itinerary, cos it’s a working town, like Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle…
‘I like those people. I do, actually. I’m always more comfortable with that crowd, cos I feel like I know ’em. If it’s very rich – New York yuppies – I’m not sure I know ’em or what they’re thinking. So I’m not too comfortable. Though you still just go and play your gig.
‘New York is a rich town. You tend to get people with shirts and ties. Much as I like a nice shirt and tie, I don’t like to see them at concerts – unless it’s the Liverpool football team. They showed up on one of the Wings tours and that was cool, that great suit they used to wear with the red ties. That’s all right, that’s The Boys. I can handle that.’
The rough, democratic spirit of his home town has remained a kind of guiding principle:
‘I was the kid in Liverpool who went on a bus to the next stop, down to Penny Lane and just looked around. “Who lives there?” Then go back up on the bus. I still like that, it’s in my personality, just go somewhere and watch people. Last night I took the tube home, we went to the theatre, couldn’t get a taxi anywhere in the West End. I really get a charge off that.
‘George never used to. His dad was a bus driver. I’d say to him, even when we were famous, I love getting on a bus. He’d say [astonished], Why? The bus? You’ve got a car, man!
‘But I love getting the bus, cos you’re just with people. A little voyeuristic. And now of course, with fame, they’re looking at me a bit. There’s one or two on the tube last night, cracking up laughing. The guy in the baseball cap decides he’s got to cool himself out, pull it together, got off at the same stop: “Al’right mate? Good luck!” And it’s cool.
‘I enjoy going on the tube. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s refreshing and I think it’s good for you. It’s unhealthy to really think you’re the big cheese all the time. Within the Beatles, we each reminded each other that we weren’t, from time to time. I think there is a big risk with stardom.
‘You can get a table in any restaurant. I’d ring up and say, Have you got a table? “Sorry sir, we’re fully booked.” It’s Paul McCartney here. “Oh! Certainly! Mr McCartney, please! Come at 8 o’clock!” You get used to that, and I’ve never been comfortable with it. Oh yeah? You’ll let me in now, will yer? Bastard. I don’t like that.’
And yet this determined everyman can roam the outermost fringes of popular taste. McCartney’s commercial instincts are sound, for he has enough gold discs to line the Great Wall of China. But his music has led that popular taste more often than followed it. He’s proud to have been avant-garde, to experiment in forms – from techno to ballet – unlikely to find much mainstream favour.
The touching thing is how he’ll sometimes pause in mid-interview, and shake his head in mute wonder, as if he cannot quite believe the life he’s had. Did these things really happen to him? Or was it someone else? Or was it a dream? The song called That Was Me (from New in 2015) allows a crowd of early memories to waltz across his brain: ‘When I think that all this stuff can make a life, it’s pretty hard to take it in.’ He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself, rather than us.
‘I’ve led a sailor’s life,’ he said to me one day. ‘It really is. Talk about a rich tapestry. So much has happened.’ In 1990 the four Beatles each had an asteroid named after them. The news left Paul incredulous: ‘Imagine being at school, and they tell you one day there’ll be this thing up there in outer space, with your name on it.’
He looked sincerely spooked.
One day in his office I saw a famous painting of Liverpool’s waterfront, by the Victorian artist Atkinson Grimshaw. This was startling, as one sees copies of it in a thousand Liverpool homes. Peering more closely, I saw it was not the original, just a humble reproduction.
I guess we are either enchanted, or disillusioned, that Paul would hang a cheap print up there.
Does he ever get the feeling, I asked, that people are disappointed when they meet him?
There’s a tradition that stars…
‘… Shouldn’t drive ordinary cars to premieres, you should dress up. But, you know, I’m not living my life for other people. This is what it’s all to do with. I’m tempted, cos it’s how we all live: “What shall we wear? What are you wearing? Is it tuxedos? Oh, I’d better dress up.” But the truth of what the Beatles and all that shit was about, what people liked about that, was this refreshing honesty: “I don’t like your tie...”’
*Conversations With McCartney by Paul Du Noyer, Hodder & Stoughton, hardback and ebook £25, out now.