“OK, that’s it for today,” a slightly weary Paul McCartney said, calling an end to a three-hour rehearsal with the six-piece band that will accompany him this fall on his first U.S. tour in 13 years.
McCartney--a few wrinkles now etched in what remains one of the most famous faces ever in rock--laid down his left-handed bass guitar and began chatting idly with his wife, Linda, who plays keyboards in the band. Their son, James, 11, joined them.
But two other band members started toying around with a few notes, working up enough of an exchange for the rest of the band--including Paul--to eventually join in a jam. After a few minutes, he started singing a slow, bluesy version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” one of rock’s early anthems.
Wel . . . ll, it’s . . . one . . . for . . . the . . . money . . . two . . . for . . . the . . . show, three . . . to . . . get . . . ready . . ., now . . go . . . cat . . . go.
McCartney and the band then went through a snippet of Little Richard’s old “Lucille"--a song that McCartney included on the oldies album that he released late last year in the Soviet Union--and his own “Jet,” a hit with his ‘70s band, Wings.
McCartney smiled broadly as he sat the bass down the second time, finally ending the rehearsal.
After numerous career ups and downs since he walked away from the Beatles two decades ago, McCartney, who’ll be 47 on Sunday, seems to be on a roll again. The Soviet oldies album was an especially engaging salute to ‘50s rock, and the early reviews of his new studio album, “Flowers in the Dirt,” have been the most enthusiastic since his “Band on the Run” album in 1973.
“McCartney comes alive on (‘Flowers’),” declares Rolling Stone magazine in its current issue. “If he hits the road, as rumored this fall, he will have a half-dozen or so new tunes that can ably hold their own against his standing repertoire. In the case of one of the finest songwriters in the history of rock, that’s no mean accomplishment.”
Rumors of a tour had been circulating for months, but there was no confirmation until now--a fact that led to speculation among industry insiders that McCartney, whose last three albums all failed to make the U.S. Top 10, was waiting to see how the new collection was received before committing to the dates.
But McCartney, in an interview after the rehearsal, said the decision to tour was made long before the reviews started appearing. He knew he was ready to go on the road again as soon as he felt comfortable with his new band and with the new material.
“I put a lot into this album,” McCartney said, sitting in a lounge at the rehearsal studio, sipping some hot tea. “I was fed up with not making a good album last time (1986’s ‘Press to Play’), so I sat down and tried to figure out what went wrong.
“I could see that I was into a lot of surrealistic phrases on that album (as opposed to) songs. This time, I wanted good songs. It was time to prove something to myself: Either I can’t write any more or I’d better write something.”
McCartney had planned to return to the United States sooner, but touring was put on a back shelf after the Japanese drug bust. McCartney spent spent nine days in jail there in 1980 after customs inspectors said they found eight ounces on marijuana in his suitcase. “That kind of threw things apart,” he said, “and I thought I’d just make records for a while.”
The albums, however, were often so uneven that they baffled even the ex-Beatles’ strongest supporters--a few jewels tucked in among material so indifferent that you wonder why a man of his reputation and wealth would even put his name on them. Addressing that point in an interview just before the release of his 1986 album, McCartney downplayed his emotional attachment to the work. “I’m not that precious with it,” he said.
Still, McCartney, who increasingly is becoming more open in interviews a la his late songwriting partner John Lennon, is clearly a man with considerable pride, and the repeated rejection stung.
He spent three years putting “Flowers in the Dirt” together and took a bold step in collaborating on songs with Elvis Costello. The latter is not only perhaps the most acclaimed rock lyricist of the ‘80s, but a man who can exhibit the cynicism and bite associated with Lennon.
After a test period (which included some work on “Veronica,” Costello’s current Top 20 single), the pair got together to write nine songs, four of which are on “Flowers in the Dirt.” The best of the tracks convey an unusually daring, almost experimental edge.
About the Costello collaboration, McCartney said: “I heard somewhere that Elvis said it was like two writers in collision, but that wasn’t my feeling about it. To me, it was this feeling of two craftsmen working on the same table. He’d polish the top and I’d fit the legs. I wouldn’t want to make too big a point of it, but it was at times more like the way John and I used to work than any other collaboration I’ve had.”
But the album’s strengths aren’t tied solely to the Costello collaborations. McCartney’s best other tracks--including “Put It There,” an affectionate father-to-son message, and “This One,” an expression of romantic devotion--have been called as intimate and warm as anything the former Beatle has ever done.
McCartney indirectly credits television producer Lorne Michaels, best known for his role in developing “Saturday Night Live,” with getting him to write about more personal topics.
“I was with Lorne and Paul Simon before Paul recorded the ‘Graceland’ album and Lorne was telling him that he should write about stuff that is really going on in his life . . . and I took that to heart and I tried to think about what matters to me, especially at this time in my life . . . middle age, four children (ages 26 to 11). That’s where a song like ‘Put It There” came from. It’s an expression of love and companionship, kind of like ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. . . .”
Sample line from the song:
Put it there if it weighs a ton . . .
That’s what a father said to his young son
As long as you and I are here, put it there.
“I know some people are going to think that is a very sentimental idea, but it is a very real line to me,” McCartney continued. “It’s what my father used to say to me and he’s gone now. It’s like, make the most of this moment, which I suppose has become my philosophy. Life is so fragile. We saw what happened to John, and there ain’t no getting him back . . . unless we meet in heaven.”
Unlike the Who and Rolling Stones, who’ll also be touring this year, McCartney will play indoor arenas rather than stadiums. He feels more comfortable in the more intimate setting and he feels his music is more suited to it. Just as he did in 1976 with Wings, he will include a few Beatles numbers in the show.
Where McCartney discouraged questions about the Beatles early in his solo career, he seems increasingly comfortable talking about his former band, even though he is still embroiled in a lawsuit with George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Lennon widow Yoko Ono involving recording royalties.
McCartney even skipped the Beatles’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year in New York because he thought it would be hypocritical embracing the other ex-Beatles at a time when they are involved in the apparently bitter suit.
But McCartney seems able to separate the suit from the personalities. He doesn’t rule out working with Harrison or Starr on future projects, and seems to enjoy reminiscing about the glory years.
Besides the tour, McCartney is looking forward to a project he is doing in association with the Liverpool Philharmonic. “They’ve asked me to write an (extended) piece for the orchestra and cathedral choir,” he said. “I’ve got two years to write it and it is very rewarding so far. The story is based on someone growing up in Liverpool . . . my story, I guess, except minus the Beatles.”
McCartney paused. “You know, it’s strange to think what life would have been like without the Beatles years,” he said, standing as he prepared to head home.
“Those were great years. . . . People never understand the thrill wasn’t just being in the Beatles, but helping created what made the Beatles . . . the magic of creating something, making a rabbit come out of a hat,” he said, leaning back on a lounge sofa. “John and I didn’t find the magic for about 20 songs, but once we got the knack of writing, it really flowed.
“It was also the excitement of the times . . . the way all the bands excited each other. The Stones came out with ‘Satisfaction’ and that made a lot of people go, ‘Wow, fuzz guitars.’ When Dylan came out, that tumbled it all into poetry. Hendrix, the Who. There was always something going on to inspire you.”
LIVE ACTION: LL Cool J will be at the Universal Amphitheatre on July 27 and 28 (tickets are on sale Monday), Jody Watley on Aug. 3 (on sale Sunday) and Elvis Costello on Sept. 12 and 13 (on sale Friday). . . . On sale Sunday is 10,000 Maniacs at the Greek Theatre on Aug. 15 and 16 and at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Aug. 17. . . . The Tom Tom Club’s stand at the mid-city 2nd Coming club has been altered: A show scheduled for Sunday has been cancelled, but three dates, Thursday through next Saturday, have been added. Tickets for Sunday’s show will be honored Thursday. Tonight’s show is scheduled to go on as planned.