A chilly morning wind was blowing down Sixth Avenue, but it was warm inside Radio City Music Hall even though the grand old palace was hushed and its balconies deserted. A production team was busy preparing for the night’s concert, an all-star charity event, and a few dozen lucky VIPs were loitering in the back and craning their necks to see the stage. There, loose-limbed and cheery in the spotlight, stood Paul McCartney, a performer who has been in the ear of the world so famously and for so long that it’s a bit startling to see him in a quiet moment and realize that he is in fact an actual human being, not just a songbook with a voice and a name.
After playing the brassy Beatles classic “Got to Get You Into My Life,” McCartney sat at a piano and, without looking down, his fingers found the familiar first notes to “Let It Be.” It’s a song that could make a bare cinder-block building feel like a cathedral, but there, echoing in the regal hall’s empty corners, it had witnesses dabbing their eyes. After the church-steeple finale, a cheer went up and McCartney acknowledged what might be one of the smaller ovations of his career: “Thank you for that ripple of kindness pouring down the red-velvet rows. . . . “
Less than an hour later, sitting backstage, McCartney mentioned that “Let It Be” sounds very different to him now than when he recorded it in 1969. “In truth, a lot of them mean new things to me, I hear stuff I didn’t hear in the past,” said the 66-year-old singer. Like a man thumbing through a box of old love letters, he sees unexpected between-the-lines messages, such as hints of mysticism he now detects in the simple lyrics of “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
“I remember roughly what I meant when I wrote them and sometimes they surprise me,” said McCartney, who was relaxed and munching grapes with a gently puffing humidifier at his feet.
McCartney certainly has the old songs close at hand; he and the other gatekeepers of the Beatles industrial complex signed off on a series of legacy projects in recent years that put the classics in new contexts on film, television and the stage. There’s more coming this September when the entire Beatles catalog will be reissued in remastered form and also featured in a new video game, “Rock Band: Beatles,” a venture that has him especially excited (even though, he confessed, he’s “not a video game guy and probably won’t be any good at playing it”).
Friday, McCartney will bring the Beatles songs to the California low desert as the headliner for the opening night of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a franchise usually defined by alt-rock heroes, not knighted senior citizens. It’s not an entirely foreign sector to McCartney -- he played England’s massive and muddy Glastonbury Festival in 2004, for instance -- but he seemed intrigued by the challenge of finding more young listeners and new meanings.
“I enjoy playing the old songs, and some of them, as I say, like ‘Long and Winding Road,’ have new things for me,” he said. “What it means to me here and now, from this perspective, when it has been a long and winding road for me, well, it’s so different. When I wrote that song, it already had been a long road, you know, from my youth up to that point. We were going through quite a lot. But now I look back and that song . . . “
His voice trailed off. The road has certainly had some brutal patches. He lost his wife of 29 years, Linda Eastman McCartney, to cancer in 1998. In 2002 he married former model Heather Mills but that ended with a nasty separation in 2006 and a firefight that continued through last year’s legal settlement. The court awarded Mills about $50 million, but the biggest beneficiary was Fleet Street, which over the course of turmoil sold a mountain of tabloid pulp. McCartney, who had always been guarded in interviews anyway, may still be rattled; as he answered questions, two publicists leaned on a nearby wall in case of topic emergency.
McCartney was the cute Beatle, the sunny one as well, a description that certainly wasn’t a compliment in the churning late 1960s. He acknowledged that the last few years tested that old expectation.
“It’s not easy, but it’s never easy to stay positive,” he said. “But to do that -- I think it’s my natural character. You get into situations that can be difficult. But my natural reaction isn’t to then go swinging a hatchet. I don’t like that. Even though things get difficult I try to stay positive. You do come out the other side of it, and if you’ve been positive the whole time, you’re glad for that.”
He paused again and then seemed to compare his two famous divorces. “The breakup of the Beatles was very difficult. The separation of the last couple of years was difficult. But I think you look to the positive things. I’ve tried it the other way, and you kind of get down. ‘This is going nowhere. OK, what can we do about this? What is good about this? Ah, that,’ and you just grab hold of it.”
McCartney was at Radio City for a fundraiser for filmmaker David Lynch’s foundation, which aspires to teach meditation techniques to a million at-risk youngsters around the world. Given the deep list of modern global calamity, that inspired some eye-rolling from the union guys working backstage, but plenty of big-name stars came to play for the cause, among them Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow and Donovan. The biggest draw, though, was clearly McCartney and an old friend: Ringo Starr.
There are four living former U.S. presidents but only two surviving Beatles. Seeing the two Beatles, it’s impossible to not think of the missing John Lennon and George Harrison, and despite any past rivalries or icy years, McCartney is now in a place where he speaks about them only with ease and affection. Asked about how he writes his music these days, his first instinct was to compare it to those long-gone years with Lennon.
“I do it in the same form that John and I used to do,” he said. He said he has about 20 new songs written and, elaborating on his method, he said: “There’s a spot in my house. It’s like my den. There’s my piano and my acoustic guitar. The piano is the old one that I wrote ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude’ on, so it’s an old friend of mine. A good old friend.”
At the rehearsal, McCartney stood alone on stage, with his voice (which, it must be said, remains supple and evocative) echoing in a spectral-sounding reverb, and sang an acoustic version of his 1982 song “Here Today,” a poignant what-if conversation with the late Lennon: What about the time we met? / Well I suppose that you could say that we were playing hard to get / Didn’t understand a thing / But we could always sing.
The screen behind McCartney filled with famous Beatles photographs, the present backlighted by the past. Then Paul asked his crew, “We going to do the one with Ringo now?” Out walked the world’s most famous drummer, looking tan, lean and unhurried in sunglasses, like a well-heeled tourist on holiday in Greece. McCartney feigned as if he would kiss Starr full on the lips, and Starr responded with a mock sneer and a pantomime slap. Then they sang “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Later, at the actual concert, McCartney introduced Starr as “Billy Shears,” a wink to the Beatles lyric, and the crowd went wild. The pair led an all-star jam on “I Saw Her Standing There,” an ode to the beguiling charms of a 17-year-old girl who, of course, must now be eligible for Social Security. Whoever she is, she’d be lucky to look as good as McCartney who, like Starr, is trim and fit. The man who wrote “Yesterday” may dye his hair, but his hours spent running and riding horses show in his nimble navigation of the stage.
Talking about his touring band these days, all players in their 20s and 30s, McCartney sounded as eager as ever: “We have this sneaky feeling that someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘You’ve played long enough, you’ve had too much fun, you been bad boys.’ We enjoyed turning people on and that seems to happen, touch wood. I love playing with the band. I’m lucky to have them.”
Some megastars, like Bob Dylan or Michael Jackson, put up layers of mystery or masquerade, but McCartney the showman is far too eager to please to ever wear a shroud in the spotlight. Still, he enjoys occasional flirtation with anonymity (he used to check into hotels under the name Paul Ramon, which would inspire the name for the Ramones), and he had some of that with the Fireman, the moniker for his ongoing electronica moonlighting with music producer Youth (a.k.a. Martin Glover of Killing Joke). They had two albums in the 1990s that didn’t have the former Beatle’s name printed on the packaging, but the third collaboration, last year’s “Electric Arguments,” featured McCartney’s unmistakable vocals and was openly promoted as his work.
“We had such fun, it was like improvisational theater,” he said. “You’re reaching into the void and pulling ideas out. It’s like a game. People say you’ve been working and I laugh and say, ‘No, I’ve been playing.’ ”
The album was well reviewed and McCartney said he might weave some of it into his Coachella set. Then he seemed to have second thoughts. “It seems like the natural spot for it, but I’m not saying too much because when we rehearse if we don’t like the noise we make, it’ll get cut.”
The time at Coachella, of course, might be better served in the name of legacy. “People come up and say, ‘You’re the soundtrack of my life; thanks, man, for the music,’ and they all have a little story. Now a lot of the time it’s not even the Beatles songs, it’s [the 1971 album] ‘Ram’ or Wings . . . I like that. Of course I like that.”