Paul McCartney– he’s been in a tough spot since December 8, 1980. That’s when his best friend and forever songwriting partner John Lennon was murdered and became a legend. McCartney, wildly successful before and after, has had to live with this as sort of a penalty for being the surviving Beatle. I remember when Robert Christgau wrote they got the wrong Beatle. Insane.
I interviewed McCartney extensively in 1989 and he was still very bristly and not entirely nice about John and Yoko; he was clearly still sorting it all out. In 1996, McCartney got into a big flap about changing songwriting credits to McCartney-Lennon from their original billing. There was also an issue about Ono, as Lennon’s heir, getting money and rights back from Michael Jackson because of the songwriting law. It didn’t occur to McCartney that his rights were still tied up with Jackson because he, McCartney, was lucky enough to still be alive.
Now McCartney has given a startling interview to Esquire’s UK edition in which he reignites his old feuds with Yoko and calls out Lennon for having become a James Dean-like martyr. It’s very weird because over time he and Ono seemed to lay down arms and embrace as formerly estranged family members. Just last winter, Ono was invited to a dinner at Lincoln Center for Stella McCartney where she was treated like a favorite aunt by the whole extended Beatles family. Everything seemed hunky dory.
But McCartney says he really resented her after Lennon died because she kept saying that “John was everything” in the Beatles. He says: “But then strange things would happen. Like Yoko would appear in the press, and I’d read it, and it said [comedy Yoko accent], “Paul did nothing! All he did was book the studio…” Like, “F–k you, darling! Hang on! All I did was book the fucking studio?” Well, OK, now people know that’s not true. But that was just part of it. There was a lot of revisionism: John did this, John did that. I mean, if you just pull out all his great stuff and then stack it up against my not-so-great stuff, it’s an easy case to make.”
So that’s saying let’s take “Imagine” and “Watching the Wheels” and compare them to a bad Wings song, like “Let ‘Em In.” That’s an easy case. But in this writer’s opinion, sorry, McCartney’s best outweighs Lennon’s best, with maybe the exception of “Imagine.” And that’s a debate that goes on forever without resolution.
The other big quote from the interview which will live on: “When John got shot, aside from the pure horror of it, the lingering thing was, OK, well now John’s a martyr. A JFK. So what happened was, I started to get frustrated because people started to say, “Well, he was The Beatles.” And me, George and Ringo would go, “Er, hang on. It’s only a year ago we were all equal-ish.” Yeah, John was the witty one, sure. John did a lot of great work, yeah. And post-Beatles he did more great work, but he also did a lot of not-great work. Now the fact that he’s now martyred has elevated him to a James Dean, and beyond. So whilst I didn’t mind that – I agreed with it – I understood that now there was going to be revisionism.”
Anyway, great work by Alex Bilmes. Paul McCartney is indeed our greatest living rock star. His story is THE story of post-Tin Pan Alley music. His influence, like George Gershwin’s, will go on forever. But we love the gossip, and we love him regardless. He’s 73, and playing shows this week somewhere, and all summer, as if he were 33. Why? He tells Bilmes: “Because it’s my job.” We’re amazed. No maybe about it.