By Gillian Gaar
Paul McCartney wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four” in his mid-teens, at a time when the idea of actually turning 64 years of age must’ve seemed impossibly far off. In the song, he imagined one’s senior years with a quaint nostalgia, emphasized by the vaudeville/music hall flavor of the melody, depicting an old couple thriftily economizing to get by and enjoying life’s simple pleasures: grandchildren and that lovely cottage on the Isle of Wight.
Instead, when McCartney did turn 64 on June 18, 2006, it was something of an annus horribilis for him. In April, McCartney had separated from Heather Mills, his wife of less than four years, and when the news became public the following month, a media frenzy ensued that lasted until the couple’s divorce in June 2008.
McCartney’s first public statement on the separation claimed, “Our parting is amicable,” which proved to be as inaccurate as the statement’s bizarre assertion that the split was due to media intrusion, and not the couple’s own inherent incompatibility. The subsequent leaking of Mills’ “Answer and Cross Petition” to McCartney’s filing for divorce unleashed many hurtful allegations in the press (which McCartney wisely chose not to answer), and the U.K. tabloids in particular rushed to exploit Mills’ former career as a nude model. Ever since “When I’m Sixty-Four” had been released (on 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), McCartney had known there would be an intense media focus when his own 64th birthday came around; he could hardly have been pleased that the date fell at a time when his private life was being publicly dissected in such gruesome detail.
But, resilient as ever, McCartney managed to emerge from this sad chapter in his life with his head held high. His first post-separation album, 2007’s “Memory Almost Full,” gave him his highest U.S. chart position for a studio album (No. 3) in 20 years (when 1997’s “Flaming Pie” had reached No. 2). Though the extensive tours of 2002 and 2005 are seemingly a thing of the past, McCartney still regularly performs live. And he continues to be showered with new accolades; last year, he made not just one, but two visits to the White House to pick up awards.
And even in 2006, the news wasn’t all bad. Always in search of new places to play, McCartney made his first-ever live performance at the Grammy Awards in February. Though not picking up any awards himself, his set of “Fine Line” (from 2005’s “Chaos And Creation In The Backyard”) and a raucous “Helter Skelter” proved one of the event’s highlights. In July came the premiere of the Cirque Du Soleil’s Beatle-inspired show “Love” in Las Vegas, which opened to great acclaim. The gala opening also brought together the surviving members of The Beatles family: McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison (the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, respectively).
There was a return to classical music, with the premiere of McCartney’s latest piece, “Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart)” at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November. The CD’s liner notes describe the work as “a spiritual confession for McCartney — not religious but spiritual,” with an underlying theme of finding hope in the midst of despair; though McCartney had written some of the piece in the aftermath of his wife Linda’s death in 1998, it was a theme that was just relevant for him in 2006.
McCartney also began work on his next studio album, “Memory Almost Full.” His previous record, “Chaos and Creation,” had been a solo effort, McCartney working with Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich. It was a sometimes fraught relationship, as Goodrich dared to criticize McCartney’s work; McCartney had actually walked out of the studio on one occasion. But he stuck it out, and “Chaos” ended up being one of McCartney’s best albums.
There were no such challenges this time. McCartney returned to working with David Kahane, who’d produced 2001’s “Driving Rain” (with some of the backing musicians ending up in McCartney’s live band as well). The new album would also feature his live band, but anyone expecting a “divorce” record would be disappointed. The record gets off to a bright start with “Dance Tonight,” and the mood remains upbeat throughout.
“I still seem to come out positive and optimistic. I think that’s my character,” McCartney explained to Billboard. If the album was ultimately not as a strong as “Chaos,” neither was it as half-baked as “Driving Rain.” “Memory Almost Full” was released in June 2007 on a new label for McCartney, Hear Music, run jointly by Starbucks and Concord Records. And instead of a large-scale tour to promote the album, there were just a handful of dates over the summer, including London’s Electric Ballroom, the Highline Ballroom in New York City, the L.A. branch of Amoeba Records, and, finally, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. After that run, there were only two more live dates in 2007, with McCartney performing at the Olympia in Paris (where the Beatles had performed in 1964), and the Roundhouse in London (a legendary venue that had at one point been considered as the site for a Beatles “comeback” concert in the late ’60s) in
October. It was an indication of things to come, as McCartney reworked the standard album-tour regimen, opting instead to perform a short series of shows, with lengthy breaks in between.
Some have speculated that this type of schedule is due to McCartney’s age; McCartney himself has said he wants to ensure he gets to spend enough time with his youngest daughter, Beatrice, born in 2003. The year ended with a very welcome archive release, the DVD set “The McCartney Years,” featuring videos from McCartney’s solo/Wings career. But even at three DVDs, there wasn’t enough room for every video, and fans were further disappointed that excerpts of the “Rockshow” film and McCartney’s 2004 appearance at England’s Glastonbury Festival were presented instead of the entire performances.
McCartney’s post-Beatles career is now in its 41st year, and there’s a lot of catch-up to do as far as unreleased archive material. Then again, that’s one of those “problems” that’s nice to have. After receiving a BRIT Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music and an honorary doctor of music degree from Yale University in the first part of 2008, McCartney returned to Liverpool in triumph, headlining a concert at Anfield Stadium on June 1, as part of the city’s yearlong celebrations honoring Liverpool as the European “Capital of Culture.” He opened the show with a real blast from the past, “Hippy Hippy Shake,” a number dating back to The Beatles’ Cavern Club era. McCartney was clearly in his element, joking with the hometown crowd and adding a few more surprises to the set, including, appropriately enough, “In Liverpool” (only available on the “Liverpool Oratorio” DVD) and a medley of “A Day In The Life”/“Give Peace A Chance,” as Yoko Ono watched from the stands. More large-scale concerts quickly followed before massive crowds: 350,000 in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, and 200,000 in Quebec (shows rumored to help pay off his divorce settlement).
On July 18, he made another “homecoming” visit of sorts, making a guest appearance at Billy Joel’s concert at Shea Stadium, the last show held at the venue before it was demolished. McCartney and Joel performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Let It Be,” with McCartney remarking, “It’s cool to be back here on the last night. Been here a long time ago. We had a blast that night, and we’re having another one tonight.” McCartney was presumably referring to the Beatles’ 1965 appearance at Shea, though the group also played the stadium in 1966; had Sir Paul forgotten that night, or had it not been a “blast” as well?
In September came another first, when McCartney performed in Tel Aviv, Israel. He spent the rest of the year promoting “Electric Arguments,” the third album by the Fireman, his side project with Martin “Youth” Glover (formerly the bassist in Killing Joke). In contrast to the previous Fireman albums, “Electric Arguments” was more rock based and had songs with lyrics, not just instrumentals. In his off-the-wall ventures, when he’s not trying to have a hit record, McCartney creates some of his most interesting work, and “Electric Arguments” received good reviews.
In 2009 came another Grammy appearance in February; though he again failed to win any awards, he rocked the house by performing “I Saw Her Standing There.” Guesting on drums was Dave Grohl, who’d also guested at McCartney’s Anfield Stadium show. Grohl later said he’d tried to get McCartney to do a surprise warm-up show the night before the Grammys at the House of Blues, but McCartney declined; while he enjoys playing smaller venues, McCartney has rarely acted in so off-the-cuff a fashion. He next turned up at Radio City Music Hall in April, playing a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation’s Change Begins Within project, which promotes meditation. Ringo Starr was also on the bill, and he came on during McCartney’s set, the two former Beatles performing three songs together.
Then came appearances at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., and The Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, followed by more summer dates, beginning in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, then continuing to the U.S. The centerpiece of the tour were three NYC dates on July 17, 18 and 21. There was a fun bit of promotion for the shows on July 15, when McCartney performed a seven-song set atop the marquee outside the “Late Night With David Letterman” studio — the same location where the Beatles made their U.S. TV debut in 1964, on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The concerts were held at Citi Field, the new stadium constructed on the site of Shea Stadium, and resulted in one of McCartney’s better live releases, the CD/DVD set “Good Evening New York City” released the following November, with a deluxe edition featuring the July 15 marquee performance. By now, McCartney’s shows had settled down into a standard formula. The majority of the songs were from the Beatle era, and most of the post-Beatle songs were from the ’70s. Aside from a handful of tracks from whatever his current studio album might be, McCartney largely ignores his post-1981 catalog, with the interesting exception of the occasional song from “Flaming Pie.”
As result, McCartney’s shows end up being primarily geared toward his past accomplishments and not his current work. While it’s the safest route, guaranteeing a good response from the invariably ecstatic crowds, it has meant that McCartney is viewed as a performer who doesn’t care to challenge himself. A July 2009 “Newsweek” article,
after lauding “Chaos And Creation,” “Memory Almost Full,” and “Electric Arguments,” went on to observe, “With McCartney, more than any other artist of his longevity and stature, there’s a disconnect between the songs he writes and the ones he performs for crowds.”
Even longtime fans have raised this issue, as in an article in the November-December 2008 issue of “Beatlefan,” titled “Why Don’t You Take Any More Risks, Paul?” which noted how performers like Bruce Springsteen change songs from night to night in their sets. Perhaps it’s because at heart, McCartney loves to give his audience what they want; unlike Bob Dylan, who will rework his classics for live shows, regardless of what the audience might think, McCartney gets his backing musicians to recreate his songs exactly as they sound on the records.
Even his stage patter often remains the same. And while there have been a few tweaks to the set lists in the past few years — new Beatles/Wings songs are occasionally slotted in, and songs from “Electric Arguments” have also been featured — it’s unlikely McCartney will ever leave his comfort zone as far as live shows are concerned. “You do have a feeling The Beatles’ songs are gonna be the most popular,” he admitted. “People come to the show, and often if they don’t know a song you can see them thinking, ‘This is a good chance to go and get a beer.’ I’ve always been reluctant to give them a chance to go and get a beer.”
There was no new album from McCartney in 2009, likely because the fall saw the release of the remastered Beatles albums (though a new song, “(I Want To) Come Home,” appeared in the film “Everybody’s Fine”). He also made one of his more unusual ppearances in October, when he sang “On A Slow Boat To China” at the “Chance and
Chemistry: A Centennial Celebration of Frank Loesser” concert (McCartney’s company, McCartney Productions Ltd., owns Loesser’s song catalog). And after a November charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall, he closed out the year with more stadium shows in Hamburg, Berlin, Arnhem (the Netherlands), Paris, Cologne, Dublin and London.
Though there was still no new studio album in 2010, McCartney did team up with Starr on the latter’s new album, “Y Not,” released in January, playing bass on “Peace Dream” and singing on “Walk With You.” He then spent much of the year on the road. From March to November, there were dates in the U.S. (including two shows at the Hollywood
Bowl), Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Isle of Wight, a huge outdoor concert at London’s Hyde Park and in South America. He also made a surprise appearance at Starr’s All Starr Band show in New York City on July 7 — Starr’s 70th birthday — coming onstage during the encore to perform the Beatles’ own “Birthday,” after which the two friends hugged before a wildly cheering crowd.
And one of McCartney’s most impressive honors came on June 2, when he was awarded the Gershwin Prize For Popular Music by President Obama at the White House. As part of the ceremony, he performed “Got To Get You Into My Life,” then sat in the audience as other performers, including Dave Grohl, the Jonas Brothers and Emmylou Harris performed his songs. McCartney joined Stevie Wonder for “Ebony and Ivory,” then had his own band join him for another four songs, dedicating “Michelle” to President Obama’s wife, Michelle, joking “I hope the president will forgive me.”
Nor would it be his only trip to the White House that year. On December 5, McCartney returned to Washington, D.C., as one of five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. Later that month he performed at another historic venue, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and finished the year with two London shows (including a show at the small 100 Club)
and another Liverpool gig.
What does the future hold for Paul McCartney? Some of his back catalogue is currently being reissued; “Band On The Run” was released already, and this year will see the reissue of “McCartney” and “McCartney II.” And we can certainly expect more touring; McCartney has stated many times how much he loves live performance. His studio work
in the past decade has been patchier, but there could well be another “Chaos” in store. The years from 1998 to 2006 had their share of low points for McCartney. But his faith in his music, and in himself, has continued to carry him from strength to strength.