Paul McCartney famously leans away from soul-searching and despair in his work, but the introspection is there, if you know where to look. For years, no one took any notice of his 1982 song “Here Today,” from Tug of War, a lovely and delicate paean to John Lennon that in the 21st century became a mainstay of his live concerts. One of the most revealing songs he ever wrote was another track that was widely ignored, “Gratitude,” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full. The year before, McCartney had endured a painful public split with the model Heather Mills, whom he had unwisely married in 2002, four years after his first wife Linda died. But amid the extremely acrimonious and embarrassing public split, here is what he had to say about the matter, in a soul-gospel track dripping with feeling:
Well, I was lonely, I was living with a memory
But my cold and lonely nights ended when you sheltered me
Loved by you, I was loved by you
Yeah, I was loved by you
I want to show my gratitude, gratitude
Yeah, show my gratitude to you
Who emerges from a brutal and ugly divorce with a song about gratitude? Paul McCartney, that’s who. As a wise man once noted, gratitude is the foundation of conservatism. Which makes it oppositional to the rock idiom, with its utopianism, its anger, its alienation, its snarl. McCartney’s lack of interest in snarling has earned him dismissal from rock enthusiasts for decades: You can hardly have a 30-second conversation about the man before someone changes the subject from his music to the alleged defects of his supposedly shallow personality — even in a piece of criticism, even in a laudatory piece of criticism. A New Musical Express critic wrote in 2013 of the album New, it “avoids becoming another thumbs-akimbo entry into the Groovy Uncle Paul canon.” He just won’t play the game — refuses to play moody, dark, disturbed, dyspeptic, or weird in accordance with Chapter One of the rock-star manual — and this irks people.
McCartney’s gratitude permeates a delightful new interview in British GQ, possibly the best one with him I’ve ever seen. In it, he confirms a rumor that as a condition of appearing on The Simpsons in 1995’s “Lisa the Vegetarian,” he extracted a promise that Lisa would remain a vegetarian in perpetuity. And he says he’s almost done writing a musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life. Like most other celebrities, McCartney tends to repeat himself a lot in interviews, which is something that happens when you keep getting asked the same questions, and this must be the 100th time I’ve come across him saying that he wasn’t sure whether a certain line in “Hey Jude” (“The movement you need is on your shoulder”) worked until John Lennon said he loved it. But interviewer Dylan Jones elicited some brilliant anecdotes from him, such as a story about how Paul once rode the Hampton Jitney bus from his country house (in Amagansett, on the South Fork of Long Island) back to his apartment in New York City, attempting to finish Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby on the three-hour journey, though people interrupted him. When he arrived in Manhattan, he was pretty close to home, so he decided he’d take a city bus a few blocks to his flat. When he got on the bus, here’s what happened:
I noticed that everyone had noticed me, but they’re all being cool and they’re not saying anything. They’re all New Yorkers, looking straight ahead, even though I’m aware they’ve noticed I’ve got on the bus. Then this black woman pipes up from the back of the bus: “Are you Paul McCartney?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And she said, “What are you doing on this bus?” And I said, “Why don’t you stop shouting and come and sit next to me?” And you could see everyone’s shoulders heaving. They’re loving this. She asked me where I was going. I found out she was going uptown to see her sister and we ended up having this lovely conversation. That’s why I like a proper conversation. Being ordinary. I love that. It means a lot to me — maybe too much to me. I wouldn’t have wanted to get on the bus and sort of announce myself. “Hi, it’s Paul McCartney! What do you think of me?” I could no more do that than fly.
Hardly anyone on the planet has been as famous as Paul McCartney for as long as Paul McCartney, and most of the others in that category, such as the Queen, do not ride municipal buses. Fame of that level must be immensely wearying: Any stroll or restaurant dinner is likely to be disrupted by strangers many times. No one can muster enough good cheer to be patient with that many fans across six decades. McCartney, though, tries. He’s aware, like few others in his position, of how absolutely wonderful life has been to him. Asked whether he ever thought about his unique status, McCartney replied, “Do I ever! Like, always. Just give me a drink and sit me down and ask me questions. I tell you, I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘My God, what about that?’”
He thinks of the serendipity of meeting his bandmates, rather than his own genius, as the foundation of his success. “People say, ‘Do you believe in magic?’ And I say, ‘I’ve got to.’. . . Life can be magical, these things that just came together. Me and John knowing each other, the fact that both of us independently had already started to write little songs . . . ” The explanation for Paul McCartney’s dorky thumbs-akimbo happiness is simple: He is rigorously focused on life’s blessings, and he is as immensely grateful as he should be. As he sang in “Listen to What the Man Said”: “The wonder of it all, baby.”