It has been a hellish two years for Paul McCartney, and they have left him a changed man. Here he talks to Simon Hattenstone about his grief, his music, his paintings - and his new romance
Paul McCartney clicks the Wurlitzer jukebox, and Fats Domino springs into action. "Hey, Hey I'm In Love Again." He sings along and says it is his favourite at the moment. If there was one of his own songs on the jukebox what would it be? "Maybe I'm Amazed," he says without hesitation.
We are looking over Soho from the top of his fiercely corporate office block. Outside, in the park, two bedraggled middle-aged fans pop their head over the hedge at regular intervals and stare up to the window. They look as if they could have been there for years.
The office is a celebration of all things McCartney. Any number of gold and platinum discs, awards galore, the car number plate Ay Jude, two identical photographs of McCartney being pulled across Abbey Road by a sheepdog - the only difference being 30 odd years. His shelves are stuffed with art books, pop books, business books. Next to an eight-volume encyclopaedia of popular music is How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. McCartney has succeeded, to the tune of £550m, but only because he is a pop genius and he has tried very, very hard.
McCartney, 58, is dressed in formal black jacket, jeans with a self conscious rip, groovy T-shirt, Jesus sandles and not so groovy blue socks. Clothes that somehow encapture his disparate, almost contrary elements.
It has been a hell of a two years for him. Really, hellish. When his wife Linda died many people expected him to crumble. He says he almost did. He cried and cried, and talked to anybody who would listen, and cried some more, and eventually he started crawling out of the mire. He looked to the future by putting the past in context, visiting his old home in Liverpool, playing at his old haunt, the Cavern, where the Beatles made their name 40 years ago, anthologising some more of his musical history. He even found a new girlfriend, the model and disability rights campaigner Heather Mills, who lost a leg when she was knocked down by a police vehicle.
Now he is relaunching himself as a painter with an exhibition in Bristol and a handsome book of his work accompanied by Linda's photographs. Actually, it is unfair to say he is relaunching himself as a painter. He is unveiling himself. He knows the critics will laugh and carp - many have already done so. But some of the more abstract pictures are great.
One of the paintings is called "Is this a self-portrait?" I ask him if it is. "I don't know. It looks just a bit like me in the Beatles." I say it also looks like John Lennon. "Uh huh, well hence the title. 'Is it a self-portrait?' "
Perhaps Lennon was the other great love of his life - but if this was love, it was a tormented, bilious love. Lennon and McCartney the great songwriting team, the great rivals. Even now, 20 years after Lennon's death, the rivalry, the bitter love, seems to be very much alive. What's his favourite Beatles song? "All mine! No steady on. Favourite Beatles song!" He is struggling. "My favourite Beatles song, I don't know. Of mine I like Here There and Everywhere, Eleanor Rigby, Hey Jude, of John's I like Nowhere Man, A Day In The Life." I tell him I'm disillusioned, I thought they wrote the songs together. He doesn't answer. Since Lennon's death McCartney has been determined to tell his side of the story, to divide up the spoils and label them accurately.
Many people spend their 20s growing up, shaping their characters. Did McCartney feel he missed out on that? He says they all developed musically, and does a simple breakdown of the Beatles' progression from the early days through introspection and on to psychedelia. At times he sounds more like a marketing director than pop star. "Thank You Girl... direct appeals to the fans by our records. PS I Love You , From Me To You . You know, direct salesmanship."
But as individuals they were stymied. A life of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and all the liberties they entail, can be imprisoning. "There was a little bit of, you know, like being in the army. There was an element of being a unit, a number." He remembers talking to Ringo about Christmas trees, and Ringo telling him he was getting his from the office. When he realised they had forgotten how to buy their own Christmas trees he knew things were going wrong. "It was summed up one morning when we were doing the White Album. I was working all day and till three in the morning and we'd worked late right through the weekend. I was coming into work and there was a guy watering his garden. It was a sunny morning and he just looked at me and smiled, ' Good morning !' and I said, 'Good morning,' and I just stopped and said, ' Shit, who's got it right here?' "
By the time the Beatles split up, McCartney looked like an old man. He nods. "I'm certainly a lot more happy now than I was then." He goes off on one about how the management collapsed, their money was disappearing, how the others had given up, and he was fighting singlehandedly to salvage their earnings. He talks and talks, justifies his decision to leave and split up the band. "I was trying to save as it were a family business, but everyone in my family wanted to give it away..." He says how close he is to the two surviving Beatles these days. "And before John died I got my friendship back on track..." He tails off.
We open the book at a painting of Linda in pastel yellow. What does he think of when he looks at it? "Just her patience... how nice she was... her beauty . . . fine lass !" He is trying to make a wee joke of it.
I ask him what has given him most happiness. "I think marrying Linda. Personal happiness. It was a reawakening. With the Beatles you lose your identity. You put your identity into the common identity and you're a Beatle." He often talks about the way they would go driving and she would tell him to get lost, take any turn, see where it took them - just how he and John had done with the music. But in real life he wasn't used to that. "I used to say 'No, no, we don't do that, I'm a driver, you've got to find all the signs... The reason I like Maybe I'm Amazed is because it summed up where I was at that time, newly married, a lot of amazement at getting out of the sort of factory, the factory farming. I could suddenly buy my own Christmas tree."
McCartney went on to form Wings with Linda. "That was to do with finding this great woman and having kids with her, and then sustaining that in the madness of the business was the thing really." At times Wings became a houseband for their kids. He tells me how he wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb for his daughter Mary so he had something to sing to her at night.
Did it hurt that so many people ridiculed Wings despite their success? For once, he doesn't allow me to finish the question. "I'm jumping on that because what happened with me and Linda, we believed it. We set about doing Wings because I wanted to continue in music, and I wanted her with me, we were just madly in love, so there didn't seem to be an alternative. So we believed this whole idea that Wings were never as good, that it was a failure, a pale imitation of the Beatles. What's great now is that a lot of people actually say they preferred Wings. Now that's something I never thought anyone would say. But it's because they grew up with it, it's their life soundtrack."
I tell him I still can't cope with the fact that Mull of Kintyre outsold every Beatles single. In the gentlest of ways, he stands his ground. "Oh it's cool man! It's a great record that. And in the punk era! My daughter Heather was a punk and she said her friends would put it on the jukebox after Pretty Vacant and the Damned and the Clash and all that. They'd then want a mellow moment and put on Mull of Kintyre."
McCartney looks amazing today. The same buttercup mouth, skin so smooth he looks pre-pubescent, barely a hint of a belly. But he seems to have changed. He is calmer, less boisterous. There are none of the boysy, ingratiating winks and cheesy thumbs-up of yesteryear.
We're still looking at the painting of Linda. Why hasn't he included his most recent paintings of her in the book? "I haven't done many later paintings." I thought he had continued painting her since she died."They're not of Linda. They're just of turmoil."
Has the pain eased? "That's the trouble. People say time is a healer, and time heals by erasing. That is a sad fact. I love my mum, but I'm not so sure I've got a very clear picture of her face in my mind. I'm not saying I could ever forget my mum or my dad or Linda or John. In some ways you remember them more, but the details... When she died all of us in the family expected her to walk in the door, and we don't now."
He says he feels bad about the fact that it becomes more difficult to conjure up her face. "This is life, this is guilt. If we're lucky we let ourselves off a little bit more, that's what I'm trying to do." It is surprising to hear McCartney talk of guilt. He always came across as the great, easy optimist. "I am, pretty..." And for a second he sounds thoroughly miserable.
"It was so traumatic losing Linda that I had to say, 'OK, I don't know how I'm going to get through this.' " It took him a year to feel better. He says it felt like a cyclical thing, passing through the seasons, reawakening. He still talks to Linda, looks to her for advice. "It is the weirdest thing to say because she's not here, but I think most people who've lost someone know what I'm talking about. A lot of people I know talk to Linda. Our old housekeeper Rose says, 'Good morning, Lin,' every day.
"I thought to myself, 'How much would she want me to grieve?' A months, two months, three months, what is a seemly amount of time? After a while I felt she'd be saying, 'That's enough, you've done enough.' "
He suddenly introduces his girlfriend Heather into the conversation. It sounds like a formal announcement. "I have a new romance with Heather Mills, and I'm very into it, She's a great girl, you know. And I have to talk to Linda about that. You know, 'What am I doing babe? How d'you feel about this?' and what she says is, 'If I was there you'd be dead meat, sucker. But I'm not there and I want you to be happy.' That's the feeling I get back."
Has he asked Linda how she rates Heather? "I haven't actually asked that, but I know they'd like each other because they have a lot of things in common, not on the surface so much. A spirit, a toughness of spirit. Nobody's ever going to do either of them, no person would ever put them down. Put them down at your risk . They have big hearts. I think they would have got on great actually. But want to feel comfortable that she somehow wouldn't hate the thought of me continuing in the world with a new woman."
So many men of McCartney's age are retired and have started to live their life vicariously through the achievements of their children and grandchildren. He says that it would be possible for him to do it - he is close to all four kids, and the clothes designer Stella and photographer Mary are now celebrities in their own right. But he says there are so many things to do, he feels so hungry for achievement, desperate to create - there are his paintings, the poems he is planning to publish, more music of course. He feels as creative as when he was starting out with the Beatles. In the past month he has started to paint again. "They're much calmer now," he says.
I ask him whether he feels Linda's death has liberated him, and judder at the insensitivity of my question. "Prrrr." He makes a strange noise as if he is suddenly freezing, as if his soul has frozen over. "I would have preferred it if it hadn't happened, you know, but it has changed me. I don't know about liberated me. It has changed me. And having been through a fire of having to deal with it, it's nice to come out the other end."
WORDS: Simon Hattenstone