As I rule, I try to avoid reading too much into a song regarding the personal life of the person who wrote it. Of course, it’s fun to read about what inspired a particular tune, but I always think what it means to you – the person listening to it – is the most important thing. That’s one of the things that makes music so great, you don’t need to know the background, you can interpret it yourself. The disorienting dreaminess of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, for example, enchanted me long before I had a clue what was going through John’s head when he wrote it. And while John and George have been lauded for their deeply personal approach to songwriting, it can occasionally make their work a little harder to relate to (though that doesn’t make it any less special). Paul, on the other hand, is criticised by some for what they see as a more generic approach to lyrics, for hiding behind third-person characters or simply not often telling interviewers what was in his mind when he wrote such-and-such a track. This completely misses the point, of course, that this approach tends to give some of his material a more universal appeal – he has often said that he likes people to draw their own meaning from his songs, and not be too prescriptive about it. But that doesn’t mean the autobiographical content isn’t there; you just have to look a bit deeper for it sometimes. And with a band as famous as The Beatles, when every detail of their lives has been reported, pored over and analysed for so long, and from so many different angles, even I can’t stop myself speculating and hypothesising about what may have led to the creation of what, and is that tune really about that? I buy into the artists, as well as the art.
In Macca’s case, I do feel some people get a bit carried away by assuming a track clearly refers to this or that, particularly those who seem to think every other song Paul has written during the past 50 years somehow relates to John or The Beatles. But I do think there’s an awful lot of subtext to the music he produced in the decade following Linda’s death in 1998, in particular the three albums of original material released during that period – Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and Memory Almost Full. In fact, I tend to see them as something of an unofficial trilogy charting Paul’s journey through grief, a late mid-life crisis and finding himself again, the music and (often) the lyrics reflecting his questing and sometimes tumultuous state of mind. Losing the love of his life affected him hugely, in ways which weren’t immediately apparent, but listening to those records now, I think they tell a fascinating story, the emotional arc of a ridiculously famous and talented man grappling with the biggest crisis of his life. It’s not always obvious – as I say, it rarely is with McCartney – but that’s the fun of extrapolating clues and joining the dots. So here’s my take on it.
When Linda succumbed to cancer in April 1998, I wondered whether we’d ever again see the Paul McCartney we knew before. She’d been the anchor of his insane life for so long, the centre of his crowded, unreal world, his muse and partner in all his endeavours. Having all that taken away at such a relatively young age must – as for anyone losing a long-term partner – have been a shattering blow; the fact that he lost his mother to the same disease can only have twisted the knife still further. I doubted whether he would ever return to the public stage (though, I suspect like a lot of fans, also selfishly pondered what fantastic music the tragedy might inspire). Paul-and-Linda was such an established unit, indivisible in the public mind, it was hard to imagine him on his own. And for the first year or so afterwards, Macca kept an understandably low profile as he worked his way through the immediate shockwaves of his grief. Bar a webcast here and the opening of a paintings exhibition there, public appearances were rare. Then two things happened – he threw himself into making a cathartic rock ‘n’ roll covers album, Run Devil Run, which came out in October 1999, and he started dating a model-cum-TV-presenter-cum-campaigner, Heather Mills.
The latter was kept quiet for a while, but in retrospect it seemed to influence his promotion of the former. Suddenly, he was everywhere again, doing radio shows, TV spots, videos, concerts and interviews, bubbly and full of life. It was like he’d never been away. I just accepted it with little more than a raised eyebrow at the time but, looking back, I wonder if it was too much, too soon. Soon afterwards, when news broke of his new relationship, a few little changes became more apparent. Perhaps influenced by romancing a woman 26 years his junior, his use of hair dye went berserk, and some of his clothes choices seemed more youthful. In addition, the Paul who stayed on the farm enjoying private domestic bliss was gone; instead, he was pictured with Heather at numerous parties and public events, often with a drink in his hand, like he was the Beatle-about-town of the 1960s once more. Even his formal “coming out” with Heather, appearing on the low-rent ITV show Stars in Their Lives made in her honour in 2000, seemed a little out-of-character. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs of the relationship here; time has clearly shown it to a calamitous mistake on his part, which some people thought it was at the time (including, apparently, his own children). I never warmed to Heather myself but assumed he knew what he was doing, perhaps not really understanding how Linda’s loss was still affecting him and his choices. Irrespective of that, Heather’s arrival on the scene undoubtedly had a profound impact on his life – and his music.
By the time they announced their engagement in June 2001, Paul was well into the recording of his next album, Driving Rain, which emerged in October of that year. That was also quite different from the McCartney people had come to expect – an often rough-and-ready, lo-fi collection of songs made with a trio of (markedly younger) American musicians. While there were moments of more typically layered, lushly-produced material, much of it had a garage band feel, with an emphasis on raw, ‘live’ takes, loud electric guitars and a minimum of overdubs. And vocally, Paul sounded like he’d been transported back to his Cavern Club days. He brought his usual grace and nuance to the ballads, but for the (many) rockers he sang like a man possessed, his voice full of fire and grit, and occasionally reconnecting with his fabled ‘Little Richard’ scream. We hadn’t heard him bellow like this on new material, in a sustained fashion, since 1979’s Back To the Egg.
Lyrically, I’d argue it’s one of his most direct, personal works. Dewy-eyed reminiscences of Linda (‘Magic’, ‘Your Way’ and, especially, the heart-breaking ‘I Do’) collide with lusty proclamations of love for Heather (‘Tiny Bubble’, ‘Driving Rain’, ‘Your Loving Flame’ and, er, ‘Heather’), sometimes even in the same song (‘Lonely Road’, and especially ‘From A Lover To A Friend’). There’s even a track called ‘Back in the Sunshine Again’, but images of Heather rescuing him from misery and hopelessness abound – “You come walking through my door…Letting sunshine in the darkest places” (‘Driving Rain’); “You can’t imagine just what I’ve been going through/I wouldn’t wish it on a soul, much less on you” (‘Tiny Bubble’); “You give me power to get out of bed/When in the morning I’m feeling dead” (‘About You’), and “You could be the one to chase my blues away” (‘Your Loving Flame’). Even in a more oblique number like ‘Spinning on An Axis’, you get lines like: “I watch the sun go down with some sorrow/And now I know it’s gonna come back tomorrow”. Overall, there’s a feeling of someone grasping at his first new love affair in more than 30 years like a drowning man clutching at branch floating in the middle of a turbulent ocean; rekindling youthful energies and optimism amid a furnace of passion, anger, despair and hope. It’s like he’s raging against the ravages of time, and sticking two fingers up to them as he rides off in a different direction, characterised by the defiance of the extraordinary 10-minute closer, ‘Rinse The Raindrops’. But deep down, he knows it’s not that simple – in ‘Lonely Road’, he sings “I tried to get over you, I tried to find something new/But all I could ever do was fill my time/With thoughts of you.” And in ‘From A Lover…” he admits “How can I walk when I can’t find a way?” and – in probably the key line of the album – pleads: “Let me love again”.
Macca married Heather in June 2002, despite rumours of rows between the pair and growing family rifts in the McCartney clan. Heather’s ego, abrasive personality and economical approach to the truth was also making her a lot of enemies in the British media. Nonetheless, things seemed to go well to begin with. Paul made an all-conquering return to the global concert stage, relentlessly plugging his wife’s favoured Adopt A Minefield charity along the way, and the couple had a daughter, Beatrice, in 2003. But by the time the next McCartney album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, appeared in October 2005, we now know the marriage was in difficulties. And the tone and content of Chaos were certainly very different to its predecessor – almost the polar opposite, in fact. Past the deceptively up-tempo opening of ‘Fine Line’, most all the songs were slow, low-key and meditative. The virile, coltish energy of Driving Rain had almost entirely dissipated. The spiky electric guitars and crashing drums were replaced by acoustic guitars and pianos, and (apart from one number) Paul dispensed with his backing band and recorded most of the backing tracks alone – perhaps a sign of retreating into himself?
There’s a melancholy, world-weary feel to the material, reflected in ‘Promise To You Girl’ and it’s opening line: “Looking through the backyard of my life/Time to sweep the fallen leaves away.” It’s as if he’s blazing emotions which fuelled Driving Rain have cooled, and he’s taking stock of his life. Since recording that album, George Harrison had died, while Paul had turned 60 and become a father once again. And there was his struggling marriage to a volatile woman. While there were still songs of adoration and gratitude (‘A Certain Softness’, ‘This Never Happened Before’ and ‘Follow Me’), other tracks pointed to discord, uncertainty and even anguish. There was the pep-talk to himself in ‘Too Much Rain’ (“Laugh, when your eyes are burning/Smile, when your heart is filled with pain”), a rare glimpse behind the thumbs-aloft facade in ‘At The Mercy’ (“Sometimes I’d rather run and hide/Then stay and face the fear inside”) and the very uncharacteristic, vitriol-laced ‘Riding To Vanity Fair’ (You put me down, but I can laugh it off/And act like nothing’s wrong/But why pretend, I think I’ve heard enough/Of your familiar song”). Whether that was a coded message to Heather is anyone’s guess, but I’ve long wondered if the words of ‘Friends To Go’ may have been referring to her well-documented tantrums (“I don’t know how long the storm is gonna to last, if we’re gonna carry on/I’ll be waiting on the other side, till your friends are gone”). He sounds like he wants to salvage their relationship if he possibly can (as in ‘Promise To You Girl’: “I gave my promise to you girl, I don’t wanna take it back”), and album closer ‘Anyway’ is nothing less than an impassioned appeal for reconciliation (“If we could be, closer longer/
That would help me, help me so much/We can cure each other’s sorrow”). But he probably knew it was beyond saving by that point.
In May 2006, just eight months after the release of Chaos, the couple announced their separation. As divorce proceedings unfolded, things became predictably ugly as the Mills camp leaked documents making wild and sometimes horrific claims about Paul’s behaviour during their marriage. Though, like many fans, I wanted Macca to defend himself against the accusations as the tabloids had a field day, he wisely kept his counsel and allowed the legal process to take its course. The flaky, delusional and spiteful nature of Heather’s allegations was duly exposed when the case came to court in early 2008, when she walked away with a much smaller financial settlement than she had demanded, with the presiding judge branding her evidence “inaccurate and inconsistent” and “less than candid”.
The whole experience of his private life being exposed to the public in such vindictive fashion must have been an awful one for Paul, but by that point he had already moved on. In June 2007, as the divorce process ground slowly forward, he had released Memory Almost Full, a relatively rapid follow-up to Chaos but, once again, a work which reflected a very different perspective and approach to the one which came before. It’s worth noting that about half of the album’s songs were recorded (or started) in 2003, before the sessions for Chaos, with the remainder largely laid down in 2006-07 – so it would wrong to interpret it as a fully ‘post-Heather’ record. And yet it has a vibe of liberation and playfulness missing from the earlier releases. The subdued, grey textures of Chaos were swapped for vibrant, largely upbeat tunes painted in bold, colourful strokes, incorporating a broad palette of instrumentation and contemporary production touches. It adroitly and confidently mixes moods and styles, but is laced with optimism and warmth. In short, unlike the two other albums made since Linda’s death, it sounds like a McCartney record.
For the first time in a while, there is whimsy (‘Dance Tonight’, ‘Nod Your Head’) and more than one traditional Macca story-song (‘Only Mama Knows’, ‘Mr Bellamy’), perhaps indicating a more outward-looking view. He continues to reflect on his past in a number of the songs, but this time often with a relaxed acceptance – as in ‘Vintage Clothes’ (“Don’t live in the past/Don’t hold on to something that’s changing fast”) – or a sense of wonder, shown in the joyful romp through childhood and teenage recollections in ‘That Was Me’ (“When I think that all this stuff/Can make a life/That’s pretty hard to take it in/That was me”). The two numbers believed to be about Heather, ‘See Your Sunshine’ and ‘Gratitude’, are wholly fond and positive, betraying no bitterness in the face of her attempts to publicly trash his reputation. There are more questioning, introspective moments, on ‘You Tell Me’ (“Were we there?/Was it real?/Is it truly how I feel?”) and the brooding ‘House of Wax’, which is darker than anything on Chaos. But, overall, Memory is the sound of a man who has cleared his head and is eager to make up for lost time – “I’ve got too much on my mind/I think of everything to be discovered” (‘Ever Present Past’) – and is unruffled by contemplation of his own mortality (‘The End of the End’). He’s no longer running from the advance of time, but embracing it (though he would continue with the hair dye for a few years yet). Overall, the music as much as the lyrics on this album speak of a man comfortable in his own skin again, and who has figured out where he wants to go in his life.
A few months after the release of Memory, Paul began a relationship with Nancy Shevell. This was a union which was greeted with universal approval by his friends and family (Ringo said: “He’s very lucky”), and the pair married in 2011. “Now we are new” he sang breezily on the title track of 2013’s New album, as he sailed off on a calmer, happier, much more settled late-life adventure – older, a little bruised perhaps, but definitely wiser. Maybe he had to go through the crucible of the years following Linda’s death in order to get there. And maybe he knew that all along. As he sang on ‘I Do’ back on Driving Rain, “Days go by so quickly/When you’re having fun/But life is never easy/Even in the sun.”