Today, Paul McCartney turns 78. He’s still fab, even if he now sounds more like a 78 than a 33 and a third.
A colleague — Will Harris of Virginia — just posted on Facebook about the time he asked Paul McCartney a question. It was at a 2011 Television Critics Association press tour session. McCartney wasn’t even with the 200 reporters and critics gathered in Beverly Hills; he was live via satellite from Cincinnati. Still, all the Beatles fans in the room — and there are many — knew this might be our one and only shot at getting to ask Macca a question.
Excitement turned to fear, however, as the session wore on and some of us hadn’t had our turn at the mike yet. I feared it wouldn’t happen. Inspired by Will’s remembrance, here’s what I wrote at the time:
BEVERLY HILLS, CA.—It’s been a pretty good press tour when you can say you were in on sessions with Harry Belafonte, Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Lewis, Gloria Steinem, Davy Jones, Rosie O’Donnell, Hugh Laurie, Ken Burns, Anna Paquin, Smokey Robinson, Kelsey Grammar, Ted Danson, Mike Judge, Luke Wilson, Cameron Crowe, Laura Dern, Al Jean, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mark Wahlberg, Lily Tomlin and, yes, the Playboy Mansion.
Add Paul McCartney to that list and all you can say is: “Fab.”
Sir Paul was at press tour via satellite from the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, to promote The Love We Make, a Showtime documentary commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The film is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the 9/11 concert McCartney and Pete Townsend, Elton John, Neil Young, Mick Jagger and others performed six weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. McCartney called up Albert Maysles and asked him to shoot the concert; the black and white, 16mm footage sat unreleased up until now.
Maysles and his late brother Dave caught lightening in a bottle when they followed and filmed The Beatles arriving in New York in February, 1964. The little-seen documentary of that first visit is mesmerizing; you can’t believe somebody caught The Beatles when they weren’t looking during that magical first trip to America.
McCartney describes Maysles as a guy with a twinkle in his eye.
“Anyone who’s a great artist with that twinkle is special,” McCartney told us, “because you can get on very easily with him.”
McCartney’s clarity and good grace charmed the room throughout his satellite session. He covered a lot of ground: Beatles questions, the recent Murdoch invasion of privacy scandal (McCartney was apparently a victim and plans to speak with police when he get back to The U.K.), music in general.
The way it played out—McCartney’s image was projected onto two giant screens in the massive hotel ballroom (this same space is home to the Golden Globes every year)—added to the magic. Like he needed to be any larger than life. The fact critics had to patiently wait their turn at the mike instead of jockeying for attention added to the general sense of decorum and civility.
Although I must say it was tough to wait your turn. Somebody—the Showtime exec on stage actually—asked my intended question (about Maysles). Normally you surrender the mike but after a split second I stifled the thought. It’s bloody Paul McCartney. Tomorrow never knows. ASK HIM ANYTHING!
Several colleagues were already, as Hugh Laurie put it earlier this press tour, carpe-ing this diem. Toronto Sun TV columnist Bill Harris, he with the eternal and ever-changing Beatles screen saver on his laptop, got his question in early. TV Worth Watching’s David Bianculli, who regularly picks Best Beatles covers for his NPR radio broadcasts, had his moment with Sir Paul. Everybody who got a turn got a thoughtful, deliberate answer.
What a contrast to Davy Jones’ blithering, prefab Four Monkee business just days earlier at press tour. Jones was wound up like a tin toy, making noise but little sense. McCartney, in contrast, said mass and gave out communion.
Colleague Alex Strachan from Post Media reached him with a particularly thoughtful nudge. He asked McCartney if he had any thoughts on the healing power of music. “I’ve thought of that a lot because that’s my game,” said Sir Paul. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s magical.”
McCartney then quoted Shakespeare to enhance his point. It sounds pretty damn precious, but, honestly, the guy just came off as thoughtful and enlightened. “There’s more in heaven and earth that are dreamed of in your philosophy,” he said. Basically there’s more going on all the time than we know. (He made the same point about the alleged eavesdropping.)
We’d had a few near-Beatles at TCA in recent years. Sir George Martin was tricked into coming in 2008 when PBS announced a music series that [did not air until well after his death]. Yoko was at TCA last year and was feisty and entertaining.
McCartney delivered beyond raised expectations. It was the ultimate Beatles fan fantasy where you got to hang with McCartney for 30 minutes and ask him anything.
Things were winding down. I was scared I’d missed my chance. The press tour was this close to being for me a bitter Beatles refrain: “And in the end, the audio files you take, are equal to the tweets you make.”
Finally it was my turn. I felt a bit foolish going for the trivial but here we were. Throughout the session, you couldn’t help notice that McCartney was wearing a collarless suit jacket—a black version of the mod frocks the lads wore back in their Piccadilly prime.
“Where do you get a collarless suit these days?” I blurted. “Are they making a comeback?”
This—magically—brought out the twinkle in McCartney. “Yeah man. Didn’t you know? Oh, how out of touch can you be?”
“We’re TV critics,” I tried to explain.
“Look, everybody in Cincinnati is wearing these. Come on. Where are you? Los Angeles probably. No, no, no. This is yet to arrive.”
I went on to ask him the obvious back-up question I’ve asked everybody I’ve ever run out of clever questions with—what do you watch on TV? After a quick but precise take on American Idol (he feels sorry for the singers who aren’t prepared for fame), McCartney singled out sports, ESPN mainly. Too often it’s the Shopping Channel.
“You know. Excuse me,” he said. “Where do you think I got this collarless jacket?”
I’ve had the great fortune to play straight man to some pretty special dudes in my day. But Paul Freaking McCartney? It doesn’t get more fab than that.