Whatever Paul McCartney says or does is news, sometimes big news. In September, when he went to give a concert in Israel — making up for the Beatles concert that the Israeli government forbad at the last moment, forty three years ago — he was slashed at by some pro-Palestinian critics for “singing to the enemy”. No matter the “enemy” audience was perhaps 20 percent Arab, that he also used his trip to visit the West Bank not only to see Jesus’ birth place but to call in on Edward Said’s music school. When he sang he also in his trademark low— key, non-preachy, way pointed his audience in the direction of compromise and healing.
One of the prices of the fame he has is to see his honest words and honest thoughts twisted almost out of recognition. I saw this happen close up last week when my long conversation with McCartney was published in Britain’s leading intellectual monthly, Prospect magazine. It was if the press has a mindset about the McCartney-John Lennon relationship that demands that anything he says be squeezed into some previous mold, and if doesn’t quite fit then an extra shove is made so that the verbal tentacles are distorted beyond recognition as they are pressed down.
After banner headlines over the misleading story in British newspapers, led by the big circulation, Rupert Murdoch paper, the Sunday Times, the wire service, Associated Press, carried the story around the world, where it was printed in literally hundreds of papers. One report, one identical story, the world is covered with misleading information by editors too uncaring or unmotivated or just plain lazy to make a call to Prospect to ask for the original wording. Not one journalist called me.
The fact is the interview carries not a word of rivalry with John Lennon. Neither about which Beatle discovered the Vietnam War first, (the main themes of the Sunday Times/AP story). Nor about the allusions the story made to McCartney’s (mythical) claim, at Lennon’s expense, to have written the best of the Beatles’ tunes.
The interview runs to about 5000 words — double that in its uncut form. The discussion on the Vietnam War is perhaps a dozen lines of that. The mention of John Lennon is once — when Paul describes how he returned from a conversation with Bertrand Russell to tell the other three what he had heard from the old philosopher about the evils of the war in Vietnam.
My interview with Paul originated in the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys over 50 years ago. We were classmates. We played cricket together and I witnessed the first Beatles’ concert when he and George Harrison (in the year behind us) played for our class on the last day of school. We yelled like groupies!
We have stayed in touch. I wrote to Paul in May to send him the column I wrote on the newspaper hype about the 40th anniversary of the student rebellion in Paris. I wrote that the “revolution” did not begin in 1968. It began in 1955 when an old black lady, Rosa Parks, in Montgomery, Alabama, sat down in a bus on a seat reserved for white people. She was arrested and out of the shadows stepped a young preacher, Martin Luther King. The rest is history. King’s driven nonviolent campaigns resulted in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Millions of blacks were liberated and enfranchised. The long road out of oppression led to the election of Barack Obama. What a real revolution that has been!
Along the way in 1961 came the Beatles, a liberating force for millions of young people. Also in Britain in the same year Amnesty International was founded — a milestone in the rise of human rights consciousness. To start contemporary history in 1968 is a fatuous mistake.
Paul agreed we talk about this and we decided we would meet and go over our lives and discuss what had affected us though our lifetime and what had tuned us both in at school to fight racism and war.
We met twice, once for two hours and once for an hour and talked — about school, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, right through to the Russian invasion of Georgia. On the way we talked about literature and the impact of FR Leavis, the great Cambridge Shakespearian scholar, on the writing of Eleanor Rigby, and Paul’s feelings on the likelihood that his songs will still be sung in 500 years’ time.
Paul is a self-effacing, wise, intelligent man. He may grab the spotlight on the stage. But he has no need to twist history. And neither should the press when reporting on him.