Back in the U.S. of A.
Paul McCartney remembers being stuck on Long Island as the events of 9/11 unfolded
By Ivor Davis 09/08/2011
I first met Paul McCartney in August 1964, when he was part of a sensational new pop group from Liverpool. As a showbiz writer, I bagged a ticket to ride with him on the entire Beatles’ 35-day frenetic, nonstop concert tour of North America. It started in San Francisco and ended five weeks later at Shea Stadium in New York. Flash forward exactly 47 years, almost to the day, and McCartney, now Sir Paul, is one of the most famous men in the world and more popular than ever. McCartney is the centerpiece of a special 9/ll 10th anniversary documentary made by award-winning moviemaker Albert Maysles. Trapped in New York on the day of the disaster, McCartney organized a Madison Square Garden concert to aid victims — that was captured on film by Maysles. The Love We Make: The Concert for New York City airs on Showtime on Sept. 10, one day before the 10th anniversary of the attack. In addition to a cinéma vérité-style black and white film with appearances by the Rolling Stones, The Who, Billy Joel, David Bowie and Elton John and Bill Clinton, it also features never-before-seen footage of McCartney in New York during the immediate aftermath of the deadly attacks, prepping for his concert after being told he could not fly home to England from Manhattan. The legendary 69-year-old musician talked to me about the new documentary, his Beatles years and the power of music to heal, via satellite from a stadium in Cincinatti, Ohio, where he was about to do a concert. McCartney was always the smoothest Beatle — articulate, witty and very gregarious. Age has not changed him, it’s only made him richer. And despite a controversial 2010 documentary suggesting the contrary, Sir Paul is very much alive and kicking.
VCReporter: Why did it take 10 years for this film to come out?
Paul McCartney: No particular reason. We didn’t finish it till quite recently. I think the fact of the 10th anniversary spurred me into thinking, “Wait a minute, Albert took some great footage back then that we never did anything with.” I asked him if it would still make a film. He was very enthusiastic, so I said, “Let’s do it.” It was reawakened by the 10th anniversary.
Where were you on 9/ll?
I was on my way back to England after a short visit to America. We were at JFK on the tarmac, and the pilot suddenly said, “We can’t take off. We’re going to have to go back to base.” Out of the window on the right-hand side of the airplane, you could see the Twin Towers. First of all, you could see one plume of smoke, and then you could see two shortly thereafter. I said, “Well, that’s an optical illusion, you know. It’s just the one, and it’s probably, you know, just some sort of little fire or something. But, boy, it does look pretty serious.” Suddenly, a steward said to me, “Look, there’s been something really serious happened in New York, and we’ve got to get you out of here.” So I was let out ahead of the other passengers for some reason. I ended up not being able to go into New York.
Where did you go?
To Long Island, watching the whole story unfold on TV like everyone else in the world. While I sat there twiddling my thumbs, thinking was there any role I could play in this, the idea came to me that maybe we could do a concert.
Harvey Weinstein [movie producer] said that MTV was putting a concert together and maybe we should all get together on that. Later we were allowed back in New York, where we put the whole thing together.
The Maysles did a film about the Beatles in the early 1960s when you first came to America. What was your reaction to that?
We knew they did cinéma vérité stuff and we were big fans of that style. Then I had asked Albert what he wanted us to do on film. “Ignore us,” he said. That was the best piece of direction we ever received. We did our thing and completely forgot they were there.
Can you talk about other New York memories — the Ed Sullivan Show, what happened to John, and 9/ll?
There was the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan in early l964. And the final concert that year at Shea Stadium after our first tour. But when you ask about New York it’s the people. I married a New York girl, Linda [Eastman], and I’m about to marry another one. [47-year-old socialite Nancy Shevell.] I would think first of all of Linda and her family and our family, and our connections with New York. Closing Shea Stadium with Billy Joel. I love New York.
When you did the 9/ll concert what was the mood of the audience?
The whole mood of the world, of America, and particularly the city of New York, had changed. There was fear in the air, and I never experienced that in New York. I was born in World War II in Liverpool, which was subjected to a lot of bombing. So I grew up with all these people who’d just recently survived a war, and I noticed how they dealt with it.
It was like, “(sings) Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun, boom, boom.” You know, while they’re getting bombed, they’re singing. I remembered that, and I thought that’s maybe what I can bring to this. Maybe I can just get that kind of feeling, that kind of old courage that I’d seen my parents and their generation exhibit. Maybe I would be able to help America, New York, out of this fearfulness.
And did it happen?
We were emerging from the fearfulness of the immediate impact, and now we were seeing the emotion releasing through music, which I always think is a great thing. It’s one of the reasons I love music and I’m in it. You could see particularly the firefighters and the volunteers, and their families and victims’ families were able to release this emotion that had been sort of so pent up. So it was a great feeling. We actually felt like we were doing a bit of good.
You were also able to tap many of your music pals for the concert?
Yes, we were happy that so many British guys and artists flew in for the concert at a time when people weren’t flying.
It gave a great message to the people of America. “Look, we don’t even live here, and we’re coming for you. So you guys who live here, you know, don’t worry about it.” A woman from Boston rang me and said, “I was never going to fly again after these attacks, but I’m flying up to this concert.”
Do you have clear memories of your early Beatles days?
Not fresh, but etched in my mind. Memory is sort of a funny thing. I tell stories many times but it’s not necessarily the truth anymore. We met Elvis Presley, which was a big event in my life and in the other Beatles’ lives, but when we came to recount the story, we all had a different version. I said, “Elvis met us at the front door and greeted us.”
Ringo said, “No, he met us on the couch.”
And what about those early concerts?
It evoked hysteria because we couldn’t believe that we couldn’t hear ourselves or hear anything. It was like a billion seagulls screaming, and we just looked at each other. You can see it if you look at film footage. We’re just in hysterics. John ends up doing a solo with his elbow. It is a long time ago and we’ve looked at the film. At the time, you think this is a very modern event. It’s now an ancient bit of history. I love it anyway, and I have very fond memories of both of those things.
Do you watch TV shows like American Idol or X Factor? What are your favorites and would the Beatles have had an impact on those kind of talent shows?
They’re cool because it’s what’s happening today and you always have to understand that. I feel a little sorry sometimes for some of the performers because they don’t have that background that we had years before we hit it big time. They can tend to hit it overnight. The shows are fascinating. And I watch them and love them. But I probably watch more sport. I hate to say, I sometimes get completely hooked on the shopping channels. Where do you think I got this collarless jacket?!