Forty-four years ago, Paul McCartney asked a speculative mate “will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
And the answer from fans of the former Beatle, who turned 69 last month, has been decidedly affirmative.
At a time when he could be resting on his considerable laurels — he is, after all listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful musician and composer in popular music history and has a personal fortune estimated at more than $760 million — McCartney is juggling more current projects than some artists accomplish in a decade. Or even a career.
He’s working on an album of pop standards as well as a New York Ballet score, titled “Ocean’s Kingdom,” which premieres in September. He recently contributed a cover of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” to the new tribute album “Rave On ...” (McCartney owns Holly’s song copyrights), and released expanded reissues of his first solo album, 1970’s double-platinum “McCartney,” and 1980’s chart-topping “McCartney II.” He’s also working on material for a new pop album and continues to paint and write poetry in whatever amounts of spare time in his world.
He’s still going out and playing shows, too, these days in concentrated bunches rather than lengthy tours. And McCartney’s allure is still strong enough to sell out stadiums, as he did last weekend with two shows at New York’s Yankee Stadium.
What drives him?
“It’s simple — I really enjoy what I do,” explains McCartney, whose 2010-2011 Up And Coming Tour played to more than 1.2 million people. “And every so often I just get sort of inspired. I never know why or how.
“I have quite a few passions, as you might have noticed,” he continues. “It really is just when I have a minute and when a particular passion hits me. ... I love to paint. I love to write poetry. I love to make music. So it’s not really hard work for me, and if I have a strong urge for something then I just go and do it.”
Rusty Anderson, who’s been playing guitar for McCartney since 2001, says that work ethic is “inspirational.”
“He’s got about 5 million projects going all the time, and he goes off in extreme directions. That’s something that’s really awesome about Paul.”
McCartney’s current direction, of course, is playing live and a summer stretch, dubbed the On The Run Tour, which includes shows at baseball stadiums in New York, Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati. It’s a short run — eight shows spread across three weeks. But Anderson says it’s the way McCartney, with all of his projects, a fiancé (Nancy Shevell) and a young daughter, 7-year-old Beatrice (from his second marriage, to Heather Mills) likes to work these days.
“The way his lifestyle is, it kind of makes more sense to do these sporadic dates rather than a really grindy, compressed tour,” Anderson, 52, explains.
On The Run is also a quiet celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the current McCartney band. It began forming in 2001 when McCartney was recording his “Driving Rain” album and producer David Kahne introduced him to Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., the namesake son of the famed session bassist.
“We got on like a house on fire,” McCartney recalls. “We had no time for anything but music. We just played music all the time ... and really enjoyed it, just enjoyed it so much.”
When it came time to hit the road to support the album, McCartney kept Anderson and Laboriel on board, adding keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens — who was part of McCartney’s 1989-94 band — and Brian Ray on guitar and bass.
“It just seemed a good little group of people,” McCartney, the father of five and grandfather of seven says of the quintet, whose first performances were at the Concert For New York in October 2001 and before Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.
“The attitude seemed great, we all seemed to like each other — which is always a little bit of a plus. It just felt very good. ... And now we consider ourselves not a bad little band.”
It’s also the longest-lived lineup McCartney has kept together throughout his career, which is a point of pride for Anderson and the others.
“There’s always been a good chemistry that would have longevity,” the guitarist notes. “We’ve been playing together for 10 years now, so there’s a really sort of intuitive thing going on. Everyone sort of knows how to fall into place, and it goes beyond words or conscious thought, I think.”
The durability has also given McCartney a confidence to dig deeper into his catalog, both with the Beatles and as a solo artist, for his live repertoire. His 2010 and 2011 shows have seen him tapping into more obscure tracks such as “Every Night,” “Ram On,” “Mrs. Vandebilt” and chestnuts from his days in Wings. He’s given concert debuts to Beatles songs such as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “I’m Looking Through You” and, in New York last weekend, “The Night Before,” and he’s even dipped into his electronic side project, The Fireman.
“We try to make (the concerts) something that interests us, and by doing so hopefully we get it to be something the people will like,” explains McCartney, who in 2010 received both a Gershwin Prize For Popular Song and a Kennedy Center Honor. “You’ve just got to judge it between the rare stuff and the kind of stuff people still know.
“I mean, if you just do a whole big bunch of songs that nobody knows, that’s all right for a club, especially if you explain to people ‘Hey, we’re just gonna do deep stuff tonight.’ But I think when you’ve got these big arenas I always feel like I’ve got to give them the kind of night out that I would always want, so that includes hits.”
And that means Beatles hits, something McCartney studiously avoided during his early solo tours in the ’70s but re-embraced when he returned to the road after a decadelong layoff in 1989.
“I remember when the Beatles broke up, we all insisted on being called ex-Beatle,” McCartney acknowledges. “I think we all ... I know I had to establish myself as, you know, myself, and then it got to a point where I was comfortable enough to say, ‘OK, yes, I was a Beatle. It was fantastic. Here’s the songs. ...
“The interesting thing about some of the Beatles stuff was I’ve never actually performed it onstage before — and we never got to do it with the Beatles, ’cause we stopped touring (in 1966). So that’s nice, ’cause they’re fresh.”
Anderson says the band may be surprised by some of McCartney’s song choices — and even suggests some of its own — but it’s never disarmed by the boss’s set list shifts.
“I think it’s all sort of a feeling,” he says. “The lists sort of migrate rather than morph over time. It’s such a great set of songs, a great repertoire and catalog that you can’t go wrong.”
The On The Run Tour’s end on Aug. 4 in Cincinnati will allow McCartney to return full-time to his recording projects. But also unlike many of his peers, he’s not hinting at quitting any time soon.
“I don’t want to retire,” McCartney says. “I’ll do this as long as I enjoy it, I suppose, which seems to be now and the foreseeable future. I have this vision of me, age 90, being wheeled on (stage) and very slowly doing ‘Yesterday.’
“Fortunately, at the moment it’s not like that.”
Paul McCartney performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 24 at Comerica Park, 2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $19.50-$250. Call 313-471-2000 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
Paul McCartney and Detroit: A checkered history
— Sunday’s show at Comerica Park marks Paul McCartney’s eighth visit to Detroit as a performer. The Beatles played at Olympia Stadium on June 9, 1964, and Aug. 13, 1966. McCartney and Wings played May 7-8, 1976, at Olympia; and McCartney, as a solo artist, came to town Feb. 1-2, 1990, at The Palace; June 4, 1993, at the Pontiac Silverdome; and May 2, 2002, and Oct. 14-15, 2005 back at The Palace.
— After the 1964 concerts, two businessmen — Richy Victor and Larry Einhorn — bought the sheets the Beatles slept on at the Whittier Hotel and cut them into 164,000 one-inch squares that were sold to fans for $1 apiece. Fans proved largely disinterested, however, and the duo took a financial bath.
— Detroit was also the home of a Stamp Out The Beatles bumper sticker campaign during 1964. “Yeah, well, we’re bringing out a Stamp Out Detroit campaign,” McCartney quipped during a press conference at New York’s JFK International Airport.
— It was Detroit radio station WKNR-AM and disc jockey Russ Gibb who spread the rumor that McCartney was dead in 1969, picking up on underground reports and “clues.” He was, however, alive and well.
— McCartney plays an Epiphone Texan acoustic guitar with a Detroit Red Wings sticker — a gift from a fan when he and Wings played Olympia in 1976 — affixed to it. In 2010, McCartney added a Pittsburgh Penguins sticker to the guitar that was given to him by Penguins and city officials who wanted equal play with their two-time Stanley Cup Finals rivals.
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