Paul McCartney's freakish memory
And what it tells us about his creativity
A headstone in the graveyard of St Peter’s church, Woolton, Liverpool.
I recently came across an intriguing anecdote about Paul McCartney I hadn’t heard before, told by an American music journalist called David Wild. I’ve posted the video below and you should watch it, but I’ll summarise it here.
About thirty years ago, when David Wild was a young man, he was employed by Rolling Stone to join Paul McCartney’s world tour. Embedded into the McCartney entourage, he got to know Linda McCartney, who took a shine to him. (After finding out that he wrote books, she took a portrait photograph of him - “Here’s your free author’s photo!” - which he did indeed use; being able to write Author photo: Linda McCartney is pretty cool).
One day, he told Linda about a girl he’d met shortly before coming on the tour. They’d only been on a couple of dates but he really liked her. Linda was intrigued and said she would love to meet this girl. Since the tour was, at that point, near New York where the girl lived, that was feasible. So it was that the nascent couple’s third date was at a soundcheck for a Paul McCartney gig, followed by lunch with Linda McCartney, with Paul buzzing around in the background.
After the lunch, Linda pulled David aside, and said, “Do you think I know about marriage?” David had seen a lot of Linda and Paul together on the tour, and they seemed pretty happy: “I’d grown up in a divorced family. I didn’t know much about good marriages, but I could tell this was better than that.” So he said, truthfully, ‘Yes. I do’. To which Linda said, ‘Marry that girl.’ David said, ‘What?’, and Linda repeated it. “Just do what I say. Marry her. Now.” A few months later, he did propose to the girl, who is called Fran, and they are to this day happily married.
A few years after that tour, Linda fell ill with cancer, and she died in 1998.
Years after that, David was working at the Grammys. Paul McCartney was in attendance (David doesn’t say but I’m guessing this was 2014). David’s job was backstage, running through the on-stage script with the ‘talent’. Fran had come along, and she brought their two sons, now twelve and fourteen. At one point in the night, she came running up to David to show him a photo on her phone of McCartney with their two boys (it’s now on David’s Twitter profile if you want to check it out). Fran and Paul didn’t know each other, even if they had crossed paths that day, long ago. But amidst all the people milling around backstage, McCartney had said, apropos of nothing, ‘I need a picture with these two boys’, and pulled them to his side. Then he was gone.
For years afterwards, David was puzzled by this. Paul McCartney doesn’t pull random strangers out of crowds to have his photo taken! He spends a lot of his life politely avoiding photos with random strangers! There’s no way, is there, that he could have remembered what Fran looked like, made the connection to Linda, and realised that those boys were the fruit of a marriage for which she had been rooting? David wondered if Paul had confused his sons with the Jonas Brothers, who were on the show that year. ‘I thought, it’s either Linda’s spirit reaching down to him…or it’s the Jonas Brothers scenario.’
A few years later, he got a chance to find out. David was still working for the Grammy organisation, which was planning a sixtieth anniversary celebration. He was sent to Chicago to interview McCartney, who was performing at a stadium that evening. David was allocated ten minutes with him at the side of the stage. They finished the interview a minute before McCartney was due to walk out on stage, to face sixty thousand people. David seized his moment. He showed McCartney the photo on his phone and put to him his two hypotheses: spirit of Linda, or the Jonas Brothers?
McCartney started to tear up. He said, “Don’t make me cry before I go on stage.”
Look, we don’t really know what happened here, because that’s all David got, and it’s all we have. Maybe it was the Jonas Brothers, maybe it was a complete coincidence. I like David’s idea that it was Linda’s spirit reaching down into the room but I’m not a believer in the supernatural. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that McCartney recognised Fran, made the connection, probably subconsciously, and picked out those boys from the crowd while hardly knowing why. Of course, that theory requires McCartney to have an elephantine memory capable of making highly unlikely connections, doesn’t it? Well, yes.
One of the things that often strikes me about Paul McCartney is his outsized capacity for the absorption and retention of information. His father, who was frustrated by his son’s refusal to buckle down at school, couldn’t help but marvel at the way Paul was able to complete his homework perfectly while watching TV. It wasn’t just that he did the homework, said Jim, it was that he remembered everything about the TV programme too. McCartney’s teachers remarked on how quick at learning he was, and at the same time, how little he paid attention. Even when McCartney isn’t paying attention, he can gather a lot of information, whether factual, visual, or musical, apparently without effort. In the anecdote above, this knack results in a touching gesture; on other occasions it feeds directly into his music.
The song She’s Leaving Home, which McCartney wrote for the Sergeant Pepper album, describes a teenage girl, starved of fun, who sneaks out of home at 5am to start a new life, without warning her baffled and broken-hearted parents. McCartney had been inspired a news story he came across in the Daily Mail. It showed a picture of a pretty girl called Melanie Coe, who had left her parents’ home in London without telling them. The report described her as “the schoolgirl who seemed to have everything”: a wardrobe full of clothes, her own car. “I cannot imagine why she would run away,” her father told reporters. “She has everything here…even her fur coat.”
More than three years before, during peak Beatlemania, the Beatles had appeared on the TV show Ready! Steady! Go!. McCartney acted as a judge in a lip-synching talent contest. He picked a winner - a girl who lip-synched to Brenda Lee’s Jump the Broomstick - and presented her with her prize, an autographed Beatles album. After her appearance, the girl became a part-time background dancer on the show. She dreamed of pursuing a career in showbusiness, but her parents wouldn’t allow her to go to drama school - they wanted her to be a dentist. Feeling deprived of excitement, affection and fun, she ran away from home to be with her boyfriend.
Yes, the girl was Melanie Coe. Again, we can call this coincidence, or we can hypothesise that the moment McCartney saw Melanie’s picture in the paper, some deep neural connection was triggered and he became intrigued by her story.
Then there is the story of how Eleanor Rigby got its name. For years, McCartney gave a pretty detailed account of this. He’d been working on the song for a while, trying out different names and lyrics. For a while he settled on ‘Miss Daisy Hawkins’ but that didn’t feel right. Then he landed on ‘Eleanor’, borrowing it from the actress Eleanor Bron, who played the female lead in Help! Now he cast around for a surname with two syllables. In April, 1966, he drove down to Bristol see his girlfriend Jane Asher perform in a play, and while there he noticed a sign on a warehouse that read, “Rigby & Evens, Wine and Spirit Shippers”. He thought, that’s it.
So that was how it happened. Except, in the early 1980s, somebody pointed out that there is a gravestone in the cemetery next to St Peter’s church in Woolton, Liverpool, which bears the name Eleanor Rigby. Paul McCartney knew that church well: it was near where he grew up. It was at St Peter’s church fête where, nine years before writing Eleanor Rigby, he first met John Lennon. He and John had walked through that graveyard many times.
When McCartney found about this he dismissed it, at first. Later on, he conceded that he may have subconsciously picked up the name from the gravestone. I can understand his reluctance - he knew his own story! - but really, it’s not even a question. Of course he got it from the cemetery. The idea that he coincidentally landed on the name ‘Eleanor Rigby’ - for a song about a woman who “died in the church and was buried along with her name” - is wildly implausible.
I find this fascinating. The exact sequence of his writing process for the song is probably irrecoverable now but I’d love to know precisely when he decided on the song’s theme of loneliness, death, and worship, and when the name ‘Eleanor Rigby’ bubbled up into his conscious mind. It’s almost as if his unconscious mind had been giving him prompts, first ‘Eleanor’, then ‘Rigby’ (hey, check that sign out!), like a stage magician guiding their mark towards a card while creating the illusion of a free choice.
This kind of backseat driving by the unconscious mind happens to everyone to some extent. On one hand we tend to be over-confident about what we know - we might think we know how a bicycle works but then fail utterly to explain it. In other ways, though, we know much more than we know. The unconscious squirrels away memories we didn’t know we’d gathered and don’t know are there, and releases them, sometimes in a transfigured form, into the conscious mind at unpredictable moments. They might just pop up randomly, like files ready for deletion, never be seen again, but sometimes they combine with other thoughts or experiences we’re having to produce a fresh insight or new idea. The richer and more varied our store of unconscious memories, the more of these combinations are generated, the more creative and insightful we’re likely to be.
This is where I think McCartney is freakish (well, one of the ways). I think he has a mind which consumes and retains vastly more information from his environment than most people do. This is both deliberate - he is a relentlessly curious auto-didact - and unwitting. He didn’t try and remember Melanie Coe’s face or the name on that gravestone, or the face of that woman who was the girlfriend of that guy on which tour was it now? His brain just vacuumed it all up in case it came in handy later on. (Note that the gravestone in question isn’t even for Eleanor Rigby herself but her grandfather; her name is further down, a detail).
When he is writing a song, he gets into a free associative, dream-like state, and opens the gate on these unconscious memories. Not that he would think of it like that, because to him it feels like making stuff up out of thin air, or from whatever is around him at that moment (both of which are true, they’re just not the whole story).
The most important form of information McCartney consumes and metabolises is, of course, musical. One of the marvels of Get Back is watching him and Lennon run through dozens of old songs, their own and other people’s, most of which they haven’t played in years, while remembering all the words and chord changes. The two of them shared a vast mental library of songs from which they were able to pick and choose at will. In their early days, it was the depth and range of the Beatles’ knowledge of music which set them apart as performers. When they got to songwriting, the tremendous variety of songs stored in their memories found its way into their work, generating surprising and innovative combinations.
John and Paul grew up in a musical information environment which is very different to the one we live in today. They didn’t have access to Spotify or YouTube and in their early days they had a relatively small store of records. So they would have picked up and memorised hundreds of these songs after hearing them only a few times. McCartney, in particular, developed an incredible skill for this. I remember listening to an interview with an American cabaret singer who had finished a show in Las Vegas when McCartney came backstage to say how much he enjoyed it. Then he sat at the piano and they played and chatted about songs: showtunes and standards. And she said, he just knew all of them.1
In 1999, McCartney recorded a haunting cover version of an obscure song called No Other Baby. He’d had the song in his head for years without knowing who recorded it or who it was written by. Whenever he sang it to people, nobody knew it. Only after recording it did he discover that the song, or at least the version of it, was by a skiffle group called The Vipers, who released it as a single in 1958, the year after John met Paul (as it turns out, the record was, rather remarkably, produced by George Martin). Paul said he never owned the record, which means he would have heard it on the radio, or in a record store listening booth, what - once, twice? Yet forty years later, he remembered all the verses, as well as the refrain, which goes, I don’t want no other baby but you….I don’t want no other baby but you…
This story offers a clue to the mystery of which memories McCartney’s unconscious chooses to throw up and when. One of the most well established findings in the science of memory is that emotions influence what we remember; if an experience is strongly felt, it is more likely to be retained, consciously or otherwise. Perhaps McCartney walked past that gravestone in Woolton shortly after his mother died, in 1956, when he was 15. He would have heard No Other Baby a couple of years later. His version of it is on the album Run Devil Run: the first album he made after the death of Linda, when he was still in the midst of grief.
McCartney retains some songs and names and images because they are associated with pain or sadness; others because they bring him comfort, joy, excitement, happiness or love. And the beautiful thing is that his brain has transmuted these memories into hundreds of new songs, which now exist as markers of these emotions in many millions of brains around the world. His memories have shaped our own, even if most of us don’t have nearly as many in our head as Paul McCartney does in his.
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Oh and please buy my book about how to have productive disagreements, which touches on some of the above and much more besides. It’s called HOW TO DISAGREE (in the UK) and CONFLICTED (in the US). Both of them mention the Beatles; my next book will go the whole way and be about the Beatles, in particular Lennon and McCartney.
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Speaking of which - below the fold this week:
What Labour should learn from Truss (on yesterday’s eye-popping budget and what it means)
The truth about The Queue
How to write comedy
The most life-enhancing clip of film you’ll watch this week, maybe ever.