NEW YORK — Paul McCartney had just finished explaining that six of the 10 songs on his new Capitol album were co-written by English musician Eric Stewart when a reporter at the ex-Beatle's press conference here raised a question:
"Of all the people that you've collaborated with on songs," she asked, "people like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson in recent times . . . who did you enjoy working with most--the one person who stands out?"
McCartney replied quickly, "John Lennon."
The answer caught the 11 journalists in the room by surprise. Surely, the questioner was referring to post-Beatles collaborators. But the fact that McCartney extended the question to include Lennon was touching.
So were his additional, good-natured comments about Lennon: "The boy was good, talented. . . . It's got to be him."
After years of being resentful and, later, uneasy about dealing with Beatles questions, McCartney, 44, seems at ease with the issue. He acknowledges the virtual impossibility of his making music that will match the influence and celebration of the old days, and he seems to take comfort in all he, John, George and Ringo once contributed to pop culture.
He didn't even mind when a young fan, who had learned McCartney would be visiting the local office of his public relations representative, approached him for an autograph as McCartney stepped from the elevator after the press conference. The fan handed him not a McCartney solo album, but a poster for the Beatles film, "A Hard Day's Night."
McCartney easily took the boy's pen and signed the poster, smiling as he noticed that Ringo Starr had already signed it.
"Well, you've got a collector's item there," McCartney said, as he handed the pen back to the fan.
McCartney and his wife, Linda, were then driven by limousine to Radio City Music Hall where he met for more than an hour with disc jockeys and more writers. Tables were set up for everyone and there was lots of food on a buffet table, but few people sat down or bothered with the food. Most were busy getting McCartney's autograph or having pictures taken with him.
"Most of the time, everybody is real cool at affairs like this," said one man, about 40, who was standing apart from the crush of people around the guest of honor. "But look at them: They're falling all over themselves. It's funny what seeing a Beatle does to people."
Moments later, that man joined the crush as a photographer took yet another souvenir.
Sitting on a couch in an office before the press conference last Friday, McCartney appeared in especially good spirits as he stirred a cup of freshly made tea. There's a lot of gray in his hair and several lines cross his face, but he's still able to flash that disarming choir-boy smile.
"I accept it (the lingering Beatles fascination) now," he said, quite matter-of-factly. "It must be a little like Charlie Chaplin never escaping the Little Tramp figure. The whole thing is kinda inevitable, I guess. People just want to talk about the Beatles. But you know what is funny now? I want to talk about them too."
McCartney took a sip of tea, then finished the thought. "Some people say, 'Don't talk too much about the Beatles . . . talk about your new album.' But I don't mind. I think what happened for a while . . . the reason I didn't want to talk about the Beatles . . . is that we all felt like we'd just gone through a divorce and it was painful to keep discussing it.
"But also, I was very defensive about my own work. It was so hard trying to live up to the expectations that surrounded the Beatles. So I became supercritical with (his band) Wings . . . the records, the tours. I never felt the songs were good enough."
Many Beatles fans would argue that McCartney's evaluation of his post-Beatles work wasn't all that inaccurate.
For every noteworthy album like "Band on the Run," "Venus and Mars" or "Tug of War," he has released something so listless that you wonder why a man of his reputation and wealth would even put it out.
McCartney wasn't offended by the question.
"Yes, you'd think I'd be more careful, but you need some distance before you can really see (the quality of) a record," he explained.
"You can't be objective at the time you finish it. You're too close. Take 'Back to the Egg,' which is kind of a minor record. At the time, I probably thought it was a good record. The situation is, if you've made a record, you put it out. It doesn't matter how big you are or how little you are. . . . You do your bit and you put it out. I'm not that precious with it.
"For instance, (the Beach Boys') Brian Wilson is supposed to have burned the tapes on some of his music because he hated it so much. I'd rather do it the way I do it than be so critical."