McCartney was at Radio City for a fundraiser for filmmaker David Lynch's foundation, which aspires to teach meditation techniques to a million at-risk youngsters around the world. Given the deep list of modern global calamity, that inspired some eye-rolling from the union guys working backstage, but plenty of big-name stars came to play for the cause, among them Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow and Donovan. The biggest draw, though, was clearly McCartney and an old friend: Ringo Starr.
There are four living former U.S. presidents but only two surviving Beatles. Seeing the two Beatles, it's impossible to not think of the missing John Lennon and George Harrison, and despite any past rivalries or icy years, McCartney is now in a place where he speaks about them only with ease and affection. Asked about how he writes his music these days, his first instinct was to compare it to those long-gone years with Lennon.
"I do it in the same form that John and I used to do," he said. He said he has about 20 new songs written and, elaborating on his method, he said: "There's a spot in my house. It's like my den. There's my piano and my acoustic guitar. The piano is the old one that I wrote 'Let It Be' and 'Hey Jude' on, so it's an old friend of mine. A good old friend."
At the rehearsal, McCartney stood alone on stage, with his voice (which, it must be said, remains supple and evocative) echoing in a spectral-sounding reverb, and sang an acoustic version of his 1982 song "Here Today," a poignant what-if conversation with the late Lennon: What about the time we met? / Well I suppose that you could say that we were playing hard to get / Didn't understand a thing / But we could always sing.
The screen behind McCartney filled with famous Beatles photographs, the present backlighted by the past. Then Paul asked his crew, "We going to do the one with Ringo now?" Out walked the world's most famous drummer, looking tan, lean and unhurried in sunglasses, like a well-heeled tourist on holiday in Greece. McCartney feigned as if he would kiss Starr full on the lips, and Starr responded with a mock sneer and a pantomime slap. Then they sang "With a Little Help From My Friends."
Later, at the actual concert, McCartney introduced Starr as "Billy Shears," a wink to the Beatles lyric, and the crowd went wild. The pair led an all-star jam on "I Saw Her Standing There," an ode to the beguiling charms of a 17-year-old girl who, of course, must now be eligible for Social Security. Whoever she is, she'd be lucky to look as good as McCartney who, like Starr, is trim and fit. The man who wrote "Yesterday" may dye his hair, but his hours spent running and riding horses show in his nimble navigation of the stage.
Talking about his touring band these days, all players in their 20s and 30s, McCartney sounded as eager as ever: "We have this sneaky feeling that someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say, 'You've played long enough, you've had too much fun, you been bad boys.' We enjoyed turning people on and that seems to happen, touch wood. I love playing with the band. I'm lucky to have them."
Some megastars, like Bob Dylan or Michael Jackson, put up layers of mystery or masquerade, but McCartney the showman is far too eager to please to ever wear a shroud in the spotlight. Still, he enjoys occasional flirtation with anonymity (he used to check into hotels under the name Paul Ramon, which would inspire the name for the Ramones), and he had some of that with the Fireman, the moniker for his ongoing electronica moonlighting with music producer Youth (a.k.a. Martin Glover of Killing Joke). They had two albums in the 1990s that didn't have the former Beatle's name printed on the packaging, but the third collaboration, last year's "Electric Arguments," featured McCartney's unmistakable vocals and was openly promoted as his work.
"We had such fun, it was like improvisational theater," he said. "You're reaching into the void and pulling ideas out. It's like a game. People say you've been working and I laugh and say, 'No, I've been playing.' "
The album was well reviewed and McCartney said he might weave some of it into his Coachella set. Then he seemed to have second thoughts. "It seems like the natural spot for it, but I'm not saying too much because when we rehearse if we don't like the noise we make, it'll get cut."
The time at Coachella, of course, might be better served in the name of legacy. "People come up and say, 'You're the soundtrack of my life; thanks, man, for the music,' and they all have a little story. Now a lot of the time it's not even the Beatles songs, it's [the 1971 album] 'Ram' or Wings . . . I like that. Of course I like that."