June 14, 2007 — -- While performing "Dance Tonight," the first track on his new album, "Memory Almost Full," Sir Paul McCartney youthfully bopped around stage. His voice was easy and familiar, but the instrument he was holding, a mandolin, is something new for the legend.
McCartney started working on the album last Christmas, six months after his marriage with Heather Mills ended. McCartney said that music is "the great healer," and this time he turned to an instrument he had to teach himself to play.
"I went into a favorite guitar shop of mine and talked to the guy about left-handed instruments. And he told me that he had a left-handed mandolin. So I looked at it and was intrigued, bought it, took it home at Christmas," said McCartney. "Then the great thing was I realized I had no idea how to play it, which took me back to being a teenager in Liverpool …"
While he was practicing with his new instrument, McCartney's daughter Beatrice helped him finish the song.
"[As] I was playing [the mandolin], I have a 3-and-a-half-year old daughter who came running into the kitchen … and she came running in dancing," he said. "It was so lovely and I just thought, I've got to finish this up and this had to go on the album.'"
As the "Nightline" interview began, the former Beatle learned that his new album, "Memory Almost Full," was debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
"No. 3 in America -- the great United States of America -- No. 3, that's not bad," McCartney said.
In fact, it is the highest debut for a McCartney record in the last decade, quite impressive for a man who turns 65 next week. And retirement is not yet on the horizon for the man who has written and recorded a stream of hits in the 50 years since he first met up with another young fellow from Liverpool, John Lennon.
"It would be nice to be 25 again for the looks and for the physical thing but, brainwise, I wouldn't want to be. I am happier now in my head," McCartney said. "I think you know a little more. I'm not as worried what other people think as I might have been once."
These days McCartney is trying to "live without fear," something he said he didn't do when he was younger. He also said that he's "learned it's OK to be yourself."
"You know, things like crying, for a guy -- when I grew up you didn't do that," he said. "So you spent a lot of time … just pretending all the time. Now I just bawl."
There has been plenty for McCartney to cry about this past year, including his very public, very messy divorce from Mills and a custody battle over their daughter.
"[I] don't really like to talk about it," McCartney said. "It's a very sort of personal thing, divorce. And it's something I've decided not to talk about in interviews."
Despite the difficulties of the last year, McCartney said he feels good.
"I'm enjoying my music. You know, music is the great healer. … It was always something that saved you. It's a great sort of therapy," he said. " A lot of writers I know will be having a bad day and will go off into the corner with a guitar and sort of write it out. I think it's very helpful."
Perhaps the most arresting song on the new album is "End of the End." Though it is about death -- McCartney's own death and how he'd like to be remembered -- it is not a sad song.
"I started thinking of the Irish wakes and this idea of, sort of, celebrating a person's life, so I just wrote on the day that I die I'd like jokes to be told and stories of old to be rolled out like carpets …" he said. "I kind of surprised myself, I think, with that. I was glad it came out celebratory instead of kind of morbid."
The songs lyrics describe death as "the start of a journey, to a much better place," and McCartney thinks "that may well be true … Nobody knows for sure, even the Bishop of London."
"I think 'There is more in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy' -- Horatio -- but you know, I think it's a great world," he said. "I think we screw it up probably. I think it basically is a sort of fantastic place, so there's no reason for me to think that after it isn't fantastic, too. But it's a guess."
McCartney's take on life and death might be coming from a deep and personal place. His mother passed away when he was 14 years old, and he lost his first wife Linda to breast cancer in 1998.
"I don't think you ever really get comfortable losing people, you know, losing loved ones. … I'm not the only person on the planet who's experienced that kind of thing," he said. "Everyone loses their parents, pretty much."
The pain of losing his mother at a young age was something he shared with Lennon, whose mother died when he was 16 years old.
"I think music might have been a great healer, I think it was for John and I and when we found each other," he said. "The idea of both of us having this in common. And both combating it together … we certainly bonded and did a lot with it."
McCartney has collaborated with other great artists like Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello, but said that nothing measured up to working with Lennon.
"John was John. We grew up together, number one. We knew the same records, we wore the same clothes, we liked the same things, we were from the same place," he said. "When we came to write, we came sort of from the same place. We developed together and we did a lot of, I think, very good stuff. So that when you came to write with someone great like Elvis or Stevie, who are great musical talents, it wasn't informed by the same stuff. And John's a hard act to follow and they would be the first to agree with me."
McCartney doesn't find that the Beatles' legacy is a heavy burden to bear, saying that he's still "amazed" that he was part of it all.
"It's a great thing, 'cause I was in 'em. And there were only four people in 'em, so I feel very privileged and very lucky to have been part of that experience," he said. "I can hardly believe it."
Over the years, McCartney has become accustomed to all the attention he gets from the media and from fans, saying, "I made a decision when I was quite a bit younger … I had a decision to either quit knowing that the fame would bring the trappings of fame -- cause we weren't stupid. That's one thing about the Beatles, we weren't just dumb kids; we were quite bright -- or you better realize you're gong to have to live with it."
McCartney's attitude towards the perils of great fame was illustrated in a recent New Yorker profile of the musician. While McCartney was walking in London with the writer, a stranger approached them. The writer was scared, telling McCartney that the man could have been Mark David Chapman. McCartney replied that it could have been Jesus.
"Could have been Jesus … I sort of figure, you know, that when your number's up, your number's up. It'll happen one day, and I don't think there's much point worrying about it," he said.
McCartney may have come to terms with his own death, but he said that having a young child at this point in his life makes him view things differently.
"Yeah, you think about it," he said. "But, I mean, that's nothing surprising. I thought about my dad dying when I was little. … I think it's just human. I want to be around."
"It's really interesting to be grateful for what you've got," McCartney said about "Gratitude," another single from "Memory Almost Full."
"I think a lot of times in life we concentrate on what we haven't got. We're a bit fed up, it's a bit cloudy today. But I like very much to think, 'Look at what you have got. And there's so much.'"