Of the Beatles, it's John Lennon who typically gets credit for writing songs about "lovers and friends I still can recall." Sir Paul McCartney? Not nearly so confessional, at least according to the conventional wisdom. How much personal detail is anyone going to find in "Ob-la-Di, Ob-la-Da," "Live and Let Die," or "The Girl is Mine"?
But as Sir Paul turns 70, it's time for Lennon-favoring detractors as well as fans to face up to the fact that Macca has left us a secret autobiography, in song, without ever having set pen to paper for an official memoir. His wives, parents, children, and childhood—and yes, even his oft-fractious relationship with Lennon—have all been covered in his music, even if he's tended to be a bit more opaque about it. Here's a look back at his life through his own songwriting:
Songs About John Lennon
"TOO MANY PEOPLE" (1971)
McCartney has acknowledged taking a swipe at his former partner in this track from Ram, his second post-Beatles release. "'Too many people preaching practices.' I felt that was true of what was going on with John. 'Do this, do that, do this, do that.'... He'd been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up in my nose a little bit. I wrote 'Too many people preaching practices'… I mean, that was a little dig at John and Yoko. There wasn't anything else on it that was about them." He then went on to correct himself. "Oh, there was 'Yoko took your lucky break and broke it in two.'" Yes, he'd actually named Yoko Ono in a lyric of the tune before he wisely thought better of it.
"DEAR FRIEND" (1972)
On the first Wings album, the otherwise pastoral Wild Life, Paul seemed to again have a bee in his bonnet about John,though he took a slightly more conciliatory tone, as the title would indicate. "'Dear Friend' was written about John, yes," he later allowed. "I don't like grief and arguments, they always bug me. Life is too precious, although we often find ourselves guilty of doing it. So after John has slagged me off in public, I had to think of a response, and it was either to be [to] slag him off in public—some instinct stopped me, which I'm really glad about—or do something else. So I worked on my attitude and wrote 'Dear Friend,' saying, in effect, let's lay the guns down, let's hang up our boxing gloves." Still, with lines like "Are you a fool?," well, it didn't seem like the gloves were completely off.
"HERE TODAY" (1982)
In the first and most famous of several songs McCartney wrote about Lennon after his death, he sings that he's "holding back the tears no more," but also cheekily acknowledges that if John were "here today," "you'd probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart." He later said, "I'm talking to John in my head. It's a conversation we didn't have." But he believes that they could have, having reconciled somewhat before Lennon's death. "It was the saving grace. Because it got a bit sticky after the Beatles. No, we were really good mates again."
"THE SONG WE WERE SINGING" (1997)
Flaming Pie was the first album McCartney worked on after the Beatles' Anthology project, and the Fabs were clearly on his mind, starting with the album title, which took its name from a famous Lennon quote. And in this opening track, McCartney fondly recalls his songwriting and philosophical "jawing" sessions with his late partner.
Songs About Linda McCartney
"THE LOVELY LINDA" (1970)
Probably the simplest tune McCartney ever wrote, with the possible exception of the even shorter "Her Majesty."
"DEAR BOY" (1971)
From the just-reissued Ram, this is the one most frequently mistakenly assumed to be about Lennon. In fact, the "boy" being patronizingly addressed was Linda's first husband, Joseph See (who may also have been the "Jo" from Tucson, Arizona in "Get Back"). "'Dear Boy' wasn't getting at John, [it] was actually a song to Linda's ex-husband: 'I guess you never knew what you had missed.' I never told him that, which was lucky since he's since committed suicide," McCartney said. "And it was a comment about him, 'cause I did think, 'Gosh, you know, she's so amazing, I suppose you didn't get it.'… 'Dear Boy' was my attempt at an autobiography about myself and how lucky I was to have Linda. I never realized how lucky I was to have her until I began writing the song." It was one of four songs Paul wrote for Linda that were performed by the Brodsky Quartet at her funeral—the other three being "My Love," "Golden Earth Girl," and "Calico Skies."
"THERE MUST HAVE BEEN MAGIC" (2001)
Even after McCartney was with Heather Mills, he was still writing songs in tribute to his late wife, like this Driving Rain number that memorialized the first time he introduced himself to the great love of his life. "I met Linda in a club and I always thought years after, particularly after she died, that if I hadn't stood up that night in a club we might never have met again... I wouldn't normally stand up as someone was about to leave and say 'Er, excuse me, hello.…' I didn't normally do that but it was just one of those things that I felt I just had to do that night: 'Hi, um, I'm Paul, who are you?'... We were in The Bag O'Nails and we said we'd meet up in The Speakeasy. Which we did... It must have been some sort of magic that made me do that. Because if I hadn't done that I might not have met her again."
Songs About Heather Mills
He got off to a sweet start with his second wife, musically, with this track from Driving Rain. One morning, he said when the album came out, "'I'd got up and was just jamming on the piano and Heather, who doesn't know all of the Beatles' songs because she's young, said 'That's great—which Beatles song is that?' I said 'It's not, I'm just making it up.' And she's like 'What? Now? Making it up now?' Suddenly she's saying 'Get it down! You've got to get that down, get it on a tape, now!' I'm saying 'No, it's OK, I'm just noodling,' but she's insisting... so we found a little dictaphone and played it into that. And then she said 'By the way, what's it called?' 'Oh,' I said, 'It's called 'Heather''."
"SEE YOUR SUNSHINE" (2008)
McCartney wrote this for his second wife when things were clearly going well. By the time he finally put it on an album, Memory Almost Full, things had gotten famously bitter, but he didn't want to censor it. "That is pretty much an out-and-out love song for Heather," he said. "A lot of the album was done before, during and after our separation. I didn't go back and take out any songs to do with her." In this tune, he celebrated the way Mills embraced the limelight during their marriage: "Step out in front of me baby/They want you in the front line.../They wanna see your sunshine."
"NOTHING TOO MUCH, JUST OUT OF SIGHT" (2008)
McCartney had a very different attitude toward Mills on the raging, bluesy, primal song that led off his most recent collection of original material, an album he made under the name of The Fireman (a collaboration with the producer Youth). "Oh, did you want to be famous?... I said I love you... The last thing to do was try to betray me." He hasn't talked much about the song, but the timing and tone left little doubt in most fans' minds about the song's true subject.
Songs About Nancy Shevell
"MY VALENTINE" (2012)
Not much doubt who Macca wrote this one for, since he performed it at their wedding last year. "'And I will love her, for life/And I will never let a day go by/Without remembering, the reasons why/She makes me certain, that I can fly," he sings in the ballad, which was one of two newly penned tunes he included in his latest album, Kisses on the Bottom, which otherwise consists of standards. He wrote it in a hotel lobby while on vacation with Nancy in Morocco.
Songs About Beatle Relatives
"HEY JUDE" (1968)
"Jude" was, of course, Julian Lennon, after a switch from "Jules" because McCartney, in his usual fashion, avoided being too direct about who or what his songs were about at the time.
"LITTLE WILLOW" (1997)
When Ringo Starr's first wife, Maureen Starkey, died of cancer, Paul wrote this tender tribute. In the liner notes, he said, "I wanted to somehow convey how much I thought of her. For her and her kids. It certainly is heartfelt, and I hope it will help a bit."
Songs About the Beatles
"YOU NEVER GIVE ME YOUR MONEY" (1969)
Paul's disillusionment about the Beatles' business dealings with Allen Klein and general malaise after the death of manager Brian Epstein found its voice in this cynical but gorgeous ballad from Abbey Road, in which the end was very definitely in sight.
"THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD" (1970)
The legend is that McCartney was writing of his weariness with the Beatles as they fell apart. He's never confirmed that the song was quite this self-reflexive, but it's a powerful undertow, whether or not the downfall of the Fabs was his conscious subject.
"MAN WE WAS LONELY" (1970)
This song from his first solo album is ostensibly about McCartney's deepening love affair with Linda—but if you take the "lonely" of the title as the key, and the "we" as a royal we, it could be said that the real subject is how despondent he felt toward the end of the Beatles' run, before the love of his wife brought him out of depression.
"THAT WAS ME" (2008)
On Memory Almost Full, arguably the most autobiographical album McCartney has ever released, he summed up his wonder at his entire life, focusing mainly on his pre-fame years, from being in "scout camp [and] the school play" to the early Beatles' days of Mersey Beat and the Cavern Club.
Songs About Drugs and Busts
"GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE" (1966)
A song about McCartney's passionate new affair with... weed. "'Got To Get You Into My Life' was one I wrote when I had first been introduced to pot. I'd been a rather straight working-class lad but when we started to get into pot it seemed to me to be quite uplifting...So it's actually an ode to pot, like someone else might write an ode to chocolate or a good claret."
"NOT SUCH A BAD BOY" (1982)
McCartney jumped ahead here from getting in trouble as a schoolboy to getting in trouble in Japan as a superstar in 1980: "I talked to my lawyer, he picked up my bail..."
"Head us out to sea, captain says there'll be a bust..." A song purportedly about avoiding another drug bust in the Caribbean by going out to sea.
Songs About Growing Up, Family, and Mortality
"PENNY LANE" (1967)
A song about the area around a central bus terminal in Liverpool that had plenty of nostalgic associations for both Lennon and primary writer McCartney.
"LET IT BE" (1970)
The "mother Mary" of mention was not the Virgin Mary but, in fact, the mother who died when he was 14, whom he saw in a dream, inspiring the title track of the last original Beatles album to be released.
"HEART OF THE COUNTRY" (1970)
An encapsulation of McCartney's escape to family and the Scottish countryside, far away from the turmoil of the Beatles.
"PUT IT THERE" (1982)
One for Macca's father, this one is all about the healing intergenerational power of a manly handshake: "Put it there, if it weighs a ton/That's what the father said to the younger son."
"THE END OF THE END" (2008)
Getting heavier than is usually his won't, McCartney anticipated his own death in this Memory track, hoping it would be an occasion for singing and happiness. "It seemed courageous to deal with the subject rather than just shy away from it," he said. "I like the Irish approach of a wake, where it's celebratory. I remember once an Irish woman wished me well by saying, 'I wish you a good death,' and I said, 'Say what?' I thought about it later and actually it's a great thing to wish someone. I thought, 'Well, what would I like?' Jokes, a wake, music, rather than everyone sitting around looking glum, saying, 'He was a great guy' - though they can do a bit of that, too. So that led into the verse, 'On the day that I die I'd like jokes to be told and stories of old to be rolled out like carpets.' I have played it to my family and they find it very moving because, you know, it's Dad. It's a strange combination, because you're talking about a serious subject. But I'm dealing with it lightly."