The Conservancy recently built a parking deck opposed by some environmentalists. This is probably a bit parochial, but do you have any concern that you’re being drafted into something that some consider controversial?
Yeah, sure. I didn’t know about that aspect, so it does happen. It’s not easy for me to find those kinds of details out from England. You know, if you look at it from my point of view, this is beautification ... in the name of conservancy. For me, I’d rather see this happening than ... turn it into a block of flats, you know, and the park is minimized. So, it looks like a great thing they’re doing, and I leave the argument up to Atlantans.
When the Beatles performed here in 1965, my friend Julia rode a bus from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to get here and she still remembers every song on the playlist. That concert, in addition to being the most memorable concert in the lives of a lot of people my age, was important for Atlanta because it helped put the city on the map. What were your impressions of that concert and of Atlanta back then?
You know, to us ... I hate to tell you, every city in America was glamorous. I mean, we don’t see it the way you guys see it. I mean, they’re all big and glamorous to us, no matter where we go. When you said Tuscaloosa, that sounds like an amazing place to me. I don’t know whether it’s big or little. It sounds great.
You were a good friend of Michael Jackson. You collaborated on several hit songs, and he stayed in your home. And then he bought the royalty rights to the Beatles catalog, and it was said you became estranged. Now there are rumors he wanted to will his interest in the catalog to you. What is your reaction to all of this, and to his untimely death?
Well, first of all, the idea that he wanted to will [the catalog] to me... I think that was just made up. A little bit like “Paul is dead.” But it’s nothing I said. I’m sure it was never true. Anyway, as to knowing him, I did. And it was great to know him, and we made some hits together. That was really nice, and we enjoyed each other’s company, and he was a fun guy.
And what happened eventually was that he bought the Beatles catalog. And I was quite excited because I thought, now he’s historically placed to rectify a wrong that had been going on for many, many years — i.e., John and I were signed to Northern Songs as very young kids really, early 20-year-olds. And we didn’t know what we were getting into, but that was OK. Then we made a huge success — obviously, there’s nobody can deny that — for the company. So, that success was never recognized. We remained on exactly the same [financial] terms for all the years.
We had actually made advances to the publisher who’d owned it originally, about ’69, his name was Dick James, and we said, “Don’t you think it’s time for a raise?” and he said, “Um, no, no, no.” And we always felt miffed. And when Michael got it ... I thought he was ideally placed to remedy this. I wrote to him on a number of occasions, and I talked to him about it. But he, strangely enough, had the same reaction. Only he put it differently. He said [does imitation of Michael Jackson’s voice]: “Oh Paul, that’s business, that’s just business.” And I went: “Yeah.” So after a few tries, we didn’t really break up. I mean, there was no estrangement. We just sort of drifted apart. Because I didn’t sorta ring him. I didn’t sorta call him so much after that. We spoke a few times. There was never any animosity. But you know, let’s face it, for the guy to just say “no” was kind of surprising. I thought we deserved some sort of recognition of our success.
You headlined opening night of the Coachella music festival in April. That’s a huge event with major hipster cred. It isn’t a typical stop for someone of your vintage, and, given the audience, it seemed like a risky choice. You wound up busting curfew and performing for nearly three hours. Did you bridge the generation gap?
The thing is ... I think of myself as a person of the ’60s, aligned with all that “hippie stuff” and with all that sort of youth culture. You don’t necessarily have to grow out of that stuff, you know. And a lot of what people are saying now, we were saying then. So, it’s the kind of thing I’m attracted to. And as for the risk, I like risk. I don’t want to get too safe; it’s not fun.
Along the same lines, you’ve made several electronic music albums with a young DJ and producer named Youth under the pseudonym The Fireman. What drew you to work with Youth?
I originally worked with him because he did a mix for me. I got to know him and we sort of hung out a little bit and had fun, and had a lot in common. And we decided to do this undercover thing, which I like. It’s just fun to get away from ... the standard, sort of stereotype perception of yourself ... and you just become someone else.
We decided to call it “The Fireman” for no particular reason. My dad happened to be a fireman; it just occurred to me that that was sort of an interesting title. So we did these first couple of albums and had so much fun because [it] is the exact opposite of what I normally do. I normally write the song, try and sing it well ... but the Fireman records, it was going in and just completely making it up as we went along, just playing any instrument I wanted, putting in anything I wanted, and we, me and Youth, we would just make something of it. It was like improvisational theater.
You’ve written more No. 1 songs than anyone alive. You’re about to raise $1.5 million for Atlanta’s favorite park. You’re still touring, making albums and venturing into new kinds of music. You’re 67, eligible for a pension. You could be “doing the garden, digging the weed.” What drives you?
I love it, that’s all. Sheer love of what I do. I always said, you know, if I didn’t do it for a living, I’d do it for a hobby. I’d still wake up in the morning and if I had a little bit of time and saw my guitar, I’d want to play, and I’d probably want to write a song, just because it’s a great privilege to be able to do that stuff. It’s a gift, you know? People, when we were kids, used to say, “It’s a God-given gift.” Now I listen to those words a little more carefully. I think, you know what? That makes a lot of sense. It’s a gift, it’s a great blessing.