It Was Therapy Through Hell
An excellent read from Esquire submitted by BBCer, Margot Winick
A new conversation with McCartney about the worst time of his life. From the book, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle, reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
He knew he was in trouble the morning he couldn’t lift his head off the pillow. He awoke facedown, his skull feeling like a useless dead weight. A dark thought flashed through his mind: If he couldn’t make the effort to pull himself up, he’d suffocate right there and then.
Somehow, as if it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, he summoned the energy to move. He flipped over onto his back and thought, Jesus . . . that was a bit near.
Day by day, week by week, his condition had been steadily worsening. His often sleepless nights were spent shaking with anxiety, while his days, which he was finding harder and harder to make it through, were characterized by heavy drinking and self-sedation with marijuana. He found himself chain-smoking his unfiltered, lung-blackening Senior Service cigarettes one after another after another.
Later, he would look back on this period and tell everyone that he’d almost had a nervous breakdown. From the outside, there appeared to be no “almost” about it.
For the first time in his life, he felt utterly worthless. Everything he had been since the age of fifteen had been wrapped up in the band. Now, even though he couldn’t tell the world, that period of his life was almost certainly over.
It was as if he’d suddenly and unexpectedly lost his job, been made entirely redundant. He was twenty-seven and of no use to anyone anymore. Even the money he’d earned up to this point was no comfort, made no real difference. This was an identity crisis in extremis: Who exactly was he if he wasn’t Beatle Paul McCartney?
On the mornings when he forced himself to rise, he’d sit on the edge of his bed for a while before defeatedly crawling back under the covers. When he did get out of bed he’d reach straight for the whiskey, his drinking creeping earlier and earlier into the day. By three in the afternoon, he was usually out of it.
“I hit the bottle,” he admits. “I hit the substances.”
He was eaten up with anger—at himself, at the outside world. He could describe it only as a barreling, empty feeling rolling across his soul.
Out of work and with nothing to distract him, he was tormented by ghosts from his past; they would rise up, whispering in his head, telling him that, in spite of everything he’d achieved, they knew he’d never really amount to anything. That he should have found a proper job in the first place, just as they’d always said.
He realized that up until this point he’d been a “cocky sod.” And now there was this: the first serious blow to his confidence he’d ever experienced. Even when he was fourteen and the complications from a mastectomy had suddenly taken his mother’s life, he had understood that this horrific event had been beyond his control. Somehow, now, in the depths of his muddied thinking, he was starting to believe that everything that was happening was nobody’s fault but his own.
His wife of less than a year later said she had felt the situation was “frightening beyond belief.” Within a matter of months, her new partner had gone from being a sparky, driven, world-famous rock star to a broken man who didn’t want to set foot out of their bedroom. But even if Linda was scared, she knew she couldn’t give up on Paul. She recognized that her husband was sinking into emotional quicksand, and she knew that it was down to her alone to pull him out before he went under for good.
“Linda saved me,” he says. “And it was all done in a sort of domestic setting.”
It had been two years since they’d first met, at the Bag O’ Nails nightclub in Soho, four days later being seen deep in conversation at the press launch for Sgt. Pepper. It was only a year since they’d managed to float unnoticed together through the streets of New York (where, in Chinatown, he had comically tried to pull her into a temple offering Buddhist weddings) before flying from coast to coast, landing in Los Angeles and disappearing for days into a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was still only six months since they’d giggled their way through their wedding ceremony at Marylebone registry office in London, amid a fog of seething female jealousy that seemed to spread across the world.
He had been the last single Beatle, the one seen about town, haunting the clubs and hanging with the artsy crowd. She was the American single-mother divorcée who had earned some renown as a rock photographer and who had apparently had flings with Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. To Paul, Linda appeared deeper than the frothy, starry-eyed girls who tended to flock around him, less buttoned-up than his then paramour, the actress Jane Asher.
Linda would take Paul out on long drives, saying, “Let’s get lost” in her drawly, spacey way, showing him a new kind of freedom. She had surprised him by telling him, “I could make you a nice home.”
Now it was the autumn of 1969, and the McCartneys were in Scotland, “hiding away in the mists,” as Paul puts it. They had escaped here, far from London and the heavy weather of intra-Beatle feuding that refused to lift.
But High Park Farm was no rock-star country pile. Paul had bought the run-down farmhouse, set on a hill overlooking Skeroblin Loch amid 183 acres of rough Scottish landscape, back in June 1966, the year he became a millionaire. His accountant had suggested that McCartney invest in property to wrestle some of his earnings away from the clutches of Harold Wilson and his Labour government’s painful 95 percent taxing of high earners.
The ever frugal Paul, of course, leaped at such an opportunity, picking High Park Farm out of the reams of property documents his accountant sent him. The asking price was a not insubstantial £35,000, more than ten times the cost of the average family home in the mid-1960s. It was, says Paul, “wee,” consisting of only three rooms: a bedroom at either end separated by a combined kitchen and living area. The hole in the roof of the farmhouse was included in the deal.
But it was another eighteen months after the purchase, in December 1967, before Paul, with Jane Asher in tow, made the trip north to check out his new investment. High Park was set more than a mile up a bumpy dirt path, and visitors unprepared for the terrain would moan that the drive would virtually wreck their offroad-unworthy vehicles.
The sorely neglected property was in a wild and windswept location, fourteen miles from the southern tip of the remote Kintyre Peninsula, in Argyll. Three miles west of the hill lay the six-mile sweep of beach at Machrihanish Bay. A five-mile drive southeast down the A83 sat the small fishing port of Campbeltown and the closest amenities.
At the tail end of 1967—equally the Beatles’ annus mirabilis and their annus horribilis (the marvel of Sgt. Pepper, the paralyzing shock of Brian Epstein’s death, the trials of Magical Mystery Tour, and the sense that nothing would ever be the same again)—McCartney tried to make High Park habitable on a characteristically thrifty level.
He dispatched Beatles gofer Alistair Taylor into Campbeltown; Taylor returned with a secondhand Formica table and chairs, an electric stove, and a couple of beds. The pair fashioned a sofa out of a pile of Sharpe’s Express wooden potato boxes, with an old mattress found in the barn folded over the makeshift frame.
After his split from Asher, Paul first went back there with Linda in November 1968. The eldest daughter of the moneyed New York Eastman family had immediately fallen in love with the place and the idea of roughing it in this remoteness—no hot water, mice and rats in the walls and all—but had suggested to Paul that they do the place up a bit. It was a notion that hadn’t even occurred to the airy McCartney.
She encouraged him to pour a cement floor in the kitchen, an improvement over the wooden planks laid over the bare earth. He began making a table to replace the flimsy Formica one. He scaled a ladder and climbed onto the roof to fix its hole, Linda soundtracking his handiwork by spinning the newly released Tighten Up reggae compilation LPs.
If you had walked through the door of the farmhouse in the latter months of 1969, according to Paul, you’d have seen “nappies, bottles, musical instruments, me and Lin, like a couple of hippies. . . . It wasn’t sort of dirty, but it wasn’t clean.”
High Park wasn’t entirely cut off from civilization, though it certainly had that feel. Linda in particular romanticized this notion, imagining that the McCartneys were living in another era, as if they were pioneers in this isolated place. She loved the fact that they were, as she fancifully saw it, “at the end of nowhere.”
As the months passed, Paul and Linda grew into their rural personas. At Christmas, he bought her twelve pheasants; she bought him a tractor, which he used to plow a vegetable patch, where they grew parsnips, turnips, potatoes, green beans, runner beans, and spinach.
Their acreage was home to 150 to 200 sheep, which Paul learned to clip using hand shears, after which they sold the fleeces to the Wool Marketing Board. Already leaning toward vegetarianism, they balked at the notion of killing their lambs, although they were forced to send some off to market when the numbers grew too high. They tried to separate the ewes from the rams, but sometimes one of the male sheep would enthusiastically spring over the fence. In time, they had six horses, including the retired racer Drake’s Drum, bought for Paul’s father, Jim, and a former winner at Aintree, alongside Honor (Paul’s), Cinnamon (Linda’s), and three ponies, Sugarfoot, Cookie, and Coconut.
Revving up a generator, Paul put together an ad hoc four-track recording facility in High Park’s rickety lean-to, which he named Rude Studio. It was in here, gently encouraged by Linda, that his songwriting slowly began to return to him, as he effectively used music as therapy to alleviate his depression. “She eased me out of it,” he remembers, “and just said, ‘Hey, y’know, you don’t want to get too crazy.’ ”
Paul shied away from admitting that there was a strong autobiographical element to some of these new compositions, but his protestations rang hollow. The lyrics of “Man We Was Lonely” speak of how his and Linda’s self-imposed exile was not as idyllic as it outwardly seemed, that their spirits had been low, but, under the comfort blanket of domesticity, their positivity was returning.
“Every Night,” a song he’d first begun messing around with during the Let It Be sessions, was more confessional still—its singer painting a grim picture of a routine involving getting wasted and struggling to drag himself out of bed. The chorus, as was increasingly becoming a McCartney trait, pledged his devotion to Linda. As a song, it was a deceptively breezy affair. While elsewhere Lennon was screaming his pain, it was typical of McCartney to mask his with melody. Only if you listened closely would you really be able to detect the songwriter’s anguish.
As Paul seemed to stabilize, the McCartneys settled into a daily routine, riding their horses across the land or taking sheepdog Martha for long walks. They drove into Campbeltown in their Land Rover, which they’d nicknamed Helen Wheels, the Beatle becoming a regular sight wandering around in his Wellies and sheepskin-lined brown leather jacket. In the evening, he would light the fire while Linda cooked, and then Paul would step into Rude to work on songs. At night, they would cuddle up, get stoned, and watch TV. “We were not cut off from the world,” said Linda. “We were never hermits.”
In addition, to playfully distract Paul from his troubles, there were the children to look after: the newborn Mary and Linda’s child from her first marriage, shy Heather, only six. For the kids, High Park was a cross between a playground and a junkyard. As soon as she began to walk, Mary was free to toddle outside, through its abandoned gypsy encampment–like clutter of scrap wood, sheets of corrugated iron, and teetering log piles (noting incredulously as an adult that she’d effectively been brought up in a “lumber yard”).
It was a messy scene but, for McCartney, one filled with increasingly frequent spells of happiness. Nevertheless, in a corner of his mind, knowing that there was a Beatles-shaped storm brewing back down in London, Paul was still plagued with unease.
It didn’t help that everyone was arguing about whether or not he was dead.