From Yesterday to Let It Be: how Paul McCartney grappled with his mother’s death in his songs

·5 min read
Paul McCartney with his mother, Mary - @PaulMcCartney
Paul McCartney with his mother, Mary - @PaulMcCartney

All great artists are haunted by something, and for Paul McCartney the ghost inside his songwriting was that of his mother, Mary. In new extracts from his forthcoming autobiography, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, McCartney makes it clear just how much of his early music was an (often subconscious) attempt to process his grief over her death in 1956 when he was just 14.

“It was so strange that the loss of our mother to cancer was simply not discussed,” McCartney writes in an excerpt from the book published in the Sunday Times. “We barely knew what cancer was, but I’m now not surprised that the whole experience surfaced.”

He is discussing his ballad Yesterday – arguably the first true Beatles classic and a tune long regarded, not least by McCartney, as defying simplistic analysis. Yet now McCartney seems to have come around to thinking that it was actually about this mother all along. He describes the words coming to him in a sort of fever dream as he rested in the back of a car driven by his then-girlfriend Jane Asher on a holiday in Portugal in 1964.

“Some people find it hard to believe that I was 22 when I wrote Yesterday,” he explains in The Lyrics (which tells the story of McCartney’s life through the prism of his compositions and is published November 2).

“Every time I come to the line “I’m not half the man I used to be”, I remember I’d lost my mother about eight years before that. It’s been suggested to me that this is a “losing my mother” song, to which I’ve always said, “No, I don’t believe so.” But, you know, the more I think about it – “Why she had to go I don’t know, she wouldn’t say” – I can see that that might have been part of the background, the unconsciousness behind this song after all.”

Paul McCartney with his mother, Mary - Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney with his mother, Mary - Paul McCartney

Every Beatles aficionado will know that grief was one of the factors that united McCartney and his great friend, foil and, in the final days of the band, foe, John Lennon. McCartney’s midwife mother had died of an embolism after an operation for breast cancer in 1956 at age 47. Just two years later, in July 1958, Julia Lennon was out walking when she was fatally hit by a car being driven by an off-duty policeman. She was 44 and John 17.

Lennon wrote about his mother – though in a very different fashion from that in which McCartney expressed his feelings about Mary. “Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering,” Lennon sings on Julia from 1968’s White Album. “In the sun Julia, Julia”.

This image is unsettling rather than comforting, almost like something from a horror movie. And after the break up of the Beatles, Lennon would return to the subject of filial grief with Mother and My Mummy’s Dead, which tackled the mourning process in the form of a ghastly singsong (“My mummy’s dead/I can’t get it through my head”).

This pitch-black humour is universes removed from the manner in which Mary McCartney filtered into the McCartney’s music, as made clear in his autobiography. She was right there with him at the start of his songwriting. In 1956, just a few months after her death, he wrote I Lost My Little Girl (finally released on his MTV Unplugged LP in 1991). “Well, I woke up this morning, my head was in a whirl,” he sings. “And only then I realised I lost my little girl.”

“You wouldn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognise that the song is a very direct response to the death of my mother,” he writes. “She died in October 1956 at the terribly young age of 47. I wrote this song later that same year. I was 14 at the time.”

McCartney goes on to discuss Let It Be – in which his mother appears in a vision and urges him to make peace with the universe and with his troubles (those troubles at the time revolving around his disintegrating relationship with Lennon). “I fell asleep exhausted one day and had a dream in which my mum, Mary (who had died just over 10 years previously) did, in fact, come to me,” he writes.

“Seeing my mum’s beautiful, kind face and being with her in a peaceful place was very comforting,” he says. “She seemed to realise I was worried about what was going on in my life and what would happen, and she said to me, “Everything will be all right. Let it be.” I woke up thinking this would be a great subject for a song.”

Let It Be’s message of peace and acceptance didn’t appear to get through to the rest of the Beatles. With relationships inside the band continuing to worsen, a break-up soon became inevitable. And for McCartney the anguish he felt as the group disintegrated will have been all too familiar. He had lived through unfathomable heartache once already.

As his new writings confirm, long before he and Lennon had their falling out, he was a musician processing a hidden trauma. The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present also reminds us that though his songs contain life the universe and everything, many are also rooted in a specific and very earthly tragedy: the death of a mother and her son’s attempt to make sense of that cruel and arbitrary loss.