Paul McCartney Reflects on How His Late Mother Became His Greatest Muse

In his new book Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, the music icon reveals how his mother Mary's memory inspired beloved classics like "Let It Be," "Yesterday" and "Lady Madonna"

Paul McCartney
Photo: Mary McCartney

With his new two-volume collection Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, Sir Paul McCartney offers an unparalleled look at his creative process by sharing the stories behind 156 of his songs. These range from his earliest attempts as a Liverpool teenager in the late 1950s, up through those completed recently in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown. The breadth of his influences is astonishing, with compositions drawing ideas from such varied sources as the Beach Boys, Bach, birds, Buddy Holly, British monarchy, comic books, parking tickets, obituaries, and even a humble salt and pepper set. But perhaps the most potent — and poignant — muse is his mother, Mary, who died of cancer when McCartney was just 14 years old.

Mary's unexpected death devastated the McCartney family, for whom she was a primary source of strength and support. As he admits in Lyrics, the loss was "something I never got over." He coped by throwing himself into mastering the guitar. Mary would provide inspiration for numerous songs, including one of his first, a melodic sketch called "I've Lost My Little Girl." As McCartney notes in Lyrics, the title is very telling. "You wouldn't have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that the song is a very direct response to the death of my mother. She died in October 1956 at the terribly young age of 47. I wrote this song later that same year."

His burgeoning songwriting would serve as a point of connection with his new friend, John Lennon, whom he met just a few months later in the summer of 1957. "[It] gave us something in common that was itself wholly uncommon," McCartney explains. "I went to a school with a thousand boys and I'd never met anyone who said he'd written a song…We took each other by surprise. And then the logical extension was, 'Well, maybe we could write one together.' So that's how we started. And we became versions of each other."

But they shared more than songwriting aspirations. Just a year into their friendship, the pair were linked by tragedy when Lennon's mother Julia was struck down and killed by an off-duty policeman outside the home where he was living in July 1958. The personal traumas forged a bond that would help them weather the tumultuous years of Beatlemania ahead.

McCartney's most celebrated composition, 1965's "Yesterday," famously came to him in a dream. Now the most recorded song of the 20th century, fans have theorized that the mournful ballad was a subconscious expression of grief over his devastating early loss. McCartney, who resisted the notion for years, is now inclined to agree. "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 — I can see that might have been part of the background, the unconsciousness behind this song after all. It was so strange that the loss of our mother to cancer was simply not discussed. We barely knew what cancer was, but I'm now not surprised that the whole experience surfaced in this song where sweetness competes with a pain you can't quite describe."

According to McCartney, this pain wasn't limited to string-laden tearjerkers. Melancholia also cropped up unexpectedly in uptempo numbers like 1968's "Lady Madonna." His nod to the boogie-woogie of rock pioneer Fats Domino doubles as a salute to the matriarchy. "A song that portrays a very present, nurturing mother has got to be influenced by that terrible sense of loss," he writes. "The question about how Lady Madonna manages 'to feed the rest' is particularly poignant to me, since you don't have to be a psychoanalyst to figure out that I myself was one of 'the rest.' I must have felt left out. It's really a tribute to the mother figure, a tribute to women."

But the memories of his late mother weren't always painful. In the winter of 1968, as business and interpersonal problems mounted and Beatles began their slow disintegration, Mary paid her son another dream visit. "I'd been doing too much of everything, was run ragged, and this was all taking its toll," McCartney says in Lyrics. "The band, me — we were all going through times of trouble…and there didn't seem to be any way out of the mess. I fell asleep exhausted one day and had a dream in which my mum (who had died just over 10 years previously) did, in fact, come to me." She provided solace from beyond, offering simple words of hope and fortitude: Let it be.

"When you dream about seeing someone you've lost, even though it's sometimes for just a few seconds, it really does feel like they're right there with you, and it's as if they've always been there," McCartney continues." I think anyone who's lost someone close to them understands that, especially in the period of time just after they've passed away…But in this dream, seeing my mum's beautiful, kind face and being with her in a peaceful place was very comforting. I immediately felt at ease, and loved and protected. My mum was very reassuring and, like so many women often are, she was also the one who kept our family going. She kept our spirits up. She seemed to realize 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."

"Let It Be" would ultimately become the title track to the Beatles final LP in 1970, serving as the band's philosophical epitaph. In the half-century since, it's been embraced as a modern hymnal, inspiring faith in millions enduring their own times of trouble. McCartney chose the song to close out his climactic performance at the historic Live Aid benefit concert in 1986, broadcasting his mother's divine message around the world.

The song would bring comfort to its composer once again in 1998, when a crowd of friends and loved ones sang "Let It Be" at a memorial service for McCartney's wife Linda, who had succumbed to breast cancer after nearly 30 years together. The loss was a devastating echo of the tragedy he endured as a boy, but the music – and the loving message from his mother — provided for him, as it had for so many across the globe.

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