Yesterday, phone guy was such an easy role to play

With a tinge of guilt, fan confesses a secret McCartney adventure

First Person

April 21, 2002|By Al Cunniff | By Al Cunniff,Special to the Sun

A visit to Paul McCartney's house wasn't exactly what you'd expect. Then again, neither was I. A young Baltimore reporter and Beatles nut, in London to research a few feature stories, I was standing in the kitchen of the ultimate singer / songwriter, in a telephone company jacket, holding the back end of a ladder, and in a tizzy.

It's a long story ... one untold until now.

In the late summer of 1975, songwriter and producer Tony Macaulay agreed to an interview at his home in St. Johns Wood, a comfortable upper-middle-class suburb of London. Macauley was super-hot then, with the hits "Build Me Up Buttercup," "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again" and "Baby Now That I've Found You" to his credit.

St. Johns Wood was an attractive place to visit for two additional reasons. Abbey Road recording studios, where the Beatles had recorded throughout their career, was in the neighborhood. And just a few short blocks from Abbey Road was McCartney's house.

A friend had provided McCartney's address. This was in the dark ages, before personal computers and the Internet, so you had to have "connections" to get a celebrity's home address.

It would be a St. Johns Wood three-fer: interview Macaulay, visit Abbey Road studios, and research a story on what it's like to be a neighbor of Paul McCartney. The Beatles had broken up only a few years earlier, and unless you lived through those times, it's hard today to describe how hot McCartney was as a news item then.

McCartney's home, No. 7 Cavendish Ave., was a big, three-story brick and whitestone house, comfortable but unassuming. The only tipoff that the occupants weren't entirely conventional were the bright yellow columns, red door and blue window trim that contrasted with the plain whitestone.

The first neighbor to chat was Gillian, a friendly teen-ager who lived next door to McCartney. She said she enjoyed sipping tea in the bay window of her living room as she listened to Paul -- a few feet away near his bay window -- playing "Yesterday" or composing a new song on his piano.

In the village center, local merchants told of McCartney often stopping in their stores. Employees in the wine shop, restaurant, grocery store and other village businesses all said Paul was a regular customer, a real down-to-earth guy.

A wave and a talk

Then the interviews were finished, and it was time to catch the train back to London. Cavendish Avenue is not directly on the way to the station, but it was worth walking a couple of blocks out of the way to get one more look at McCartney's house.

On the walk along Cavendish Avenue, a red Lamborghini appeared and slowly approached McCartney's home. The Lamborghini turned into the driveway and stopped at the green metal security gate. The passenger door opened and Paul McCartney stepped out. Linda McCartney was behind the wheel.

He walked up to a security speaker-box mounted next to the gate, pushed a button and asked someone inside the house to buzz the gate open. As the gate slowly swung open, Linda McCartney drove the Lamborghini into the small courtyard ... and then the unimaginable happened.

Paul McCartney waved across the street, motioning with his arm for me to join him. The notepad and the camera around my neck made it not too difficult to see that I wasn't a local.

For the next 20 minutes or so, Paul McCartney offered an impromptu one-on-one talk on the grounds of his home. He apologized for not offering a look inside the house, saying he had just finished a band practice and that Linda was picking up the kids so they could go out to dinner. But he chatted as long as he could before they had to leave.

Believe it or not, the specifics of the interview I don't remember. I didn't have any hardball questions ready -- just stuff like, 'What songs are you working on? How are preparations for the Wings tour going? Yadda, yadda." McCartney was slender, about 5-foot-10, dressed mostly in black. He was friendly and polite to a fault.

Here was a living piece of history, someone who might be remembered a few hundred years from now for the mark that the Beatles made in the timeline of our music and culture. And he was worried about the comfort of his starstruck guest.

"Are you gonna use that?" McCartney asked as we walked to the gate.

"Use what?" I asked.

"That," he said, pointing at the camera.

Duh. My hands were shaking a bit, so it wound up being among the poorest celebrity photos ever taken, but hey, I got the shot. Still forgot to ask for an autograph, though.

An inside look

The story got even more amazing from there.

The next day, hoping that lightning would strike twice, I again visited St. Johns Wood. On Cavendish Avenue, in front of McCartney's house, sat a phone company truck. A phone worker in a white lab jacket was lifting a metal plate from the sidewalk.

Asked if he knew whose house it was, he answered, "McCarthy, innit? In the music business?"

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