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September 26, 2010

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'Little pub gig' at White House

IN June, Paul McCartney was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an honor bestowed by the US Library of Congress. Accepting it, McCartney performed in the East Room of the White House for US President Barack Obama and the first family, who sat front row center.

Guests including Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, the Jonas Brothers, Jack White and others taking turns playing Beatles classics. Jerry Seinfeld summarized the choice of McCartney for the Gershwin simply as "duh."

For the 68-year-old rock 'n' roller, the evening was clearly meaningful. He sang "Michelle" to Michelle Obama, adding that he hoped the president would not punch him out. For the first time, he performed "Ebony and Ivory" live with Stevie Wonder. And he performed one of the most star-studded singalongs of "Hey Jude," complete with the Obamas joining onstage. McCartney was so fond of the concert, which he called "a little club gig," that he has already rewatched it and plans to do it again. Sir Paul took a moment out of his North American tour to talk about his trip to the White House.

Q: Why was this particular gig a "biggie," as you called it?

A: I'm a fan of the president. I believe that he's been dealt a bad hand. He came into that job with a lot of difficulties on his plate that weren't of his creation. So I was eager to meet him. I had never been to the White House, so that was great. And the idea of playing there was very interesting. We wondered what the acoustics would be like, but they turned out to be great. So we had a great time, just the event of it all. We were all very excited. From me, myself, to the lowliest crew member, we were all buzzing.

Q: You joked that you worried the president might punch you after you sang "Michelle."

A: It was such a nice, friendly atmosphere. It was almost like a little family gathering. So I felt free to say anything I wanted to, just like he was a cousin, like a family wedding or something; just goofy stuff. We found his whole family very relaxing to be with, and I think he found us, hopefully, the same way. So it was nice on that level. And he didn't punch me out, thank goodness.

Q: Was playing "Ebony and Ivory" for the first black president a moment that resonated?

A: One of the highs was singing "Ebony and Ivory" with Stevie because we'd never done it live together, so that was great. To sing it live together for the very first time with the first black president there, it suddenly gave a great significance to the song. Sometimes you write a song in a certain era and it's got a certain significance. I wouldn't have imagined then that it would be quite so soon that America would elect a black president. It wasn't that soon, but it was a relatively short time. To sing it with Stevie in front of the president was very emotional.

Q: What else was memorable?

A: Getting through the security of the White House. For the rehearsal, we got through fine. But for the actual gig, we were not let in. At the gate we said, "We're the entertainment." He said, "No, you'll have to walk around the other block." It was heavy traffic, so we're going, "Oh geesh. Wouldn't you just know it."

Q: What was your impression of the president?

A: At the very end, President Obama leaves the stage and shook hands with my longtime associate, my guitar roadie John Hammel. John was taken aback. The president said, "That was fun, wasn't it? Thank you." But the thing that I thought was amazing was he then reached over to our keyboard technician who was a little out of the way, and he didn't need to do that. He reached over to this guy D.J., who is a big admirer of Obama's, and he took his hand and said, "Thank you, thank you." I was blown away. For me, the fact that he reached out to my crew was very heartwarming. It takes a great man to do that. In this business, some people are just jerks.

Q: On a night like that, can you fathom the impact you and the Beatles had on music and culture?

A: That's what's so amazing: It isn't quite possible. It's nearly possible. I think as time goes by I kind of understand a little bit more, just the reflective lens lends a bit of clarity to it. I meet so many people that just sort of say, "I want to thank you for your music. It really helped me" or "It changed my life." I think back and I think, well, the interesting thing about the Beatles was: The music was one thing, but we kind of symbolized a certain kind of freedom at a time when people of our generation were just growing up and just becoming adults.


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