Sir Paul McCartney opens up about the 'tragic life' of John Lennon with Conan O'Brien

'It made me realize why he had that vulnerability'
Paul McCartney
Photo credit Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The legendary Sir Paul McCartney sat down with Conan O’Brian to reminisce on some old photographs and discuss what they revealed of late Beatles band member John Lennon.

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Photo credit Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast

In a special episode at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, Conan O’Brian recorded his Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast with guest star Sir Paul McCartney. In lieu of a “question and answer” interview, the two reviewed some rediscovered photos McCartney took. Featured in his upcoming photo book 1964: Eyes of the Storm, McCartney’s personal photography collection shows The Beatles in a never-before-seen candid view of their experience before worldwide acclaim. “I'm so used to seeing photos where John and all of you are posing for the cameras or pulling a face or, or, or projecting that image,” Conan noted on one picture of band member John Lennon. “But because it's you taking the photo, John is very unguarded.”

“Yeah, you're right. He's unguarded and he's, I noticed that during the exhibition in the book, he's, he's got this little habit of, he's biting his nails,” McCartney responded, chuckling. “It's so long ago I'd forgotten that he had that little, that's a John thing. So, and you know, particularly ‘cause he's not here, it's so lovely for me to see these memories and just remind me of where we were, what we did in those days.”

Another photo of Lennon biting his nails prompted O’Brien to comment on the intensity of the moment, saying he appeared anxious yet vulnerable. “I don't know about the anxiety, but vulnerability is very true,” McCartney replied. “And at this time, I wouldn't really know that later when I thought as an adult about John's upbringing. He had a really tragic life. Really.”

He then went on to explain that Lennon’s upbringing was particularly difficult, more so than perhaps the average fan would know. “As a kid, his mother was decreed to not be good enough to bring him up. Julia, his mom, who we would visit. And he loved her and wrote a beautiful song about her, but she had to give him up. The father Alf had left the home when John was three. Yeah. So that's not too wonderful. And so John grew up with these sort of little minor tragedies throughout his life.” McCartney then recalled how Lennon was raised by his aunt when his mother was struck and killed by a car, or as McCartney put it, “an off duty cop who maybe was a bit inebriated.” Such a traumatic experience could have been detrimental to anyone, but for Lennon, it brought out a certain kind of profoundness.

“It made me realize why he had that vulnerability,” McCartney told O’Brian. “Yeah, I always admired the way he dealt with it ‘cause I'm not sure I would deal that well with the stuff you went through.” And while he didn’t realize at the time, McCartney said he held a vast appreciation and respect for his bandmate. “Now I realize I was like a big fan of John's. We all were, actually, in the group. He was like a very cool guy. You know, very witty, very funny, but also very deep and real.”

McCartney’s photobook, 1964: The Eye of the Storm, is available for pre-order now, and be sure to check out the full conversation, where McCartney and O’Brian effortlessly match wits, on the Audacy app.

After 25 years at the Late Night desk, Conan O'Brien realized that the only people at his holiday party are the men and women who work for him. Over the years and despite thousands of interviews, Conan has never made a real and lasting friendship with any of his celebrity guests. So, he started a podcast to do just that. Deeper, unboundedly playful, and free from FCC regulations, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend is a weekly opportunity for Conan to hang out with the people he enjoys most and perhaps find some real friendship along the way. Listen on the free Audacy app.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images