Paul McCartney’s heartbreaking song about mortality

The story goes that just weeks before George Harrison’s death on November 29th, 2001, The Beatles guitarist was visited by his old bandmate Paul McCartney. Harrison’s health had been on the rocks since 1999 when he and his wife were attacked in their home by a paranoid schizophrenic armed with a fireplace poker. His family did their best to downplay the extent of the musician’s injuries, however. Still, those closest to him believed that the emergency operation he was forced to undergo directly contributed to the cancer that would eventually kill him. McCartney went to Harrison’s home expecting the worst but was surprised to find Harrison in high spirits. Despite being in a huge amount of pain, he was still cracking jokes, refusing to leave the world on a downbeat. Some fans believe that this final meeting with Harrison inspired McCartney to write a song about how he would like to be remembered after his own death.

‘The End Of The End’, taken from Paul McCartney’s 2007 album Memory Almost Full, is far less morose than the title suggests. It’s all there in the first line: “At the end of the end, it’s the start of a journey to a much better place.” McCartney’s view seems to be that death shouldn’t be a cause for solemnity but a chance to remember all the joy that life brings. As McCartney told Word Magazine in 2008: “I heard someone – I think it was James Taylor – say in a lyric ‘the day I die,’ and it prompted me to think of my death as a subject. So I got into that and found that I was interested in the Irish Wake idea, and jokes being told and stories of old, rather than the solemn, Anglican, doom-laden event. But it’s not a subject that anyone visits that much. It’s not too jolly, I suppose. It doesn’t make a great song to dance to.”

McCartney had Irish ancestry on both his mother and father’s side, so it’s understandable he felt an affinity with the wake tradition, which sees mourners throw one last party in honour of the deceased. There are many wake traditions. Traditionally, a window would be opened directly after the loved one’s passing to allow their spirit to leave the room and prevent it from returning to the body. Then, the body is placed on a table, candles by the head and a pair of boots by the feet. All the clocks are stopped on the hour of death, the curtains are drawn, and the merriment begins. It is a celebration of life, a chance to recall fond memories and to bring evoke the richness of life even in its absence.

Speaking to the Sunday Times shortly after the release of Memory Almost Full, McCartney said: “I like the Irish approach of a wake, where it’s celebratory. I remember once an Irish woman wished me well by saying, ‘I wish you a good death,’ and I said, ‘ay what?’ I thought about it later and actually it’s a great thing to wish someone. I thought, ‘Well, what would I like?’ Jokes, a wake, music, rather than everyone sitting around looking glum, saying, ‘He was a great guy’ – though they can do a bit of that, too. So that led into the verse, ‘On the day that I die I’d like jokes to be told and stories of old to be rolled out like carpets.’ I have played it to my family and they find it very moving because, you know, it’s Dad. It’s a strange combination, because you’re talking about a serious subject. But I’m dealing with it lightly.”

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