Until my good old-model Nokia was broken beyond repair (after it fell from my back pocket), my ringtone was…you didn’t guess it, did you?…Let It Be, the hauntingly beautiful song written by Paul McCartney. Perhaps like some of my fellow Beatlemaniacs, I presumed that the Mother Mary in the song referred to Virgin Mary — you know: When I find myself intimes of trouble Mother Mary comes to me/speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be!
“No,” my good friend, bookworm Robin Tong, told me, “the Mother Mary mentioned in the song is not, contrary to what you thought, the Virgin Mary.”
As proof, Robin sent me an interesting excerpt from the book The Right Words At The Right Time by Marlo Thomas and Friends (pp. 217-219, Atria Books, New York, 2002), in which McCartney tells the story behind the song. That was in 2008 (how time flies!), but did you know that many of my friends haven’t heard or read about the truth behind Let It Be up to now?
Bear with me for being redundant as I reprint that 2008 column for the benefit of, well, everybody.
Here it is (with McCartney singing the song in the background):
I was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968.
It was late in The Beatles’ career and we had begun making a new album, a follow-up to the White Album. As a group we were starting to have problems.
I think I was sensing that The Beatles were breaking up, so I was staying up too late at night, drinking, doing drugs, clubbing, the way a lot of people were at the time.
I was really living and playing hard. The other guys were all living out in the country with their partners, but I was still a bachelor in London with my own house in St. John’s Wood.
And that was kind of at the back of my mind also, that maybe it was about time I found someone, because it was before I got together with Linda.
So, I was exhausted!
Some nights I’d go to bed and my head would just flop on the pillow; and when I’d wake up I’d have difficulty pulling it off, thinking, “Good job. I woke up just then or I might have suffocated.”
Then one night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother who died when I was only 14.
She had been a nurse, my mum, and very hardworking, because she wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off family — we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television — so both of my parents went out to work, and mum contributed a good half to the family income.
At night when she came home, she would cook, so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other.
But she was just a very comforting presence in my life.
And when she died, one of the difficulties I had, as the years went by, was that I couldn’t recall her face so easily.
That’s how it is for everyone, I think.
…with the Fabulous Four Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison -AP Photo
As each day goes by, you just can’t bring their faces into your mind; you have to use photographs and reminders like that.
So in this dream 12 years later, my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes; and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly, “Let it be.”
It was lovely.
I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message:
Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it all will work out.
So, being a musician, I went right over to the piano and started writing a song:
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me”…Mary was my mother’s name.. “Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.”
It didn’t take long.
I wrote the main body of it in one go, and then the subsequent verses developed from there:
“When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.”
I thought it was special, so I played it to the guys and ‘round a lot of people, and later it became the title of the album, because it had so much value to me, and because it just seemed definitive, those three little syllables.
Plus, when something happens like that, as if by magic, I think it has a resonance that other people notice, too.
Not very long after the dream, I got together with Linda, which was the saving of me.
And if it was as if my mum had sent her, you could almost say. The song is also one of the first things Linda and I ever did together musically.
We went over to Abbey Road Studios one day, where the recording sessions were in place.
I lived nearby and often used to just drop in when I knew an engineer would be there and do little bits on my own.
And I just thought, “Oh, it would be good to try harmony on this.”
But I had a high harmony in mind, too high for me, and although Linda wasn’t a professional singer, I’d heard her sing around the house and knew she could hold a note and sing that high. So she tried it, and it worked and it stayed on the record. You can hear it to this day.
These days, the song has become almost like a hymn. We sang it at Linda’s memorial service.
And after Sept. 11 (2001), the radio played it a lot, which made it the obvious choice for me to sing when I did the benefit concert in New York City.
Even before Sept. 11, people used to lean out of cars and trucks and say, “You, Paul, let it be.”
So those words are really very special to me, because not only did my mum come to me in a dream and reassure me with them at a very difficult time in my life — and sure enough, things did get better after that — but also, in putting them into a song and recording it with The Beatles, it became a reassuring, healing statement for other people, too.