Originally published in Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles.
Hello, I’m Paul, and I’ve died 62 times. But don’t worry. This isn’t going to be one of those sad stories about dying. That’s not my story, at least. For me, dying is more like what really bad food poisoning is for most other people. It’s bad at the time, but then, you come out okay on the other side.
And it certainly gets easier after you’ve done it 62 times.
#63: Take this most recent spin to the afterlife and back: I was on tour in the States. There I am, doing a little show at one of their baseball stadiums—real intimate venue, right?—when my heart gives out backstage, just as we’re supposed to go back out for the encore.
Of course, the band, my tour manager—the whole team—they have to scramble. They send out one of the roadies to tell everyone I got a sore throat and couldn’t continue. Which was true to a degree. A dead man’s throat is pretty sore, and I definitely wasn’t going on. Still, I hate when I’m dead, and other people have to make up those excuses for me. Especially when it’s to the mums and dads (not to mention the grandmums and granddads) who bring their families out to see me play the songs I wrote when I was a kid and had only died a handful of times.
(Bet they wouldn’t care as much if I’d chuffed it during one of the new solo songs in our setlist, though…)
I suppose it’s the price I have to pay for my condition. It’s either have someone tell a little white lie, or have them tell everyone the truth: “Paul’s dead…but don’t worry, he’ll be better in a few days.”
#2: I’ll never forget that first time—when someone looked me right in the eyes and said, “You’ve been dead.”
That was the first time I met my friend and soon-enough bandmate, John. I’d heard about John from around the way. Heard he was quite good, playing in some of the skiffle bands around Liverpool. (Or maybe it was that he’d heard I was the good one. The particulars start to get a bit hazy after so many years and so many deaths—mine and others.) No matter who heard of whom first, forces conspired to bring the two of us together—two lads who stayed up too late listening to the American rhythm and blues records that they got on import from their local shops, and who maybe kind of had a little something going on musically between their ears. But we learned all those things later.
In that first meeting though, there was just this grinning little madman who looked me up and down (the way only John could—with a twinkle in his eye, like he was just about to let you in on the secrets of the universe) and said, “You’ve been dead.”
I didn’t have a good response. I nearly dropped my guitar into the dirt right then and there. I grabbed for it by the neck—feeling the strings cut into my palm as I did so. I drew blood. It hurt like you wouldn’t believe, but I wanted to seem cool and so I didn’t let go. I asked John, “How did you know?”
It was a genuine question. I wondered how he could have possibly been around that night—one week ago. I’d snuck out after lights out, walking by the Mersey, trying to memorize the lyrics to a song I’d heard in a dream. There didn’t seem to be a soul out in all of Liverpool, except for me—dear soon-to-be-departed Paul. So, was John hiding somewhere, when I wasn’t looking where I was going, and my shoe hit a spot of thick, slick mud along the river’s edge and I fell down? The last thing I remembered was the rushing water over my head. It filled my nostrils like cream into a puff pastry.
That was the first time I died.
One thing was certain, there was no way this John could know that I woke up—the same old me, just not as water-logged—in a strange room in a building I’d never seen before. Someone left clothes for me and just enough money to get back home. I especially appreciated that last bit, when I stepped outside and found myself in London of all places. A lorry blasted its horn at me as I stood in a daze at the intersection. I still remember what I read on the street sign at the corner: Abbey Road.
John smirked, looking down as the blood dripped from my palm and raced crisscross patterns down the neck of my guitar. Once he caught my eye, he spit in his own hand and offered a shake. “You’re a madman, aren’t you, McCartney? Give us a shake then, and we’ll see if some of your death magic won’t rub off on me, eh?”
You probably know most of the rest of our story, or, at least, you know the version our publicists let out into the world. That old, familiar story of how I brought along little Georgie, and then John brought in his friend Stu from art school. And, of course, there was Pete—banging away at the drums as “best” he could, I suppose. We played a bit around Liverpool, but no one cared for us—even the folks who knew us. So, at the time, it made sense to go somewhere where no one knew us and no one cared for us.
#3: I died again in Berlin. It happened the same night Stu got hit in the head while loading some of our equipment into the van that we took around between gigs. I don’t know why he tried to get it all in there by himself. I suspect he was just trying to impress us—trying to impress John.
Nothing quite as tragic for me—just too many speed pills and some spoiled bratwurst for dinner, and it was “Bye-bye, Paulie.”
(Looking back, that second death probably played a not-insignificant part in getting me off meat.)
Again, I woke up in London. This time I heard music pulsing from one of the floors above. The same bits of a song played over and over again. It sounded like someone had a melody, but they were still searching for the hook.
When I stepped off the train back in Berlin, John was waiting for me. “Stuart’s dead,” he said, “And so were you.”
When he said that last bit, it was part-question and part-threat. We sat on a bench near the train station. He told me about getting the news that Stu had died and how it reminded him so much of getting the news when his Ma got hit by a car. “Well, I haven’t died from getting hit by a car yet. But when I do, I’ll be sure to tell you what it’s like,” I said, hoping that I’d learned a little something about the sense of humor of my dear friend Mr. Lennon.
And, man, did he howl with laughter—so loud and sharp. It sent the old harsh-faced women heading out to work early in their kerchiefs and aprons scrambling for safe purchase in nearby doorways. It was like John was a feral cat pissing about to claim the whole world as his territory.
He stopped laughing—just like that. He put his hand over mine and asked, “But, what is it like to die, Paul?”
So, I told him. At least, I told him what I could remember. I suppose the most important bit I shared was that feeling—right when it happens—of absolute certainty: I’m dying, and soon I will be dead.
Then I told him of those past two times when I woke up and thought: I was dead, but now I’m not. I suppose that bit’s unique to me—though I haven’t spoken with everyone in the world, so I can hardly say that I’m 100 percent confirmed on the point.
Still, I think it helped him in the moment to hear from someone who’d “been to the other side.”
“With those cheekbones, you’d think Georgie was the undead ghoul among us,” he said.
I told him I didn’t think that was a very funny thing to say. (Though, of course, it was.)
We came home to sold-out shows at the Cavern and to Ringo and to Mr. B. Epstein, who promised to make us famous. “Clothes make the man and make the mania,” he’d tell me after a few too many cocktails, with his head resting against John’s lapel and John’s own head off in the sky with diamonds.
Epstein got us to trade our leather jackets, belts, and pants for bespoke suits. The change was fine by me. Those leathers had gotten me in at least one spot of mortal danger from German tough guys telling me I must “vink I’m a bad man, huh?”
#5: (After the wardrobe change, I looked back fondly at getting to walk past those same toughs—me alive as alive could be without a stab wound or bullet hole to show—and watching their faces go white as the sauerkraut in their serving bowls.)
Interlude: They had to carry me—George on one side and Ringo on the other, with John walking backward in front of me, making those faces of his—the whole way into Abbey Road Studios, the first time we recorded there. “Everything alright, Paul?” Ringo asked before sitting down behind the drumkit they’d set up for him in the corner of the studio.
“Oh sure, Ringo, sure,” I said.
Even back then, when we were those kids playing at being adults, Ringo was the sweetest old man I can remember knowing. I just didn’t have it in me to confide in him that this building was the same place where I’d wake up and get back to living after each and every time I’d died. So, I shut my mouth and played our music, including some of the songs John and I had scribbled down together.
It wasn’t until the second session at Abbey Road that I even worked up the nerve to go up to Mr. Martin and ask him if he knew what went on below the studio. He looked me up and down, the way Dad used to before I’d head off to school—like he was searching for that one hair sticking up from the back of my head, or expecting to find my underwear put on outside my trousers. Then, with a puff-puff-puff on his pipe, he said, “Dear boy, there aren’t any floors below this one.”
I felt like I might die right then and there. Especially when Martin made eye contact with Epstein from across the studio and raised his voice to add that we should “watch out for all that drug business that seems to be going around these days.”
#10: Of course, I died in America.
By the sixth or seventh death, John and I had to let everyone else in on the secret. Ringo asked a lot of questions. He asked if I ever saw my mother when it happened. I told him I thought I did once, but it was just the chaperone of one of those girls that chased me off the riser near the concert hall.
George didn’t say anything.
The last time I died in America, while we were still a band, was after John said all his nonsense about us being bigger than Jesus. Ducking behind a country malt shop and some good ol’ boy from down South, fresh from steamrolling our records, just happened to come around just the wrong corner at just the wrong time with his hunting rifle in his hands.
When I woke up that time, I walked into the studio and found the other three already set up to record. “Think that’ll probably be the end of touring. Eh, lads?”
They didn’t look up from their instruments, just gave three nods from various corners of the recording studio. Later, John held open a cab door for me. As I climbed in, he whispered, “You know Jesus only did the dying and coming back trick once.”
The crew and tour managers were a tad upset by the decision to stop traveling. But then I explained they wouldn’t have to reach into the funds and pay off all those witnesses to my many deaths. “Step right up, ladies. Buy your T-shirt, lunch box, vinyl records, and a lock of the dead man’s hair…”
The next day, when we’d finished recording, John leaned into the microphone, whispering again, but making sure that everyone in the studio could hear. “Why don’t we just tell everyone you’re dead?”
I was on the floor, snapping my bass up in its black case, with the luggage stickers on it from airports the world over. I shook my head. “But, I’m not dead,” I said.
“But you have been!”
The exchange was a lot like our songwriting. You’d get John started with a concept, a theme, an image of a pretty girl’s smile, and before you knew it, he’d be off somewhere else—somewhere maybe vaguely dangerous. “C’mon, Paul,” he continued, rubbing his knuckles against the top of my head, just hard enough to make me wonder whether he was messing about or not, “Dead sometimes or alive, what’s the difference?”
I shrugged him off and inhaled. I let that air out, nice and slow. “Well, that for one,” I answered.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” he said. He stormed off, leaving me alone in the studio.
#11: Of course, John got his way. John always got his way eventually. I suspect if you could have gone inside his head, you’d find a whole mythology mapped out, featuring a replacement Paul and forged birth certificates and tragic motorcar accidents he’d transposed from his own personal suffering. But what we ended up with instead was just some cheeky backward recordings and “Googoogajoob.”
(Still, it was fun to hear all the conspiracy theories winding their way back to us. “The Paul from before the accident and the one after don’t even look the same” was always my favorite line. As if anyone ever really looks the same?)
#17: When Linda saw me die for the first time, I felt terrible. It felt even worse to have her waiting for me when I came back. I stood up and she stood too, holding my clothes out for me. She kept her eyes on the ceiling. Once I was dressed, she slapped me hard across the cheek. I could feel the sting of it from my ear to my neck. I asked her, “How did you get in here? No one—not even John or the others—have ever been in here.”
She smiled and kissed my cheek, right in the spot where she’d just slapped the hell out of me. “None of them are me,” she said, “And besides, if we’re gonna be together, I get to have some things about me that are unexplained as well.”
Later, we stood under a red light in the makeshift darkroom she’d set up in one of the rooms of my London flat. We watched pictures develop. They were ones she’d taken of my dead body—another old body chucked in an incinerator and sprinkled across the cobblestones of Londontown.
(George told me once that John and Ringo used to sprinkle some of me into their joints. I never did follow up and ask him if it was true.)
Linda asked, “Is it okay? That I took these pictures?”
“Of course, of course,” I said, “I want you to do it every time, until…”
I didn’t know how to finish my sentence.
#25-30: The break-up of the band went pretty bad for me.
#35: After John got killed, I vowed to quit dying right then and there—just stop cold turkey. I remember lying there in bed with Linda after we’d gotten the kids down. We talked about the afterlives—the ones our mums and dads taught us that their mums and dad had taught to them, and the ones that we learned from the Maharashis and gurus, and John’s “Instant Karmas.” “But I don’t resurrect as another lifeform,” I said, when Linda suggested the latter might provide some clue to my condition, “It’s just me, and then me again, and again…”
“Well, you’re also no angel and yet you have Wings,” she said, before giggling so hard she rolled off the bed.
(Ringo was right when he told me I’d be a bad influence on her.)
The next week, there was a package in the mail wrapped in robin’s egg blue paper with our address written out in that delicate, razor’s edge precision only Yoko could produce. Inside there was a smaller box on which she’d written: “Dear Paul, John kept this in our safe and told me to give this to you whenever he died. So, now it is yours.”
I opened the smaller package. There was another note—its handwriting unmistakably John’s this time. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
I tore open both packages, standing right there at the end of the drive. I had my head buried in John’s note, and Linda was fussing with the kids in the car as she backed out onto the road. Her foot slipped on the accelerator pedal.
After I woke up below Abbey Road, I told the no-one there waiting for me, “Not this time, John.”
#48: “I wouldn’t want it, if you could give it to me,” Linda said. Her forehead was wrinkled like bedsheets, and the kids were waiting and crying outside the hospice room.
I could almost see through her. I could watch the blood pumping slower and slower, see her traitorous, negligent chest rise and fall without the same spark that once filled her every breath and exclamation.
She wanted me to tell her about all the dead people I knew. I sat by her bed and told her about my mum and my dad, about Brian, and about John. I told her about George and about Ringo.
“But they’re not dead yet,” she said, her voice cracking as it fought its way past chapped lips.
“No,” I answered, “But they will be.”
I told her about visiting the site we’d picked for her grave. I’d gone off looking at the clouds and thinking up a new song. I told her I fell right into an open grave.
“Luckily for me, it’s a lot quicker to travel back from London these days,” I said.
She smiled, and I knew I still had her.
#63 (again): They come a lot faster these days. If I’m being honest, the backstage heart attack is about as sexy or as exciting and dangerous as they come. Most times, they just happen.
There I am one moment, up in the recording studio at home or down by the stables or bouncing one of the grandkids on my knees and…
The world is so much these days. And when you die and come back and you hear people crying outside, you start to see the stress fractures at the foundation. I know what John would say if he were still here. “And now the fun begins!”
But John’s dead. And I’m alive again.
#64: I don’t think it would shock anyone to see me die again. Most times they look surprised just to find that I’m still here.
Let’s let this be the last time, okay? Please. Let it be…
#640: Hello, I’m Paul, and I’ve died six…sorry, I thought there was someone else here. I thought someone was listening. But there’s no one else here.
There hasn’t been someone else for so, so long.
Of course, if there were someone, I’d want to sing them a song. That was always my thing, right? I was going to sing us to a better world.
But I can’t even do that. Each time I die, I don’t go backward. I don’t wake up with the moptop haircut and the wink and the Nehru jacket and the “Hey! Hey! Hey!” choruses. I just go forward, as the rest of the world dies around me. Now my vocal cords are fried, and I can only see so much of the world through the cataracts covering my hazel eyes. I feel like I’m living in a world of ghosts.
I die now—every hour on the hour. London’s a crater, and yet the floor below Abbey Road Studios (the floor that doesn’t exist) still stands. I don’t try to make it out of the room anymore.
It’s my time again. And again. And again.
Please, someone make it stop.