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AP: What was your impression of the president?

McCartney: At the very end, President Obama leaves the stage and he shook hands with my longtime associate, my guitar roadie John Hammel. John was quite taken aback. The president said, “That was fun, wasn’t it? Thank you.” But then 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 he 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.

AP: A night like that, with fellow musicians and dignitaries, are you able to quite fathom the impact of the Beatles and yourself on music and culture?

McCartney: 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. This idea that you could maybe do anything with your life instead of just going down the road that was laid out for you. And it affected a lot of people. It’s hard to take it in, but it’s very gratifying.

AP: The namesake of the honor is George Gershwin, and you grew up a devoted fan of Tin Pan Alley songwriting. What do you think is the most important thing that makes a song work?

McCartney: The most important ingredient to making a song work is the magic. You’ve got a melody, you’ve got words, but on the more successful songs, there’s a sort of magic glow that just happens and you can feel it happening. It just makes the songs sort of roll out. So something like “Yesterday,” which I dreamed, that was the magic — the mere fact that I had the whole thing in a dream. And in other songs like “Let it Be,” that actually came from a dream where I saw my mother in the dream. “Hey Jude” just rolls out — “The Long & Winding Road.” But the ones that have become the most successful — “Eleanor Rigby” — something about them just felt kind of magical. So I suppose I’d say the one ingredient that was special to all of them was the magic in them. Does that make sense?