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Paul McCartney Admits 'Yesterday' May Have A Completely Different Meaning He Never Realized

The singer opened up about the Beatles hit, which he's always maintained was about a break-up—but now he thinks it might actually be about the death of his mother from cancer as a teenager.

Paul McCartney
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Beatles legend Paul McCartney had an epiphany after realizing his band's 1965 tune "Yesterday" may have not been entirely about a romantic breakup, as many fans have long speculated.

The 81-year-old music legend was a guest on the A Life in Lyricspodcast and he said the popular song could have been about his mother, Mary Patricia McCartney, who died in October 1956 from breast cancer.

Said McCartney of the song, whose melody came to him in a dream when he was 24:

“Someone did suggest to me that this was a ‘losing my mother’ song, which I always sort of said, ‘No, I don’t think so.'"

It wasn't until he took a second look at one of the lyrics that he came to a slow realization.

He said of the wistful ballad:

"But the more you think about it, [the line] ‘Why she had to go/I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.’"
"Losing your mother to cancer, no one said anything. We didn’t know what it was at all."

You can listen to him expound on this at the 23:35 mark in the podcast's episode.

McCartney commented that there was “so much tumbled into your youth and formative years that you can’t appreciate” the influence it may have had until much later. For him, that realization came “only in retrospect."

According to The Beatles Anthology, McCartney mentioned how his mum wanted her children—including McCartney's younger brother, Peter Michael—to speak properly and "aspired to speak the Queen’s English."

He said as an example:

"One of my most guilty feelings is about picking her up once on how she spoke."
"She pronounced ‘ask’ with a long ‘a’ sound."

He corrected her, saying that "aarsk" was "ask" and he said the conversation "really took the p*ss out of her."

His challenging her at that moment was something he instantly regretted.

"When she died, I remember thinking, ‘You a**hole, why did you do that? Why did you have to put your mum down?’"

He explored this further in the podcast and suggested the memory could have inspired the lyric, "I said something wrong" in "Yesterday."

He said:

“’When she died, I wonder, ‘I said something wrong,’ Are we harking back to that crazy little thing? I don’t know. Does this happen?"
"Do you find yourself unconsciously putting songs into 'girl' lyrics that are really your dead mother? I suspect it might be true."
"It sort of fits if you look at the lyrics.”

You can hear the song here.

Yesterday (Remastered 2009)

McCartney's mother was 47 when she died of an embolism following surgery to prevent the spread of the disease. At the time, the then-young aspiring musician had no idea what was going on with her health.

He said, "My mum dying when I was fourteen was the big shock in my teenage years."

"She died of cancer, I learnt later. I didn’t know then why she had died."

"Yesterday" is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music, with 2,200 cover versions.