Monday, July 26, 2010

The Universal

About an hour into his show Saturday night in Kansas City, Paul McCartney’s band retreated from the stage, leaving the man alone with an acoustic guitar to play the Beatles’ classic “Blackbird” and “Here Today,” the open letter he wrote to John Lennon’s memory. Without tricks or adornment, McCartney strummed and sang simple melodies and words, and it was spellbinding, the mystery of music encapsulated in six minutes. How can something so stark be so stirring?

The whole night was like that, though most of it was appreciably louder. Three hours of some of the best and most famous songs ever written, each mangifiying the power of the one that preceded it.

I was born in 1968, just old enough to remember “Silly Love Songs” and “Let ‘Em In” as hit singles on the radio. But I don’t recall a time without most of the songs that Paul played. For me, the Beatles catalog is like the oceans and mountains, things that help define the earth. There is no hyperbole when it comes to this stuff. A recital of Beatles songs in 2010 is nothing more or less than a performance of the great cultural artifacts of the past half-century. Some of it, like “All My Loving” and “Drive My Car,” brought a smile, and much of it was pure majesty – “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” the monstrous sing along to “Hey Jude.” And I’ve never felt my heart swell at a rock show the way it did during the opening chords to “A Day in the Life.”

Three songs from the set – “Dance Tonight,” from Memory Almost Full, and “Highway” and “Sing the Changes” by Macca’s alter ego The Fireman – earned their first release within the past three years, but most were three or four decades old. Still, the show was no more an act of nostalgia than a performance of Hamlet is. These are important songs, living things, and they stand on their own without need for any personal context.

The fact that there’s no one else left to play them made the evening feel even more poignant, as did the easy intimacy McCartney shared with the audience. He mentioned three people by their first names only – Linda, George and John – and 15,000 strangers knew who he meant and that they are all gone, lending him a humanity that’s sometimes hard to appreciate. Yes, he’s a titan, but he’s also a man who has known more than his share of loss. Beatles songs have long represented myriad things, and now they also represent the finite nature of life.

The depth of that cache of songs was further revealed when Paul came out for his first encore, after a murder’s row of classic to close the set. I thought “what else can he play?” and he pulled out “Yesterday.” Oh yes, that one.

Very few can make any claim to being McCartney’s peers, and all of them come with obstacles to appreciation. The Rolling Stones carry a hint of menace, with a junkie vampire guitarist and songs that have not always reflected the most enlightened attitude toward women. Bob Dylan is the definition of inscrutable, with his blown-speaker voice and labyrinthine lyrics making for disciples more than fans. And a Bruce Springsteeen show, joyous as it is, can have a clubby feel, as die-hards work to one-up one another by getting the Boss to play the most obscure requests. But there is no obstacle to McCartney. He is the last universal in music, with the best songs and the broadest appeal. Saturday may mark the only time I ever see him, and it was a privilege to be there.

1 comment:

thwobble said...

Totally agree with everything you've written here, 1000%.