Monday, July 15, 2013

Paul McCartney: & In The End? (Nationals Stadium, Washington DC, 7/12/2013)

If I ever wanted to know the answer to the question "Who would bring a four-year-old to a Paul McCartney concert?" I would now know that the answer is the only person on earth who shares my DNA: My sister. Unusual no doubt, but my niece as a ridiculous attention span—she is literally the only person I can know (myself included) who can sit through The Sound of Music with no breaks to go to the bathroom or get a snack (although she will eat a sandwich when placed in front of her).

The same year that The Sound of Music won Best Picture, the Beatles released Rubber Soul, which best pictured the changing sound of music. I could go on about the Beatles embracing recreational drugs, the influence of Bob Dylan, the creative competition of the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, & the Byrds (among several hundred other factors), but at the end of the day, Rubber Soul is a great collection of great songs. I remember it being a favorite of my sister & I when I was around my niece's age & how sometimes she would put it on for us to hear when my parents weren't home. (I wasn't allowed to touch the stereo system. Go figure.) When "Drive My Car"—the opening song on the UK edition of Rubber Soul—came on the car radio on the way to the Paul McCartney concert a few nights ago, my niece knew all the words. The torch had been passed to a new generation.

My niece is a HUGE Beatles fan—"Paulie" is her favorite—& she kept telling me in the car that she knew more Beatles songs than I did. Now, I should probably just smile & shrug this off as an adult, but instead I remain stupidly competitive about it (turns out I'm the same way about pancakes; I once kicked her ass in an impromptu IHOP challenge). When she said she knew 100 Beatles' songs, I pointed out there were 217 in the official catalog (that's counting both "Love Me Do"s, both "Across the Universe"s, & the German versions of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" & "She Loves You"), to which she informed me that she knew even more than that. I considered for a moment that she could be including the songs that were on the BBC Sessions CDs &/or stray YouTube videos, & had to give her the benefit of the doubt. The Apple Records doesn't fall far from the tree.

As we stood in the parking garage waiting for the elevator, my niece asked, "Is Paul here?" "No, not just yet." She kept looking all around inquisitively as though she would prove us wrong—here, there, & everywhere, as it were. Can't blame her though. She had never seen a Beatle before.

* * *

Well, like my niece, I had never seen a Beatle live in concert before either. Paul McCartney had been on the top of my must list for quite some time; in my near three-decades of concert-going, I've been privileged enough to see Dylan (3x), Bruce (2x), the Stones, & Chuck Berry, but never the elusive Sir Paul. My sister offered to get me a ticket for his July 12th concert at the Nationals Baseball Stadium, which placed the archetypal stadium rocker (heck, even Don Draper took Sally to The Beatles at Shea in '65) in one of the newest teams' stadiums. Minus the running president heads.

Doors were to open at 6:00 (actually at 7:09) & the show was to begin at 8:00 (actually 8:37). I'd spent the previous week trying to catch up on lost time with his solo work, which is akin to trying to get blood from, like, a Rolling Stone. If it's rare for any solo act to match the magic of the group that made them famous, it's IMPOSSIBLE for any Beatle to do so. I mean, you're up against THE BEATLES, which was a band that for my money pretty much never released anything short of a masterpiece. &  most of their most important music—the long medley of Abbey Road, the concept of Sgt. Pepper, & the most covered song in the history of mankind ("Yesterday")—is the masterstroke of McCartney, but still, I had never really stacked up his Beatles work with his solo work & play them against each other.

It turns out that doing so makes his solo work completely suck. Still, I soldiered on with a mix CD of all his biggest solo chart hits I made, & it paid off when he dusted off chestnuts like "Junior's Farm" (his second song), "Listen to What the Man Said" (he apparently said, "Write me a boring song"), & "Hi Hi Hi" (my first-encore bathroom break—thanks to my mix, I knew it would be just long enough). I gave my sister the same mix CD but she didn't get nearly as far as I did. When McCartney began playing "Another Day," she said, "Oh, I know this one from the CD!" "Yeah," I said. "because it was the second song on it."

Can't blame her for not wanting to waste her time. With the exception of "Maybe I'm Amazed" (which for me is more of an extension of the contemporary Abbey Road & Let It Be than a solo song), the vast majority of his solo hits were the commercial breaks to the rest of the set's television programming. People sat down when the Wings songs came on, took a minute to take some pictures, hit the restroom, or text a friend so they could be recharged & dancing for the next Beatles classic (turns out many of McCartney's fans need recharging). With all of the memories & glory of the Beatles music, it honestly didn't hurt to have a bit of downtime to regather oneself & reflect.

"He's really smart," my mom told me of a Sir Paul show she caught a few years back. "He knows what he can do, & what he can't." When she listed the Beatles songs that he "could do," I pointed out that they were all his Beatle songs (i.e., no "I Am the Walrus"), which my mom hadn't considered. This time around, McCartney has gotten more liberal in his old age, throwing in a few "never-before-played-live" like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (which was splendid) & "Day Tripper" (solid, though never one of my favs)—both which John sang lead on & was largely responsible for.

That said, you couldn't find John anywhere but in the music. As my sister shrewdly noted, he wasn't included in any of the photo montages (specifically the 30-minute one that preceded him taking the stage—it was sorta like the best wedding slideshow EVER); she's figuring that his estate didn't license it, which, given McCartney's terse relationship with Yoko over the years, sadly wouldn't be a complete shocker.

Paul did mention John a few times—most notably before doing a solo version of his John tribute "Here Today" (the one song of the night I didn't recognize)—& gave George a lovely tribute by bringing out a ukelele that George had given him & used it to play a plunka-plunka version of "Something," which then broke into the classic style (appropriately) at George's guitar solo. It also set up Paul's best quip of the night, which was that "Something" was "Frank Sinatra's favorite Lennon/McCartney song."

[Other Dead Friends Name-Checked By Paul Besides John, George, & Frank: Jimi & Linda; Non-Dead Friends: Eric [Clapton]; Not Mentioned Whatsoever: Ringo.]

Most of McCartney's asides were more cutesy-for-cutesy's-sake; one can understand why his peers either refuse to talk to the crowd (Dylan) or seem physically incapable of doing so (poor eternally-shellshocked Brian Wilson): You're generally going to sound, well, like a 70-something-year-old man. "I like how, at the end of the day, he's just kind of a bit of nerd," I told my sister after one of his little awkward but pleasant patters. "I don't know," my sister said. "I think he's pretty cool." Maybe, but does one picture John or George acting that way if they were in their 70s giving arena shows? But then again, perhaps the fact that Paul is the one still doing so makes his banter the symptom rather than the disease.

I caught McCartney on Colbert the other week & he said that in The Beatles, they all got a full veto over any song—as Stephen was sure to clarify, if Paul or John had written what they thought was the best song in the world but Ringo didn't like it, it was out. It seems obvious to say that the Beatles "had something magic" about them that made their music great. But, if we consider the competition they inspired in each other & their genius at providing the perfect support for their compositions, maybe there is some magic in there.

Because, even with "Band on the Run" (the one Wings song my sister really likes, for anyone keeping score) & "Live & Let Die" (with pyrotechnics worthy of a, well, Roger Moore James Bond film), it's the Beatles songs that bring the concert from a good-time arena rock party to a transcendental experience.

* * *

The thing that surprised me most about the show was that the most powerful songs were not the ballads—tearjerkers like "Let It Be," "Blackbird," & "Golden Slumbers," which are among the finest songs I've ever heard. Instead, it was the rockers, specifically "Lady Madonna," "Back in the USSR," & "Hey Jude"—all great songs to be sure, but not necessarily the first three you'd think of when given the Lennon/McCartney songbook.

"Lady Madonna" was done right after an odd take on "Your Mother Should Know," in which Paul played the strutting throwaway as Walker Evans-like photographs of Depression-era mothers & children were shown on the screen behind the stage. "That's depressing," my sister said, for good reason. "I think it's to be like, before your mother was born, songs that were played in 1930s," I offered, but I now realize that the parents of McCartney (& his baby-boomer demographic) were largely born before the 1930s, so who knows. Maybe McCartney was trying to remind us that even the most modern rock & roll arena concert, the ghosts of poverty's past are never far away; maybe he just really digs Walker Evans. At any rate, it was a bit stirring & surreal, like the weird transition between dreaming & waking life.

It all set the stage for "Lady Madonna," which also began with old photographs & footage of regal mothers—Queen Elizabeth, Lady Diana. But then, early on, things took a turn for the strange when a picture of Harriet Tubman (who did adopt a daughter), & then Amelia Earhart (who did not) cropped up. Before long, images of Marilyn Monroe began appearing up along side pictures of Billie Holiday, Anne Frank, & most weirdly, Joan "Mommie Dearest" Crawford (complete with her real-life "No more wire hangers" daughter)—women who did not have children, women who died before having children, women who were famously rotten to their children. & yet, he still threw in old shots like President Obama at the beach with his mother, to keep the thread running. (The one woman I waited for but didn't appear was Madonna, who perhaps was too obvious.)

McCartney's own mother was pictured at one point—Mother Mary from "Let It Be"—who, like Barack Obama's mother & Prince William's mother, died when he was relatively young. That Lennon too experienced a similar thing when his mother Julia died when he was young (the inspiration for "The White Album" song of the same name) was something that brought he & McCartney closer together.

"Lady Madonna" itself a barnstormer, written in a '50s tribute to Fats Domino, who brought things full-circle by doing his own version & getting his last Top 100 hit out of it (at #100). McCartney played it on a psychedelic-painted upright as the band crashed along. Interspersing the photographs of women were old film clips of women running, women dancing, women doing those weird choreographed moves in those old Busby Berkeley-style show-stoppers, as the song double-backed on itself. Here was a song conceived of in nostalgia that itself had become nostalgia. Seeing these once familiar & then archaic images & film reels go by made it feel like the song was an aural junk shop in which these were the riches.

Because when it comes down to it, "Lady Madonna" is about many things—it's about mothers & children, saints & whores, sacred riches & earthly poverty. It's a '60s song that sounds like a '50s song; it's an adult song that sounds like a kid's song; it has a singing part that sounds like trumpets. It is also an orphan, a song that was never released on a proper album, a stand-alone single that hit Number One in the UK (making it perhaps their least-iconic Number One, next to "The Ballad of John & Yoko" & "The Long & Boring Road"), & peaked at #4 in the US on March 23rd, 1968, one day after my own mother's 20th birthday.

"Back in the USSR" evoked history as well, but in a different way. This time during the song, new Soviet poster-style artwork flashed on the screen in bold black, red, & beige; fists & eyes, workers & industry, militant-looking women & men, all that stuff. But then, in the middle of everything—McCartney singing, the guitars blaring, the drums pounding, the people dancing, the lights flashing, the soundmen mixing—there appeared on the screen three words that cut through it all like a hot knife in butter, written in all-caps, military-stencil style lettering: FREE PUSSY RIOT.

Suddenly the old & quaint disappeared & everything became suddenly all about the present. The USSR was no longer a distant memory that loomed like a half-forgotten bad dream, but rather an area of the world where freedom of expression & rock & roll music was something important, endangered, & immediate. It also was nice to remember that the Beatles themselves were often political—John got all the attention, but perhaps only because he did it in his John way: Loudly. Paul was always more quiet & whimsical—as he was earlier in the set when he introduced "Blackbird" as an attempt to instill hope in the Civil Rights movement (something that I had never heard before). It made the song glisten in a new way, but one that was in keeping with the stately, understated grace of the song itself. Take these broken wings & learn to fly.

"Back in the USSR" is the complete opposite. Written during a British "I'm Backing the UK" morale campaign, "Back in the USSR" took Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" & crossbred it with a send-up of the Beach Boys' sound. It took the then-most dangerous part of the world & made it as harmless & catchy as a well-written novelty 45. When the USSR fell in 1989, the song's sudden outdatedness made it all the more relevant—in picturing a fun & stupid Russia two decades earlier, it had written history before it happened. In a Wayne's World sketch done soon after the Berlin Wall fell, Wayne & Garth lamented the loss of The Beatles song: "Now it's 'Back in the Commonwealth of Independent, back in the Commonwealth of Independent, back in the Commonwealth of Independent States'!"

But the words "FREE PUSSY RIOT" changed all that—if only for an instant, reminding us that democracy isn't a gift that's simply given, it's a skill that can only be earned by doing. It took the "Back" out of "Back in the USSR," but did so quickly & succinctly enough as to not disrupt the night or even the song. I think John would've approved.

"Hey Jude" came two songs later as the end of the main set. I like to think of "Hey Jude" as the greatest 3-minute song ever written followed by the worst 4-minute song ever written; I still hold that it would maintain all of its impact if only it ran for 2 minutes of "Nah-nah-nah"s instead of 4. But then, of course, it wouldn't be "Hey Jude." As The Beatles' biggest hit, it looms in popular memory in a way that is larger-than-life even for a Beatles song—really only "I Want To Hold Your Hand" & "Yesterday" can touch it.

But unlike so many other Lennon/McCartney songs, "Hey Jude" is virtually impossible to cover. Every version I've ever heard falls flat. Elvis's version is a strong candidate for the worst studio performance of his career (& this is a man who waxed things like "Yoga Is As Yoga Does" & "(There's) No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car)," while Wilson Pickett's soul take is more clunky than funky. The only time I have seen it effectively used is in the opening of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums, in which an instrumental "Hey Jude" plays over Alec Baldwin's perfect narration of the rise & fall of the Tennenbaum clan. In there, the song is played for its lilting nostalgia, & the track nails it.

Hearing McCartney do it was a perfect summary of the conundrum of seeing Paul McCartney live: It sounded completely solid, yet the importance of McCartney, the importance of the song, & the importance of knowing I was the closest I'd ever be to seeing the biggest band of all-time play their biggest song of all-time, proved inseparable from the listening experience. If Hamlet thinks when he should be acting, I think when I should be dancing.

Further framing the moment was the rumors that this may be McCartney's last major tour, & perhaps the last time I could witness this. There's an elusive closeness to it that is simultaneously fleeting; you can see McCartney sing the song for the thousandth time, you can hear his weird little stage-banter that carefully substitutes the word "Washington" into his otherwise interchangeable words to the audience; there is a feeling of ritual, of going through the motions, of taking part in this at once sacred & mundane performance.

& yet, there it is, alive & in front of you. Here is the man who left in the line he was initially apologizing for because of John Lennon's insistence: The movement you need is on your shoulder.

It is an ending, but with the impending encore—both in that night & beyond—it was a false one.

* * *

By the time that McCartney had begun "Hey Jude," my niece was fading fast. She may know more than 217 Beatles songs, but you'd never know it when she's at a show that begins after 9:00 PM & goes close to midnight. By the time McCartney did his final encore of "The End," I expected I'd be all chocked-up but wasn't even close.

And in the end, Paul sang. The love you take—is equal to the make.

I looked over to my niece.

It was a sentimental moment, to be sure, but not one to get misty-eyed over—it was more like a changing of the guards, a proud nod of fact that sometimes, when art is at its finest, we don't experience it as much as it describes our own experience.

There is beauty in such moments, & a simple truth that transcends emotion.

& then, 17 seconds after it ended & the houselights were coming back on, I broke into an a capella rendition of "Her Majesty." I tried to get my niece to join in, but she was still too shellshocked from the "Live & Let Die" pyrotechnics to help me out.

Either that, or we can officially bring her count down to 216.

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