Long Hair at Madison Square: What It’s Like to See Macca Now
By John Affleck
The touchstone songs in the canon were played, of course. Let It Be. Yesterday. The Abbey Road medley from Golden Slumbers to The End. All faithfully rendered by a dead-on backup band with a particularly inspired drummer.
And there were incredible nuggets as well. Acoustic versions of In Spite of All the Danger by the pre-Beatle Quarrymen, and You Won’t See Me from Rubber Soul. The pulse of Letting Go, off Wings’ Venus and Mars. A game rendition of Four Five Seconds.
The crowd, as a young companion of mine noted, was the most on-time audience in the history of Madison Square Garden. Not an empty seat, spot on eight o’clock. They cheered with absolute commitment, they waved, laughed, sang along. Some held up signs that read “Na” during the coda of Hey Jude.
Seeing Paul McCartney live, at 75, is still — somewhat amazingly, given his age — a supreme pleasure. Sure, his voice shows the dozens of albums, the road miles. But it’s stunning to hear the unfailingly gorgeous melodies and unexpected passages the man has written over a life well lived.
The experience stays with you for days, even weeks, especially if you are among the what — millions? tens of millions? 100 million? — Beatlemaniacs walking the earth. And here, I must confess to being part of that tribe, offering as my bonafides the mere fact that the Beatles occupied the top four spots in the American charts the week of my birth and I’ve been listening to them almost constantly ever since.
Why, then, is it that when I, when we, think back on our particular McCartney show, the feeling is overwhelmingly one of melancholy?
The easy answer is the big, bad one.
Macca does the grandad storyteller bit during the nearly three-hour performance, and we, the appreciators, can’t help loving it, even if the stories have been oft-told and embellished with the years. What’s striking now is how the dead protagonists outnumber the quick ones. Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, George Harrison, George Martin, Linda McCartney. All gone, most far too soon. Among the living: Paul’s wife, Nancy; Eric Clapton; and, Mick Jagger. Keith Richards counts as a tie.
The Beatles conquered the musical world and utterly changed pop culture, but they paid an awfully heavy price that’s impossible to miss. John, assassinated. George, stabbed almost to death, then taken by cancer. And just the life under the microscope. The pressure of being the most-wanted, the most-loved bunch of guys ever on the planet.
So, yeah, embracing a night with Sir Paul means coming to terms with a lot of loss, which can quickly turn inward. How many friends and lovers have come and gone over these 50-odd years the Beatles, in all their configurations, have been the soundtrack to our lives?
But the thing is, all those ruminations are too easy, too trite. Because the sadness one feels listening to any of the Fabs is built into the music itself, right from There’s a Place and This Boy on up through Fool on the Hill and many others. Free As a Bird has that quality, for Pete Best’s sake.
The Beatles were always the masters of music that felt sad but made you happy (Good Night) or sounded happy but had an edge of sadness (“It’s getting better all the time / It can’t get no worse”).
There’s something inside that particular effect that is just beyond the reach of words. It happened to grab me the other night when McCartney played Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five off Band on the Run and that urgent, uptempo love song hit the harmony interlude between verses. Looking down from our vantage point at his hands on the keyboard, I was caught by the utter fragility of something totally beautiful. Somehow, wrapped inside that moment of sheer joy was a sharp awareness of that moment’s passing — now made all the more keen with the knowledge that, some terrible day, moments like it won’t happen any more at all.
Maybe it’s silly to be so invested in what, at the end of the day, is just pop music created by people we only feel like we know.
But for these days since seeing Paul — for the last time? — it’s been enough to listen again, and to mourn the passing of kings.