Sean Nelson Talks Paul McCartney in Concert, Yesterday and Today

It's hard not to marvel at the differences and similarities between the Paul McCartney who leads Wings through the paces of the 1976 concert...

It’s hard not to marvel at the differences and similarities between the Paul McCartney who leads Wings through the paces of the 1976 concert documentary Rockshow, recently released on DVD, and the one I saw in the flesh a couple of weeks back.

Both took place in Seattle (at least partially — Rockshow was also filmed in New York and Los Angeles), about two blocks away from each other, in front of sold-out sports arena crowds accustomed to seeing the home team (Go, Mariners!) choke. Though the ’76 Kingdome show was seen by 67,000 people, as opposed to the hardly meager 47,000 who filled Safeco Field, Rockshow is a document of the biggest band in the world at the time, with a number one record on the charts and an at least semiheroic comeback narrative to nudge it into a frame. The rockshow in Rockshow was a victory lap, consecrating McCartney’s path from the slough of post-Abbey Road despond back to the toppermost, where Wings (alas, Wings) had to compete not just with fellow former Beatles, but with a world of Led Zeppelins, Pink Floyds, Eagles, and KISSes. And no need to get into the whole thing of what happened a year later, except to say that it was obviously already happening. This triumph is rendered somewhat ironic by the fact that the film wasn’t released until five years later, by which time Wings had joined the Beatles as the band McCartney used to be in, and the man himself was again trying to reckon his place in the post-punk/new wave pop landscape. If there’s a chip on McCartney’s shoulder in Rockshow, it has everything to do with the shadow of John Lennon and the indefatigable trouper’s spirit that always made Paul too good to need to be cool. He still felt he had lots to prove — enough that he even lets the other guys sing lead on a couple of songs to demonstrate that Wings was a “real” band. Though it feels sort of ridiculous to type the words “Paul McCartney” and “underdog” in the same sentence, it wasn’t until 1976 that McCartney himself seemed to believe he had really laid his own claim to that stadium crowd without relying too heavily on the history his old band had only recently made.

At Safeco Field, as with the past, oh, let’s say 10 years of his touring, the victory lap element is being run on a whole other level, for a race he couldn’t even have begun to know he was running in 1976, or 1966. Paul McCartney playing live in 2013 is pure master class, a marvel of endurance, command, and visceral joy unrivaled by any other musical experience currently available. (I mean, yeah, Radiohead is a great band, but they don’t even play songs from The Bends!) It’s also a working illustration of coming to terms with one’s history. In 1976, McCartney allowed five Beatles songs in a 30-song set, and you get the sense that he did it reluctantly, en route to a climactic performance of “Silly Love Songs.” In 2013, it was 24 out of 37 if you count “Long Tall Sally,” all respect to Little Richard. The show was over three hours long. Though his astonishing voice, one of the most durable, versatile, miraculous instruments ever to draw breath, is clearly slipping a little, it’s only a little. It’s worth remembering (as if the hair dye and plastic surgery weren’t clues enough), the man is 71 years old and can still completely own “Helter Skelter” in its original key, which makes sitting through one new song, “My Valentine,” and the only two Beatles songs I actively dislike (“The Long and Winding Road” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) feel like tiny prices to pay.

That’s in stark contrast to the un-tiny price I had to pay to sit within human distance of the stage, but the thing is: I’m not complaining about any of it, because the show made complaint, made the concept of critical distance of any kind, seem ludicrous. Did I note with some mild chagrin that the corny bits of the McCartney (one other thing: unless you’re British, it seems best not to ever say Macca… or Moz, actually) stage banter persist? Did I spare a moment to wonder when it was that “Blackbird” got beatified as not merely a perfect song and acoustic guitarists’ Rosetta Stone but as a statement of solidarity with the civil rights movement? And did that moment coincide with a certain perplexity at the choice to let that song reveal the one big set change of the whole show, a huge platform that lifted the singer some 25 feet above stage level to sing it? Well, if it did, it didn’t linger, because what I was doing primarily, and involuntarily, and gratefully, was surrendering. Not just to the songs — though, for the record, it was a fantastic selection of songs — but to the surpassing rapture of being in the same place as Paul McCartney, architect of the 20th century.

Dismissing McCartney because of certain cloying tics in his presentation, or even because of legitimate beefs with his work, is like walking out of the Globe in 1609 saying Shakespeare is bullshit because Cymbeline is lightweight: He fucking wrote HamletMacbethKing Lear, all those Henrys! The odd Merry Wives of Windsor does not diminish those accomplishments. (Not to mention that I like The Merry Wives of Windsor.) And yes, as soon as someone mentions “Ebony and Ivory,” which has no rival in Shakespeare’s canon, this analogy is screwed. But it does introduce the lurking potential for a late-career masterwork, a Tempest at the end of the rainbow — the only feat McCartney has not yet pulled off. I don’t know if the new record he’s got coming out in October will be that, but the new song, which is called “New,” is very promising.

To hear him do, say, “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” which is obviously not even your favorite Beatles song — though how many other bands have so many actual gems that you could sort of vaguely forget about one as perfect as “I’ve Just Seen a Face” — is to be all but literally transported through time, to all the selves you have been in all the decades since you first heard it. The same held true for many of the 37 songs he played that night, none more so than the archetypal song-you’ve-heard-so-many-times-you-thought-you-couldn’t-possibly-need-to-hear-it-ever-again. It sounded miraculous. McCartney tends to speed through “Yesterday” these days, though he doesn’t otherwise betray the sense of obligation it carries. It struck me, as he mantra’d his way through it, that “Yesterday” is almost definitely the first song I have a clear memory of having heard in my life, and that it was played to me as an intentional demonstration of what a song is, what music is for. I remembered that the melancholy attitude of regret the whole song gathers around was easy to understand long before I had ever experienced regret or melancholy — before I had even experienced a Big Wheel.

The primary blue-ness of “Yesterday” wasn’t just my introduction to the Beatles, or to songs, but to a certain seam of human sadness that the rest of my life, for one reason and another, has seen fit to mine rather extensively. I hadn’t been thinking of “Yesterday” when I went to the show, would never think to count it among my favorites, but hearing it was like having a past-life regression. Hearing it sung in a voice so familiar it’s impossible to imagine ever having not known it only magnifies the power of the song, so you consider the power of all the songs, of songness. But to hear it with 46,999 other people, and to feel them hearing it, too, is to join into the only large-scale communion I’ve ever had access to. I spent lots of time before the show started looking around, wondering who all these oddly normal people were. A full baseball stadium will never be a hip room, obviously. But then he played one song after another that we all not just loved but had-always-loved, that we had grown up and, let’s be serious, were now growing old with, to have stood apart from the crowd would have been disingenuous. All the lonely people? What lonely people?

Leaning back into the embrace of all that shared feeling was effortless and ecstatic, but not without a certain pang of grief. His shout-outs to John, George, and Linda, while incorporated into musical tributes and accompanied by well-rehearsed anecdotes, nonetheless landed with surprising — if not unexpected — gravity. (I don’t suppose it costs me anything to admit that it takes almost nothing to get me to cry about the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison, like a sentimental gag reflex.) The question of McCartney’s sincerity has been argued for decades, and without interrogating the nature of meaning, it’s true that a mammoth stage flanked by 100-foot-tall video screens that never show anything but your own face might not be the most plausible place to wax intimate. But frankly, that is the scrim through which all of McCartney’s work, good, bad and ugly, must pass. His inner life will always be a mystery. His public face will always be part mask. In 1976, that mask (to say nothing of the mullet that adorned it) was a lot more transparent. Thirty-seven years on, like all masks worn long enough, it has simply become his face, which makes the question of sincerity all the more difficult to reckon. One thing the show I saw demonstrated beyond any doubt was that great performance can and should transcend those kind of questions, because the visceral effect of the work, and the human effort required to play and sing it well, make the music powerful enough all by itself. The emotional force comes not from the performer enacting a burlesque of passion, but from the audience itself, whose associations with the material are every bit as much a part of the show as the man in the spotlight.

This apparent lack of an obvious display of what people still insist on calling passion seems to be at the heart of people’s objection to McCartney, which has nonetheless softened quite a bit in recent years, owing to both his unprecedented tenacity and the general abatement of objection itself in music culture. (As if more than 50 years of dedicated labor isn’t passion…) Still, being a lifelong adherent of McCartney — you don’t choose your Beatle, your Beatle chooses you — has always required a certain willingness to acknowledge the opposition’s argument, even while preparing to mount the unapologetic defense. Yes, “Silly Love Songs,” but on the other hand, Ram! Obviously, “The Girl Is Mine,” but McCartney 2! Granted, the puckered-lips photo on the Starbucks gift card,  but… And so on. Nobody told you it was going to be easy. Within the paradigm that still dictates John as holy artist and Paul as smiling crowd-pleaser, it’s still possible to locate a tiny particle of underdog in McCartney’s steadfast refusal to take a final bow.

Despite the triumphalism of his onstage presentation (right down to the fact that the pre-show music is all remixes of his own songs, accompanying an animated slideshow of photos of him through the decades), there remains the slightest splinter of the chip that rested so plainly on his shoulder in Rockshow. You can still spot the urge to reframe his own reputation, to prove that he’s not just the last Beatle standing (apologies to Ringo), but a worthy artist in his own right and on his own terms, however corny they may seem to the jaded. This impulse has always been part of McCartney’s approach, from his reversal of the writing credits to “McCartney/Lennon” on the five Beatles songs included on the triple live album Wings Over America, to the “I was the real avant garde one while John was living in the suburbs” line he has repeated a thousand times, and it’s still there, in the Jimi Hendrix name-drop story he tells at every show and the gratuitous “Nirvana reunion” malarkey at the end of the Seattle show. (For the record, though the new song he wrote with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear, “Cut Me Some Slack,” is pretty bad, the other songs they all played together — “Get Back,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Helter Skelter,” and the “Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight”/”The End” medley, replete with guitar solo-a-thon — were monstrously rocking.) Somewhere, on some level, it’s clear that Paul McCartney still wants to win people over to the idea that he is not only great, but good, too.

Which, again, feels funny to type. As his former collaborator (and fellow exemplar of still trying) Elvis Costello put it in an interview with Nick Kent in the early ‘90s, “I mean, compared to who is Paul McCartney not any good?” There’s no need to list his credits — this is a man who was instrumental in defining the scope of what “good” even means in rock & roll. So why does the smithereen of a chip linger? It could be down to performer’s vanity, or possibly some much deeper yearning known only to a select few people in history, but it’s clearly a few notches more interesting than standard-issue Michael Jackson-style megalomania, because it’s not about love. It’s about respect. It’s the little wound in McCartney’s otherwise imperturbable façade that makes him keep trying, and keep playing shows like this to all the lonely people for whom loving his music is a first principle.

Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor. His solo album, Make Good Choices, is available on Really Records. He is an editor at The Stranger. He currently lives in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter here.