Lately I’ve been feeling broken. It’s lasted long enough that I don’t think it’s unique to me anymore. You try to do good and you fuck it up. People who you’ve never met hate you. People who love you stop, turn on you–it happens every day. Broken in the way that doesn’t get fixed. At 74, Sir Paul McCartney knows a thing or two about brokenness. Maybe when people are as successful as he has become, we forget to acknowledge their humanity. We forget to acknowledge their losses, struggles, their brokenness. There were several times on the stage at Metlife Stadium last night where Paul McCartney visibly teared up.
One was when he sang “Maybe I’m Amazed” a song he wrote in tribute to his late wife Linda, who died back in 1998. Nearly twenty years ago at this point, McCartney lost his partner of 29 years, but he didn’t shut down. Another emotional moment was when he prefaced “Here Today” with a gentle lament on not telling the people we love how we really feel about them, then described the track as a conversation he wrote between him and John Lennon. McCartney has lost two of the three men who will forever define his musical career–hell, who will forever define an era of music that much of the world regards as one of the greatest in history. The Beatles and The 60s seem and feel and sound so synonymous, and yet, that’s only one fraction of the musical output this man has given us. Even after the band’s breakup infamously sent him into a spiral of depression, he didn’t stop there. He could’ve. I thought about that last night, because I’ve been thinking about quitting.
What is music writing supposed to do? What am I, a 28-year-old woman with a cursory knowledge of The Beatles and Wings seeing Paul McCartney live for the first time going to tell you about what happened in MetLife Stadium last night? Can I tell you how this year has felt like one long nightmare so far and last night it broke? Can I tell you the joy I saw on one of my best friend’s face when Paul launched into “Can’t Buy Me Love” as the third song in his set? Can I tell you that being able to bring her there felt like restitution for all the nights she fielded late grief-stricken calls, gave advice, took me to recover in her Jersey beach town, taught me about grace? It’s no secret that the music industry leaves those of us who are a part of it jaded, when going to shows is literally your job it’s inevitable for that too to lose its magic and feel like a chore. Seeing her reaction to the concert last night reminded me of the thing I always try to come back to–that music has the power to transform us, restore us, connect us to the larger centrifugal force of joy that moves the sun and other stars–even if it’s just for a night.
For most people at that show last night, this concert was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s the kind of thing you save up for, hedge your bets and decide to just splurge on–an invest in the thrill of spending a single night with a living legend. McCartney knows that, and whatever his personal connection with these songs might be, he rolls out the hits and plays them without a trace of ennui. Instead, the most charming thing about a Paul McCartney set in 2016 is the complete lack of pretension, the totally earnest way this man treats his audience. Paul McCartney is currently on the One on One tour, supporting his latest career-spanning compilation Pure McCartney. But it wouldn’t matter what the peg was–it’s Paul McCartney. Kicking off with “A Hard Day’s Night,” he rolls right on through “Let Me Roll It” complete with “Foxy Lady” jam–that he still motherfucking shreds on–and through “We Can Work It Out,” “Love Me Do,” “Blackbird.”
I need to stop here, at “Blackbird,” because McCartney shared the inspiration for this song last night and it was a story I’d never heard. He said that back in the ‘60s he and the band (that’s what he calls The Beatles) would see the protests for civil rights in the Southern states on television. He said: “I wanted to write a song that, if those people heard it, it would give them a little bit of hope.” I’m not a Beatles superfan by any means, so perhaps this is well-known, but to contextualize that song as a lullaby and potential source of hope for those protesting for civil rights in America added a whole new layer of meaning to it. How sad for our country that this song is still relevant, decades after he wrote it.
The second half of the show was slower, even if it continued certifiably bangers like “Back In The USSR” and “Band On The Run,” after “Blackbird” and “Here Today” the vibe had changed, slowed down. There was a gravity in the crowd that hadn’t been there before; Paul had shared with us some of his brokenness, and acknowledged our own. There was an intimacy in that revelation of pain that I’ve rarely encountered at any concert, let alone a massive arena show. But it was by no means over. We got the unlikely Kanye West and Rihanna collaboration “FourFiveSeconds”–a sleeper gospel-jam that most of the stadium didn’t know or recognize–the lonely “Eleanor Rigby,” a trippy Sgt. Peppers track “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and the carefree kiss off “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Then, came the undeniable highlight of the show. If you grew up in America in the eighties and nineties, it was easy to live and breathe Beatles songs, to know every word without even trying. I never knew a world without the Beatles, I knew they were considered the greatest band in existence before I even really knew what a band was. I don’t remember the first time I heard “Let It Be” in the same way I don’t remember tasting milk for the first time; it has been part of what’s nourished me for so long it seems like it’s always been there. Critical arguments aside–because, for one thing, my dad hates the Beatles–there is a certain electric jolt in the feeling of hearing a song you’ve known in your bones all your life for the first time live.
I didn’t know “Let It Be” would be the one that knocked the breath out of me when I heard the first chorus; I didn’t know what it would feel like to hear Paul McCartney sing that song live, or that I ever would. I don’t think a song can heal you, or I take it back, I didn’t think that until last night. He played several more important ones after it, “Live And Let Die,” “Hey Jude” and an encore stuffed to the gills–“Yesterday,” “Birthday,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight”–but nothing moved me more than that moment when the entire crowd lifted up whatever light they held in their hand and sang together: Let. It. Be.
To see a Beatle is a privilege, a puzzle, an attempt to grasp at the past. For everyone who tells millennials that music is over, art used to be better, that we’ve lost all our legends, being in the same room as Paul McCartney was a pretty fucking spectacular realization of how much is still here. Watching those fans freak the fuck out over the Beatles in documentaries seems like a thousand years ago–it’s not. It was all within Paul’s lifetime and here he is, singing his way right into mine. If he had let brokenness stop him decades ago, we would have missed out on so much. I’m not a scholar and I don’t try to be, but I believe Paul wrote “Let It Be” in the midst of the knowledge that the Beatles were about to break up. So, you see what can come from brokenness. You see that, sometimes, fixing it is not the answer.
Full setlist here. Photo via Instagram