Last night, during Paul McCartney's performance of "Helter Skelter" at Atlanta's Philips Arena, I reveled in the exoticism of electric guitars. The song's scratchy, downspiral riff - the same one that McCartney and George Harrison played in unison on the Beatles' 1968 White Album and that gave crazy killer Charles Manson enough bravado to believe he could outlive an apocalypse - is the epitome of what rock 'n' roll was: loud, dangerous, sexy and irresistible.
In some ways, listening to a classic rock concert nowadays feels like stroking the pelt of an extinct species: on the underside, the instruments are rough and freewheeling, on top, the melodies are plush like fur. We buy the tour merch, we lift our lighters, er, phones into night like good rock fans do. We cannot deny, however, that the animal that was rock 'n' roll is long gone. This review is not an epitaph for the genre, nor is this blog long enough for me to get too intellectual about a concert. Rather, it's a moment to stop and cherish the music that transcended sound, embraced social movements and brought us together like never before and never again.
Basically, it's about how Paul McCartney is everything.
In spite of "Helter Skelter," the Beatles were the least scary and most accessible rockers of all time, and that's in part because McCartney can't stop shining like the sun. Thank God. There's a transference of optimism that happens when one hears his tunes. Even at his most contemplative, that "chin up" attitude prevails. His face may be plastered on six decades worth of pins, mugs and bobbleheads, but McCartney is not a two-dimensional icon. He's our everyman and a Renaissance Man. The whistler. The cut-up. The artist. He loves music and it loves us back. What a trade-off!
Not much has changed about his set list since I first saw McCartney perform when I was a college student in Germany in 1989. It doesn't need to. The "Eleanor Rigby" lyrics and counterpoint still stir empathy; "Live and Let Die" sounds as James Bond-y as ever, only now with bigger pyrotechnics; and no rock anthem is close to topping "Hey Jude." Recent songs "New" and "Queenie Eye" fit seamlessly in the mix. McCartney howls, growls and hoots like he always did.
Yet his ability to be musically delicate and vulnerable is what made him so much more than just a rock star in the first place. At 72, what McCartney's lost in ham factor he makes up for in sincerity. The words in his ballads have personal relevance, and his delivery is without pretense. With his third wife Nancy in the audience, he dedicated the moody "My Valentine" to her before launching into his love-filled "Maybe I'm Amazed." "This one's for Linda," he said as the video screens flashed images of him holding his infant daughter Mary in 1970s footage shot by his beloved first wife and mother of his children (Linda died in 1998). McCartney sang to Harrison in a fitting rendition of "Something," which showcased that late Beatle's under-appreciated songwriting skills. In tribute to John Lennon, Paul finger-plucked his acoustic six-string during the rarely performed "Here Today," a 1982 number about a conversation he wishes they'd had. The song ended with a sweet falsetto line that was so pure, it drew tears. What more should be said?
This concert was an interactive postcard to the future. One day soon, we might need an example of what it means to love, to play, to live ... music. Hearing beauties like "And I Love Her" or "Let It Be" directly from McCartney's mouth confirms to me that his melodies indeed aren't just the music of a generation. They're the music of being human, world without end.