Every now and then, I take a trip to some other, quieter city and, like a lot of people who live here, get tempted to leave New York. And then things happen, like my day gets spontaneously rearranged around seeing Bruce Springsteen fill in for Bono when U2 plays in Times Square. Or, I find myself going to a secret Paul McCartney show at Irving Plaza on the first Valentine’s Day I’ve spent single in something like seven years, to hear McCartney play a bunch of really famous love songs. Which, hey, there are a lot of worse ways to spend a Saturday night.
I was actually downplaying the experience. Going into this, the idea of seeing a Beatle perform live for the first time, and in a venue that holds around 1,000 people vs. his normal stadiums, was some overwhelmingly exciting stuff. The idea of seeing Paul McCartney, at age 72 in 2015, play a handful of legendary pop songs — the kind of stuff we’re all raised on these days, whether directly or indirectly — could only really result in a kind of cognitive dissonance. I’d gotten to the point where I assumed I’d never wind up seeing McCartney; I always figured it’d be too hard to get on the press list at one of his shows or that they’d be too expensive. The whole thing carries this mind-blowing weight: You’re seeing a human being on that stage, but he’s also one of the most mythic, iconic figures in pop history.
Turns out a lot of the crowd seemingly felt the same way, or else people were just really drunk on some Valentine’s Day bender. There were a lot of older fans, but everyone around came off as essentially giddy the whole night. Before I got to the show, I had been thinking the crowd would be all industry people and celebrities, but — and I have no idea if this is true or not, this is just anecdotal experience — it seemed like there were a lot of people who just somehow found themselves there and were very, very psyched to be seeing Macca. They kept all the celebrities up in the VIP area in the balcony, but everyone got really excited when one or two would come into view. I guess David Spade was there because some people tried to get a “Joe Dirt!” chant going. I’m also pretty certain Leo DiCaprio was hanging out up there because that crazy beard/topknot/newsboy cap combo he’s had going on recently is pretty conspicuous.
As for McCartney, he was exactly as you’d expect at a McCartney show on Valentine’s Day. He walked out to a massive cheer and raised his arms with a sort of mock-mischievous “Who, me?” kind of look. “Happy Valentine’s Day, it’s all about love, yeah?” he said early in the set. The dude knows his brand, I suppose: what followed was, naturally, a lot of love songs spanning his career but mostly sticking to classics. “Eight Days A Week” and “All My Loving” showed up early; mid-set highlights included “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “We Can Work It Out.” They also brought out “Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five,” which has always been one of my personal favorites out of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. From a musical standpoint, the only small gripe I could muster is that his band is so exceedingly professional as to border on clinical; they’ve played these songs who knows how many times, and sometimes it translates to performances that are just a bit too squeaky clean.
That’s the other thing that’s incredibly hard to wrap my mind around: McCartney’s been playing some of these songs, on and off, for four or five decades. Even with him being the affable pop star he is, it’s hard for me to conceive of these guys still getting excited to do the big outro to “Hey Jude.” But, I mean, it works. The end of the set went into total take-no-prisoners territory: “Drive My Car” was shortly followed by “Back In The U.S.S.R.” which went right into the one-two of “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” to close the main set. (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” snuck in there after “Drive My Car,” but it’s best to forget about the bizarre image of people drunkenly grinding to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on Valentine’s Day.) Then there was the encore of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End.” Most of the last third of the show was comprised of songs that could’ve ended the show, songs with enough power to bring the house down.
I’ve seen a lot of my favorite older artists live in their later years, but there’s something way more dizzying about Paul McCartney. I thought about how many times he must’ve gotten onstage and done “Hey Jude,” that it just has to be on some level perfunctory for him now. But I also thought about the sheer amount of people who heard “Hey Jude” or something else McCartney had written and had their lives changed, and how they might only get to see him play one time in their lives, whether in a crowd of 1,000 or 20,000, and, for them in that moment, that “Hey Jude” refrain is totally religious. And this would be true of people my grandparents’ age, my parents’ age, my age. McCartney has to know that, right? What does that do to your head, as a performer? The magnitude of the Beatles is hard to exaggerate. These are immortal songs, and maybe I over-think this stuff a bit and stop myself from feeling shows on a purely visceral level, but there is something so special and bizarre about seeing an immortal song that one time in person, and having your one own ephemeral interaction with it.
He didn’t play “Silly Love Songs,” though. That kind of seemed like a missed opportunity.
[Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.]