It was almost too much. Paul McCartney, the living equivalent of a fragment of the True Cross, returning to play at Candlestick Park—the very venue where the Beatles played their last concert ever, 48 years ago. And just to make the emotional overload complete, it would be the last event ever at San Francisco’s love-it-and-hate-it old dump on the edge of the Bay. Reach into the bag of memories and take your pick: The first time you took your kids to see a game here? The first time you listened to Meet the Beatles? Willie Mays patrolling center field? Getting stoned with friends and listening to “Here Comes the Sun”? Joe Montana throwing long to Jerry Rice? The revelation of Sgt. Pepper’s? There were more poignant memories and deep warm smiles and what-happened-to-my-youth thoughts circulating around the big concrete bowl than epiphanies in a Marcel Proust novel.
So it was a time for remembrance of things past, for sadness (and some anger) at the end of the Stick, but mainly for celebration, for things coming full circle. The people sitting next to me summed up the crowd. To my left was a 61-year-old woman from Castro Valley and her middle-aged daughter, both lifelong Beatles fans. To my right was a 27-year-old Indian-American from Sunnyvale who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of everything Beatles. A guy in front of me had a toddler on his shoulders. When the ageless McCartney, the Dick Clark of rockers, weatherbeaten at 72 but still boyish, took the big stage in left-center field and led his powerhouse band into the irrepressibly light-hearted “Eight Days a Week,” you could almost feel 40,000 sets of old and young neurons firing, summoning up a collective happiness that leaped over half a century as if the Fab Four were just getting off the plane at Kennedy on February 7, 1964.
But nostalgia was not the dominant note of the evening. McCartney is too alive and kicking for that. Ever the consummate pro and showman, a driven performer—as Philip Norman notes in his superb book Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation, Paul always loved playing for people; he would happily play in a bathroom—he refuses to fall into the mere role of legend, cranking out nothing but the beloved oldies. Although very little of McCartney’s post-Beatles’ work stands up to the astonishing songs he and John Lennon wrote, and most of the fans there would probably rather have heard him do “Got to Get You Into My Life” or “If I Needed Someone” than “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” or “Band on the Run,” his insistence on rocking on his way showed commendable feistiness and independence.
Among the tunes that raised the most goose bumps, not surprisingly, were the acoustic numbers: “Blackbird,” “And I Love Her,” and, of course “Yesterday.” The sound of 40,000 people singing “now I long for yesterday” is not something I’ll forget soon. “Eleanor Rigby” and “We Can Work It Out” inspired a different kind of memory: It was impossible, listening to those songs, not to think of John Lennon, whose darkness and edge pushed McCartney, a superb musician and songbird with a melodic gift on the order of Stevie Wonder but with a tendency to be saccharine, out of his comfort zone and resulted in one of the great collaborative alchemies in the history of art. McCartney gave the audience an opportunity to publicly acknowledge their feelings for the Beatles who are no longer with us. He paid tribute to “my friend” John Lennon and asked the audience to pay tribute as well, which they did with heartfelt applause, before he played his simple, moving song for John, “Here Today,” which he said contained the things he never had a chance to say to John. He did the same thing for George Harrison, and covered Harrison’s classic “Something” (which Frank Sinatra called the greatest love song ever written) beautifully, starting out on solo ukelele before the band kicked in.
McCartney’s onstage persona during his long (more than two and a half hours) show was workmanlike, cheerful, energetic, sometimes droll. He told a funny story about meeting Russian government officials and thinking that when he was a kid in Liverpool he would never have dreamed this would happen. He was introduced to the Russian minister of defense, which he thought was a pretty big job. The defense minister said to him (here Paul did a perfect imitation of a guttural Russian accent), “Paul. The first record I ever bought was Love Me Do.” Then he brought down the house by imitating another official, a “tall guy” who said in a hilarious combo of Russian and Liverpudlian accents, “We learned to speak English by listening to Beatle records.” He acknowledged the meaning of playing Candlestick several times, saying that being here brought on déjà vu. He joked that when they played here “we got so pissed off we never did it again.” Later he said that Candlestick was “cool then and it’s cool now,” but that he was going to send the place off in style.
And that he did, switching off from his Hofner violin bass to acoustic guitar and piano, and displaying some solid, simple, Dave Mason/Neil Young-like chops on two Les Paul electrics. McCartney has lost a few notes in the upper register but the man can still sing like an angel—just an older one. He closed his 32-song set with a bang, rocking it with the exuberant “I Saw Her Standing There,” that celebration of innocent lust ending the first encore, which opened with “Day Tripper.” Then he opened his final encore with “Yesterday,” showed off his still-robust belting voice on the Little Richard song with which the Beatles closed their Candlestick gig, “Long Tall Sally,” and ended with the majestic “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight” song sequence from Abbey Road—the perfect ending to a memorable evening, and a happy way to bid farewell not just to Candlestick Park, but to an era. Although the way McCartney is going, whatever considerable part of the Beatles flame he is still keeping alive is not about to go out.