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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002

Next best thing

The Fab Four (minus three) back in Japan


Three tunes into his 2 1/2-hour extravaganza at Tokyo Dome on Nov. 11, Sir Paul McCartney introduced a "song that's never been played live until this year. The thing is, if you don't tour, then when you record a song, that's the last time you ever sing it." He then launched into the simple, unmistakable chords of "Getting Better."

News photo
Paul McCartoney reels in the memories at Tokyo Dome Nov. 11.

Until the death of John Lennon, a sizable portion of the world's population expected an eventual Beatles reunion, and even after Lennon's murder, there were many who thought the three remaining members would bury the hatchet and hit the road. They didn't stop dreaming until a year ago, when George Harrison died.

I never gave it a second thought. But on hearing "Getting Better," which lost none of its punchy charm in the cavernous Dome, I realized what The Beatles missed when they stopped touring in 1966. As a live act, they predated the "rock concert." They were a club band who instantly morphed into a phenomenon, and in either incarnation, concerts were never more than a dozen songs rattled off in rapid succession. Legend has it that the group quit playing live because they could no longer hear one another and were deteriorating as musicians.

Consequently, all the songs from their most vital period never got aired in a live setting, and listening to "Getting Better" made me realize what a shame that was. I think the same idea has been nagging at McCartney for the better part of 30 years. Though he has played Beatles numbers on occasion, they were treated as bon bons, little treats. At the Dome, 23 of the 35 songs he played were Beatles tunes, augmented by elaborate, multiscreen videos of the quartet in familiar poses and personal anecdotes about the good old days in Liverpool and London.

It's impossible to imagine McCartney undertaking such a tour while George Harrison was still alive. As the last surviving member of The Beatles brain-trust (except for "Ticket to Ride," Ringo doesn't count), he is finally free to play in public the best songs he ever wrote without having to look over his shoulder at the only other people who had a professional stake in them. In fact, I half expected Yoko Ono to run out on stage at any moment, screaming at him to cease and desist.

But while the songs had made the 30-plus-year leap in excellent condition, McCartney himself hadn't. It wasn't the voice or the musicianship. Except for a tendency to overcompensate for age by sweetening his tone, his vocals were impeccable; and dressed in a bright red pullover and electric-blue jacket, he looked especially trim and vigorous for a man of 60. But having always been the quartet's most unabashed entertainer, he has absorbed over the past three decades the most egregious aspects of the Big Rock Show.

The concert opened with a 20-minute pageant of dancers and acrobats whose only purpose seemed to be to justify the 15,000 yen ticket price. And while some of the psychedelic videos that accompanied the songs exerted a corny, nostalgic charm, other videos were either unnecessarily distracting (Soviet iconography during "Back in the USSR"), cluelessly over-simplistic (snaphots of female celebrities, most of them dead, during "Lady Madonna") or unoriginal (the fast-motion footage from "A Hard Day's Night" during "Can't Buy Me Love," which is the song it accompanies in the movie, too). They represented the kind of Disneyfied Vegas entertainment values that The Beatles loathed.

Onstage, McCartney was at once a man who understood his place in Western civilization and someone who simply wanted to communicate on a personal level. The between-song patter featured super-titled simultaneous translations, a bonus that he was inordinately impressed with ("there are eight translators back stage"), but which also emphasized the canned quality of the show. In the lobby they were selling "Back in the U.S.," a new live album that was a carbon copy of the show taking place inside.

Occasionally he let slip something that showed just what these songs mean to him. Prior to "Michelle," he told a story about going to parties as a teenager and wearing a beret in order to look French. He was tagging along with John, who he pointed out, "was a few years older, and remained that way." The audience didn't laugh at the joke, which seemed to bother him, but the comment was revealing in a way he perhaps didn't intend: One imagined the pimply, awkward high school kid hanging out with his older, bohemian pal. When he performed Harrison's "Something" in tribute, he played it on the ukulele, because he remembered how much fun he used to have "at George's house playing these funny little instruments," which Harrison collected.

He didn't play any Lennon songs. The tribute to his former partner was "Here Today," which he wrote in response to the murder. It got the biggest ovation of the evening simply because of its subject. The song itself is McCartney at his sappiest, and inadvertently points out why the nominal songwriting partners couldn't stand each other near the end of the Fab Four and thereafter. Lennon despised artful displays of feeling, while McCartney has always accepted it as part of his craft. Lennon, the emotional realist, would hug you one minute and call you a c**t the next. McCartney, the diplomat, would shake your hand one minute and shake it again the next.

Lennon's genius was the mad-inspirational kind, which is why "Strawberry Fields" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" are truly peerless pop songs. McCartney's genius was the careful-technical kind. Like Lennon, he couldn't be matched; but unlike Lennon, he could be copied. When The Beatles split up, Lennon said good riddance, but McCartney -- though supposedly the one who actually pulled the plug -- remained quiet, as if he wasn't finished yet. Wings was his attempt to re-create the band dynamic that he felt brought out the best in his songwriting. He was a reluctant solo artist, but unlike Harrison he couldn't stop. As he once told an interviewer, when a "tune" came to him, he felt a duty to turn it into a song.

As a rocker, McCartney's credentials have never been as solid as many claim. Critic Greil Marcus once wrote that when he first heard "I Saw Her Standing There," he thought that in the introductory count-off McCartney was saying, "one-two-three-F**K!"; but it had less to do with McCartney himself than with the shock of the new. The more lasting impression about "the cute one's" performance style was the way he'd shake his head like a puppy during the upbeat numbers.

Fortunately, he didn't try to impersonate his spunky younger self at the Dome, but I couldn't suppress a wince when he growled in his faux bluesman's voice, "We are here to rock you!" The version of "I Saw Her Standing There" that he did was fuller and harder than the original. Though it sounded terrific, it's not a song that can be sung by a potential pensioner. The lewdness of a line like "She was just 17/You know what I mean" comes across differently. Artist Stan Kaplan famously said that "the world seemed to end" when the single first hit the U.S. airwaves in 1964, something that hadn't happened several months earlier when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In addition to giving rock 'n' roll back to the United States, The Beatles seemed to be telling young people that they were now in charge. And they were.

But if the early singles' historical baggage kept them earthbound at the Dome, the more lugubrious later hits were surprisingly fresh, as if they'd been intended for just such an occasion. I think I can be excused for never wanting to hear "Hey Jude" again, but as an arena singalong it can't be beat. On record, "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" are more technically accomplished than they are engaging, but the drama written into both made perfect sense in a live setting. Even "She's Leaving Home," the only thing on "Sgt. Pepper's" that I skip, was beautiful.

The kicker, though, was "The End." On "Abbey Road," the song opens with a trio of alternating guitar solos performed by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon. As a precis of the different sensibilities at work in the group, it can't be beat. Lennon wigs out, Harrison rips off all the guitar-slingers he's been hanging out with and McCartney picks his notes carefully.

In concert, Paul did the same thing with his two much younger guitarists, Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson. Nobody tried to copy the record, but the stylistic contrast was eerily similar, and McCartney extended the section for several minutes, understanding how good this kind of thing sounds in concert.

Because it was a band effort, it was the closest the show came to a Beatles reunion. The song dropped to a whimper and ended with a flourish, and the crowd, clearly exhausted by their own emotional reaction, practically fainted. There will be no Second Coming, but now we can all die in peace.



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