I have a confession to make. Over the past month I have had to disconnect from the world in a way I have never done before. Not an easy move for someone who normally follows media and culture pretty obsessively. I am aware, of course, of the tragic devastation happening due to massive hurricanes and earthquakes 1,000 miles south of me, but I know precious few details. I wish I could say it was simply because I could not handle seeing such human suffering, but that would be a lie.
The truth is far more parochial and petty: I am exhausted by the Trump presidency. I am exhausted by the lethal game of nuclear chicken he is playing with a delusional dictator in North Korea, by his defense of white supremacists, by his pandering to the darkest impulses of his base, by his outright lying or by any number of other bizarre, ad hoc “disruptions” he has caused while in office. I simply could not bear to watch our commander in chief doing photo ops amid the devastation, feigning empathy and concern for others when I have yet to see any evidence that he possesses those traits—or any others—that are remotely “presidential.”
There is no peace in this man. Our nation and the world will have none while he sits in the Oval Office.
The sad truth is that it was not hard to see this coming; living through it, however, is another matter. There is no peace in this man. Our nation and the world will have none while he sits in the Oval Office.
I had been dragging around those feelings for far too long when I went to see Paul McCartney in concert on Sept. 11. I do not generally think in terms of bucket lists, but I had seen George Harrison many years ago and, more recently, Ringo Starr, so I wanted to complete my Beatles trifecta before it was too late. If nothing else, I thought, I could use some good, distracting entertainment right about now.
I certainly was not prepared for what I actually got. Walking around the arena’s concourse with a couple of musician friends before the show, I was struck by the crowd. With artists of this vintage—Mr. McCartney is 75—you expect to see a lot of baby boomers in the audience, but this was different. Ten-year-olds with Beatles T-shirts, accompanied by their parents or grandparents, were buzzing around with a sense of anticipation usually reserved for Christmas morning. A couple of college-age girls who were separated by a few seats from their parents begged the people in between to switch so they could share the experience with their folks. When I saw a 20-something couple walk down our aisle holding their 8-month-old wearing noise-canceling headphones it occurred to me that this was not a rock concert. It was something else entirely.
Joy and beauty and love are not crushed by darkness, just temporarily obscured.
I am generally skeptical in situations like this. But as show time approached I could not help but feel my anticipation begin to mix with something that felt a lot like reverence to me. This was a Beatle after all.
Sir Paul finally hit the stage to the opening chord of “Hard Days Night,” an iconic moment ripped right from the heart of Beatlemania in 1964. He then proceeded to play for nearly three hours, pulling songs from the Beatles, his early solo records, Wings and his later solo career. After a lifetime of listening, it was a bit surreal to be in the presence of that voice, that face, that goofy humor, that Hofner violin bass playing those songs. This was not nostalgia; it was a reminder to me of how sacred the space is that music occupies in my life. How it engages my heart, my head, my joy and my heartache in ways that other art forms do not. And how much of the foundation of that sacred space was built by the Beatles and Paul McCartney.
It was a reminder of how important song is, melody is, words are. How important singing along with others is. “If you lived a hundred lifetimes you would never see this many people singing this many words by heart to this many songs,” my friend Gary told me. He could not have been more right. This was not escape but communion.
“We are going to dedicate this show to the people involved in what happened 16 years ago,” Mr. McCartney said to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary—yet another national crisis involving deep doubt, fear and anxiety. Somehow that night, Mr. McCartney’s relentless optimism—for which he is sometimes criticized—did not feel like a distraction. It felt like a fundamental conviction that joy and beauty and love are not crushed by darkness, just temporarily obscured.
Paul McCartney concluded the night with the medley from the end of the Beatles’ final album, “Abbey Road.” “Once, there was a way to get back homeward. Once, there was a way to get back home,” he sang as 18,000 voices filled the rafters of the Prudential Center. All I needed to do was sing along.