On Saturday, July 18, 2009, I was in the crowd that saw Paul McCartney sing at Citi Field. I was there with my sister Stefanie, my wife Sheila, and my daughter Sonia. We got there around five and walked across the parking lot, where Shea had been. We found the plaques in the ground that marked first base and home plate. I pretended to be Bill Buckner, Stefanie pretended to be Mookie Wilson, to the scorn of Sheila (a Red Sox fan) and the amusement of Sonia.
We went in and bought Sonia a concert t-shirt and enjoyed some exotic beers out in the Right Field food court. Then each of us got our own favorite foods and we carried everything up to the Promenade public area open to the early summer sky. It was strange to think that we were at Citi Field and were not going to see a Mets game. The crowd didn’t quite look like a Mets crowd. You could tell that the people were New Yorkers, but there weren’t too many people in Mets stuff. On balance, this crowd was whiter and older. But we were definitely in Citi Field and this was definitely not a good moment. It was just beginning to look as if the eerie dreamland of the 2009 Mets was going to be remembered as a nightmare.
Still, I thought, as we ate our dinner at a picnic table, this place is nice. It’s not Shea, but it’s nice. I particularly wanted to enjoy this evening, because I wanted to feel good about the new stadium and I did not know what the next few months were going to bring me.
We went up to our seats in the Promenade and enjoyed the Irish warm-up group. The sky began to darken and I saw the Whitestone Bridge become sharp and silver. I saw the trucks on the Whitestone catching the brilliance of the fading sun on their broad metal sides. Citi Field, in the meantime, was becoming a cool, dark well under a blue and gold dome. When it finally became dark enough for light effects to be seen, the stadium lost most of the resemblance it had to a baseball field. The lights on the stage became visible as deep purple and the screens on each side of the stage became streaming tapestries of images of the ‘60s.
When it got just dark enough, McCartney appeared. Opening with “Drive My Car,” he looked great. He was tall, familiar, and friendly on the big panels that dwarfed the little figures on the stage. But because you could see which little figure on the stage was him, you accepted his magnification. The little figure certified that the big ones were really him, so it was okay. It reminded me of the scene where Paul gets shrunk in Help. You knew he wasn’t really shrunk. They just made giant props.
I remembered seeing Help for the first time when I was 10, right around when the Beatles played for a half an hour near second base at Shea stadium. I remember what the Beatles were in 1965. There has never been anything like what they were and I doubt that anything in popular culture will ever be so blindingly bright and spontaneous again. The Beatles did something to Shea, something like a blessing, something that was still so important that McCartney said, welcoming us to his show, that Citi Field was “the new Shea.” It’s not, I thought, but he insisted on clowning around about it. He would put a smile on our faces whether we wanted one there or not. “Glad to have you here today,“ he chanted “So we can play, at the new Shea.” Only Paul McCartney can rhyme like this in a silly voice and not act embarrassed. This is one of the reasons to cherish his existence.
Tonight Citi Field would replace Shea, as tonight Paul McCartney would replace the Beatles.
Down in the purple cavern, in the white shirt and suspenders, was a Beatle. I was listening to the man who had actually written this music. He was 67 but he sang with all of the vigor he’d had when he tried to make himself heard above the screaming girls 44 years before. This music was going to live forever but what I was seeing wasn’t going to be possible for too much longer. And that was the strange and beautiful theme of the evening. There was a tribute to John, a tribute to Linda, and a tribute to George. This obviously happy man had lost a great deal. But he sang everything with a generous ebullience. He even made “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let it Be” sound like happy songs. He sang “Calico Skies,” a song that must give him the deepest possible pain, as if it were about the first joy and wonder of love. “I will hold you for as long as you like. I will hold you for the rest of my life.”
I listened to all of these songs I had known for so long and after a while, the warm bath of music gave everything in and outside of the stadium a perfect poignance. I noticed how the heads of the people close to the stage looked like bobbing bubbles changing color. I saw a plane glide smoothly down into La Guardia as if in rhythm with “You’re asking me if my love grows! I don’t know-ow. I don’t know!” I got to hear “A Day in the Life,” a song which had given me my first experience of the lyricism of existential despair. I heard “Flaming Pie,” the album that had been the soundtrack of the summer after my daughter finished kindergarten. This was his music and my music and when he sat down at the piano and played “The Long and Winding Road,” I saw on the screens that the wind that blew through the crowd in the stands, and pointed all the flags out to the bay, was also blowing his impossibly famous hair.
His hair can’t really be that color anymore. But the winds of Flushing still blow it around.
He is at home here. He very familiarly called us New York and he made the point that his beloved Linda was a New York girl. New York was important to what the Beatles became. They had conquered the world and conquered the charts, but it was because they were on Ed Sullivan, in that theatre at 53rd Street and Broadway, and it was because they filled the new stadium on Flushing Bay, that they became something bigger than any musical group had ever been. This is the thing about New York. No place is more universal and no place is more local. It is the grandest and the most intimate place there is. Shea embodied all that. The Mets have embodied that at a few precious moments. Citi Field doesn’t embody that. Citi Field doesn’t mean anything yet.
But Citi Field means that much more to me because I spent this evening there with Paul McCartney, three women I love, and a warm and happy crowd of strangers. Way up in the Promenade, I felt the imperishability of the 1960s and the precious generosity of a humble genius. I felt the beauty of the great city I consider my true home and I felt the yearning to be part of this new stadium where a baseball team plays that is lodged in my soul so deeply that I can’t break free of it no matter how disappointing and boring it becomes. I felt good to be in Citi Field. I felt close to it because I was surrounded by things I would hold for the rest of my life.
It was all good. That was what I felt in McCartney’s voice and music and manner. I felt how much McCartney enjoyed being with me and with all of us. I felt the lack of cynicism, the lack of disappointment, in spite of the reality of so much loss. I felt a gratitude that flowed in all directions. In an entirely uncomplicated way, I loved McCartney’s sweet and optimistic happiness. I laughed when he told us that he had to go home and we had to go home. I loved how he ended the concert with the reprise that ends Sgt. Pepper’s. And I felt that it was perfect when he switched to the great slow final chords of Abbey Road, and offered the concluding and incomprehensible equation that, in the end, is supposed to tell us how much love is worth.
Tonight (7/21) I will be on New York Baseball Talk (click on this link to listen) with Mike Silva. The show starts at 6 with an interview with Phil Pepe, who wrote a book Few and Chosen with Rusty Staub, about the 5 best Mets players at each position. People are already making jokes about the “few” in terms of the Mets, but this book is actually part of a series of Few and Chosen books about the 5 best players at each position for a lot of major league baseball teams. Anyway, I come on at 6:30 to offer my own opinions about the 5 best Mets at each position. I have a lot of disagreements with Rusty and Phil, so this should be an interesting show. Do you have your own opinion about who’s better: Agee or Mazilli, Olerud or Kranepool, Alfonzo or Kent, Backman or Jeffries, Ventura or Garrett, Johnson or Valentine? You might find this a very interesting show to listen to. Anyway, even after the show is over, you can still listen to it at the link.