This Thursday night, Paul McCartney will play the last concert at Candlestick Park. The last time McCartney played the venue, on Aug. 29, 1966, he was a Beatle and the band was on its farewell tour, although fans didn't know it at the time. Unlike many of today's farewell tours, concerts designed to milk every possible dollar out of loyal fans, The Beatles' touring career ended without so much as a whisper.
The band was burned out by years of the constant grind of album-tour-album-tour, the paradigm at the time. It had already released groundbreaking albums Rubber Soul and Revolver and wanted to continue exploring the sounds it was creating in the studio — sounds that would have been hard, if not impossible, to reproduce on stage with the technology that was available in the '60s. Band members had the time, money, and label support to quit, so they decided to bow out quietly — or at least as quietly as possible, given the hysteria and volume generated by their fans.
The hysteria surrounding the band was probably another motivation for getting off the road. The Beatles couldn't hear a note they were playing over the screaming of the audience, making it difficult to turn in a quality performance, although a widely available tape of the Candlestick show, recorded by the band's press liaison Tony Barrow, shows the band doing its best.
San Francisco's blustery sports arena was never meant to be a music hall. It was poorly designed and prone to gusty winds and sudden bouts of damp, bone-chilling fog. The 'Stick on the August night The Beatles played was cold, foggy, and windy, according to Keith Badman's The Beatles: Off The Record. Candlestick had 42,500 seats, but only 25,000 tickets were sold, thanks to the controversy generated by Lennon's offhand comment to London's Evening Standard newspaper that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
The Beatles played 11 songs in about 35 minutes and then they were gone. Except for the fact that it was the last "real" Beatles concert (the band's quick show on the roof of their London recording studio in 1969 nonwithstanding), the evening was unremarkable. By playing the last Candlestick show at the venue where the Beatles played their last show, McCartney will be closing the circle of a cosmic coincidence.
Back in '66, there were Americans who considered The Beatles a scourge. Shows were picketed, bonfires of Beatles records made the news, and San Francisco was known as the hippie capital of the United States. Rock 'n' roll was sexy and slightly dangerous. Today, the Bay Area is at the center of a tech boom, hippies can't afford the rents, and McCartney seems like a friendly grandpa who's bounced back from the loss of two bandmates and his beloved wife Linda. In '66, the tickets for the Candlestick show went for $4.50 and $6.50 (about $33 to $48 in today's dollars). Tickets for Thursday's show run from $49.50 to $254.50 and McCartney will probably play to a sold-out audience.
The 'Stick was renovated in the early '70s to enclose the field and cut down on the wind chill, but it's still a sports stadium, not really a venue friendly to a rock concert. But McCartney's been playing music longer than many of his fans have been alive, and his performances, especially of the Beatles hits, always light up the stage. They're so ingrained into the world's DNA that a single note from "Lady Madonna" or "We Can Work It Out" will always ignite a euphoric response. Is it magic or nostalgia? At this stage of the game, does it even matter?
If the set lists of recent concerts are any guide, this Thursday you'll hear a few tunes from NEW, his current album, as well as plenty of Wings and Beatles hits, including a trio of tunes — "Paperback Writer," "Day Tripper," and "Yesterday" — that he played the last time he performed at Candlestick, nearly 50 years ago.
McCartney's place in musical history has often come with less of the adulation that has been lavished on Lennon, who was the "soul-searching Beatle" or Harrison, who was the "deep, spiritual Beatle." (Ringo has always been Ringo, a good musician and all-around nice guy.) Harrison and Lennon toured infrequently when they were alive, and, while Ringo and his All Starr Band have an impressive schedule, their set list seldom includes more than a couple of Beatles tunes. That leaves McCartney, who has been on the road off and on since 1972. He keeps the band's legacy alive by playing the hits that defined a generation and made rock music a legitimate art form, not to mention a commercial juggernaut, for the last half of the 20th century. McCartney has always been a showman and, after all this time, his voice and his musicianship are still top notch.
When you make the trek out to Candlestick on Thursday, you may not hear your favorite Beatles song, but you will certainly hear many Beatles, Wings, and McCartney hits delivered with plenty of panache, and all the joy he's been putting into his music since he first hit the stage of the Cavern Club with the Quarrymen in 1958.