Saturday, October 4, 2008

Beatlemania in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv – A little more than a week later and the Beatle’s invasion can still be felt on Shankin Street, Ibn Gvirol, and along the Ayalon Freeway. From the windows of passing cars and descending from the second and third stories of downtown apartments come the sounds of All You Need is Love and Let it Be.

Last Thursday night, somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people converged on Park HaYarkon in the heart of Tel Aviv to hear Sir Paul McCartney in concert. In the days leading up to the concert, the local papers covered the legend’s comings and goings. He visited the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, his entourage spent about $110,000 on hotel rooms, and streets were closing to prepare for the thousands of pedestrians trying to make up for lost time.

In 1965, the Israeli government banned the Beatles from performing in Israel, fearing they would corrupt the morals of the country’s youth. Earlier this year, the “ban” was formally lifted and an apology was issued to McCartney, Ringo, and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison. Forty-three years later, it was Islamic militants who tried to keep McCartney away. A radical preaching from Lebanon threatened McCartney’s life for performing in Israel. To the joy of Israelis, Sir Paul paid the threats no mind.

VIP seats in the open air HaYarkon Park went for about $1500 and the cheapest seats – on the lawn, where I swayed with thousands of others – were about $150 a pop. My wife bought the tickets and I only found out how much they cost the day of the concert. Had I known the bill, I probably would have missed something rare and beautiful. With the U.S. economy melting down and people losing their homes, it is hard to write these words, but Paul McCartney live was worth at least a few nights of pasta at home and the sandwiches I’ll be eating for lunch for a while.

At about half past 8 last Thursday night, he burst on to the stage and sang Hello, Goodbye. Under two towering video screens that projected his image into the night, with a slideshow backdrop of flashing oranges and yellows, he belted out the lyrics and the crowd loved him for it.

Maybe he starts every show that way – I don’t know – but I suddenly realized that I was at a Beatles concert. True, it was just a single Beatle with one of the greatest cover bands ever (honestly, I’m not even sure if they have a name), but it occurred to me that I was watching history. Those clips I’d seen over the years, of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, being chased around the world by hordes of screaming women, and performing against seemingly every possible backdrop, and here they were, right in front of me!

Okay, okay, it was just one Beatle, but I found it overwhelming to think about the people he’d met over the last forty some years, the places he’d been, and the things he saw. In 1965, when he and the others never made their trip here, Israel was a farm-in-the-desert country, its existence threatened by its neighbors. The civil rights movement was ascendant in the U.S. as we sunk into Vietnam. And Paul McCartney was a 23 year-old kid with the world in the palm of his hand.

So much is different, some is very much the same; unquestionably, Paul McCartney held the crowd in the palm of his hand. He started speaking in Hebrew, thanking us and wishing all a happy Jewish new year. Later in the show, in Hebrew, he dedicated songs to his late wife Linda, George Harrison, and John Lennon. As A Day in the Life, the tribute to John Lennon, wound down, McCartney broke into a chorus of All We are Saying is Give Peace a Chance. The crowd erupted, hands in the air, we chanted along not wanting the night or the moment to end.

He thrilled the crowd with “Ahlan, Jude.” Like a pinball bouncing around, McCartney switched instruments between guitars, the piano, and a little mandolin. When he played Live and Let Die the concert was transformed into a pyrotechnic bonanza with fireworks blasting into the sky. My favorite part of the two and a half hour show was when he sent the band offstage and crooned Blackbird. The crowd sang along softly, waiving their cellphones in the air. No longer a farm-in-the-desert country, Israel is a high tech capital and people are just as likely to have a blackberry as they are a lighter, at least with this cost of admission.

On a Thursday night in Tel Aviv, with boundless energy, eyebrows reaching upwards, and his face fixed in a smile, Paul McCartney took 40-some thousand Israelis and assorted expats to another place and another time. And at the end of the show, after a couple of encores, he wished us a Shana Tova and Ramadan Karim, and sent us off humming into the night, a part of history.

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