The Silver Beatles became the Beatles in mid-1960, as John, Paul, George, and their drummer then, the hapless Pete Best, went off to Hamburg for the first time. Almost exactly ten years later, Paul McCartney left the band via a rather churlish “interview” (he apparently wrote the questions himself) included with the English version of his first solo album, McCartney (the one with the cherries on the cover)–churlish, but amusing even today. At certain points in his career, McCartney has displayed a lot more grit than he’s given credit for, and the announcement is a good example:

Q: Do you miss the other Beatles or George Martin? Was there a moment when you thought: Wish Ringo was here for this break?

A: No.

What I’ve always admired about Paul McCartney is his utter lack of angst. At times it seems like everyone and his mother is still hung up about the Beatles: ever since the breakup, Paul’s unenviable task has been getting the rest of us to let him be.

Accompanying his current world tour is a lot of loose thinking along these lines. A central object of the outing, it is said, is to let Paul come to terms with his Beatleness–after all, isn’t he performing Beatles songs again? We should go and see McCartney, this line of reasoning goes, and participate in the grand catharsis. Now I generally don’t mind this sort of druggy philosophizing, partly because it means we haven’t lost our innocence or naivete and partly because I enjoy watching pop icons get hounded. But I feel sorry for Paul McCartney all the same. McCartney was an immediate and grand attempt at demystification, almost demythologization: it was (younger readers will want to know) a “home album” filled with lovable McCartneyesque hummings and dabblings about love and romance and the joys of quotidian existence, as far removed in conception and execution from his last recording project (side two of Abbey Road) as you could imagine. In the ensuing years–in the ensuing 20 years, fully twice the length of his association with the Beatles–what have often seemed to be ever-more-willful excursions into novelty and inanity have to be seen in the context of this demythologization failing, time and time again, to work.

The inanities and novelties are irritating, but you have to credit the insistence: year after year McCartney has demanded, in a straightforward, unobsessive fashion, that we accept him as just plain old Paul McCartney, and not as the ex-Beatle or former partner of John Lennon. Lennon’s version of McCartney was Plastic Ono Band, a scorching statement of ego and power, defiance and anguish. John had to be shoehorned into the Beatles, and he felt the restriction the rest of his life. Paul, by contrast, was the quintessential Beatle, and being the quintessential Beatle meant that he had both a vivid familiarity with the rules of the game and a canny understanding of when the game was over.

Since then, one gets the feeling, Paul McCartney has slept well at night: he’s released 14 solo albums of original material, another 6 discs of live and greatest-hits material, a number of oddities (Thrillington, the Give My Regards to Broad Street sound track, an interview album), and something more than three dozen singles, a surprising number of which have never been put on LPs. Seven of the albums went to number one, as did nine of the singles; another ten singles went top ten. Like the rest of the Beatles, McCartney was close to being broke when the split came. (They’d had bad financial advice and crummy royalty rates to begin with.) But like Lennon, he had a phenomenal income from songwriting royalties, and, according to an unsourced figure I’ve seen repeatedly, he sold more records in the 70s with Wings than the Beatles had in the 60s. Under better financial management then, he invested wisely and is now reputed to be one of the richest people in the history of entertainment. He records fairly frequently and stays active doing vanity singles with the likes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Among prominent pop stars, he’s probably smoked more marijuana than any save perhaps Jerry Garcia. He’s raised four kids and has lived in what is by all accounts an affectionate squalor with wife Linda for 20 years. He may even be happy.

The Paul McCartney World Tour, as it is officially called, is McCartney’s first appearance in America since the enormously successful world tour with Wings in 1976. Wings Over America, a three-record live set, hit number one and sold about a zillion copies. On that record and in the accompanying movie, Rockshow, even an amateur critic can see Paul quite in touch with his Beatleness, performing a limited but eclectic selection of Beatles songs, including “Yesterday,” “Lady Madonna,” and a terrific “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Since then, though McCartney is often said to love touring, his appearances have been extremely limited: he appeared in Britain for a few dates in 1979, including the Concerts for Kampuchea (where he performed “Got to Get You Into My Life”), and of course his brief (and technically fouled-up) appearance at Live Aid, singing “Let It Be.” He’s also appeared on the Continent and got as far as the customs inspectors at Tokyo’s Narita airport before nearly half a pound of marijuana aborted a Japanese tour and put him in jail for ten days.

Even in this pathetic year of nostalgia tours and rock retreads, I would argue that a Paul McCartney tour is somewhat different. The Who are just losers getting by entirely on hype; the Rolling Stones are a nostalgia act with a dreadful album as a front. But McCartney’s outing is refreshingly downsized (by both contemporary standards and his own–Wings Over America, remember, was billed as the biggest tour ever); it’s mostly free of hype, and with its promised renditions of the sacred texts, an accompanying film, and an extraordinary 100-page program, it at least attempts to give value for cash paid (about $40, with the exorbitant Ticketmaster and parking fees figured in). The album behind the tour, Flowers in the Dirt, is, I think, an unsuccessful record despite a few nice tunes, but an unsuccessful record is something different from a bad record, which is what McCartney has produced almost relentlessly since the mid-70s. McCartney is not what you’d call a functioning rock artist, and is pretty divorced from anything happening in contemporary pop as well, but he remains a sturdy practitioner of the sort of lush ballad that once held us spellbound, and just as a persona he still manages to inspire some affection. Of the Four Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Giants who once stalked the land, two are dead, and Dylan remains so fucked up that trying to figure out his motivations at this point is a losing battle. McCartney alone has survived, and if the qualities that allowed him to do it are the same ones that made him the least of the four to begin with, so be it. He’s all we have left.

The tour stopped at the Rosemont Horizon early this month, and to me the show seemed a bit unwieldy at the start, as McCartney presented, in order, one of the worst songs on the new record, my absolute favorite Wings song, the second worst song on the new album, my second favorite Wings song, and my personal candidate for worst Beatles song. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the promised 12-minute movie had been scratched because of projection problems. McCartney came onstage to apologize–to an extraordinary, adoring scream from the crowd–and then launched the band into “Figure of Eight,” “Jet,” “Rough Ride,” “Band on the Run,” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.” “Figure of Eight” is one of those meaningless, unremarkable pop ditties that Paul now specializes in; it’s loping, rather diffuse, and colorless. “Jet,” accompanied by a huge bank of white lights rimming the screen behind the stage, got things into gear. What can you say about “Jet”? It reminds me of that dense 70s guitar rock typified by Dwight Twilley’s “I’m on Fire” and the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman.” I’m not sure why it works–the lyrics are entirely enigmatic, the guitar breaks and backing vocals should sound insipid, and overall whimsicality on this level just shouldn’t be encouraged. But it rocks out like nothing’s business; and McCartney, seeming to be aware of the song’s appeal, did it up well.

Whereupon he rushed into another forgettable Flowers song, “Rough Ride.” The crowd looked at him a bit quizzically, but then forgot their problems with “Band on the Run,” one of the best of Paul’s god-I’m-getting-sick-of-getting-busted-for-grass songs. Band on the Run the album was, of course, the apogee of McCartney’s commercial triumphs in the mid-70s and an accomplished song cycle in its own right. Recorded basically as a solo project by McCartney (he had some help from Wings guitarist Denny Laine) in Lagos, Nigeria, the album is a baroque and insular melange of sophomoric melodies, bizarre guitar riffs, almost infantile lyrical conceits, and some of the strangest, grandest production arrangements the world had yet heard. The burst of acoustic guitars at the shift in “Band on the Run,” the breakneck speed of “Jet,” the courtly singing on “Bluebird,” the driving “Helen Wheels,” and of course the heart-stopping vocals on “Let Me Roll It”–all these things make Band on the Run a compelling record. None of it is exactly coherent, and parts are marginal, but I think it does represent some sort of point of grandeur in prepunk 70s pop. Live, the break in “Band on the Run” was perfect, and overall the performance seemed better than Wings Over America’s, despite some straining on the vocals. McCartney’s voice isn’t exactly shot, but it no longer has that protean elasticity; in the title song’s most demanding lines–particularly the piffle that goes, “the jailer man, and sailor Sam”–he couldn’t hit the high notes.

But it was certainly an enthusiastic reading, as was “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which, along with “Good Day Sunshine,” I’ve always found one of the most irritating and frivolous songs in the Beatles canon. The McCartney fans present loved it. By this time we could see that the band McCartney had assembled, while certainly more technically proficient and “professional” than the various versions of Wings, wasn’t going to set the place on fire. The sound was brassy and big, and on certain songs the guitarists just blasted. (They were Robbie McIntosh, late of the Pretenders, and Hamish Stuart, a session man who used to be in the Average White Band.) But the two keyboardists (Linda was one) just muddied the sound.

Certain aspects of the show were curiously dated. The six performers were clustered in the middle of the huge stage; McCartney had thoughtfully provided for excellent sight lines–there were no huge columns of amps and speakers on the sides of the stage–but then never thought to use the vast expanses on either side of the band. His idea of stage patter ranged from the banal (“Hey-o Chicago!”) to the smarmy (“Hello Chicago, the midwest, and the whole U.S.A.!”). A couple of his lines, embarrassingly, were repeated word for word from Rockshow. Lasers–a mid-70s specialty that in the 80s have been reserved for Pink Floyd shows–were present, as was some similarly dated hokeyness with rising platforms and such.

The Beatles songs kicked in early, and eventually made up more than half of the 30-song show. This was probably a bit too much–McCartney shouldn’t seem to be coasting on them–and of course it was a bit like watching a Beatles cover band, but the songs were fun and there was a kick to some of the unexpected numbers. “Let It Be” wasn’t a surprise, but “Can’t Buy Me Love” was. “Fool on the Hill” was drawn out and ornate; McCartney introduced it by dedicating it to “some old friends of mine, John, Ringo, and George,” which reminded me of the time John came onstage with Elton John to do “I Saw Her Standing There” and called it “a number [by] an old estranged fiance of mine called Paul.” (McCartney didn’t do any “John songs.”) The stage gimmickry was particularly out of place on “Fool on the Hill”; Paul and his piano rose up into the air and twirled around. You’d think that with a song catalog like his, McCartney could dispense with some of the cheap tricks, but no. The song ended with some psychedelic foofaraw that the crowd got off on.

McCartney scattered six songs from Flowers in the Dirt throughout the first half of the show. After the unfortunate beginning numbers, he focused in on the album’s four strongest offerings. Of these, exactly one comes from his vaunted collaborations with Elvis Costello in 1988. (There are four McCartney-Costello–McCartney-MacManus, actually–numbers on Flowers, two more on Costello’s Spike, and another on a British single released by McCartney. Others exist; Costello played one at Poplar Creek last year.) While these songs are, lyrically at least, a little stronger than the usual McCartney whimsy, they reek so much of a calculated and somewhat cold songwriterly competence that it’s hard to enjoy them. The best of the lot is “My Brave Face,” a mannered but rocking song about a breakup; the band pulled it off well.

For me, the show’s highlight was “We Got Married,” the best thing on Flowers, a moody, lilting song whose straightforward lyrics contrast sharply with its dark musical undertones. There’s an economy and a force in the writing that hasn’t been seen since McCartney’s “Lovely Rita” days: “Going fast, coming soon / We made love in the afternoon / Found a flat, after that / We got married.” The lights and the staging combined perfectly: a large screen with an abstract flower painting came sliding down, and the lights cast ominous reds and oranges onto McCartney, who articulated the song flawlessly.

Flowers in the Dirt, however, can only be a blip in McCartney’s recording career; as on his last two studio albums, Press to Play and Pipes of Peace, vast groups of songs go by that struggle to make the tiniest impression on the listener. (I must have listened to Press a dozen times in the last few weeks, and right now I couldn’t hum you a note of it to save my life.) In the 80s, particularly, with the exception of a couple of songs on Tug of War (notably the Lennon tribute, “Here Today,” and an absurdly gorgeous song about yet another instance of grass persecution, called “Wanderlust”), McCartney’s recorded work has been rather sad. (All three of his biggest single hits have been collaborations–two with Michael Jackson and one with Stevie Wonder.) You can talk all you want about a McCartney renaissance; to me, the odd thing is that even the best songs just don’t sound like pop music anymore. Leaving aside the songs that are marginal, even the most cloyingly charming McCartney number–like the sucrosey “Put It There”–is just too sophisticated, too precise, too advanced for anything like commercial radio–it’s pop music raised to the level of abstraction.

Of course, no one came to the Horizon to hear that stuff anyway; the crowd was there for the Beatles songs, and Paul pleased ’em. “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” I thought, were handled wrong. Part of the controversy over the Let It Be album was the group’s abandoning the masters to Phil Spector, who then added those horrid strings and heavenly choirs. (You can hear the far superior acoustic versions in the Let It Be film.) Here, Paul had his big chance to set the record straight for a new generation, and opted for letting the keyboards blast the audience with those goddamned strings again. “Can’t Buy Me Love” was a hoot, somewhat making up for “Good Day Sunshine.” “Things We Said Today” was the most inspired song choice of the night; the original B-side of “A Hard Day’s Night,” it has a great acoustic-guitar barrage and some of McCartney’s most unaffected singing. The Rosemont version was almost as good as the one on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, which is saying something.

If Paul wasn’t coming to terms with his Beatleness, it was certainly true that he was trying to lay claim to his oeuvre. The printed program–lavish beyond belief, fascinating, detailed, and free, where many acts charge $20 for eight pages of photos–is by turns uproarious and heartbreaking. There are a couple of pictures of Paul and John that will bring tears to your eyes. The thing is 100 pages long and includes a lot of writing, but there’s still a feeling of whizzing through the years. The funniest parts are the ones in which Paul gets defensive. One of the program’s theses is that it was he, and not John, who first dabbled in the avant-garde. “John’s ended up as the avant-garde one because he did all that with Yoko,” Paul writes. “Well, actually, quite a few years before he’d ever considered it, when he was living out in the suburbs by the golf club with Cynthia and hanging out there, I was getting in [to the avant-garde]. . . . Very exciting period. I’m not trying to say it was all me, but I do think John’s avant-garde period later was really to give himself a go at what he’d seen me having a go at.” McCartney drops the names Stockhausen and Cage about 15 times, and repeats the suburbs slur on John about five. It’s all just so funny, a guy who has demonstrated possibly the most trenchantly mass-appeal talent the world has ever seen splitting hairs about whether he or his similarly mass-appeal-oriented former partner started slumming earlier.

Elsewhere the program displays a Reaganesque capacity for the absurd anecdote–a claim that Linda McCartney fans exist, a defense of Ram (“Elton John said somewhere that he thought it was the best harmonies he’d heard in a long while”)–and tries, again and again and again, to complete the demythologization.

“[It’s] a piss-off,” McCartney writes. “It’s like if you’ve been an astronaut and been to the moon, what do you do with the rest of your life?” Back at the show, the point was driven home on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which struck me as a bit daring. Linda haters would have a field day, of course, and why not? John’s collaborations with Yoko Ono must have cut Paul a bit; he responded, in another of those gritty, high-level moves, by starting his own new artistic partnership with someone with even less talent, and ostentatiously giving her equal billing on Ram and production credit elsewhere on Wings albums. Now this is nothing against Linda personally, but she can’t sing, can hardly play tambourine correctly, and has roughly the stage presence of a guitar stand. (Me, I’m not charismatic either, but I’m not touring with Paul McCartney.) Anyway, Paul’s intent, I think, was primarily to get John’s goat, and he was of course successful–John responded with his notorious “How Do You Sleep?,” Paul responded with “Dear Friend,” and so it went. (Paul had the last word, on “Here Today.”)

Allowing Linda to sing on “Sgt. Pepper”–allowing any other band to play it–smacks of the same sort of chain pulling, at first, and I must say my mouth dropped open at the opening notes. But then I realized what McCartney was trying to say: It’s just a song. It doesn’t mean anything. It was all a long time ago, John’s dead, give me a break. I wrote the song, and I want to play it. It’s a healthy realization for us to confront, and by throwing these things in our face, one after the other, McCartney forced us to accept it. He did a couple of oldies off his U.S.S.R.-only Back in the U.S.S.R. album of last year, and finished with a (literally) explosive “Live and Let Die” (which was also quite similar to the 1976 tour’s) and “Hey Jude.” (Paul McCartney has set closers like you wouldn’t believe.) “Hey Jude” bugged me a bit–he blew off that sublime bit of “yeah-yeah-yeah”-ing that serves as the transition into the “Na-na-na-na” part, and in the inevitable sing-along he actually had the different sides of the Horizon competing against each other. (“OK, now the middle section!”) I hadn’t seen anything so moving since the Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute tour, when the crowd sang “Free Bird” in place of the departed Ronnie Van Zant.

The encore was “Yesterday,” “Get Back,” and most of the second side of Abbey Road. “Yesterday” was brief and to the point, and “Get Back” cathartic. Then McCartney crawled up on Linda’s little keyboard platform (“This is my wife, Gertrude Higgins”), and the pair went into “Golden Slumbers.” He played his synthesizer and grimly tried to soothe our fears:

Sleep pretty darling do not cry

And I will sing a lullaby.

But his lullaby was unsettling. Every line he sang had a deeper, reflexive meaning: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time”; “Are you gonna be in my dreams tonight?”; and, of course, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” The Beatles stopped touring in 1965 for a number of reasons, among them their claim that it was impossible to duplicate onstage the sounds they were making in the studio. Twenty-five years later, two-man synth bands go on the road and make grander sounds (not music) than the Beatles ever made. Paul’s Abbey Road medley–the rest of the band came back on to help–was the ultimate demythologization: it made the songs corporeal, stripped them of their pristine, Olympian beauty and made them real. For a moment, we understood the message, but we immediately discarded it. We’re all in his dreams, because he was in the biggest band of all and loves us all equally. And he’s in ours as well, because he was a Beatle and lived to tell about it and after all these years he’s still trying desperately to tell us that it was all for fun, reduced to using his magic to persuade us that it never really existed in the first place.