THE LAST PLAY AT SHEA
(From my book, The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan)
As we rode the wave of the July streak into the All-Star Break, Billy Joel gave two concerts at
Shea, each of which was at some point supposed to be the last concert ever to be performed at the
stadium. The first concert, on July 16, had sold out. So a second concert was set up for July 18, to the
chagrin of those who had managed to score tickets for the first one. Both concerts were called “The
Last Play at Shea.”
I’ve always liked Billy Joel. I didn’t love him, the way I love Springsteen or Dylan, but I’ve always
liked him. And I agreed that he was the right person to play the last concert. The composer of “New
York State of Mind,” he was a New York guy, and he was a New York guy in the way that the Mets
are a New York team. He was of the great city, but he looked towards the east. As Joel said, during
the first of his concerts, Shea was kind of the border between New York City and Long Island, which
is where Joel grew up and where he lived. Although Mets fans can be from anywhere, the Mets
heartland is the island that extends to the east of Shea, the island Walt Whitman called by its original
Indian name, Paumanok. The Yankees might be more popular elsewhere, but the Mets ruled the fish-
shaped island the English divided into the counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Kings, and Queens.
Joel was the right guy to play the last concert because he was like Shea in a number of ways. He
was a little the worse for wear and kind of past his prime, but he had seen and done great things. As
he mentioned at the concert, Joel began his career in music in 1964, the same year Shea opened.
Like Shea, Billy Joel connected us with a valued past but he was cool enough not to begrudge the
future. Like the Mets, Joel was local and familiar, but well-known everywhere. And like the Mets,
he had had his ups and downs, but he never lost the love of his fans. He could still bring people to
their feet and draw tears from their eyes.
As everyone knew, the only thing that would have been more appropriate than Billy Joel playing the
final concert at Shea would have been the resurrection and return of the Beatles. On the evening of
August 15, 1965, right here at Shea, the Beatles had invented the stadium concert. Until there were
the Beatles, no one had ever imagined that it might be possible to fill an entire stadium for a concert.
The Beatles changed everyone’s idea of what was and wasn’t possible. When I first heard their music
in 1964, I felt this immediately. I felt as if the world was being thrown violently forward by their
exciting and unfamiliar harmonies. There were these moments in all of the Beatles’ songs when you
heard this world-changing sound. A key changed or something, the voices of Lennon and McCartney
would suddenly come together in a louder, quickening surprise, a sound that seemed to be between
that of an adult and a child, between that of a man and a woman. The appeal of this sound and the
songs was immediate and universal and it swept the world. Everyone wanted to hear it.
On the evening of August 14, 1965, everyone in America had watched the Beatles on the “Ed
Sullivan Show” and on the following evening, everyone in the world was paying attention as the
Beatles traveled by helicopter from the East Side of Manhattan to the Port Authority Heliport at the
New York Worlds’ Fair. They flew over the Triboro Bridge and the Grand Central Parkway, which
were clogged with the pilgrimage to see them. They landed at the Fair and were driven across the
Parkway and through the lot and into the bullpen and out onto the field. They leaped from their van
and ran to the stage in shallow center, where they played under the big Mets logo at the top of the
scoreboard. In their light brown jackets, they waved and smiled with amusement and awe at the wall
of screams that came towards them like water bursting a dike. No one had ever seen anything like
this. This was the largest crowd that had ever assembled to listen to music. What happened at Shea
that night would eventually lead to the crowd of half a million at Woodstock. But the crowd at
Woodstock would not scream like this. This was a sound that could only come from decorous
teenagers who have had nothing to drink. It was a sound of pure astonishment, intensified by
anticipation. After this, there would be plenty of stadium concerts with enthusiastic crowds. But what
happened on the evening of August 15, 1965 would never be new again.
Of course the concert wasn’t what we imagine it to have been, just as Woodstock wasn’t what we
imagine it to have been. The Beatles could not hear themselves play. The crowd could not hear
them. The soundtrack you hear on the documentary that was made by Ed Sullivan’s production
company had to be re-recorded in secret. But the images of the screaming, crying kids and the two
thousand sweating policemen intercepting those who, in a kind of delirium, ran with such terrifying
speed towards the stage, became part of everyone’s memory of the Sixties. Shea became the place
where people strained at boundaries and sometimes overran them. I think that the image of the
running kids, who knew they would not make it to the stage, but who had to get onto the field and as
close as possible, was part of what impelled the crowds to burst onto the field when the Mets won their
first division title and championship five years later. At the Beatles concert, Shea stadium became a
symbol of all that was new about the Sixties. It became the place where the sound of the crowd could
make the giant building tremble.
The “Beatles at Shea Stadium” was a shower of stars that blessed the earth on which it fell. It took
a lot of guts for Billy Joel, or for anyone, to dare to commemorate it.
Billy Joel was not the Beatles. He was not an object of worship and he was not a suitable endpoint
of a pilgrimage. His message to the crowds that filled the stadium for his concerts was that he was
simply one of them. He was a New Yorker. He remembered the New York that had welcomed the
Beatles, the New York of the Ed Sullivan show and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. He knew our
highways and beaches, our great buildings, our rivers and bays, and our Mets. Images of these things
were projected on the screens behind him as he sang songs to which everyone knew the words.
As Billy Joel sang his long, nostalgic set, people in the crowd on July 18 began to notice that he was
taking his time, that he was singing for longer than they thought he was supposed to sing. And after
his first encore on the evening of July 18, you could make out that something was happening. You saw
Joel pause and then you heard him shout into his microphone “Please welcome …. Sir Paul
McCartney!” Each of the hundreds of people who taped this and put it on Youtube shakes wildly at
this introduction. You see darkness and people’s heads and the blurred tracks of lights and then
finally the image steadies and you see McCartney and Joel and you hear the roar of rapture from the
middle-aged crowd. There is Joel at the piano and McCartney standing at the microphone with his
guitar. They sing “I Saw Her Standing There,” a song that I used to sing to myself all the time in
1964. It was one of my favorite songs, one of the songs that the Beatles seemed to have written about
me. It was about all awe, about crossing that room. It was about the promise of happiness and love.
These were the feelings I felt whenever I thought about Shea Stadium, the World’s Fair, and the
Beatles. They were the feelings I expected to have when I would finally be allowed to enter the
promised world of love. How wonderful it would be to go beyond the constraints of childhood. How
wonderful it would be to know what was way beyond compare.
McCartney wore a white shirt with a loosened dark tie. Singing into the microphone, he moved his
head and neck exactly as he had moved them forty-three years earlier. He bounced back on his heels
in the same way and sang up into the microphone in the same way, with his big cheeks and his bright,
friendly eyes. It looked as if he was singing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sweating once again in the
bright lights on the black and white TV in our living room. The rap against rock at the time was that it
would never last, that the Beatles were a passing craze. This the grownups got completely wrong. Of
course, we kids disagreed. We said, without confidence, that the Beatles’ music would last forever.
But no one in 1964 thought they would ever see Paul McCartney singing “I Saw Her Standing There,”
with all the energy it deserved, at the last concert ever played at Shea stadium. People really have
no idea what will last and what won’t, what will happen and what won’t. No one ran out onto the field
at “The Last Play at Shea” because fans were already sitting on the field, on seats set up on a
platform that protected the grass. Fans were right in front of the stage, behind which were the screens
that turned Joel and McCartney into giants.
After “I Saw Her Standing There,” Billy Joel sang “Piano Man,” playing his own piano and looking
out in wonder, but without surprise, at thousands of people singing along with him. Sometimes he
would stop and just watch them, with his cool grey beard and his handsome, ordinary guy face. “Piano
Man” was Joel’s choice for a final song and he sang, with particular emphasis, the lines about playing
a memory that was sad and sweet and he knew it complete when he wore a younger man’s clothes.
After “Piano Man,” McCartney and Joel hugged on the stage and McCartney addressed the crowd,
saying “It’s so cool to be back here on the last night, Been here a long time ago — we had a blast that
night, and we’re having another one tonight.” That was the thing about pop stars in their sixties
playing a final concert in a stadium where they sang as young men. Sure, they were having a blast.
They could still do it. They were still here. They were not young any more, but so what? Maybe
there should have been something sadder about “the last play at Shea,” but if we were going to get
something sadder, it wasn’t going to be from these guys.
McCartney’s elegy, and the final song of the evening, was “Let It Be.” If you had to choose one
song that would be the most appropriate final song to be played at Shea, you could not have chosen
anything other than “Let It Be. All the broken-hearted people living in the world of dreams. That was
all of it right there. McCartney sang the song as a strangely inspiring blues piece and the crowd sang
along as if it were an anthem. Only McCartney could have sung the blues with so much optimism. In
spite of his full head of dark hair, he looked his age. He didn’t look like an object of worship, or
Dionysian passion, or any of the other things that might have come his way in 1965. He looked as if
he was singing a song on the earth. And it looked as if he was perfectly happy with that. When he
was done, McCartney lifted his arms high in the air and then spread them and waved them around as
if he was touching everyone from a distance. Then he waved, just as he had waved as a Beatle, and
the concert was over.
It was great. This was life. This was music. And I couldn’t help but feel that this was what it was
like to root for the Mets. You see her standing there and in the end, you let it be. What happened in
between was what was most important. But you couldn’t enjoy what happened in between unless you
could see her standing there and unless you could let it be.
I didn’t go to the concert. I saw it through the jiggly, blurred, yet startlingly real windows of
YouTube. And I heard about it from other Mets fans. I would have liked to have gone, but while it
was happening I was on vacation. I was with my wife, Sheila, on our first extended trip together since
our daughter was born seventeen years before. We were in Burguete, Spain at the Hostal Burguete,
where Mike and Jake stay on their fishing trip in The Sun Also Rises. We had the same meal as they
had, the vegetable soup and the trout wrapped in ham. We saw the piano Mike had played to keep
warm. We kept warm in our sweet little room on that summer night high in the mountains. There was
an enormous moon out our window, in a deep blue sky. You may not think this is relevant, but I do. I
thought nothing about the Mets. I felt full of life, and when Paul McCartney took the stage at what
would have been 4 in the morning Spanish time, I was soundly and happily asleep.
Check out The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair in the Life of a Mets Fan