It’s morbid, but you’re probably thinking it, too: after losing so many musical icons in 2016 (see here and here), I felt it was important to see Brian Wilson in concert. Now 74 years old, the brilliant but troubled songwriter celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ landmark album Pet Sounds with a massive 100 date world tour in 2016. Now the guys are doing one last hurrah, calling this “the final tour,” with shows scheduled through October.
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of The Beach Boys, but I am a fan of Pet Sounds. My introduction to the band came via the 1988 single “Kokomo,” a song that regularly appears on lists of “The Worst Songs Of All Time.” All I knew about them is that “Uncle Jesse” from the TV family sitcom Full House was a huge fan, and I found his pompous, pompadour’ed character unbearable. (I don’t care if the actor who portrayed him later appeared in a music video for the band Low — he’s still not cool.) When I later discovered such beautiful songs as “God Only Knows” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” were made by the same band? Well, as Full House teen DJ Tanner would say, “Oh, my lanta.”
The audience at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday night obviously skewed considerably older. I spotted quite a few Hawaiian shirts in the crowd, despite the fact that it was a rainy 49 degrees outside. Someone brought a beach ball to bat around the venue. (It disappeared pretty quickly.) The stage was set, jam-packed with an array of instruments, including a white grand piano at center stage. When the band came out promptly at the senior “early bird dinner” hour of 7:00 PM, and began the first familiar notes to “California Girls,” I was surprised to find happy tears started streaming down my face. In the words of the Magnetic Fields, I hate California Girls. But there was an undeniable power to being in the presence of a living legend. The love emanating from the crowd was overwhelming and pure. Older folks fumbled with their phones, trying to take photos. (Note to old folks: no flash!)
Wilson was surrounded by ten additional musicians: two percussionists, three or four keyboardists. At one point, I think there were four guitarists playing at once. I noticed Brian’s piano was positioned facing towards the audience, rather than positioned to the side like a lot of musicians tend to do. I realized later, this may have been to disguise the times Brian isn’t playing anything at all. If you looked through the legs of the piano, you could often see his hands just resting in his lap. I’m not sure how much of the music he actually played himself.
Wilson was more articulate than I had expected him to be, but still seemed a little fragile in his old age. His stage banter was endearingly awkward, as you would expect from an elderly man: “How about a little slow rock?” and “Here’s a rock ‘n’ roll song.” Before performing “Surfer Girl,” Wilson said, “I wrote this when I was 19 years old. I’ve written two, three hundred songs since then, but this is the prettiest I’ve ever written.” Every time the audience would jump to their feet to applaud (which was quite a few times), he would sternly admonish us. “Please sit down. Sit down.”
The first hour of music was a menagerie of their “surfing and sunshine” hits: “I Get Around,” “Dance Dance Dance,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and other songs that made it feel like a nostalgia circuit show at the state fair. Fellow founding member Al Jardine has remained by Brian’s side over the decades, and his son, Matt Jardine, born the same year Pet Sounds came out, has the amazing talent of matching Brian’s younger voice perfectly. When this broad-shouldered, Vince Vaughn-ish looking guy stepped up to the mic for the helium-esque lead in “Don’t Worry Baby,” the crowd howled with delighted surprise after he finished his first line. Throughout the night, he and Brian would seamlessly share vocals, Brian making his way through the lower parts, and then Matt hitting the falsetto.
And actually, Brian didn’t sing all that much. When he did, he reminded me of Randy Newman: a raspy, croaky voice, approaching lyrics haltingly. There were a few times he would belt a note, and there was a glimpse of the resonance of his younger voice. But, for the most part, it was kinda rough. There were many times Brian didn’t participate at all. He would stare blankly out into the venue, hands folded in his lap. Sometimes he’d chime in during a chorus, but then sometimes he’d just stop. It felt strange watching a stage full of musicians performing his songs, while he just sat there.
It was also during this first hour of random song selections we were introduced to special guest Blondie Chaplin. Imagine Keith Richards combined with Peter Pan. Chaplin was indeed a member of the Beach Boys, but only for one year in the early 70s. He performed a three-song set, ending with “Sail On, Sailor,” a song he sang lead on from their 1973 album Holland, but from what I’ve read, he only got lead vocal because both Carl and Dennis Wilson were being lazy. While Wilson was reserved on stage, not even wanting people to stand and applaud, this Chaplin guy was a total ham, strutting around and performing guitar solos better suited for an ’80s metal band. The contrast was cringeworthy. Not even Brian stuck around on stage: he wobbled off to the wings quietly, with almost a limp, but at a brisk pace. I was grateful when intermission finally arrived.
It’s ironic that it was Brian’s desire to stop touring that allowed him to create Pet Sounds, and now 50 years later, he’s on this 100+ date world tour as a result of it. As we waited for the Pet Sounds portion of the evening to kick off, I thought about the movie Love & Mercy, which was part of KEXP’s Face the Music series during the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival. Though Wilson wasn’t closely involved with the production, he later praised the project, particularly Paul Dano’s portrayal of his younger self (which also garnered Dano a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Sure, it’s a movie, but there is a fantastic segment that attempts to recreate the original recording sessions for Pet Sounds, with “Brian” bounding across the studio with relentless enthusiasm, singing parts to musicians to replicate, doing kooky things like placing bobby pins on the piano strings, or bringing dogs into the studio. (The scenes were even shot at actual studios where the Beach Boys recorded, and actual musicians who’d toured with Brian in real life were hired to “act” as his session artists.) “Two bass lines in two different keys? How does that work?” asks a studio musician. “It works in my head,” he replies.
As the band returned to the stage, I watched as Wilson took careful steps back to the piano, and tried to reconnect him to that younger image. Though only 74-years-old, he carries himself as if he were 30 years older than that — the result of a near lifetime of nervous breakdowns, mental illness, drug abuse to try and self-medicate that illness, and then the illegal over-medication at the hands of so-called therapist Eugene Landy. Co-founder Al Jardine is the same age, and is darn-right sprightly in his snappy white suit and slicked back hair. It’s heartbreaking. Wilson was a vibrant, creative, and innovative artist with a true gift for music. I can only imagine what his life would’ve been like had mental health issues been more widely understood back then.
So, the band kicked it all off with Side A, Track 1: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and it truly was. The 11-piece band does an impeccable job of translating such a complex creation. One musician shifted swiftly from trumpet to saxophone to harmonica. One of the keyboardists had a theremin on hand. They even honked a bicycle horn at the end of “You Still Believe In Me.” It’s an elaborate production, almost military-esque in its precise execution, and it’s no wonder they want to milk it for just a little while longer.
The songs struck a whole new poignancy that night: the words of a 24-year-old coming from a 74-year-old Wilson, and fifty years later, they still ring true, just in different ways. The melancholy swoon of “You Still Believe In Me,” sung to a crowd of elderly fans who grew up on his music. The urgent, if not jubilant, chorus of “I wanna go home” in “Sloop John B.” (We know, Brian, we know.) At the end of “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” Al slyly points to Brian and sings, “I guess he just wasn’t made for these times.”
Mid-set, Jardine cheekily says to the audience, “Now we’re at the point in the evening when you turn the record over.” And then, one of the most beautiful songs of all time begins: “God Only Knows.” While Brian doesn’t have the soaring voice his brother Carl did, there was no one else on stage who could’ve sung that song. He mostly “talk-sung” it, but it was a lovely moment, nonetheless.
But the sweetness was short-lived. During the song “Pet Sounds,” the last of the album’s two instrumentals (“Here’s a song with no words at all!” Wilson chirped), Chaplin returned to the stage to play tambourine. Ever the attention hog, he stood close to the lip of the stage, and… chest-bumped his tambourine. Repeatedly. My horror lingered through the album closer “Caroline, No,” and before the song had even ended, Wilson, again, quickly shuffled off stage.
So, that’s the end of the album! Show’s over, right? Well, no, because the band came back out for a six song encore. Look, these concerts seem too long for Brian. By the time you get to Pet Sounds, he already seems to be fading out. The blank stares were more frequent and lasted longer. He was often rubbing his eyes or scratching his nose. On account of his age (and frankly, the age of the audience), seriously, I would suggest shortening the concerts.
In fact, it was during the encore that I felt the disconnect between Brian and his band was the most pronounced. The band was bursting with energy, rocking out classics like “Barbara Ann” and “Help Me, Rhonda.” Percussionist Nelson Bragg was literally jumping in circles, banging a tambourine. Blondie Chaplin was actually running back and forth across the stage, chasing wherever the spotlight was shining. Everyone was having a “surf party tonight” and in the center of it all, still and serene, was Brian. Staring off into the middle distance again. I truly, deeply hope they aren’t just wheeling him out so they can be a Beach Boys cover band, and charge $100+ a ticket instead of touring the casino circuit where that kinda nostalgia trip belongs.
After taking their final bow, Wilson shambled towards the wings for the last time. Chaplin, on the other hand, strutted to center stage with his arms out in a Jesus Christ pose. What. the. fuck. Chaplin, you didn’t even play on Pet Sounds, let alone write these songs. If anyone should be drinking up the accolades, it should be Brian Wilson, but he was long gone. Physically, but, sadly, probably mentally, too.