A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to a Brian Wilson concert. Not entirely by choice, mind you, as anyone who really knows me (and Brian Wilson) would know that this would never be my number one choice of how to spend an evening. Of course, I love Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, second probably only to The Beatles, but I am long over concert-going, and Brian Wilson has never been–and never will be–a performer.
Following our trend of going to events where we are the youngest people in attendance, we go to see Brian Wilson, seated amidst of white, gray, balding, and in denial. The orchestral versions of Beach Boys hits you could probably hear in an elevator provided the perfect backdrop for this scene. A white piano sat center-stage, ready for its maestro–and right on time, Brian stepped onto the stage, with considerable assistance from an aide.
Although our tickets read that the show was for Pet Sounds Live, the show opened with a mini-greatest hits set (“California Girls”, “Little Deuce Coupe,” etc.) with a handful of deep-enough cuts to keep die-hard fans appeased and generic fans befuddled. Then Brian abruptly announced that the band would be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety.
Pet Sounds is, of course, an incredible work of art. As the band said at the close of the show, they were incredibly honored to play such transcendently beautiful music and as an audience member, it was wonderful to hear, even if Brian’s own involvement was limited. He has a talented band that does justice to his musical genius, but he appears to sit at the piano just to have somewhere to sit, and when he does sing, it isn’t exactly singing. “Don’t talk,” he told us, talking more than singing. “Put that head on my shoulder.” Considering the emotional, physical, mental, and drug abuse this man has suffered for most of his adult life combined with his age, however, it is understandable that he would no longer resemble the beloved voice found on record.
At the conclusion of “God Only Knows,” the audience gave Brian a standing ovation. “Thank you. Thank you,” he repeated. “Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated.” So polite and eager to keep the setlist moving.
The final track is, of course, “Caroline, No.” “It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die,” Brian sang. (Or did he? Maybe it was his vocal counterpart–his son-in-law. I can’t remember.) And before we even hear the barks of Banana and Louie, Brian is again taken away.
Brian quit touring with the Beach Boys at the end of 1964 due to the strain and pressure it put on him and to devote his focus to writing, producing, and recording. Brian was never very comfortable on stage. “Something’s off. It’s being up there,” Brian confides to his brothers in Love and Mercy after speculating that maybe he’s just “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”
(Need I remind you again that I am 1000% cuckoo for Love & Mercy? It is such a great movie, the best biopic, and all the awards to Paul Dano and John Cusack for such mesmerizing performances. So many good things in this film, including Paul Dano in white pants and Vans. Go ahead, drop another bobby pin. Oh yeah.)
(If my husband is reading this, I have to defend myself. This is NOT the screen cap I said I needed to make a point in my post. This is what is referred to as aesthetically pleasing.)
“You don’t need me up there, looking like a jerk. I’ll be better back here at home, making music,” Brian pleads with Carl and Dennis. “I just wanna be home.” I get you, Brian. I get you.
And when we see Brian in the studio a few minutes later, starting work on Pet Sounds, we know he is right. Brian is an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable person, crushed by his father’s disapproval of the beginnings of “God Only Knows” in an earlier scene, yet he is so dynamic, articulate, and forceful (in a gentle way) about how he wants his music to sound.
“Brian, I think you might have screwed up here,” groovy Carol Kaye tells him at one point.
“Really? Let me see.”
“You’ve got Lyle playing in D and the rest of us are in A major.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“How does that work? Two bass lines in two different keys?”
“Well, it works in my head…I think it’s gonna work. Let’s try it.”
And when it does indeed work, Carol Kaye can’t help but smile. And Brian smiles, and it’s such a beautiful moment in the film. It really struck me the first time (out of 800) that I saw the film in theaters because it’s just a perfect encapsulation of who Brian is. He is the music, and he belongs at home or in the studio, creating music.
We came home from the concert and watched Love and Mercy the next day. And I was struck again by how much heart and soul Brian put into Pet Sounds, at how in his element he was in the studio, and I wondered again, what was it that broke Brian so? Was it the lukewarm reception to Pet Sounds (stateside, at least), the band’s reluctance to indulge SMiLE, the drugs, his father, mental illness, Satan in the form of Eugene Landy, or a combination of all of the above? I don’t know. But it is so sad to watch this once dynamic, creative individual be reduced to a position he always hated–being on stage, spending more time watching the crowd hopelessly and wiping his hand across his forehead than actually singing. Again, all of the abuse this man has endured has taken its toll; I’m not criticizing the quality of the performance, despite Brian’s limited involvement, I’m just wondering if this is the best place for Brian.
One of the things that comes out of Love and Mercy is the triumph of Brian’s spirit and his redemption in both his music and the escape from Dr. Landy. He falls in love again and returns to creating music. And while he has created some great music in the past twenty-odd years, I have to wonder if the time for Brian Wilson to be performing live has passed, not only for his discomfort but also his health. Can’t he just be home, creating music and spending time with his family?
When Brian re-appeared for the encore (my husband was skeptical that he would be physically able to), the final song the band performed was “Love and Mercy,” which is the signature Brian Wilson track. Created under the duress of Dr. Landy, Brian’s caring, sensitive spirit still shines through the music. “A lot of people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me,” he sings, and you know he means it. He is such a genuinely humble, supremely sensitive human being, and you can feel that in his music. I had to express gratitude for the kind, gentle soul of Brian Wilson that evening.
“Who cares what Mike says?”
So many great lines in this movie.
Yeah, I get you, Brian. 1000%.
P.S.S.S. Coming up next: Favorite Beach Boys deep cuts. Be thinking of your favorites! A happy side effect of seeing Brian Wilson live is the inability to listen to anything but Beach Boys music 24/7.