Brian Wilson At Radio City Music Hall, Saturday, September 23rd, 2017, Reviewed
The difference between Mike Love’s Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys is the difference between nostalgia for baby boomers and artistic frailty as septuagint revisionism. Love pushes and shoves, he is like Steerforth, Flashman to Brian’s Tom Brown, the school bully in excelsis. Love pushes us so hard that you feel morally obliged to sing along and worse, embarrassed to be singing along: he can’t bring the songs into the 21st Century. He is Trump to Wilson’s Obama.
Wilson can’t bring the Beach Boys comfortably into the present day either. In Edward Huerta’s prose poem to the elusive Brian (here), Huerta finds the art in the past perfect, but two years later it hasn’t survived. Neither Love nor Wilson can make up for the loss of the beatific Carl Wilson’s falsetto; Jeffrey Foskett of Mike’s Beach Boys is the only place Love beats out Brian, Matt Jardine (Al’s son, born the year Pet Sounds was released) isn’t bad at all, no kicks, especially on the twofer “Don’t Worry Baby” followed by “Let Him Run Wild” but both Carl and Jeff are tough acts to follow. Wilson seemed off last night at Radio City Hall on his “Final Performances Of Pet Sounds” tour. Wilson can always appear distracted to a certain degree but I hadn’t seen him this bad in nearly 20 years. He didn’t appear scared but indifferent, elsewhere. The result was oddly helpful during the hits portion of the first set, you expect the audience on their feet and dancing to opening song “California Girls,” but they were subdued yet concentrated: they didn’t dance because they were listening profoundly, and what they heard was their own mortality performed back to them: Wilson couldn’t bring them back to being teens in search of girls if only (to use Greil Marcus’s magic phrase) to validate their honor: what he could do is look back and show the distance, his voice a distant echo returning from 1965, so far away on what he called the Beach Boys signature tune; it’s as if the song had grown old with him, everything about it was heard from way of in the distance, the complete opposite of Love, Wilson performs no facelift, no updating, no feigning. Two songs later he performs “I Get Around,” a Love moment if ever there was, and while Love was all pugnacious bravado, all “I’m get bugged driving up and down the same old strips,” Brian was all about the background harmonies, it seemed delicate but how could it be? Three songs off Wild Honey put them right, and the set stampeded through two masterstrokes featuring 70s Beach Boy guitarist Blondie Chaplin, a good “Sail On Sailor” followed by a showstopping “Wild Honey,” with Blondie a centrifugal force gaining dagger stares from Brian (I think -who can tell?), the guitarist shredding and stalking the stage.
During intermission the question was, if Brian is having such a terrible time, why is he doing it? Money? Oh, I doubt it: Wilson’s catalog has been a part of American pop culture for decades, hell, even Nancy Reagan was forced to put down the Frank Sinatra Columbia Hits for long enough to tell James Watt he was a moron for canceling the Beach Boys 1983 July 4th concert at the Washington Mall, and shouldn’t need the money. In Rolling Stone a coupla weeks ago, not only did Wilson claim to “kick ass at life” but explained his rationale for remaining on tour: “I honestly don’t know what happened. I thought I was gonna hang it up. But then I changed my mind. I said, ‘What am I gonna do? Sit around and watch TV? No way!’ Nothin’ was really happening back in L.A., so I figured I might as well go tour. I just said, ‘Well, fuck it, I might as well get off my ass and tour.’ So I got off my ass and toured.”
The second set was Pet Sounds, and it is easy to take it a little for granted at this point. But, unlike its first cousin Sgt Peppers, it hasn’t much aged at all, a coupla bad trips lyrics but otherwise it coulda been written yesterday. The story of a 22 year old superstar coming to terms with his ego after tackling his id for ten years, lyricist Tony Asher put a poetic glint on Wilson’s preoccupations. The live performance enfolds on harmonies, the highlight of the highlight was the four part harmony through “I want to cry,” a feeling of emotional unification completely irrelevant to age or generation. Wilson voice has no range, his breathing is compromised, but he sings his parts and he sounds like Brian WIlson: that’s what and exactly who he sounds like, through the past darkly to the present, there is a completeness to the emotions and an enjoining through harmony to the two becomes one of romantic fealty. This entire set is like a diamond with a flaw, it is stunningly beautiful and priceless and its imperfections become it. Al Jardine, literally Brian’s right hand man, on “Sloop John B” dovetails to all these songs of home and confusion, love and ego (and mercy, of course).on possibly Brian’s greatest moment “God Only Knows” the last Wilson standing raises to the occasion, “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” could have used Mike Love, but that’s the only song. And there is something so brotherly and unique in the way the band crests and falls around Brian’s sorry singing that gives it a realness so missing from, say, Bruno Mars at MSG on Friday. It was more than the theatre of the real, it was the realness of time brought to life.
The encore was more hits, and the audience were finally up and dancing, but, except for Wilson throwing in “Rhapsody Of Blue” during “Fun Fun Fun,” it wasn’t up to much. Much better was Wilson’s great “Love And Mercy”. His finest solo recording, but far from his only fine solo recording. When I heard about the just release Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology, I thought it would be something a lot bigger, maybe the release of the Sweet Insanity bootleg tracks, four, five, six, ten albums worth of material. It is a useless 18 track saunter and it is lead by “Love And Mercy.” As an expression of Brian as a sensitive, empathic, fragile soul it is a true piece of artistry and a benediction to send us on our ways.
I passed on Stevie Wonder taking the knee to see Brian acting his age, he is the great and troubled genius of rock and roll, never recovered from the brutal beatings his father Murry Wilson used to administer, so violent Brian lost his hearing in one ear. Brian responded by keeping the scars throughout his entire life, from his earliest moments,”Surfer Girl” (“the first song I ever wrote”) to “The Warmth Of The Sun” all the way to “Love And Mercy” and beyond, his creation was to give teenage boys and older men, and me, our humanity back from the machismo and sexism of the Greatest Generation. Brian’s love for girls and women wasn’t simply chasing skirts but a search for the completion he never found as a boy: introverted, sad, troubled, strange, and musical beyond musical, the abused boy became one of our greatest composers and Pet Sounds expresses why, clearly. There were other ways for us to become men, there are better ways for us to be men.
Set 1: B+
Set 2: A