Brian Wilson can't really sing well anymore. His falsetto is cracked and his low register is ragged but there's a sweetness in his voice that makes you ache. He sounds like a person incapable of guile, someone who has retained an innocence. You ache when you hear it, and probably would even if you didn't know the story behind it, which nowadays everyone does due to the excellent Love & Mercy movie.
"Did you see my new movie?" Wilson asked the audience at the packed Benaroya Hall on July 12; the roar indicated most people had. Love & Mercy (with a brilliant performance by Paul Dano as the young Wilson) tells the story of the rise and fall of Brian Wilson from star to recluse to being forgotten, or thought dead, to redemption and return. Everyone loves a story in which the broken are mended, the wounded heal, the losers are given a second chance and they triumph. Everyone also loves a story that takes them back to a time they were happy or thought they were.
A lot of people with gray hair and thick around the middle were in the audience at the hall that usually hosts the symphony. How much of what anyone heard had to do with nostalgia for their (our) adolescence or childhood, how much was about the singer's story of suffering and redemption, and how much was about the actual music that was played live? I don't know.
Wilson sat in the center of the stage at a big white grand piano. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt and long black pants. He had black shoes and I watched how little they moved. Sometimes his right foot would tap a little, but mostly not. He's not a person whose music lives in his body; it's cerebral, like an ether or a thing that came through an angel, a creature not quite human but from another world. It's like he came down here and the world got tested to see if we'd know what to do with him.
We almost failed; we almost lost him. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also got too much success and fame too young, suffered (abuse of booze, an insane marriage) too much because of it, then wrote in The Last Tycoon, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald didn't get a second act after his decline, but Brian Wilson did. Now 73, he has come back from madness (two obese years in bed), loss (two brothers dead), and drugs (the '60s, an abusive shrink) to complete his aborted-in-1966 masterpiece, Smile, make several solo albums, be the subject of a fawning but actually really good biopic, and just complete a victory lap with a super-tight 10-piece band. The mostly younger musicians in his band (Darian Sahanaja, keyboards, everything else, vocals; Scott Bennett, marimba, keyboards, vocals, other stuff; Nick Wonder, guitar; Probyn Gregory, French horn, theremin, guitar, etc.; Nelson Bragg, percussion, drums; "Sir" Paul Mertens, sax and flute, etc.) are clearly thrilled to be touring with the man one member referred to as "The Maestro."
That word is most often applied to classical conductors, which Wilson kind of is, though for pop. He once said what he wanted to write was "teenage symphonies to God." His work was about the joy of innocence and the cusp of the discovery of trouble. There's not any sweat or sex in the songs, there's sweetness and romance. No wonder he couldn't survive.
The problem with most aging rock stars is the fact that teenage-ness doesn't age. When a 60- or 70-year-old man tries to act like a teenager, either cute (Paul McCartney: Stop) or the sexy bad boy (Mick Jagger: Stop), it's embarrassing and gross. But there's an untouched, uncorrupted something about Brian Wilson. He's like a holy fool. Not playing pretend he's young again, but reminding us that we, his corrupt and normal listeners, once were. Part of listening to his work is about nostalgia, but part of it is about encouraging us to try to return to whatever sweetness we might still have inside ourselves.
The set began with the a cappella (the name means "in the chapel style") "Our Prayer." This piece, a wordless invocation to some musical divine, opens Wilson's Smile. It's like the bard collective calling down the muse, or the start of religious worship. It was followed by "Heroes and Villains," as is the sequence on Smile. But hearing Wilson and Van Dyke Parks's evocation of the characters of American history live, with big-bellied Wilson behind his piano, made the spirits sketched in the lyrics seem less those of our national history than those of Wilson's own life. The heroes are people like Al Jardine, the loyal, decent, stalwart, and not blood relative Beach Boy who rejoined Wilson on vocals and guitar for this tour, and Sahanaja, Bennett, et al who helped bring Wilson back to music in the first place. The villains include the creepy shrink Eugene Landy (whose professional license has been revoked due to ethical violations, and who has been barred by a restraining order from ever contacting Wilson again) and the evil Mike Love (Beach Boy vocalist and mean disparager of Wilson's post–Pet Sounds musical innovations).
After a romp through a bunch of old Beach Boys hits ("California Girls," "Shut Down," "Little Deuce Coupe," "I Get Around"), many featuring Jardine on vocals (though he's the same age as Wilson, his tenor has remained pretty good), Darian Sahanaja took over the high vocal parts from Brian on a couple songs ("This Old World," "You're So Good to Me"). This kindly arrangement honors the Maestro and also acknowledges the fact that his voice can no longer do what it once did. Other falsetto parts were taken by Matt Jardine, Al's son, carrying on, in an ironic way, the family-ness of the Beach Boys endeavor. Instead of brothers singing together against the manipulative meddling of an envious father (onetime Beach Boy manager Murray Wilson was a very difficult man), this family consists of a kindly dad making way for a grateful son.
"I wasted so much time," Wilson said in reference to events depicted in Love & Mercy. Then, he went on, "an angel comes to you. But you gotta have a—"did he say "broken" or "open"? I didn't catch it—"a broken/open heart," to take in what she brings. "I fee alive again," he said before he sang a song for his wife.
Blondie Chaplin, the South African vocalist and guitarist who did a brief stint as a full member of the Beach Boys in the early '70s, joined Jardine to sing several songs from that period, including "Sail Away," "Wild Honey," "Sail On, Sailor," and "Surf's Up." The show moved on to a couple tunes from the recently released No Pier Pressure, three songs from Pet Sounds—"Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B," and "God Only Knows"—and "Good Vibrations." The encore was a hit parade of early surf tunes—"Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfer Girl," "Barbara Ann," etc. Then the battered old hopeful resurrected man-who-got-a-second-act sent us home with a blessing of "Love and Mercy."
I first heard Brian Wilson when I was in grade school, a skinny awkward towheaded tomboy puppying after my big brother and sister and listening to their Beatles, his Beach Boys, and her Rolling Stones and hoping one day I'd get to a rock 'n' roll concert, too.
I didn't see Wilson until 2005, when he began touring again after Smile was resurrected. He was oddly inert back then, kind of staring ahead and not responding much to anything, just moving his mouth the way it remembered to, his hands the way they remembered, too. But this time around he was animated, stretching his funny arms left and right, miming a driver at the wheel in one of the car songs, even sort of conducting, like a maestro (though it was clear most of the direction was done by bandleader Darian Sahanaja). It was nice to see him looking better.
In 2005 I had never even heard of Rodriguez, the other 73-year-old resurrected musician on the bill (this was the last night of a 16-gig tour). Rodriguez may be having a great second act, but it's not like he had much of a first act in the States—a story well-chronicled in the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. His vocals are still powerful, his patter between songs could be lively and sharp, as you'd expect from the savageness of some of his lyrics ("Crucify Your Mind," "I Wonder," "The Establishment"). I'm so glad Rodriguez has been (re)discovered. His lyrics remind us that part of what popular music can do is comment—repeatedly because the tunes get in your head and body and you can't get them out—about poverty, crappy health care, financial inequity, violence, war, etc., violence, war, etc., etc. It can also be sly and make you want to get up and dance even if you can't. When Rodriguez sings to you these days, it's like he's saying, I told you so. I told you so several decades ago and now you're starting to get it. I told you so, and not much has gotten better. The crap I sang about still is crap, whether in love or politics, and you can't anymore pretend otherwise.
When Brian sings those songs again he still believes them, but we don't. Though he can sing "you were my sunshine" and about feeling like a cork on the ocean, a rock on a landslide, a leaf on a windy day, he can also sing as if he—and we, by extension—could have fun, fun, fun. In recent interviews, when asked how he spends his time when not working on music, Wilson says he likes to watch his kids play. He has five children with Melinda (as well as two adult daughters, Carnie and Wendy, from his first marriage). There truly is a kind of childlike lack of guile to Wilson, as if he was born without some gene that makes you harden when you grow up. His arms look soft and kind of pasty and they hang limp at his side when he's not playing the piano. His belly is getting big again, more noticeable than those of his middle-thickening fans, like me, who dance a little less and nap a little more and wonder if maybe the best years are behind us. His return is a triumph of love and innocence. It tells a story, like those told in some of his songs, that sometimes even the most broken heart can be opened up by an angel.