On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, I’m thinking about the all-time lead Beach Boy, Brian Wilson.
I met him only once, but I’ve written about him and the various versions of the perennial Boys over the years, ranging from short pieces about the Beach Boys features we have here on Qello, to a review of Love & Mercy, the 2014 movie about him starring John Cusack and Paul Dano, to this item, from early 2010:
The Beach Boys may be washed up, but it’s good to know that Brian Wilson can still hang ten now and again. He was in San Francisco just the other evening, performing his oldies, along with a couple of newbies, at an art gallery.
You read me right. He was in town promoting his latest album, That Lucky Old Sun, and, because the album (which came out in 2008) inspired Sir Peter Blake, stylist of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP artwork, to create new paintings, inspired by the album, it was a double-promo. A deluxe book, encased in a box with prints of Blake’s work, is being sold at the San Francisco Art Exchange, a downtown gallery that has often exhibited works by rock artists and photographers. The deal was: If you purchased any of three packages built on Wilson’s music and Blake’s art, with prices ranging from $1,500 to $5,500, you’d be admitted to this private performance.
And so it was that about a hundred lucky and well-heeled (or connected) fans were up close and personal with Brian and his backup band for a generous, 14-song set that effectively evoked the Beach Boys. They found a Brian Wilson comfortable in his old sandals, willing and able to regale them with a stack o’ hits, including “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” from 1963, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Do It Again,” “Surfer Girl,” “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda” (my fave, from ’65), “California Girls,” and his 1966 slice of genius from Pet Sounds, “God Only Knows.” “Paul McCartney said this was his favorite song,” he told the crowd.
Of course, he also did a few songs from That Lucky Old Sun, which, despite the title, is not a Willie Nelson-type collection of American standards. This is new, introspective stuff, supplemented by short narrations composed by old partner Van Dyke Parks, and recorded at the Beach Boys’ first studios, in the landmark Capitol Records tower in Hollywood.
Wilson, who is 67, clearly was feeling nostalgic. At one point on the CD, he recalls:
I had this dream, singing with my brothers
In harmony, supporting each other
Tail winds, wheels spin, down the Pacific Coast
“Surfin'” on the AM, heard those voice again
But it wasn’t all woodies and oldies but goodies. He addressed his many years of dealing with the impact of drugs; his psychological problems; his reclusiveness:
At 25 I turned out the light
‘Cause I couldn't handle the glare in my tired eyes …
I met Brian once after the lights had come back on, and he’d returned to the recording studios for a Beach Boys album, Keepin’ the Summer Alive(1980), that turned out to be a dud.
He was in a chipper mood, which seemed to surprise the people around him. We sat for a chat for a Showtime special about the group and the album, and, at one point, when I heard some laughter behind us, I asked him what made him laugh.
“What makes me laugh? Arguments. Whenever I hear an argument, I laugh.”
I laughed, too. “Arguments between you and other people, or just…”
“No. Just listening.” He cocked an ear as if he were eavesdropping on somebody, as his brother Carl and others joined in the laughter.
Of course, that was and is part of his genius. To take common concerns, conversations, and conflicts, and turn them into harmonies, melodies and, just often enough, mini- masterpieces.
How does he do it? God only knows.
Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.