"I was lying in my room when the news came on TV. A lot of people out there hurtin' and it really scares me. Love and mercy that's what you need tonight. Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. Love and mercy tonight..."
-Brian Wilson, "Love and Mercy"
Sometime toward the beginning of time a Neanderthal put a little lilt to his or her voice and the first melody of the first music was born (if you don't count the percussive pounding of rocks, sticks and bones as actual music- let's just call that the first drum solo- and if you don't count that chirping done by those dinosaur/birds- let's just call that a precursor to Jewel). Music has undergone several transformations, innovations, and changes since that time but one constant has remained- there isn't anything quite as effective as a good song to elicit and express those electrical synapses we call emotions.
That little history lesson keeps pounding inside my brain as I've become more contrite and humble (believe me there was no other way I could go) and far less trusting in my own opinions, I think back to my grade school days when I considered myself to be smugly superior in every possible way to my friend Jay Benson (who now is an attorney). Perhaps the most significant factor in this determination was that I was a Beatles fan (sophisticated poetic music) and Jay expressed a fondness for the Beach Boys (bubble gum fluff pop).
While the Beach Boys harmonies were appealing, all those songs about surfing and sun and California girls seemed so mindless and superficial. But as I began reading more and more rock criticism in college I was always surprised to see the group's Pet Sounds listed on so many critics' short list of the all time greatest LPs. And no less an expert than Paul McCartney said it was his favorite album of all time. So I went out and bought a copy.
The LP has had a profound impact on my life- forever altering it like no other. It got me through many an all-nighter in college- trying to find a way to complete an assignment put off until the last moment now due in a matter of hours. It got me through the days of leaving my family and going off on my own. It got me through the stress of job changes and heartbreaks of broken relationships. The wistful lyrics are offset and enhanced by the beautiful and uplifting melodies.
As I became more and more appreciative of the Beach Boys music (the first time an attorney has ever been correct about something?) I also came to see that Pet Sounds is music unlike anything else in their catalog. It was their first LP that didn't immediately go to the top of the charts. While the group's distinctive harmonies are immediately recognizable the overall melancholy introspection is different from most of their earlier songs. So different was the LP that even the group was split over whether or not it was a direction the group wanted to take. Mike Love labeled it Brian Wilson's "mood music." For a while Brian had even considered releasing it as a solo LP.
Above all the music proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that listening and hearing are as distinct activities as thinking and feeling. (Why is it that three of our greatest innovators- Beethoven, Edison and Wilson all were at least partially deaf?) Brian's songs mix his unique alchemy of the sounds inside his mind with the feelings inside his heart.
Pet Sounds is love's lexicon. The songs are all about the many different sides and side effects of love. From the wishful and hopeful opener "Wouldn't It Be Nice" about the energy and dreams one feels when one first falls in love (containing the terrific couplet in the refrain "maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true/maybe then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do.") to the incredibly sad closer "Caroline No" about a love that dies as the singer is left to wonder why things have changed- the LP covers a large amount of territory. It's about faith, loss, and redemption, about trying to find the way back home to listening to one's own heartbeat.
In 1966 Brian was at his creative peak both as a writer and as an arranger. This was music he had to make, the music he alone heard that he so desperately wanted to share with the world. He of course would endure a nervous breakdown shortly afterwards meaning Pet Sounds remains his most inspired and insightful artistic triumph. As Brian was tumbling within, he reached out and boldly shared himself. It's tragically ironic yet somehow both fitting and familiar that just as he was pouring out his heart with such courage, honesty, and breathtaking skill, fewer and fewer people were listening, and less still were paying attention.
Like the film Citizen Kane, another brilliant work of art, Pet Sounds is a complex and dense effort- the more you listen the more you hear. Though the lush sound is rewarding, stripping and peeling away the many layers of instruments and voices reveals more and more. The title accurately portrays the production- this is about Brian's many favorite sounds that he uses to paint a dazzling portrait on a personal canvass. For its many expressions and observations about love, the LP is convincing in its questioning whether or not the exact actual feeling even exists. The word is too simple for the many emotions it may evoke. To say, "I love this or that" (or you) is too restrictive and doesn't begin to portray the delicate intricacies of intimacy. Ultimately that is the journey Pet Sounds takes us on. The cycle of songs convey a multitude of heartfelt expressions and insecurities about love- from the reciprocal to the unrequited; from the nurturing to the acidic; from the supportive to the cathartic; from the trusting to the separation; from the internal to the eternal; from the intuitive to the symbolic; from the patient to the inattentive; from the anticipation to the disappointment; from the personal to the accessible; from the honesty to the betrayal; from the fantasy to the memory; from birth until death.
On his new CD Live at the Roxy, Brian introduces the song "Lay Down Burden" by saying he wrote it for his late brother Carl. His off the cuff words to the audience- "I'm going to dedicate this song to any of you who had a death in your family and to my brother Carl Wilson..." are as naked and inclusive as much of his music is. It's as if he lacks the filters that exist in most people, and his vulnerability leaves him in a shaken condition even though that same demon has also been the life and light behind his music (and muse). Brian is an intriguing testimonial to survival- lacking those defensive filters can make people cringe with uneasiness (are they looking away because of discomfort or indifference?) and yet the very nature of his art is to provide consolation.
Through his struggles and difficult life and shadowy condition Brian continues to mark his way forward by what he shares with us in his music. I am one of the many consoled and converted. When my Mom breathed her last breath the CD I needed to listen to most was Pet Sounds. Not because of trying to work through the grief but to feel some connection in all the despair. Not because any of the songs relate to what I was going through, nor because any of the music is remotely related to what I remembered about my Mom, but because the music on the disc is about being human more than any other I know. This past year with growing heartache the CD has been played even more and provided needed comfort and solace.
There have been times when I've honestly wondered whether or not I can continue facing all the burdens life presents. There was a time about ten years back when the struggles almost got the best of me. One of the things I remember now is the many things that have happened since that time that I would have missed if I hadn't made it. The most recent example was the chance Thursday night to see Brian perform the entire Pet Sounds album live with at Northrop Auditorium. I recently was talking with another Beach Boys fan and we agreed it's strange that of all three Wilson brothers, Brian is the one that survived longest (Dennis drown in 1983 and Carl died from cancer in 1998). From the late 1960's throughout the 1970's this would have been unthinkable. So to have the opportunity to be in the same room as the voice responsible for the music on Pet Sounds was as mind boggling as it was heartwarming.
My favorite concert I've ever attended was Bananarama in 1988 at the Guthrie Theater. I went with one of my all time favorite former Cheapo employees, Paul Young who had an endless amount of energy and ideas but lacked the attention span to implement any of them. Being our 12" dance music expert at the time, Paul was the perfect person to go with to see the female British trio. I remember watching the three women go through all their many hits. They couldn't play instruments, couldn't really dance, and I think they were lip-synching their parts. But the crowd was REALLY into it- dancing and singing along. Everyone except the girl who sat in front of me. She must have been about 13 or 14 years old and she sat there stone quiet without movement throughout the show, looking at everyone in the room with a WHAT'S UP WITH THEM AND WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? demeanor. That is until Bananarama broke into "Cruel Summer" (which happened to be my favorite song of theirs). Then this girl got up and danced and sang and did it better than anyone else. That moment made me happy for some odd reason.
I now have to report I have a new favorite concert going experience. Sure Brian Wilson seldom played any instruments (he sat behind an electric piano but hardly touched it, letting it serve as a protective shield), had some vocal troubles, and certainly didn't dance. But it was a wonderful concert. I can't pretend to be objective or analytical or critical about any of this. The music is too personal and close to my heart- more a part of who I am than anything I've ever written myself.
Brian opened the show with the same song he opened with here last year, 1965's "The Little Girl I Once Knew." For the rest of this tour he has been performing with his own 14-piece band augmented by a full 55-piece orchestra. This evening he just had his own band with him. The arrangements were tighter, the playing more focused and the vocals more sure than last year's Minnesota appearance. The band ran through a string of Beach Boys hits including "In My Room," "California Girls," and "I Get Around." They also did a wonderful cover of the Bare Naked Ladies' "Brian Wilson." ("Lying in bed like Brian Wilson did...") My favorite part of the first half of the show were some lesser known songs, 1968's R&B "Darlin," 1965's "Please Let Me Wonder," ("For so long I've thought it and now I can't live without it, this beautiful image I have of you. Please let me wonder..."), and the sublime confessional, "'Til I Die" ("I'm a leaf on windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. How long will the wind blow? How long will the wind blow?").
Bandleader Jeffrey Foskett introduced the second half of the show by saying, "I was 23 when I heard these songs. Brian was 23 when he wrote these songs." What followed next was truly astounding. When Brian strained to hit the opening notes of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" tears flowed down my cheeks (probably not a good sign for a 35-year old man). He had a goofy grin on his face (that remained on his face for most of the set) and he ended the song with a football referee's touchdown signal.
He didn't hit all the notes, he forgot some of the words and the band's sound sometimes drown out his vocals but to witness this, to be in the same room as the composer, the soul, of these songs was a life changing experience.
When listening to the CD it's impossible for me to pick out a favorite song from the cycle- each is as essential as it is different. The same thing goes for the concert renditions. And I can't convey any of this better than Brian's own words did.
Some random observations from the evening:
"Wouldn't It Be Nice"- bittersweet song performed with that goofy grin.
"You Still Believe In Me"- As he did throughout the evening whenever the word "heart" appeared in a song, Brian clutched his chest when he sang the lyrics "I try hard to be more what you want me to be/I can't help how I act when you're not here with me/I try hard to be strong but sometimes I fail myself/And after all I've promised you/so faithfully/you still believe in me."
"That's Not Me"- introduced by Brian with- "Here's a song about a guy who had a dream." ("I could be big in the eyes of the world/but what matters to me is what I could be to just one girl.")
"Don't Talk"- the heartbeat.
"I'm Waiting for the Day"- Brian's introduction: "Here's a song that starts fast, goes slow, goes fast, goes slow. I hope you like it... I know you'll like it..."
"Sloop John B"- introduced with "This song has goofy lyrics." ("The first mate he got drunk/broke in the captain's trunk/the constable had to come and take him away/Sheriff John Stone, why don't you leave me alone?")- some of my own favorite lyrics of all time though I'm not sure I know what they mean.
"God Only Knows"- Exquisite. Brian said it was his favorite song "we ever wrote."
"Here Today"- Great performance of an under appreciated song. ("Right now you think that she's perfection/this time it's really an exception/well you know I hate to be a downer/but I'm the guy she left before you found her.")
"I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"- with its haunting repetitious refrain- "Sometimes I feel very sad..." sung with the full force backing of the band. This perhaps more than any other song could be Brian's theme song. ("I keep looking for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind/and I've been trying hard to find the people that I won't leave behind... I just wasn't made for these times.)
"Caroline No"- Brian's introduction: "Here's a sad song so I won't smile. It tears my heart out every time I sing it. It's about a girl who cut off her hair..."
What an idyllic evening. The band sent us home with more Beach Boys hits, "Surfer Girl," "Help Me Rhonda," "Surfin USA," and "Fun Fun Fun." Then Brian closed things with a hymn like "Love and Mercy." It not only was a spirited concert it was also somehow spiritual and transcendent. Brian kept asking the crowd if we were happy and for one evening if posed the same question he would seem to be able to echo the crowd's answer.