Monday, October 4, 2004

Grinning Year to Year

Bob's Quote of the Week: "Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn't work."

After the Show

Ever live through a period where the phrase, "if this is the last thing I ever do," feels like a question more appropriately pondered as, "since this is the last thing I'll ever do I better get it right just in case somebody's paying attention?"

In my post college swoon all those years ago, the creativity I had once felt seemed all but cracked and evaporated. I was consciously trying to feel and spark something that used to just bubble up naturally or mystically through the self-conscious. I just wasn't the same and no one seemed to pay any notice. My life's goal had always been to write a novel so what better time to try then when you are at a complete and utter loss for words? My roommate, Pistol Pete, had just bought an Apple Computer so what I did was I started collecting all the pieces I had written over the years that I considered representative of my best writing. There were childhood stories, essays from junior and senior high, newspaper stories and columns I wrote for my college newspaper and the newspaper I wrote for during an internship in college. There were poems and a few short stories. There were copies of letters I had written to people and snippets from the journal I had kept since the 9th grade.

As I was struggling with a new narrative to tie all the work together so I could give the collection to friends and family (as if it was the last thing I'd ever do) it occurred to me that I could write a piece about a struggling writer who was beginning to feel like he could write no more, like he had nothing left to say even though he hardly had said anything at all.

At this point I was out of work so I stayed up day and night just writing and re-writing. One bleary eyed night I decided I'd turn it all into a novel but not a straightforward novel. Nope I was going to tell a story through multiple narrator's eyes, weaving bits a pieces from the past present and future so you never quite knew who was telling the story and what point in time the story was being told. The idea was to write a piece like a painting where you had to look at the small corner just as thoughtfully as you did the larger picture to understand and appreciate it all (and at all).

OK so in retrospect it wasn't the brightest idea on the planet in an attempt to write one's first novel to take on such a complex concept. But I was in a put my head down and plow ahead mode so I just kept typing away- cutting and pasting, writing and re-writing and re-writing some more because I was racing against demons both visible and invisible, both felt and sensed- and I knew the personal importance of what I was doing even though I knew at the same time I had lost perhaps my one redeeming quality along the way- my sense of humor.

And the irony of feeling like I had lost control of the project somehow- a project that started as trying to come up with something to collect all my best writing in one place was now a flowing example of how I couldn't write much at all. By turning inwards so deeply (inside out, outside looking in I liked to say at the time) I was feeling things more deeply than ever before but feeling hardly anything at all. And the scary thought was that it would never change and even if I did, this wasn't necessarily a place I would never again return to because now that I found it I had confirmed its existence.

My relationships with my friends were splintering and that's why it was in an extreme act of kindness when former Cheapo employee Johnny Baynes came home one night and gave me a copy of Brian Wilson's newly released first solo LP. For those who had long written off Brian as being a basket case (and that was most everyone) it was of great interest that he was now releasing new music for the first time in over a decade. And though the music wasn't entirely satisfactory, simple songs with far too many hands involved, far too overproduced- one could overlook that because here was new heartfelt music from one of the few who can be accurately called a musical genius (no matter how far his state of mind had fallen).

I was touched by Johnny's gesture. And I was inspired by Brian's new music. The opening track, "Love and Mercy" is as honest as an astoundingly honest artist has ever been. "I was lying in my room when the news came on TV/A lot of people out there hurting and it really scares me/Love and mercy that's what you need tonight..." And pardon me if my self inflicted wounds allowed me to relate to this music far beyond your average moping wannabe somebody's friend.

One of the songs on Brian Wilson with great intuition foreshadowed the love of my life, my all too brief time with my soul survivor and novel inspiration and also the only person who made me laugh during this life defining time when laughing was a rather rare commodity and thus so much more appreciated (and dare I say loved?). "Melt Away" remains in my upper echelon of favorite songs. "The world's not just waiting just for me/The world don't care what I can be/I feel just like an island/Until I see you smiling..."

So in a much later year when a fellow could easily find himself sliding from "could have" to "has" been one discovers that things don't always work the way they used to and that's just a hard lesson of life one thinks about walking in the dark in the dusk to work on the morning when one is tightly gripping tickets to see Brian Wilson's show at the Orpheum that very night.

On the night when much of America was listening to the latest Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum dance their version of a debate (although doesn't the definition of the word necessarily include some give and take between the participants?) half tired, half weary, I wasn't sure what to expect from the show. The curtains lifted to a loud ovation and there was Brian seated casually on a chair surrounded by his 18 member band as they did a we're here in your living room version of "Surfer Girl." The harmonies were crisp and Brian's stiffness was countered by the sheepish grin on his face. The first half of the show was comprised of music both new and old, familiar and as much as they can be, obscure, with great arrangements and performances of the Beach Boys' "Sail on Sailor," "God Only Knows," and a raucous "Marcella." Three new songs from the new CD Gettin in Over My Head held up well, particularly the title track that Brian dedicated to his wife Melinda who he painstakingly made the crew at the Orpheum turn up the house lights for so he could find her in the audience.

Brian also led an impromptu round of "Row Row Row Your Boat" that demonstrated if nothing else that people will do whatever they are commanded by a celebrity and also that one of his forever greatest personality traits is his ever prevailing wicked sense of humor.

As much as the first half was tightly arranged (most of the songs were performed acoustically as the band surrounded Brian in a group-singalong) the second half was what some of thus were really there for- a live performance of the Smile song cycle- song for wonderful song.

The apparent purpose of the music of Smile seems to be to live up to its title and Brian and company did just that.

Throughout the show Brian didn't move much from beyond the comfort of his electric piano. He barely played the instrument instead mostly waiting for his vocal parts in the swirling and tightly arranged harmonies and spending most of the evening wildly gesturing his arms just like a short-haired lunatic Asian election official seen in public but far beyond sleep deprived to the land of the lost just like, for the first time, those icky novel inducing experiences that coincidentally mirrored the release of Brian's new music. It once seemed evident that wasn't something that would ever spill out of his guts again.

The live music of Smile went far beyond smile-inducing to something gratefully hypnotic. Brian labeled it a "teenage symphony to God" and during this live performance one really began to understand exactly what he meant in the first place.

Smile opens with an inspired liturgical like prayer and quickly segues into the very old western (complete with player piano embellishments) "Heroes and Villains." Whenever this music is called symphonic one begins to understand a little better what exactly is meant by that. Reoccurring melodic and lyrical motifs keep running throughout, tying together 17 songs. Throughout the songs (and the live performances of the tracks were intricately connected to that which has been recently recorded) one can't help but wonder about the purpose of it all. One man's guess is that it all is supposed by be at symbolic tribute to the history of American music- from the church based foundations, to the wild wild west, to Jazz and all things that gurgled up in our country's history taking us from Plymouth Rock to the Grand Coulee Dam and back again.

The lyrics can be nonsensical yet the overall music makes more sense than can be known. While the lyrics on Brian's other complete masterpiece Pet Sounds all contain hints of inner torment and melancholy, the lyrics of Smile are hard to decipher. They seem to make the effective point that it isn't always what the words mean but sometimes it's about certain words' sounds as if by repeating specific yet nonsensical strings of words together that a feeling can be conveyed by the mere sound of the syllables. I sat there transfixed by the music coming from the stage down two levels from my upper balcony seat and let it all just wash over me and overwhelm me in its path.

If a current and artistically acceptable artist (like say Wilco) were to release music like Smile for the first time ever, we'd all be sitting around pouring in the accolades. As it is many will dismiss this as music from a failed never tried yet still wrote about it surfer and fans might dismiss it as not being like the many other songs that the same artist has created that can actually get one off and on to one's feet to wiggle and waggle and remember how it all once felt.

The absolute, no doubt highlight of the evening came before the profoundly goofy "Vega-Tables" where Brian pulled out an electric toothbrush for sound effect purposes and simultaneously broke into a grin wider than the Grand Canyon. He knew that this was all such wonderful stuff, and he knew where it came from and he was allowing himself to enjoy it all despite the place that may or may not exist reminding him that completing his lifelong dream may be nothing more than an afterthought, a footnote, at this point though it will undoubtedly be noted as something historic by someone somewhere down the road.

The show closed with quick and punchy run throughs of many of the Beach Boys' best known songs like "Surfin USA," "Help Me Rhonda," and "Barbara Ann." Brian strapped on an electric guitar for "Fun Fun Fun" and actually did some deft Chuck Berry like duck steps that were as delightful and joyful as they were goofy.

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