Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Smile? Sometimes

I've had Brian Wilson on the brain this week (and how often do I type Brian and it comes out "brain?" Almost all the time). The reasons will become apparent to some tomorrow. So, what a week to have seen him in concert.

J. and I had seen Brian's Smile tour when it stopped in Saratoga, four years ago, I think. It was amazing. Just seeing Brian Wilson is something. His troubled past is known to all in attendance and there's a lot of love and support sent his way from the crowd. He needs it, too. Not as fat as he was in the '70's, not as fit as he appeared in the late '80's, Wilson is a nervous hulk, sitting behind a tiny electric keyboard. His anxiety and awkwardness are always apparent, but were less front and center in 2005 when he and his amazing band went through the most famous lost album in rock.

Not so on Tuesday. Without the triumph of Smile, Wilson was shakier than the first time I'd seen him. He performed Beach Boy hits, as well as reaching for some lesser known album cuts. The Beach Boys were always, in my estimation, a hits-only type of group with the exception of Pet Sounds. I remember my shock when I started going through their LPs and found, to my delight, a huge catalog of great songs. When Brian and the band began playing "Salt Lake City," I was knocked out. It's an odd tribute to a square town, and a wonderfully incongruous tune. "Custom Machine," "The Little Girl I Once Knew" (which Wilson declared the best record he'd ever produced), joined the setlist, lost songs finally given their due.

The Beach Boys were an intensely competitive group. When the Mike Love-edition of the group played Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, also in 2005, Love trashed talked Justin Timberlake for some reason. Brian too dissed his rivals. "The Stones couldn't do a ballad like this," he boasted as an introduction to "Please Let Me Wonder." That song is, in my estimation, the greatest Beach Boy tune, and Brian's high, pristine tone on the original is one if the most beautiful vocals ever put to wax. It was sad to hear him now, straining for even the middle range. Yet, he is so compelling and tragic a figure that it works.

Wilson is childlike and he and The Beach Boys had a juvenile sense of humor. You can hear it on a few spoken word album tracks that made it as filler on their records. It was clear that that silliness would be on display during the show. Hell, they opened with "Monster Mash." A few jokes back and forth, with Brian and a band member referring to each other as "Pilgrim," was immediately tiresome.

While the Smile tour was a complete victory, this show was tinged with melancholy. Brian was so odd, so uncomfortable, so fragile. And, for the bulk of the concert, he and the group completely ignored Lucky Old Sun, Wilson's masterpiece from last year. Then, as the show was winding down, a troika of selections from Sun were played and they were magnificent. "Southern California," which looks back on his dream of singing with his brothers, will break your heart more than a big wave wipe out.

"At 25 I turned out the light, 'cause I couldn't handle the the glare in my tired eyes." Think about those lines from "Going Home." Brian Wilson was a kid when the pressures of writing, producing and recording got to him, resulting in a nervous collapse. What did he miss, what did we all miss, when he disappeared from the rock scene? He's back, and doing pretty well, but I couldn't help mull over the deep tragedy of the man. With the band winding down, I spotted Brian offstage, standing perfectly still, a sad figure bathed in blue light.

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