As I entered the confines of this open-air amphitheatre, I was struck by what an appropriate venue this was to experience Brian Wilson, the enigmatic leader of The Beach Boys, one of the great pop composers of this century. The rusty bandshell and the fissures in the concrete gave the venue a Coliseum feel. On this night, unlike the gladiators whose fight ended in death, I saw Mr. Wilson very much alive in the face of near death from mental illness and drug use of years past. His mere walking onto the stage was a triumph that, to me, can only be analogized to the gladiator’s slaying of the lion: many expected him to die long ago, except he has survived, and it is an amazing feat.
It is a miracle he is on the road and performing after all the abuse suffered at the hands of his father, the pressure of actually trying to compete with The Beatles, the pain of the rejection of his crowning work, Pet Sounds, the addiction to deal with all of it, the death of his brothers, Dennis and Carl, the abuse at the hands of his former psychologist, and the death of his mom in the last year or so.
No artist before or after has put his heart and soul on the line like Mr. Wilson. This performance was a shining example on a stormy, rainy night.
From the humorous opening song that poked fun at his legendary eccentricities, Mr. Wilson displayed warmth and a glimmer of the wry wit and phosphorescent brilliance of the young man who composed the opus, Pet Sounds, at 23. Appropriately, he performed “‘Til I Die” off of the recently reissued Surf’s Up CD and “In My Room” back to back. Both of these songs capture the essence of the isolation and passion that lies at the heart of his genius. Of course, he performed many of the hits, such as “I Get Around,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “California Girls,” “Surfer Girl,” “Barbara Ann” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” each time introducing the song in a humble way by describing these monster hits in such terms as mere “...nice songs.”
The apex of the performance was, of course, the letter perfect rendition of Pet Sounds by Mr. Wilson with full orchestra. The attention to detail for an undertaking as huge as performing the incredibly complex Pet Sounds could only be accomplished by artists as profoundly influenced by Mr. Wilson as The Wondermints and Jeffrey Foskett. Certainly, the “moment” of the show had to be the sight of Mr. Wilson closing his eyes, slowly conducting the orchestra through a particularly moving section of “Let’s Go Away For Awhile.”
He performed three encores, and, for the first time that I have witnessed, showed comfort with being at the center of attention. That he was willing to be there to let us applaud him was a real gift to the attendees on this night.
Brian, through his music, has always allowed us to feel his joy and pain, almost as if we were experiencing it ourselves. As he expressed his wishes to the crowd, as they filed out, to experience love and mercy in their lives, I couldn’t help but feel comfort that, for the first time, Mr. Wilson seems to have found love and mercy for himself. Like the gladiator who slays the lion against insurmountable odds, Mr. Wilson appears to have slain the ghosts of the past that almost killed him.
This was a great show by one of the most important artists of the century. If he comes to your city, ask yourself this question: if Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr toured, would you go? This is no less an event.