Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Brian Wilson: Another 'Beautiful Mind'

The first time I really listened to "Pet Sounds" (after watching the movie "Almost Famous," you know when the older sister gives her very young music journalist brother a stack of albums that will "set [him] free," among them "Pet Sounds"), I didn't get it. I listened again--nada. And then one day while driving, it hit me. Maybe the concept of what I thought the Beach Boys were--a blond boy band that made terrific teeny-bopper beach surfer pop music--overshadowed the fact that some of their music could be so ethereal and complex. More importantly, it overshadowed the fact that behind such brightly sunburnt, aloe-scented music was a tormented, mad genius.

Now I understand, and as a music omnivore, I stand 100 percent behind the argument that it is one of the best American albums of all time, even though we, in America, were too dumb to realize it then. Leave it to the Brits to tell us what great music is. "God Only Knows," for example made it to #39 here, while in England it was a top five hit. Remarkably, the Beach Boys even beat out the Beatles in NME's end-of-the-year poll as Britain's "most popular vocal group" of 1966, according to the "Pet Sounds" liner notes.

By Wilson's admission, "Pet Sounds'" design was "to compete with the Beatles" and trump the Fab Four's 1965 masterpiece "Rubber Soul." By Paul McCartney's admission, "God Only Knows" is one of the greatest songs ever written and "Pet Sounds" is "a total classic record that is unbeatable in many ways." Beatles producer George Martin went as far as saying that "without 'Pet Sounds,' 'Sgt. Pepper' wouldn't have
happened... it was an attempt to equal 'Pet Sounds.'"

Today, "Pet Sounds" is a classic by most standards and Brian Wilson is a bona fide and recently crowned genius--he was one of the five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honor medal this past Sunday, Dec. 2.

Washington Post pop music journalist J. Freedom du Lac, wrote a revelatory piece on Wilson. Du Lac's piece, which reads like Sylvia Nasar's excellent biography "A Beautiful Mind," about Nobel Prize Honoree John Forbes Nash, Jr and his bout with paranoid schizophrenia and the woman who stood by him until his abatement and beyond, rectifies any false sense of hope that the dark demons that have haunted Wilson since his drug-induced melt down in 1965 are gone. Du Lac begins: "Brian Wilson still hears voices."

This was news to my wife and I, who witnessed one of the most spectacular concerts we've ever seen, when a bright-eyed, lucid and beaming Wilson performed at the Warner Theatre here in D.C. in 2006. We saw the kind of Wilson most would expect to see as the voice and brains behind the happy-go-lucky Beach Boys music. The distant, distressed Wilson was nearly absent. He was giddy and jubilant. Though at times his stage presence seemed slightly uneasy, it was in the way a kindergartner might be before performing on parents' night: nervously smiling, coquettishly blushing, unsure where to look.

The concert began with an almost informal, around-the-beach bonfire acoustic jam session where they sang "Surfer Girl," among other songs. After a set, heavy with hits and a few obscure gems, and then a short intermission, Wilson and his band,
who were joined by original Beach Boy Al Jardine , played "Pet Sounds" in its entirety. For the encore, the played their faster and most well-known hits like "Good Vibrations" and "Surfin' U.S.A." We could not believe what we had witnessed and more importantly we could not think of a single Beach Boys song that they didn't play!

In du Lac's article, Wilson tells him: "Things were rough for me from about 2002 to 2006... Rough enough that I should have been in a mental institution under heavy sedation." So, when we saw him in 2006, was Wilson--as du Lac writes--being "tormented by hecklers no one else can hear?" God only knows.

As in "A Beautiful Mind," Du Lac's piece is as much, if not more, about Wilson, as it is about his emotional and psychological fortress: his wife Melinda. As du Lac acknowledges, his piece has a "behind-every-mad-genius-there-is-a-woman" sub theme to it. Wilson unabashedly admits that his wife is the reason behind his resurgence.
And by resurgence, I mean that Wilson finally completed his follow-up to "Pet Sounds," "Smile," in 2004 (nearly 40 years after shelving it) and he recently released a single on his Web site called, "Midnight's Another Day," from his forthcoming work,"That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative)."

Just one more great moment in the article, before I let you go read it: Wilson tells du Lac: "['Good Vibrations'] is a little bit flat in the choruses... I wish I'd taken more time and done it a little better." What-huh-what!?

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