Sunday, September 25, 2016

More on the Brian Wilson concert

The Brian Wilson concert was great - astounding playlist of classic songs (and a few, mainly later in the first half, that were OK but not quite in the same league), performed with enormous skill by an extremely talented group of musicians.  I also thought the acoustics were good; I gather the Beacon has a reputation for that.  And they played for more than two hours total, even with the intermission, with unflagging energy from the ten or so musicians who accompanied Brian.

But I found it interesting to reflect about his role in it all, given how completely dispensable he was musically, and yet at the same time vital to the experience - not just to the audience, but probably also to the other musicians.  Without him there, it's just a superior cover band doing someone's hits.  Yet any other aging luminary whom one might see on the road these days - Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, Neil Young, what's left of the Who, Springsteen, Hot Tuna, Yes, what's left of the Dead, etcetera - would always be the musical focal point of the concert, even if ably helped by younger and more energetic musicians, whereas Brian's role was just to be ... there.  He plinked at his piano occasionally, although I never clearly heard him in the mix, he sang some of his old vocal parts to the extent they are still within his range (but he's really no singer any more), and he very briefly introduced most of the songs.  E.g., "Surfer Girl" is the first song he ever wrote, he considers "God Only Knows" the best song he ever wrote, and he loves the drumming on the instrumental track "Pet Sounds."

Ringo Starr in the Beatles Anthology interviews says that fans during the touring days "didn't come to hear us [obviously enough given the screaming], they came to see us."  It wasn't quite like that with the older crowd that goes to a Brian Wilson Pet Sounds concert in 2016, because we certainly did want to hear all the songs performed, with full achievement of the studio effects plus live-in-the-house sound.  Also, it wasn't quite just to see Brian, at least in the same sense as the fans who in 1965 wanted to see the Beatles.  We know that he has what's been called a "schizo-affective disorder," is out there more than a bit on the Asperger's spectrum, and doesn't actively retain the talents of his younger days.  And it was sad to see how stiff he was when he tried to bow at the close, not to mention when he shuffled off the stage near the end of each set while the band was finishing its last song.

Not that it's a huge sacrifice to go to a concert where a technically great band plays some of the best popular music of the last 55 years, but part of it - certainly for me, but I think for others as well - relates to the emotional pull of the Brian Wilson story.  This is the myth that's actually true, about the genius (with more than a touch of the idiot savant) who hears these incredible things in his head, just wants to record them, and runs into hateful, manipulative people, with their own shallow and selfish agendas, who destroy him.  (Unfair to Mike Love, perhaps - he felt he had a family business to run, and here's this crazy visionary who's flipping out on drugs and doing all these things that will hurt sales, not to mention that the genius doesn't seem to want to work with Mike any more, and is getting impossibly grandiose and irrational to deal with, while all his new hangers-on keep telling him he's a genius who's being held back by his bandmates, and some of them have sinister agendas.  But still.)  Then Brian spends decades in a haze, it's a miracle he's still alive, he spendsmost of this time convinced that the last of his visions (Smile) was drug-addled garbage, and then finally, at the end of it all, he's vindicated.

So you want to be there to celebrate what he did, and his triumph, and to let him know what it means to you, even though it's not entirely clear at what level he takes this all in.  With the tug of that story, plus the music that you get to hear live, it's a great concert experience even though the star's job is just to be there, as a physical matter, up on the stage and in full view.  


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