State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
6:30p – Brian Wilson, our own acid-washed Beethoven and an older man now, is touring his misbegotten Pet Sounds album for the last time. The occasion is historic. My gorgeous ex-girlfriend (or “wife” in the common argot) and cool hambone kids have given me an early dad’s day gift; an audience with my Pope. Wilson is, of course, the poster child and early adopter of the Twisted Pop Genius® label, the inorganic twisting having been applied courtesy of his deceptively white-picket upbringing outside LA, and later the chronic haranguing of a record industry just coming to understand the rich Youth Culture vein waiting to be tapped if they could only harness and squeeze—unrelentingly— the Brian Wilsons.
Now, ambling up the Bowl’s tarmac hill with the others, I’m struck by how dissimilar I am to other people in my approximate age group, these graying lovebirds. I look at them tenderly, regard them from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider. Surely I am not one of these? Once again I find that, in the company of my generation, I am more sprightly and attractive, wittier, warmer of heart and more obviously vital and than these creaky oldsters who comprise my ostensible demographic. Why can’t these poor dears be more like me, with my authentically timeworn leather jacket, hipster spectacles and confident swagger? I beam a smile at a couple next to me and they regard me with something like barely disguised pity. What up with that? Is it because I’m alone? Or because I look like the wasted corpse of a doomed WWII pilot, still roaming the Earth and shrinking like a dried leaf into his bomber jacket? Note to self: put on a little weight. And buy that wig.
6:36p – We’re halfway up! We can do this! There is a little wet bar set up, off to the side of the path, a tastefully lit sleight-of-hand obviously placed there to reward the arduous two-minute climb that got us here. “You cool concertgoers must be ready for an urbane cocktail,” the leafy scene seems to say. “Come! We have your vaporous goblet of Courvoisier right here!” But we don’t want Courvoisier, we want water. We want to live! Having just trudged uphill for 90 pore-opening seconds, the adults swarm the helpless little bar like crash survivors falling on an oasis in the Sahara. Nearby, a 60-something man is parked exhaustedly on a bench, looking out with a baleful expression. Gidget and Moondoggie: Where Art Thou?
6:41p – By God, I’m summiting! One final stretch of cruelly inclined blacktop and I will have reached the broad plaza that abuts the stage. All around me people are gulping in air, grasping handrails, trudging forward with the fatalist determination of marchers at Corregidor. I’m not one of them. I’m determined to keep my yap shut. If I’m going to gasp it will be through my nose. Not for me the obvious weakness of the aging. I purse my lips in a show-offy demonstration of pluck. “Hey, look at me. I’m breathing easily through my nose. You don’t see me gasping like an old person.” Anyone coming within earshot will hear what sounds like a locomotive with a busted boiler. That’s me panting through my nose.
6:43p – I attain the plaza and weave in and out of hundreds of folks with worried expressions and heaving chests. Heading for the seats, I bound jauntily up a short flight of stairs and, misjudging the last step, lose my balance and go down on one knee. “Like an unbowed gladiator,” I reflexively think. I glance up at the people walking past. “Look at that,” their expressions seem to say. “This hobbled loser actually thinks he looks like an unbowed gladiator.” Waving aside the usher’s extended helping hand, I jump to my feet and plow straight into the back of a lady with a magenta beehive hairdo. “Ooh!” she cries, sounding pleased.
6:48p – I find my seat. It separates two couples, who are talking animatedly across it. Two handbags have been dumped there. “Uh, hi! I think that’s my seat!” I peep with fake enthusiasm from the row below. They all look at me uneasily. I climb stiffly up into my appointed slot, introduce myself and my cool leather jacket, and silence falls like a blanket of snow. The stage is gorgeously cluttered with instruments, I see, and in the shadowy wings, stage right, some people are milling officiously about a large guy in a blousy button-down shirt. He is slouched in some sort of reclining chair and looking out at the crowd without expression; a bombed-out Lear poured into his throne and awaiting tonight’s coronation. “I see him! Is that him?” someone behind me hisses excitedly.
Indeed it is. Pet Sounds is today critically regarded as one of the most brilliant American musical efforts of the 20th century, and the current extended tour is its last live iteration forever. Wilson, and every disturbing facet of him, has long since been enshrined as American Pop’s damaged genius, the brilliant but broken G*d of the Lost California Dream. On that front he doesn’t disappoint tonight.
7:03p – The lights dim, the Bowl erupts in an unmediated, seamless roar, the crowd stands and applauds in an attitude of loving homage and respect. Hobbling, uncertain Brian is helped downstage by an assistant, who parks him behind what may be a prop baby grand, a white one. Brian Wilson says a few scarcely decipherable words, so muffled and slurred the crowd is momentarily hushed, and the band launches into California Girls to prime the pump. Thousands of former high schoolers begin spontaneously doing that middle-aged concert dance move that looks like a bear being tased. The elvin Al Jardine is down there playing guitar and singing in a light brown leisure suit, the only other original Beach Boy on the stage. He seems to look with loving bemusement at Brian throughout the show. The third time Wilson says “Meet my friend Al Jardine!”, Al shakes his head and is heard to murmur with a laugh, “Unbelievable!”
[Brian Wilson. It’s a name, like Doris Day, suggestive of an epoch. Quite unlike Doris, though, the Brian Wilson totem comes with subterranean rumblings. Brian did his growing up in white picket Hawthorne, outside LA. In early pictures he’s the slightly sleepy-looking Guy Next Door in a striped cotton t-shirt and white slacks; your big brother’s best friend, maybe. Some people hear Brian’s name and imagine his anachronistic early sixties band, the Beach Boys; five tousled neighborhood kids posing with a single hoisted longboard on the cover of the Surfer Girl with songs about – wait for it – cars and girls and surfing.
I hear Brian’s name and I think of a troubled little kid growing into a troubled and frequently addled man—of Brian being popped in the side of the head so hard by his dad he suffers permanent hearing loss, or his preteen ass being thrashed so vigorously with a belt, the adult Brian breaks out in a real-time sweat energetically impersonating, for a documentary filmmaker, his dad beating him with all his strength. Later the record labels and pressure-cooker music market of the post British Invasion sixties would step in to ratchet up the harassment and drive young Brian Wilson right around the bend. To those in the know, the Brian acolytes, he’s a quietly cracked vessel, an untrained musical genie whose early and later torments combined to induce in him the fugue state to which we owe some of the weirdest, most beautiful songs in the American pop canon. Not Little Deuce Coupe, but Let’s Go Away For Awhile…]
9:30p – Wilson’s unmoving, sneakered feet have drawn my attention through the whole of the show. No matter the tempo of the song being performed or the frenzy of the crowd, those feet have not moved. And the piano has no sustain pedal. The crowd responds predictably to the old tunes like Help Me Rhonda and Fun, Fun, Fun; and to Barbara Ann—a song whose composition tops the list of historical tragedies I would use my time travel machine to prevent.
The front-to-back and note-perfect performance of the legendary Pet Sounds album, though, is largely met tonight by the same quizzical expressions that greeted the tracks on their delivery to a pissed-off Capital Records back in 1966. Never mind. God Only Knows and Caroline, No especially, bring the stars down out of the heavens tonight. Brian has done his duty, tunelessly barking a number of lead vocals, the high glissando falsetto notes being deftly inserted by Jardine’s kid, a burly dark-haired guy in black. When Brian sings “In My Room” the heart melts, this unmoored 75 year-old man mouthing the sentiments of his pre-cataclysm teen self – a shy, scared kid whose bedroom was once refuge enough.
9:38p – The show is over, requisite encore and all. Brian assumes his place in the lineup of musicians in front of the drum riser, takes an expressionless bow and they all shuffle off, waving. The Bowl lights come up and 4,500 older concertgoers stand painfully and stretch. A younger witness might find the scene poignant or melancholy, but the fact is, in the Day some of these 70-somethings made love in public parks, stormed barricades, ran stoned and naked through wildflowers and insolently stuck daisies in National Guard rifle barrels. They did a lot of deep staring, just not at cell phones. Later, they painfully divested themselves of their black lights, Peter Max posters and revolutionary blueprints as through an ongoing and bittersweet garage sale. They have grown, yeah; nourished and formed by a species of the period crucible that broke Brian. Their earned common sense is on parade as they clear the stands and shuffle home in khakis and sensible shoes. ”I brought my blanket but I didn’t need to use it!” a woman exults to her companion.
Wilson is all grown up, too. In the heartfelt, and now-ancient, paean to his closed bedroom door, he reveled in teen solitude, hardly guessing what form his painful exile from solitude would later take. “Now it’s dark and I’m alone, but I won’t be afraid in my room…”
G’nite, Brian. Hope the ride was mostly tolerable. Your room is still there. Close the door behind you, lie down, and fold your hands behind your head. You’ve got a lot of thinking to do, and you’ve earned every minute.