Brian in Winter

Recent performances by proto-Beach Boy Brian Wilson are part oldies shows, part car wreck, part elder abuse. A look at how some of our aging rock stars need to think about doing retirement tours that actually lead to retirement.

The man who wasn’t really there: former Beach Boy Brian Wilson performing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in May.
The man who wasn’t really there: former Beach Boy Brian Wilson performing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in May.

One of the odder rock tours of the year coursed through Europe this summer before heading back to conclude in Southern California in the fall. It stars Brian Wilson — that’s the famously damaged leader of the Beach Boys — and it’s billed as “Pet Sounds: The Final Performances.” Wilson and his band play his 1966 pop and production masterpiece, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” in its entirety — along with a lot of Beach Boys hits, of course.

Besides writing most of those hits — close to two dozen — Wilson used his ineffable talents as a producer and arranger to change the sound of the world we live in. But the tour is problematic. Brian Wilson is 75 and obviously infirm, nearly 50 years after a breakdown and LSD experiments robbed him of his aesthetic authority. The result is a strange rock ‘n’ roll show indeed: Part tribute, part oldies show, part car accident and part elder abuse.

In a fundamental way, it is a public performance fronted by a man who isn’t really there. Wilson, perched stolidly behind a piano, introduced some songs, but haltingly and by rote. (He said the same things on the two nights of the tour I saw.) Just about everyone could see he wasn’t actually playing the piano on some, and perhaps most, of the songs. The band members — who played the complex compositions crisply — kept one wary eye on the man at the piano. One night, keyboardist Darian Sahanaja went over to Wilson to give him a short shoulder rub. Rock and roll!

Wilson never was a conventional star. He lost hearing in one ear at an early age, but it didn’t inhibit a musicality that seemed to emanate from his soul. But like young Michael Jackson a few years later, the talents of a remarkable son were put to use on behalf of a family’s greater good. The band began in Southern California — the three Wilson boys, Brian, Carl and Dennis — cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. The hits were incredible: “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl” — and then more sophisticated tracks that didn’t have a variant of the word “surf” in the title.

Al Jardine backing up his cousin Brian Wilson at a show in San Diego in May.
Al Jardine backing up his cousin Brian Wilson at a show in San Diego in May.

The inevitable break was traumatic. Brian knew he could make records on his own, and by 1966, Wilson’s command of the studio had become total. He expanded the boundaries of pop music with his baroque productions of singles like “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations,” albums like “Pet Sounds” and a project called “Smile,” an extended suite of pop orchestrations.

But here the Wilson story turns sour and occluded. Wilson created the adventurous “Pet Sounds” without the full support of the group and suffered when it sold only modestly. “Smile” was shelved. His breakdown, seemingly caused by some combination of depression and anxiety, was exacerbated by bad LSD trips. Early whimsicalities — he famously composed “Pet Sounds” on a piano placed in a custom-made sandbox in his living room — turned into years spent veering between isolation and drug-fueled parties. Wilson re-emerged in the mid-’70s, but it was plain he was not himself. He never again wrote an undeniable song and in interviews was given to wan Spinal Tap-isms: “I meditate and I also think about meditation.”

With the support of a new wife, Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson eventually returned orchestrating a joyful re-creation of “Smile” on record and on tour and embracing the legacy of “Pet Sounds.” But that was 10 years ago.

There’s a big difference between performing a show and sitting on stage while a show is performed around you. Wilson’s current tour is closer to the latter. The concerts begin with a starburst of hits — and then veer into the bizarre, as the large ensemble essays some obscure Beach Boys album tracks. Wilson was out of it. “I think he’s had two strokes since the show started,” remarked one cruel onlooker. Every once in a while, Wilson lurched upright and lumbered offstage midsong, with band members scattering to get out of his way.

After an intermission, the band re-emerged to perform “Pet Sounds.” On its own terms, “Pet Sounds” is a magical experience. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” started things off with an explosion of innocence, while the closing, rueful, exquisite “Caroline No” finds Wilson looking at (perhaps) the same partner and seeing someone or something much different. Over and over, the lyrics he found in himself to sing brought front and center his disrupted life and career: “I’ve been very aware/You’ve been patient with me.”

On both nights I saw the tour, longtime Beach Boy Al Jardine, along for the ride, stumbled in introducing “God Only Knows.” What he could have said was that “God Only Knows” ends with a cascading fanfare of vocals that can melt your core; that it was perhaps the one moment when Wilson realized his dream of creating a teenage symphony to God.

Yet it was disconcerting to see its creator sitting so stolidly unmoved by the commotion around him. For 50 years, Wilson has been a ghost, a kindly but somewhat goofy figure, hailed by successive generations of fans, critics and musicians. Today he is unable to demonstrate his connection to that legacy. Wilson closed the show with arguably his one coherent piece of work since his peak, the title track to a 1994 album called “Love and Mercy.” “Love and mercy/That’s what we need tonight,” the words went, and this time he was singing it, and it was clear he meant it.


Brian Wilson
• Pet Sounds 2017 World Tour
• Through October
Tour dates

RECOMMENDATIONS: Aging Rockers Still Worth Seeing

Paul McCartney: Since his return to the road in 1989, the reliable McCartney delivers enjoyable, if careful, runs through his nonpareil catalog, and a rousing “Abbey Road” medley to close.

Fleetwood Mac: If you can see this outfit with Christine McVie back in the fold, grab the chance. Leader Lindsey Buckingham is an underappreciated guitar hero.

Guns N’ Roses: They were big 25 years ago, and then threw it all away. They are back now, behaving — i.e., not throwing any public tantrums — and delivering their bruising hard-rock classics coherently.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio. 
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