Despite recent medical setbacks, Brian Wilson has returned to the road, with a stellar band (that includes Al Jardine and son, and Blondie Chaplin). His frailty, however, has never been more obvious, and painful to watch, begging the question from lifelong Beach Boy fanatic Crispin Kott: Why is Brian Wilson still on the road? On the other hand, the Zombies—part of the Something Great From ’68 tour—have never sounded better or more powerful.
How much more can Brian Wilson give? It’s a question I kept trying not to ask myself during the New York City stop on the Something Great From ’68 tour, itself an exercise in revisionist nostalgia: The albums released in 1968 by the Beach Boys (Friends) and tour opener the Zombies (Odessey and Oracle) hit #126 and #95, respectively, on the Billboard 200, the latter peaking in May 1969, well after the group had split. Both albums, especially Odessey and Oracle, picked up critical steam decades after arrival and are now deservedly revered as classics.
The Zombies in 2019, it must be said, are fucking great. There was a worrying bit of solo silliness during “She’s Not There” in the pre-Odessey mini-set which had the tediously predictable pair of hipsters sat behind us loudly chuckling, but it proved to be an anomaly. The main course, Odessey and Oracle in full, captured the cascading layers the Zombies found themselves suddenly able to add to their music back in 1967 thanks to the Beatles’ insistence that Abbey Road get with the times and pick up a couple of 4-track recorders. The Zombies, already better than most of their fellow Beat combos, were able to indulge their artistic whims, laying strings and harmonies and John Lennon’s borrowed (without permission, apparently) mellotron all over the place. Miraculously for the times, they did all that with restraint, adding just enough for pop perfection.
Colin Blunstone, who remains one of rock’s best singers, and Rod Argent, with fingers flying across the keyboards, have spent the last decade or so touring and recording as the Zombies, with players who are more than just side pieces, but rather deftly represent the past and present of the group. For Odessey and Oracle, the current Zombies brought out the other surviving original Zombies, bass guitarist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy, and if you’re thinking that’s just a mere nod to the past you’re way off base, because these dudes can still play, and in White’s case, as on a transcendent “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” sing. If that’s a surprise to anyone, as it was to me, it’s at least partly because the Zombies didn’t stick around very long in the ‘60s, and the few performance clips from those days on the internet are lip-synched TV clips. For those of us who weren’t even alive when Zombies ruled the earth, it’s almost revelatory. The Zombies were absolutely tremendous at the Beacon Theatre.
Also great was Brian Wilson’s band, which includes fellow former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, Jardine’s vocally gifted son Matt, longtime multi-instrumentalist Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints (who also sat in with the Zombies during Odessey and Oracle), and a host of other musicians who bring the complex and lush arrangements on songs like “Heroes and Villains” and “Til I Die” to shimmering life.
But there’s also a rarely acknowledged truth in attending a Brian Wilson show which is different than a Bob Dylan show, another legend approaching sixty years in the biz. Dylan is mercurial, so you enter into a contract by seeing him play that the band will be great but his voice will be, well, Dylanesque. But even at the heart of his brief flirtation with crooning in the late ‘60s, no one has ever described Bob Dylan’s voice as angelic, its charms steeped in craggy charisma. It’s changed in the nearly 60 years since he recorded his first album, but it’s always undeniably been the voice of Bob Dylan. Wilson, though, did have the voice of an angel, even on corny numbers like “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man,” and that voice is indelibly marked in the memories of anyone who’s ever fallen under the spell of the Beach Boys. That angelic voice has been gone for a long time, and even with a band that harmonizes like a motherfucker, its absence is finally deafening.
As someone who’s loved Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys for most of my life, someone who collected SMiLE bootlegs in college like they were rare artifacts (which in a way they were), the temptation to be protective of the legacy of the tortured genius is almost unshakeable. The twentieth anniversary of my first time seeing Wilson (October 23, 1999 at the Wiltern in Los Angeles) is fast approaching, and many memories of that night are as clear as if they happened yesterday: Wilson takes the stage at the Wiltern and looks uncomfortable, sitting behind a keyboard that’s more security blanket than instrument. The band, as they are today, is outstanding, and Wilson has clearly made the right choice by surrounding himself with musicians who are up to the task of tackling those hoary chestnuts as they’re meant to be heard. But even then, even in a room where everyone is just thrilled to scrape and bow at the hem of the genius’s garment, there is also concern. And then something happens that casts all doubts aside: Wilson sings “Caroline, No,” a gorgeous lament from the 1966 classic Pet Sounds, and I’m getting goosebumps just now remembering how brilliant it was, how Wilson hit every note perfectly yet somehow added further nuance. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
In the years since, I’ve seen Wilson a handful of times, including a pair of dates in support of SMiLE, the first in the right setting, that venerable institution of high musical art Carnegie Hall, and the second at the following summer at Jones Beach, a utilitarian amphitheater on Long Island where most of the crowd seemed befuddled by the lost masterpiece and served as the collective embodiment of mid-‘60s Mike Love, wanting only to hear the songs about surfing, cars and girls. Most recently I caught Wilson three years ago during his Pet Sounds tour when he performed on a stage in the corner of a vast concrete softball field in Brooklyn as part of the Northside Festival. Wilson was in a talkative mood that night, sharing charmingly goofy stories and, perhaps most importantly, being present, in the moment, and seemingly enjoying it. That’s been the best you can hope for from Brian Wilson for longer than anyone who loves his music is comfortable admitting: His once magnificent voice has been ravaged by time, reduced to a breathless croak. The band is always on fire, so you see the architect sat in the middle of the music, happily soaking it up, that’s pretty special. But that’s not what happened at the Beacon Theater on the Something Great From ’68 tour.
The temptation to be protective of the legacy of the tortured genius is almost unshakeable.
To his great credit, Brian Wilson has famously been extraordinarily candid about his struggles with mental illness over the years. Recent struggles led to the cancellation of a host of live dates in June. In an open letter posted to his website, Wilson explained that he’d been doing great until the fallout following a series of back surgeries left him feeling “mentally insecure.
“I had every intention to do these shows and was excited to get back to performing,” wrote Wilson. “I’ve been in the studio recording and rehearsing with my band and have been feeling better. But then it crept back and I’ve been struggling with stuff in my head and saying things I don’t mean and I don’t know why. Its something I’ve never dealt with before and we cant quite figure it out just yet.”
Wilson sings “Caroline, No,” … and I’m getting goosebumps just now remembering how brilliant it was, how Wilson hit every note perfectly yet somehow added further nuance.
It’s difficult to see Wilson enter aided by a walker and a pair of assistants, be propped behind a white piano, and at times look as though he’s barely there. On top of playing note-perfect versions of some of the greatest pop songs ever written, his band have taken on the task of ensuring Wilson is okay, to the degree that that’s possible. They check in on him from time to time, often in the middle of songs. Matt Jardine, standing just to Wilson’s right, appears to spontaneously pick up the vocal slack when necessary. Al Jardine served as compere, filling in the space abandoned by the previously verbose Wilson. During a poignant set-closing performance of “Love and Mercy,” the entire band encircled Wilson as though protecting him from some unseen darkness. And then Wilson is off, wheeling his walker away from the adulation as though it’s too much to bear.
The crowd wants to protect Wilson too. We adore him. It’s why we’re there, to let him know how much we love him. We want to collectively hear all those songs in the Church of Brian Wilson. At times there is a rush of applause when Wilson sings a verse, as though the wave of love will return him to us as we imagine he truly is, or failing that at least break through the torpor and give him some measure of joy.
During a poignant set-closing performance of “Love and Mercy,” the entire band encircled Wilson as though protecting him from some unseen darkness.
He must enjoy this, right? Even if it looks as though he doesn’t? If it was just about cashing in, he’d only play the popular hits. God only knows there are more than enough of those to fill an evening. Instead, he’s filled a set with songs from Friends, a commercial flop Wilson has often cited as one of his favorite of all his albums, but which was derided by fellow Beach Boy Bruce Johnston a decade ago as being “a feather floating through a wall of noise” upon arriving in a world in thrall to the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, as though the Beach Boys would be better suited to making that sort of racket rather than delivering a beautiful and gentle gift. Compared to the raw coupling of Disraeli Gears, Friends was a warm embrace, which I guess even the hippies were tired of, at least until Seals and Crofts came along.
Wilson could have played a hundred amped-up classic odes to surfing built on Chuck Berry riffs, but he chose to hit the beach in a much more chilled and reflective atmosphere with “Surf’s Up” and “Diamond Head.” Instead of thundering through “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Surfin’ Safari” we were treated to “Feel Flows” and “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” which are also classics, but in a much more thoughtful way.
Brian Wilson – “Til I Die/Surf’s Up” (Live at the Beacon Theatre, September 26, 2019):
Anyway, if you want to hear the pre-Pet Sounds hits, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston still tour as the Beach Boys, and they’ll sing ‘em for you, because fuck art, let’s dance, dance, dance.
Why is Brian Wilson still on the road? Should we take him at his word when he says, as he did in that open letter about canceling tour dates, that “(t)he music and my fans keep me going”? After giving us his heart and soul and well-being for over fifty years, does he owe us anything? And though his music has given so much happiness to the world, do we really owe him the kind of admiration and respect that ignores that Brian Wilson’s actual contribution to a Brian Wilson show is largely just about showing up? Al Jardine is still great, and Blondie Chaplin lends the right level of danger to the proceedings with expressive guitar solos, wild tambourine technique, and sideline cheering just off stage. The band brings so much to the party. Brian Wilson’s name deservedly looms large, but if he decided he needed a break and the rest of the guys continued touring in much the same way, shining a light into the lost and under-appreciated corners of the Beach Boys’ back catalog, would that really be so bad? It might actually be rather good. It might be even better than Something Great From ’68.
After giving us his heart and soul and well-being for over fifty years, does he owe us anything?
We still love you, Brian Wilson. We always will. No matter what.