Brian Wilson: We Still Believe in You

Beach Boys Mastermind Returns to Stage for Rare Show

Historic State Theater, Minneapolis, March 13, 1999

In the middle of "Do It Again," with the audience clapping along, Brian Wilson thrust out his hand and ordered: "Stop clapping!" Everyone stopped immediately and began laughing. The voices of the backing singers wafted to the bridge. And then, "One-two-three-four -- Start clapping!"

The crowd clapped obediently into the next verse, with nine-part harmonies syncopated over a rhythmic crescendo of drums and claps. One could call it "surf doo-wop," but it felt more like having playful sex with some cabalistic math problem. The logic: Wilson's music is math, and math is sexy, and sex is sacred, and it's all a mystery -- one that even the master doesn't understand. "I don't know how it works," Wilson has said. "We're instruments. God plays me." Amen.

This two-and-a-half-hour concert was Brian Wilson's Grand Statement, in every sense, and it was a relief to be barked at by the "Stalin of the Studio," as pouty Mike Love has called him. It meant Wilson, now fifty-six, was not only alive, but himself again. After decades of the other Beach Boys touring with his songs, dragging the weight of his absence with them, Wilson is finally performing his own music, and presenting it as closely as possible to the way it sounds in his head. One is tempted to shout cliches like, "If you never see another concert again, see this one!" In the breadth of his talent, Wilson is unparalleled by any other living pop artist. And harder-won music was never heard. (For those who don't know the saga, there's a pre-concert video, which gives an overview of the Beach Boys' career, with a kindly revisionist take on the Smile mutiny, Brian's drug abuse and protracted mental breakdown.)

Sonically, the show exceeded all expectations, especially for fans who have seen the Beach Boys' nostalgia tours. Those concerts, with their hard-bodied dancing girls, were about the vocals and the memories. This show is about sound -- sound as love, love as sound, and all of it absurdly big: Twelve musicians onstage; ten voices together at any given time. At least two twelve-string guitars; a six-string bass; a drummer and two percussionists; two horn players, various flutes and whistles; at times, three keyboards at once. And Brian behind his keyboard, center-stage, staring at what looked like teleprompters but listeningintently to the whole production with what Love termed his "dog ears." (i.e. Brian hears things most mortals can't.)

Wilson's concert was filled with moments of pure intuition, with little of the syrupy production marring Imagination, his new solo record. He only performed three songs off that album; most of the show was devoted to Pet Sounds and other non-surf material (and covers of "This Could Be the Night" and "Be My Baby" -- "my favorite song ever"). He also included several of the Boys' dopier mega-hits -- "I Get Around," "Fun Fun Fun," "Help Me, Rhonda" and "California Girls."

The show had a funny pace that followed no apparent logic except Brian's inner cadence, and most numbers seemed sped-up, for better and worse. "This Whole World" and "Don't Worry, Baby" became irresistibly danceable, while "Good Vibrations" lost a little something -- that moment of reverb, when this whole world might slide into the ocean, was unfulfilled. Still, it was a true kiss-me-I'm-dreaming sort of moment to see a live performance of this opus in its full, original arrangement -- as well as the two instrumentals off Pet Sounds, never before performed live.

Many songs were magnified under Wilson's quasi-symphonic arrangements. "Be My Baby" was a time capsule of the Spector/Wilson sound, an intimidating experience live, and one we may never see again. "Help Me, Rhonda" never sounded so un-surfy, nor so plaintive -- like an older brother to the Beatles' "Help!" "Sloop John B" was sad and sparkling; "Lay Down Burden" (written for brother Carl, who died last year) received the unsentimental arrangement, and emotional impact, it lacks on Imagination. Even the flyweight "South American" sounded great -- far better than it actually is.

Can one watch Lazarus emerge from his tomb and examine his skin for blemishes? Should one? Probably not. Then again, it must be said, somewhere along the line this fan started to miss the other Beach Boys -- gentle Carl, beloved Dennis, elfin Al -- hell, even that bastard Mike. Personal history aside, they achieved something under Brian's direction that no one else can replicate, not even the wonderful Wondermints, the L.A. pop quartet who formed the core of Wilson's band. "Do It Again" was always a bit of an elegy, but now it's for real, forever.

With "Caroline, No" and "God Only Knows," it became clear that Brian is still getting his voice back, and his vocals seem to be the last thing he focused on in preparing this staggeringly complex show. In that way the concert is still slightly lop-sided in favor of production. Then again, the band had only two weeks to practice, and this was merely their fourth show. (The tour resumes in June with East Coast dates.)

Toward the end of the concert, Wilson performed a solo version of "Love and Mercy." Without the band to watch over, he relaxed into his vocals, expressing the unselfconscious tenderness that makes his best music somehow transcend even itself. Beach Boys-haters may complain they aren't rock enough (and even Wilson introduced "Caroline, No," as an "effeminate" song). But this argument is misguided, like criticizing the moon for not being as bright as the sun. As Brian wrote in the notes to the Pet Sounds re-release: "I [made] sounds that would make the listener feel loved." He did that, and he does that. Again.