This much I learned from watching an advance tape of TNT's All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson, which airs Independence Day (and I am declaring my independence from all-star tributes): Ricky Martin performs in a heretofore unknown key, Q flat. Either Elton John can't remember the words to "Wouldn't It Be Nice," or he receives instructions from his alien commander through an off-screen TelePrompTer. Carnie Wilson's thumb-stomach surgery has made her half the woman (and then some) she was a couple of years ago. Evan (or is it Jaron?) looks suspiciously like Rhett Miller, without the hair extensions. Matthew Sweet is beginning to look suspiciously like Steve Earle. Host (host?) Chazz Palminteri has a tenuous grasp of the English language. Rachel Hunter has a tenuous grasp of interesting. And Heart + Harlem Boys Choir + "Good Vibrations" = whatthefuh? Some tribute to a man's pet sounds and prayers. The only thing these all-stars didn't do on the Radio City Music Hall stage was crap on Brian Wilson for two hours as he pretended to play the keyboards and sing the words to songs he wrote 35 years ago and forgot 25 years ago. Wait--Ricky Martin took care of that at show's open, right before Belinda Carlisle and the Go-Go's headed out to "Surf City" for some voice lessons and a tuning fork. Help me, Rhonda, beat the crap out of famous people who feel the need to pay homage to pioneers and architects by celebrating only themselves.
It's nice to see Brian Wilson being feted after years of being written off as the bonkers beached whale of '60s pop: Last year's two-fer live CD (only now receiving a proper, non-Internet release) and Pet Sounds tour reminded the nonbelievers there was considerably more to the once-and-future Beach Boy than fun, fun, fun songs about California girls; what rock crits and the Elephant Six Collective have known for years, the rest of the world slowly discovers. This TNT, ahem, special works best when taken for what it is: an infomercial for back catalog, which has been digitally updated and repackaged for your listening and spending pleasure (last April, Capitol reissued every Beach Boys disc, two to a platter, and in May, the label issued Hawthorne, CA, an essential double-disc compendium of odds and sods). Actually, it has the look and low-rent feel of a telethon, complete with taped packages that deal with Brian The Young Genius, Brian's Pet Sounds (which, according to Cameron Crowe, dealt with "joy, sadness, exuberance, wisdom, the true ache of love"), Brian's aborted Smile and Brian The Middle-Aged Wreck (Dennis Hopper refers to Wilson as having once been "overwrought, overweight and out of touch," going so far as to blame "psychologist" Eugene Landy for some of the damage). All it's missing is the 1-800 number: "Operators are standing by to take your orders for Pet Sounds. Act now and receive Holland for a nickel."
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Too bad TNT didn't merely tape and present Wilson and his band of L.A. pop-scene vets performing Pet Sounds in its entirety (or close to, depending on who's actually singing); better that than Darius Rucker hooting and blowing his way through "Sail on Sailor" or Paul Simon giving "Surfer Girl" the solemn, sounds-of-silence treatment. Aimee Mann and Michael Penn take a loving stab at "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times," but sandwiched between the boredom of Elton John and the bombast of Billy Joel, their subtle touches are lost--footprints in the sand, just before a hurricane makes landfall. You want to pay tribute to Brian Wilson? Turn off the TV and listen to "Heroes & Villains" over and over, forever.