Critics' Picks

Brian Wilson

Living in Los Angeles came with its share of misery, and, of course, not a few pleasures, the best of which render an intolerable city livable when the mood and music are just right. Every once in a while, the city of magic lives up to its reputation, if only to remind you that dreams occasionally do come true in a nightmare town; such moments wash away the smog and fear until you can see clear to Santa Monica, the Pacific Ocean, the stars twinkling in vain somewhere in the haze. Such a magical moment took place on September 13, 1996, on the stage of the El Rey Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard--an extant movie palace exiled on a desolate stretch of famous street. On that night, some of Los Angeles' finest musicians--known (Matthew Sweet, P.F. "Eve of Destruction" Sloan), beloved (Baby Lemonade frontman Mike Randle, Andrew Sandoval), and revered (former Mumps songwriter Kristian Hoffman)--slipped into the past to pay homage to one of the most revered albums of the 1960s, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, a record whose tentacles still embrace and strangle 34 years after Capitol Records tried to bury it under the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.

That night, those small-stars--including drummer Hal Blaine and bass harmonica player Tommy Morgan, who knew Pet Sounds when, having played on it in 1966--resurrected a corpse. Their song-for-song, note-for-note re-creation--complete with the swirl of guitars, the tinkling of vibraphones, the swell of guitars, the wash of harmonies, the pounding of tympani--turned echoes into heartbeats, memories into teardrops. In 18 months of living in that glamorous, glorious hellhole, nothing--save, perhaps, hearing Randy Newman perform at the Hollywood Bowl with an orchestra--came close to touching that glorious night at the El Rey, listening to talented young men and women show Brian Wilson how vibrant and alive his music remained long after he abandoned it. Wilson couldn't attend--he sent his greetings via videotape, much to his chagrin--but surely, he could feel the good vibrations radiating from that extraordinary place on that extraordinary evening.

But such glorious substitutions are a moot point now, as The Real Thing makes his way across the country to perform Pet Sounds and other Beach Boys songs, both over-worn and obscure, with his own band of veterans and kids. Not so long ago, the notion of Wilson touring the country to perform anything seemed unfathomable, if not laughable. He has released only two solo albums in the past 12 years, the most recent of which (1998's Imagination) threatened to destroy any remaining goodwill; the other one was shelved by his label because much of it's unlistenable (if unleashed, the rap song alone would have forever ruined his rep, though it might have been dismissed with an insanity plea). Until recently, Wilson existed somewhere between History and Here: He showed up now and again to promote an autobiography or appear in a documentary, but he had long ago been relegated to the history books, beneath the chapter heading "Gone, Crazy." And when he did hit the road with the Beach Boys, out of noble and misguided loyalty or threat of lawsuit, Wilson sounded like a scratched record played over the world's tiniest transistor radio. His voice broke, and so did your heart.

But 34 years after Wilson concocted his mad, magical stew in an L.A. studio--much to the confusion of his brothers and bandmates, who couldn't understand why Brian was no longer writing about fun, fun, fun underneath the sun, sun, sun--he's back among the living. The double-disc Live at the Roxy Theatre, released on Brimel Records and available only on the Internet, is something more than just resurrected zombies. The songs, from "The Little Girl I Once Knew" to "Love & Mercy," with nearly the whole of Pet Sounds thrown in for good-great measure, haven't sounded so vibrant since they first arrived from the factory. Wilson sounds relieved to be on a stage, backed by a worshipful 10-piece band; you can hear him sing (awkwardly, at times, but he never was Paul McCartney or, hell, Carl Wilson) through a smile, as he performs so many songs he's never had the chance to give to a live audience. There are new songs (one from The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, but don't hold that against him), old ones ("Surfer Girl," bearing nary a wrinkle), a Barenaked Ladies cover ("Brian Wilson," of course, with its line, "Lying in bed like Brian Wilson did"), and, of course, some pet sounds familiar and foreign. There are songs here even Brian Wilson most likely forgot, and he's not above having fun at his own expense. "Doesn't that rock?" he asks the Brianistas, while the band mellows out to "Caroline, No."

The reviews for this "Brian Wilson performs Pet Sounds" tour have been nothing short of exceptional--especially since Wilson's performing a large chunk of his back catalog with the orchestra of whichever city he's in that night. The sets have run for nearly two hours, with encores enough to satiate those seeking "I Get Around" and "Surfin' U.S.A." and all those other graying golden-oldies. But so much of the show comprises songs that were made for these times, songs (among them "Heroes and Villains," "Let's Go Away for Awhile," "You Still Believe in Me," "Our Prayer") that have been swiped and stripped by a litany of young bands who only now have caught up with Wilson's pop genius. Pet Sounds is the blueprint for modern indie-rock; it's the foundation and the roof, front door and back. To hear them performed, perhaps for the first and last time, by the man who created them is nothing less than a treat. So don't cheer Wilson just because he moves, speaks, sings; don't applaud him for what he did. Simply go and see what he does now. You may never again get the chance. Brian Wilson performs July 26 at the Smirnoff Music Centre.

Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky