(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )
The Gig: Brian Wilson8:00 P.M. Tuesday, July 25
Aerial Theater at Bayou Place; Houston, Texas
Charge by phone: (713) 629-3700
It’s true: Brian Wilson is keeping the summer alive with his first major tour since retiring as an on-stage Beach Boy thirty-five years ago, and what he’s keeping it alive with is nothing less than the entire 1966 Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds.
It may be hard for today’s kids to understand, but, for a large part of the ’60’s rock audience, Pet Sounds was and continues to be as sacred an audio relic as Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What makes its legendary status puzzling is that aside from “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (its two top-ten singles) and two or three other songs, the album is essentially a collection of easy-listening tracks--lush, painstakingly, lovingly constructed easy-listening tracks, but easy-listening tracks all the same.
That two of them, “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No,” are among the most gorgeous pop songs ever recorded under the name of a rock-and-roll group is hard to deny. But that at least half of them are awkward attempts to imbue an adolescent’s worldview with a dignity and pathos that adolescence by definition is too fragile to bear is hard to deny as well.
Many critics still refer to Pet Sounds (so named because with it Wilson sought to capture his favorite--or “pet”--sounds) as the Beach Boys’ “masterpiece”; when it was released on CD, Paul McCartney bought each of his children a copy. “It may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of this century,” said the Cute Beatle, going overboard, “but to me it certainly is a total, classic record.... I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried.”
The first time I played it, I cried too, but for reasons quite different from McCartney’s. It was Christmas, 1978, and I’d received Pet Sounds along with a bunch of other records that I’d put on a wish list just to make sure my parents wouldn’t buy me Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life by mistake. Having read so much about the Beach Boys’ Masterpiece already, and having enjoyed other Beach Boys albums and Sgt. Pepper, which the Masterpiece was said to have indirectly inspired, I let the needle drop. By the end of side one, I feared I’d been had. By the end of side two, I knew I’d been. What was this? Mantovani? The Longines Symphonette? I filed it away, mistrustful of critics for the first--but, believe me, not the last--time.
I came back to it over the years, always willing to admit that my inability to fathom its brilliance betokened a flaw in my nature rather than the music’s. But nothing--not Gary Trudeau’s constructing a week of "Doonesbury" plots around its appearance on CD in May 1990, not the inclusion and recontextualization of eight of its thirteen tracks on the Beach Boys’ five-disc box set in 1993, not even its subsequent appearance as its own elaborate four-disc box set in 1997--could convince me that the Emperor Wilson wasn’t naked.
What finally put me on its wavelength was the death of Carl Wilson in 1998. As the last actual Wilson in the Beach Boys and the group’s best lead singer, he was special in a way that Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston weren’t. Besides, the fact that he was Brian’s brother provided Beach Boy fans with their best hope for an eventual reunion (blood being thicker than litigation) and maybe one more good Beach Boys album. (Don Was, who’d produced Brian’s I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, was reportedly heading up such a project at one point.)
At any rate, Carl’s death not only put an end to the Beach Boys but also meant that no one would ever hear “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations,” to name just two, brought to life by their original singer again. Listening to Pet Sounds shortly after his passing and hearing its introversion, insecurity, and fear of loss within the context of the finality of death, I felt the power of its powerlessness for the first--but, believe me, not the last--time. And, like Paul McCartney, I shed a tear.
Recreating Pet Sounds on-stage has no doubt posed Wilson with almost as great a challenge as creating it in the studio did thirty-four years ago. To this end he’s being accompanied on most of the tour’s twenty-seven stops by local symphonies as well as by the same ten-member band with whom he recorded his latest release, Live at the Roxy Theatre. Featuring his own version of the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson,” the album suggests that despite the ravages of time, drugs, and God only knows what else, Brian Wilson may have actually been made for these times after all...