(If you’re really that curious…)
SELECTED COMMENTARIES BY ADAM LEVIN
In Tribute: Jenny Amlen
April 29, 2017
In Memoriam: Keith Emerson
March 14, 2016
Make Love, Not War
February 14, 2016
John Lennon: Nowhere
October 9, 2015
June 20, 2015
April 4, 2014
June 8, 2012
Annette Peacock: promotion of
An Acrobat’s Heart
December 16, 2000
Brian Wilson and the Long Island Philharmonic
September 10, 2000
In Memoriam: Keith Emerson
March 14, 2016
profoundly touched the lives of countless musicians over the years. As various
colleagues have shared thoughts about him in the wake of his suicide, I'll join
the chorus with
my two cents' worth.
Without my exposure
to his innovative, trailblazing work, I wouldn't have pursued music
professionally, discovered and embraced the music of other progressive artists,
or attended music schools.
up with a background of classical, jazz and rock that often seemed incompatible
with each other, Keith's blending of them unlocked a creative door for me.
Although his composing influenced the direction of some of my earlier writing,
it was his playing and merging of genres that particularly inspired me.
Well beyond his pioneering role in the application of synthesizers, he was a
musical guide to broader, creative possibilities.
Many observers, some
close to Emerson, have tried to explain or understand what caused him to take
his life. But in the end, it is still difficult to fathom or accept. Not
every detail of his physical illness, depression, and financial and medical
circumstances is publicly known, nor are they any of my business. Yet they
surely factored into his final mindset even more than frustrations about his
impairment as a keyboardist reportedly did. To whatever extent other details
regarding his condition are disclosed, perhaps they will contribute to helping
others similarly afflicted or seeking to treat such cases.
Despite inconsistent results throughout his career, "perfectionism" has been a
recurring characterization of Emerson's approach to his work, right up to his
final days, when he'd been preparing for an upcoming concert tour. And, by
all appearances, his work was his life. Although perfectionism may
be an overly simplistic observation, it is easy to imagine that the high bar he
set for himself and his audience – especially earlier in his career – that
guided his artistic vision made his later impairment and coinciding professional
pressures and expectations all the harder to bear. Indeed, he'd already
bore them for some time. Yet, to many of us not in his shoes, his performance
flaws and discomfort pale in contrast to his pivotal impact on music and
Emerson was hardly
alone among musical icons whose serious health problems in later life impeded
their capacity as performers. Art Garfunkel, Phil Collins and Pete Townshend
come to mind. Yet each managed to find some way to cope that ultimately provided
a new lease on professional life. Emerson's talent and insight certainly
transcended his active playing but, sadly, other factors undermined such
prospects for him.
It is at least a small comfort, or blessing, to continue to celebrate and draw
inspiration from his legacy, influence and creative spirit. Fortunately – or
hopefully – those contributions will define him more than how or why his life
Love, Not War
February 14, 2016 (Valentine’s Day)
An antiwar radical spearheaded the
first draft-dodging movement by performing secret mass weddings in order to
exempt young men from the army. When he was caught by the government, he was
imprisoned for treason and sentenced to death.
Undeterred despite being on death
row, he seduced the jailer's young daughter with his risqué ideas and
suggestions. The fact that he was a priest proved no obstacle. It
may have even contributed to the intrigue.
The scoundrel's name? Valentine.
Not content with that "bad boy"
image, Valentine even went as far as to send the girl a provocative note.
In a prison where inmate mail was less private than Hillary Clinton’s email
server. And instead of maintaining
anonymity, he outed himself by unabashedly signing it, "From your Valentine."
However, since the government was
Roman and later deposed, and the priest opposed Rome's anti-Christian policies,
Valentine was later seen as a saint.
Well, if our country's founding
fathers are revered for disloyalty and subversive activities against the
motherland, and honored despite their indiscretions with the opposite sex, why
not Valentine? In fact, he puts some of our presidents in a brighter light.
Bill Clinton was responsible for
only one draft evasion, not dozens. And although he took comfort with a young
woman who was under the same roof like Valentine did, Clinton wasn't a
treasonous, convicted jailbird at the time despite the conservative movement's
efforts, much less a man of the cloth. Clinton behaved stupidly but Valentine's
the one who literally lost his head. And the date? February 14th, of course.
Valentine's legacy of finding ways
to avoid military service may have been perfected by Bush II. He proved
that you can avoid the draft, go AWOL from the National Guard to play politics,
and still send thousands of soldiers to their deaths.
Meanwhile, Rome's policies towards Christians went on to inspire Donald Trump's
positions on Muslims and Mexicans.
Like Valentine, John Lennon
espoused love and landed in serious trouble with the government because of
antiwar activities. Some even argue that, like Valentine, he was killed because
of it. Yet Lennon was too embarrassed to use the phrase "make love, not war" as
a lyrical hook because he thought it reeked of '60s nostalgia.
It's Valentine's deeds that truly
give that slogan meaning. One I didn't know despite sending – or being – a
“valentine" for years. That funny-shaped heart hasn't looked the same since.
Nowhere Boy (film,
October 9, 2015 (John Lennon’s birthday)
The best of the
various dramatizations about John Lennon or the Beatles, this exceptionally
moving film centers on Lennon's bittersweet reconnection with his free-spirited
mother Julia during his teen years after desertion as a toddler by his parents.
Her rebellious, pivotal influence on his early musical development and character
clashes with, yet complements, his conservative, cultivated upbringing by his
aunt Mimi, Julia's stern, repressive older sister. Those competing
sensibilities can be detected in much of his work. Near the end of his life,
Lennon, already a published author, publicly stated that he hoped to someday
write a “Forsyte Saga” style novel about Julia and Mimi's family; this film is
the closest thing to it.
At the height of “Beatlemania”, Lennon was lauded
by luminaries like Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and Queen Elizabeth. He
went on, of course, to influence generations of musicians along with the culture
at large. A rebel from the outset, he became the most provocative, irreverent,
courageously honest and publicly vulnerable of the Beatles and, arguably, their
peers – through his music as well as his social activism. Consequently, he
endured a grueling, four-year deportation battle fueled by the Nixon
administration's clandestine activities against him as a purported “national
security threat”. Not content with
the Beatles' success or impact, he even “rebelled” against that and became a
pathbreaking (albeit inconsistent) solo artist and collaborator, taking even
greater creative risks as well as forays into other art forms. During that
time his life and songs were frequently so merged that they were inseparable. What
he might have gone on to do in his more mature years had his life been spared
fuels the imagination and makes his loss and its injustice an even greater
obscenity, culturally and globally.
Although this October 9 would have been his
seventy-fifth birthday, John Lennon Day is an official New York City holiday
observed on July 29, the anniversary of his obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1976,
four years before his assassination (ironically.)
There's a limited amount of content that can fit
into a feature film about an artist with the scope of Brian Wilson.
This film selected wisely, including limiting its time periods to the
‘60s and ‘80s. It was well edited –
perhaps too edited.
Unfortunately, the flip side of its streamlining even those decades is that it
didn't leave enough room for character development or story momentum, or flow.
It was like watching a series of snapshots largely dependent on the viewer’s
prior knowledge of Wilson. Unlike some other films about him (dramas as
well as documentaries), its portrayal was more interesting and amusing than
moving. Indeed, there wasn’t a single moment in the film I found truly
moving. Horrifying and funny, yes. And it's not like the real-life
story doesn't have plenty of heartrending moments, adequately reflected in some
other films. But perhaps this one had a different goal artistically.
As others have noted, its portrayal of Wilson's music and creative process was a
I've seen, or own copies of, numerous films about Wilson (virtually every one
released) and, to date, the strongest, most well-rounded and genuinely moving in
my opinion is still A&E Biography’s
“Brian Wilson: A Beach Boy's Tale” (1999). It’s the essential yet
comprehensive “Brian Wilson”.
Regarding the accuracy of Love and Mercy,
Brian and Melinda (his wife, who reportedly had considerable input in the
project) have expressed satisfaction regarding it, notwithstanding the usual
consolidation of some events for dramatic or time constraint purposes.
However, my understanding had been that Brian remained afraid of the water and
utterly dependent on his round-the-clock psychologist. So I wondered about
the accuracy of him persuading Melinda to join him in escaping from Dr. Landy's
henchmen by jumping off a boat in the Pacific Ocean and swimming some distance
to the shore fully clothed. And although the real Dr. Landy was an
eccentric to say the least, I thought Paul Giamatti's portrayal of him might've
been a bit over the top, even for that character.
I’ve never been a stickler for casting actors who are dead ringers for the
characters they play (whether due to their natural appearance or their makeup.)
If they’re good actors, their portrayal can compensate for any physical
dissimilarity. However, I thought Paul Dano and John Cusack were well cast
in both respects and gave convincing performances with just enough artistic
license applied. And I found the casting of John Cusack as the older, ‘80s
era Brian juxtaposed against Paul Dano as the younger, ‘60s Brian very
effective. They look and sound as different from each other as the real
‘80s Brian did from his ‘60s alter ego. (Indeed, I think Cusack looks much
more like ‘80s Brian than the real ‘60s Brian does!)
Yet Paul Giamatti stole the show as Dr. Landy. His maniacal yet often
subtle delivery was as genuinely horrifying as it was absurdly funny (worthy of
a best supporting actor nomination, in my opinion.)
Space At Westbury, Long Island
Art Garfunkel engenders different responses from
different listeners, which tend to say more about their tastes than his
artistry. As a solo artist he’s
never received the level of acclaim achieved by his former partner Paul Simon,
who was the writer and player for them.
But Garfunkel’s strength and uniqueness as a singer has been indisputable
(as his recently released compilation album’s title “The Singer” underscores.)
Notwithstanding his vocal afflictions in recent years, and accompaniment
by only an acoustic guitarist, he gave one of the best concerts I have ever
He combined songs (Simon & Garfunkel and solo period) with original poetry,
autobiographical storytelling, off-the-cuff banter, and Q&A with the audience –
essentially a one-man show that transcended the music while allowing him to rest
his recovering voice between numbers. In this unusual context, his
creative and human processes were displayed as much as his musicality, further
enriching the event. And his
warmth, candor and humor (not to mention the music) was worth far more than the
modest price of admission.
Even though this limited tour of relatively small
venues is his attempt to get his voice back in shape (a serious vocal affliction
had forced the cancellation of many gigs in recent tours), his singing was
nothing short of spellbinding in that uniquely Garfunkel way, with any flaws
virtually unnoticeable or negligible, at least on this occasion. When he
felt discomfort just a couple of times, he simply abridged the song at the end
of that section and seamlessly returned to his discourse with uncommon
When I saw Simon in concert doing Simon &
Garfunkel songs without anyone covering Garfunkel's parts, it sounded too
compromised to me. But Garfunkel completely pulled it off performing those
songs without Simon's parts and, in some cases, even improved on them, and
without a band behind him. The concert’s “bare bones” presentation somehow
made it even more effective, intimate and moving.
June 8, 2012
Written, directed, produced, choreographed, and
music composed by Charles Chaplin
Award for Best Original Score – Dramatic, 1973)
The moving, bittersweet story of Limelight
revolves around how its two destitute, main characters – Calvero, an alcoholic,
has-been vaudeville performer (played by Chaplin) and Terry, a suicidal,
disabled dancer (played by Claire Bloom in her debut film performance, kicking
off her illustrious career) – help each other overcome emotional obstacles to
doing their art and achieving success. Chaplin’s son Sydney (who went on to be a
leading man in numerous Broadway hits) plays the other featured role, or third
corner of the “triangle” – the struggling, aspiring composer Neville.
The film’s original music and ballet are stirring and its spoken dialogue
eloquent, even poetic at times. Although one of Chaplin’s rare dramas, it
includes some great little comedic moments, especially during a few scenes where
Calvero dreams – and later discovers – that he can still delight an audience
using his unique blend of humor with song-and-dance (including a historical,
one-time collaboration with legendary silent film icon Buster Keaton.)
Originally intended as Chaplin's “swan song” and created at the height of his
political and professional problems in McCarthyism-era America and resulting
unpopularity, the making of the film was also a creative catharsis and act of
salvation for him in the face of hard times. Its story and characters are
largely autobiographical, or taken from his uphill, Dickensian childhood.
Indeed, five of his own children appear in the film, along with his wife
Oona (as a brief stand-in for Claire Bloom.)
Much of the script, specifically the reflections
intermittently uttered by Calvero, reads like spiritual, New Age philosophy
prose. Some notable quotes:
"Billions of years it's taken to evolve human
consciousness and you want to wipe it out. Wipe out the miracle of all
existence. More important than anything in the whole universe! What can the
stars do? Nothing - but sit on their axis. And the sun, shooting flames 280,000
miles high – so what? Wasting all its natural resources. Can the sun think? Is
it conscious? No, but you are."
"What do you want meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning. Desire
is the theme of all life."
"What is there to fight for? Everything. Life itself – to be lived,
suffered, enjoyed. Life is a beautiful, magnificent thing, even to a jelly
"Live without hope! Live for the moment. There are still wonderful
"Life can be wonderful if you're not afraid of it. All it needs is
courage, imagination – and a little dough."
"There's something just as inevitable as death. It's life."
"Life is a local affair."
"As a child I used to complain to my father about not having toys and he would
say, this [the mind] is the greatest toy ever created. Here lies the secret of
"That's the trouble with the world – we all despise ourselves."
"I'm an old sinner, nothing shocks me."
"A young girl like you wanting to throw your life away. When you're my age,
you'll want to hang on to it....at this stage of the game life gets to be a
"So few people have the capacity to feel – or the opportunity."
"Why should poetry have to make sense?"
"The meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing. After all a
rose is a rose is a rose."
"I've arrived at the age where a platonic friendship can be sustained on the
highest moral plane."
"Hunger has no conscience."
"Love is never wasted."
"That's all any of us are – amateurs. We don't live long enough to be anything
"We're all grubbing for a living, the best of us. All a part of the giant human
crusade – written in water."
"Since I've been preaching and moralizing at you it's really affected me. I'm
beginning to believe it myself."
"What's your hurry?"
"I also hate the sight of blood, but it's in my veins."
(On the public)
"As individuals....there's greatness in everyone. But as a crowd, they're like a
monster without a head that never knows which way it's going to turn. It can be
prodded in any direction."
"As a man gets on in years he wants to live deeply. A feeling of sad dignity
comes upon him and that's fatal for a comic."
"What a sad business, being funny."
"There's something about working the streets I like. It's the tramp in me I
"A man's true character comes out when he's drunk. Me, I'm funnier."
"Life isn't a gag anymore. I can't see the humor. From now on I'm a retired
"How's it feel to wake up famous? That's it, have a good cry and enjoy it. It
only happens once."
"Everyone's so kind to me, it makes me feel isolated."
"In the few years I have left I must have truth. Truth is all I have left. It's
all I want. And if possible, a little dignity."
"On behalf of my partner and myself I'd like to continue – but I'm stuck."
"I believe I'm dying, doctor. But then I don't know – I’ve died so many times."
"The heart and the mind – what an enigma."
"Time is the great author. It always writes the perfect ending."
Annette Peacock: promotional appearance for release of
An Acrobat’s Heart
Downtown Music Gallery, New York City
December 16, 2000
When I met Annette Peacock at the Downtown Music
Gallery in New York City, she told me that she’d never seen a point in creating
work that wasn’t innovative or truly original. Coming from most people,
that might sound grandiose or pompous. But when Peacock says it, it’s
simply the truth and her work bears it out. Indeed, although she comes
from a tradition of contemporary jazz and poetry, it’s difficult to find anyone
who sounds like her or her music. That might be why, after so many years
in and out of the music world, she’s still unknown to nearly everyone, despite
her past associations with better known musicians.
So it’s perhaps telling that, when she made her
2000 “comeback” after a twelve-year recording hiatus and nearly twenty-year
absence from a New York stage, it was at an obscure, tiny record store in the
East Village. The store’s owner personally drove her there that evening
all the way from her home in Woodstock, during a heavy rain storm in rush-hour
traffic, and drove her back the same night. About a dozen or so male
Peacock-philes came out in the rain and waited for her for hours, crammed into
the store and trading trivia. When she arrived, she signed our copies of
her brand new CD, performed a few new songs on voice and synthesizer, and
engaged in extended, one-on-one conversations about music, art and the creative
process. She also asked if we knew of any good places in New York where
she could perform (the last one had been the now defunct Danceteria discotheque,
performing un-danceable music for an entirely standing audience) and whether we
thought anyone would show up. She ended her visit by saying that if any of
us lived in her town, we’d be the people she’d hang out with. I believe
Brian Wilson and
the Long Island Philharmonic Orchestra perform the music of Pet Sounds
Jones Beach Ampitheater, Long Island
September 10, 2000
The Rebound of Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson concerts are a category unto
themselves. They combine timeless, classic pop music with the real-life,
on-stage drama of a legendary survivor of mental illness directly overcoming his
fears of being around people and performing live – spectacle as well as
performance. Wilson’s legendary status and history entitles him to perform
with idiosyncrasies that no other artist could get away with. Still, the
harmonically stirring, heartrending and brutally introspective songs he wrote
over thirty years ago, and his historically innovative arrangements, continue to
As Wilson once characterized his former band the
Beach Boys, with typical understatement, “It’s a very dramatic story.” That's
also a fair characterization of Wilson’s story of going from 300 plus
pounds, self-destructive addictions to chemicals and foods, emotionally unable
to leave his room or bed for years (much less do concert tours, which had led to
a nervous breakdown and retirement from live performing as far back as 1964), to
recording and touring regularly; being trimmer, healthier and handsomer than his
rock music contemporaries; even outliving his two younger, presumably healthier
brothers (Beach Boys Dennis and Carl Wilson). As one fan half jested,
referring to the years Wilson spent in bed and reclusion, “At least he got a lot
of rest in the interim.” But then it was Brian Wilson who overcame child
abuse and the limits of a largely self-taught musical education (spending hours
at the piano, singing with his family, influenced by do-wop and Four Freshman
music during his teens and Phil Spector's production in his early twenties) to
became one of the biggest visionaries in pop music history.
This tour marks the first time Wilson’s
pioneering, influential 1966 album Pet Sounds is being performed live in
its entirety, with a virtuoso backing band and symphony orchestra to boot.
Like most people I know, I’ve never been a Beach Boys fan – or, to put it more
accurately, a fan of the songs the public has generally associated with them.
But Pet Sounds is no ordinary Beach Boys album. (Nor, for that
matter, was its follow-up, the Smile sessions). Pet Sounds
was a de facto Brian Wilson solo album - composed, arranged, produced and mostly
sung by Wilson, backed by studio musicians (Phil Spector’s famed Wrecking Crew)
and Beach Boys vocal harmonies, and released as a Beach Boys album.
Wilson's goal in creating Pet Sounds was to artistically progress beyond
his stellar, continuous commercial success as the Beach Boys’ composer and
producer by, as he characterized it, “making the greatest rock album ever made.”
Inspired and challenged by the Beatles’
1965 groundbreaking album Rubber Soul, Wilson created Pet Sounds
as his personal, unrestricted artistic statement, during a newly commenced,
full-time commitment to composing and producing following his retirement from
concert touring. The title Pet Sounds was a coy reference to
Wilson’s penchant for unusual sounds in the recording studio.
The album’s entirety, with its unorthodox songs,
sounds and recording production (the latter partly inspired by, but venturing
beyond, Phil Spector) and classical and jazz instrumentation and arrangements,
was rejected as too “way-out” by the other Beach Boys, in favor of preserving
Wilson's previous, commercially successful “formula”, and by Capitol Records,
whose lack of promotion contributed to an indifferent and unreceptive American
public (unlike in England.) Yet, it changed the standards for pop music
within the industry, inspired the Beatles’ cultural watershed album Sergeant
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and received high acclaim and recognition
some 30 years later as a landmark album ahead of its time, climaxed by the 1996
release of the Pet Sounds Sessions compact disc box set. Indeed,
Wilson's work on Pet Sounds was largely responsible for his being lauded,
at the time, as an American cultural treasure by Leonard Bernstein and numerous
pop music dignitaries, with some musicologists going as far as comparing his
“musical genius” and personal outlandishness to Mozart, his emotional and
creative struggles to Beethoven, and his youthfully prodigious, innovative
multiple artistry to Orson Welles. (Ironically, his comparison to Welles
also included Wilson's suffering one of the most devastating falls from grace in
music history. If Pet Sounds was Wilson's career equivalent of
Citizen Kane, his subsequent, even more ambitious unfinished Smile
sessions, which ushered in his mental and professional undoing, were his
equivalent of Welles’ It’s all True.)
With the hindsight of history, it is quite
possible that, had the Beach Boys and Capitol Records embraced Pet Sounds
and the Smile project the way the
Beatles and EMI embraced the
similarly unconventional Sgt. Pepper, it would have not only facilitated
the Beach Boys’ transition into the acid rock and psychedelic period, but
allowed Smile to rival Sgt. Pepper as a centerpiece for the pop
music revolution. Instead, an era of musical innovation not inconsistent
with Wilson's ironically rendered the Beach Boys and their old "formula"
obsolete, a setback from which the band never fully recovered. For the
business end of the music industry and the general public, Wilson and the Beach
Boys remained stereotyped, even stigmatized, by their earlier, dated and more
superficial commercial successes. Yet, Pet Sounds could be traced as a
seed from which the rock music revolution of the latter 1960s grew (albeit via
the Beatles and other artists who credited Pet Sounds as a profound
influence, along with other, “psychedelic” Beach Boys music of the late
1960s-early 1970s, much of which sounds strikingly like latter 70's
Genesis music with
Yes vocal harmonies and lyrics!)
The live Pet Sounds is meticulously
faithful to the original's unique arrangements and sound effects. Still
present and tightly performed are the inventive melodies and harmonic vocal and
instrumental counterpoints, the tempo changes, the pulsating harpsichord and
piano sounds, the swinging dual bass guitars, the harp-like guitar motif in ‘Wouldn't
It Be Nice’, the stirring French horn and vocal fugue in ‘God
Only Knows’, the strings' haunting, intricate harmonic tensions on ‘Don't
Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder)’, the early synthesizer-like Theremin
in ‘I Just Wasn't Made for These
Times’, and the surprise, arriving and departing train and barking,
chasing dogs at the end of the album's final song ‘Caroline,
No’ (the latter's influences evident in the surprise fade-in and fade-out
of train-like noise at the end of the
Beatles' song ‘Strawberry
Fields Forever’ and the barking dogs and animal sounds at the end of
Sgt. Pepper's near-closing song
‘Good Morning Good Morning’.) Indeed, Pet Sounds was the
first record to employ such common – yet musically unused – sounds in pop music
(shades of the avant-garde Stockhausen.) The concert also included
occasional, tasty jazz-like embellishments – particularly during the climactic
piece ‘Pet Sounds’, a
Bacharach-inspired, jazzy percussive/brassy instrumental (rejected as soundtrack
for a James Bond movie prior to its inclusion on the album, as Wilson
surprisingly revealed in his introduction.) The band's state-of-the-art
technology often improved on the sound quality of the original album. Its
musically richest songs, ‘Wouldn't It
Be Nice’, ‘God Only Knows’
and ‘Don't Talk (Put Your Head on my
Shoulder)’, are easily worth the whole album or concert. As former
Beach Boy Al Jardine acknowledged, just the bridge of ‘Wouldn't
It Be Nice’ would be a lifetime achievement for many composers.
The entirety of Pet Sounds has the
emotional and lyrical impact of a concept album expressing the challenges of
self-examination and interpersonal relationships. Its lyrics (conceived by
Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher and written by Asher, with additional lyrics by
Beach Boys singer Mike Love) were more introspective and vulnerable than pop
music had previously dared to be. Perhaps unhip for the latter 1960s, it
foreshadowed later, similarly autobiographical albums like John Lennon's
Plastic Ono Band and Peter Gabriel's
Us, to name a few. Although Pet Sounds was critically
acclaimed, one reviewer at the time amusingly labeled it “sad songs about
loneliness and heartbreak; sad songs even about happiness.” The final line
in ‘Caroline, No’ mourns the
loss of the love/youth/innocence of the previous songs with "Can we ever bring
them back once they have gone?" As another reviewer observed, Wilson, like
his listeners, has as much chance of bringing back the passing youth expressed
in Pet Sounds as those chasing dogs at the end of ‘Caroline,
No’ have of catching that symbolic, passing train.
Wilson's heartfelt vocal performance of the
brutally honest, artist's lament ‘I
Just Wasn't Made for These Times’ (which expresses Wilson's sense of
frustration and isolation as a visionary artist, and a thinly veiled description
of his rejection by the Beach Boys) seemed especially poignant and moving during
the concert, given his own painful life journey and the troubled but triumphant
history of the Pet Sounds album itself. Indeed, time seems to have
vindicated them both. Wilson has enjoyed an extensive revival and honoring
of his work in recent years.
Still, despite all the hype, the Brian Wilson
performing on stage was a dramatically different man from the 24-year-old who
composed, produced and sang nearly all of the lead vocals in that impeccable,
angelic, yearning (almost whining, without compromising musicality), smooth
high-pitched voice on Pet Sounds back in 1966. What we saw instead was a
58-year-old, disoriented-looking singer with a rough, slightly stilted, lower
voice that nonetheless managed to reach some crucial high notes and recapture
some of the old magic, remaining seated behind a keyboard that served as a prop
rather than an instrument, except for a quixotic nostalgic, mostly visual stint
as additional bass guitarist (Wilson's original stage instrument) during one of
the encore songs. Even Wilson commented on his songs during the concert as
if they were written by someone else, and recently confessed disbelief at how he
could have written them.
It seems nothing short of miraculous, considering
his past, that he's not only still alive but professionally active, even if he's
mostly doing his "Vegas act", living off his former glory, and will never be
able to live up to the standard he created when he was in his early 20s.
Indeed, Wilson epitomizes the reputation of many artists for creating their
finest work when they were young – or during the "middle period" of their
It's a bitter irony that some of the
happiest-sounding pop music ever written came from someone profoundly unhappy,
compelled to compose for his own salvation. Indeed, Wilson suffered years
of physical and psychological abuse by his father (largely believed responsible
for Wilson’s deafness in one ear), a failed songwriter who was the Beach Boys’
first manager. As Wilson's musician friend Danny Hutton said of him,
“Writing songs that sound happy isn't necessarily about being happy.”
And, despite Wilson’s mostly performing songs made famous by the Beach Boys, on
whom his reputation is based, their historic rivalry and personal and
professional estrangement is reflected by his audience's jeering any reference
to the Beach Boys as a band – especially Mike Love, his cousin and collaborator
on most of their earlier songs (a sympathetic but ironic audience response that
prompted even Wilson’s current wife, Melinda, to roll her eyes.)
Even on a personal level, Wilson has made the
triumphant transition from being a failed husband and neglectful father to
reconnecting with his family, remarrying and adopting children. When
Wilson directed the orchestra to start over on ‘You
Still Believe in Me’, he humbly and humorously informed the audience, “I
goofed, and I'm going to do it until I get it right!” 36 years after his
nervous breakdown and initial retirement from touring, 34 years after the
release of Pet Sounds, and after decades of devastating mental illness
and addictions, if Brian Wilson is accomplishing one thing, it's “doing it until
he gets it right.”