Finding Meaning in the Music of the Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys
I was born near the water but when I think of the sea it is the fantastical imagery of The Beach Boys’ early records, with their dreamy melodies and their lyrics about love, loss, cars, and surfing, that I dwell upon. The music of Brian Wilson, the band’s most important creative force, is a semi-mythologised eulogy for the American Dream. It is the music of privilege and aspiration, a carefree life forever defined by never-ending teenage drama. It is the soundtrack for a life that Wilson (nor any of his bandmates, Dennis Wilson aside) never really experienced. It is fantasy in the purest sense – but what a fantasy it is.
More than half a century after the group’s first harmonious records about the American Dream were released, Wilson struggled onto a stage in Birmingham (UK) as an eager and excited audience cheered the opportunity to share in the fantasy. Early Beach Boys hits filled the outdoor arena, expertly delivered by his surrounding cadre of musicians whilst the composer himself looked out towards his audience with a dreamy look upon his face, occasionally distracted, occasionally singing.
For those who have followed Wilson’s career, this will not be a surprise. The survivor of mental illnesses, abuse, and exploitation, Wilson’s presence tonight is part of a remarkable late-life third act. The audience seems to understand the remarkable context surrounding the show. They project support towards the musical legend, compassionate towards any awkward silences or mistimed lyrical delivery. This show is as much an act of mutual support as it is a concert – a thank you from the crowd for a lifetime of work on their behalf. Recent reviewers of Wilson’s concerts dwell upon the sometimes-awkward nature of these shows, but that misses the point. The audience is not there to see Wilson. They are there to thank him.
That doesn’t mean the night is not a cause for reflection and soul-searching. By the time Wilson and his band, which now includes fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, begins the much-anticipated performance of Pet Sounds, old lyrics take on new meaning: ‘I know perfectly well/I’m not where I should be/I’ve been very aware/You’ve been patient with me’. With Wilson’s voice breaking and his timing disintegrating throughout, the song is perhaps more meaningful now than it was even in the mid-60s. As time passes, Wilson seems to settle into the concert, but it is not until ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘God Only Knows’ that he seems to hit his stride. Still, one cannot help but wonder if Wilson’s eyes, looking occasionally as if they are searching for something only he can perceive, betray a much deeper, never-ending private drama.
And yet there is something empowering about that. Here sits a man bowed and bent, but still not broken. For a man who once famously spent much of the 70s in bed, and much of the 80s being abused by his psychiatrist, Eugene Levey, the mere act of being, right here, right now, is an act of utter defiance. Modern critics have accused Wilson of not being made for these times, seemingly oblivious to the cruelty of using the man’s own music against him. Just like the rest of us, Wilson has survived, and, in his own way, learned to thrive. His is an extreme example, sure, but an important one for those who have gathered to offer him their thanks. Brian, God only knows what we’d be without you, whatever the decade.