Countless stars benevolently roast my exposed skin. Some kind of Light Bright art installation gone exactly right. The beach is quiet except for the splash of waves lapping against my bare thighs and crashing into shore — nerves untethered, muscles unwound. A fitting end to a legendary night of music.
“Rock and roll is nothing if not liberating,” Brian Wilson once said. The iconic, mercurial leader of The Beach Boys hated the ocean. “It’s murky vastness and power frightened me,” he said. Ironic for a guy who wrote “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Wilson’s anxieties went well beyond the ocean. Letting go of fear and anxiety is imperative when entering deep, powerful waters. You are exposing yourself to the kind of natural force that can envelop, then crush even the stoutest of chemistries.
Wading into creative waters can be equally daunting. For Wilson, that would ring consistently true. He waded into raging rapids when he wrote Pet Sounds, a record the rest of the band doubted would sell; an album the record company did not want. But Brian is a visionary, a manic expressive, who only wants to play music. No matter the vastness of the creative ocean, the depth of the waters, Wilson was going to strip naked and wade in deep.
Now in his seventies, and having won an epic, decades-long war against mental illness and addiction, Wilson exemplifies an eccentric artist making a farewell tour. He and his wonderful, enormous band open their set in St. Augustine with a smattering of Beach Boys hits. “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” and so it goes.
The performance feels a bit like an old-timer’s baseball game at first. Wilson’s voice is a little behind the beat. He is not swinging and missing, but that swing is a little labored. Not that anyone minds. We recognize how fortunate we are to see the legend at all. It is a miracle from the pop-culture gods. By any normal appraisal of mortality, Wilson should not be alive, much less touring. Yet here he is, in St. Augustine, behind the piano, promising to play one of the greatest albums of all time.
Wilson unceremoniously announces the band will be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety. They are already thirteen songs deep. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” Wilson opens. His voice is still unsteady but a shift in confidence and comfort begins to emerge. Silent hope for a single from the proven legend begins to cautiously swell.
By the time we head for the album’s homestretch, beginning with “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” we have forgotten Brian Wilson’s early struggles. He is fully in his element, exposed and devoid of self-consciousness. This is his masterpiece. He put his head under in 1966 and came up gasping for air. Like much of the album, it’s gorgeous harmonies and expert playing belie the struggle Wilson has endured since childhood.
Wilson, Al Jardine, Matt Jardine, Blondie Chaplin, the lady bolting from her seat in front of me, the guy pulled along with her to dance, we are all exposed as Pet Sounds draws to a close and the party portion of the Beach Boys catalog begins.
Try sitting still while members of the Beach Boys play “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me, Rhonda.” Try not to sing. Go ahead. It does not take much suspension of reality to get there because you have done it. If you grew up in this country between 1963 and right this moment, you have sung those songs in the mirror and at a bar and with distant relatives at a cousin’s wedding.
You will keep singing them because they are damn good songs. Brian Wilson wrote happy surfing songs and complex ballads about much more than broken hearts. We may not have had him for decades while he was lost in the weeds of mental illness, addiction, and abuse. But we have always had his genius pushing our emotions into the deep waters, deep as we can stand.
On this night we walk away feeling like no waters are too deep. No exposure feels too daunting. Brian Wilson has gifted us much more than beautiful, timeless music. He provides hope and confidence that being us and taking risks will be worth the effort.
Brian Wilson Live Review 2016 by Jason Earle.
Brian Wilson Live Concert Photos 2016 by Jenn Ross.
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