Last night I saw Brian Wilson perform at the Palace Theater for his “Pet Sounds: The Final Performances” tour. It’s amazing enough that Wilson is touring given his history of mental illness, drug abuse and now, as he’s approaching 75 years-old, physical decline, but he’s still doing it. And doing it well.
His voice is still recognizably his voice. He’s not like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits or someone who has had to become a fundamentally different kind of singer than he once was due to ravaged vocal cords. The same old tone and timbre of 1960s Brian Wilson is there. He may not tear into the second verse of “I’m waiting for the day” with that aggressive edge so evident on the album version, he doesn’t sustain notes like he did when he was young and, yes, he occasionally hits a clunker, but he’s still unmistakably Brian Wilson.
If anything, the flaws in his singing enhance the experience of seeing him live. He’s not a jukebox full of oldies like some other artists are. And the mere act of him being on that stage singing those songs elevated his performance above that of his increasingly vanishing contemporaries and vanishingly few artistic peers.
I don’t begrudge The Rolling Stones, the Who or Paul McCartney going on the road and playing concerts into their 70s. They’re legends, people love them and their music, they put on great shows and, of course, they’re more than entitled to make money off of the art they created. But there is something . . . off about it. There is something off about Mick Jagger singing about how he can’t get satisfaction when we know he’s rarely had anything but satisfaction for the past 50 years. There’s something silly about Roger Daltrey singing that he hopes he dies before he gets old when he’s already old. There’s something downright creepy about a wrinkly-faced Paul McCartney telling us that we know what he means about that girl who’s just 17.
One might think this problem would be even greater for Wilson doing “Pet Sounds,” actually. The album he once famously called “a teenage symphony to God” is about young romance. About that moment when teenage love changes from butterflies in one’s stomach to one’s first feelings of melancholy. It evokes emotions common to anyone who has ever experienced love, but they’re feelings unique to a certain time and place in our lives that we never again recapture. That’s not the stuff one would expect to wear well when sung by a 70-something year old man. Despite his age, however, there is something poignant about Wilson singing from the point of view of his younger self that is absent when others do it.
Ideally art stands on its own, without the audience bringing their own knowledge about the artist with them, but that’s next to impossible when it comes to Wilson. We know what his life was like at the time “Pet Sounds” was recorded. We know how much more difficult it would become in the two decades-plus after it came out and how damaged Wilson came out on the other end. Jagger, McCartney and Daltrey all had personal ups and downs of course, but compared to Wilson they’ve lived pretty happy and contented lives. In light of this, their taking to the road seems like a pleasant but somewhat superfluous and undoubtedly commercial act.
Wilson didn’t have the same sort of happy and contended second and third public acts as those guys. He’s never gotten the chance to connect with his old songs and his old fans in the same way they have. And given that his former bandmates Mike Love and Bruce Johnston have long toured as The Beach Boys, playing the biggest Beach Boys hits in theaters, state fairs and other venues with relatively low ticket prices, a lot of his old fans might not even care too much anymore. They’ve seen what they wanted to see for the most part. As such, Wilson’s act of singing his old songs — these particular old songs, which were never as commercially successful as the stuff Love and Johnston perform — seems more personal to him. More important and significant.
While I’m likely projecting to some degree, as Wilson sang through “Pet Sounds,” it seemed as if he was reaching back through time for something necessary. Something he didn’t get to fully enjoy and explore at the time and something he finally can now as opposed to simply putting on a show. He may have played these songs or things like them over and over again in his home, but on this tour he’s getting to play them with a full band — he had ten backing musicians and singers, including original Beach Boy Al Jardine and one-time Beach Boy contributor Blondie Chaplin — forming those harmonies he’s on record as saying are his favorite parts of his songs.
It was a great show for us, but you can’t help but feel it’s a rewarding and perhaps necessary act for Wilson to play these songs. Necessary in ways it’s simply not necessary for others to play their old songs. This may have been most evident in the opening and closing of the show when, as a warmup/encore, he played some of the more popular Beach Boys songs like “Help me Rhonda” and “California Girls,” with Jardine doing an admirable job with the Mike Love vocals. They were fine, but somewhat rote. The crowd stood, cheered and sang along, but Wilson seemed to be going through the motions with them to some degree. The big hits don’t seem particularly important to Wilson.
The “Pet Sounds” songs, which were played in order, in their entirety after an intermission, felt more moving and stirring. And not just because they’re better songs. It’s because, with the possible exceptions of “Wouldn’t it be nice?” and “Sloop John B,” a lot of people don’t know all the words to a lot of them. And even if they do, they’re not exactly jukebox singalongs. They provided an opportunity for Wilson to sing and perform for us in ways that McCartney and the Stones can’t without resorting to an obscure R&B cover. People know “Pet Sounds,” of course, but it’s not back-of-their-hand stuff like “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Brown Sugar.” Wilson was reacquainting many in the crowd with those songs just as he was revisiting them himself and the net effect of it was stirring.
Stirring in and of itself, but also stirring because the man singing the songs is, in 2017, still here. Against all odds, he’s still here. Reaching back for something one gets the sense he loves and needs just as much if not more than any of us.