No one knew David Bowie was dying. When he assembled Tony Visconti and jazz saxophonist Danny McCaslin in 2015 to work on the album Blackstar, he kept his growing cancer a secret from his band. He insisted on recording live with the full band. His mouth opened up with the now classic lyric from Lazarus: “Look up here/I’m in heaven,” and the band played on. Whatever doubts, questions, regrets or fears he felt as cancer shut down his liver, he expressed as he said everything in his life through music. Mystery and excitement were the hallmarks of a wide and varied recorded and performance output. But then, within days of Blackstar’s release, the unavoidable happened to the surprise of friends, fans and collaborators.
No one who has seen Brian Wilson on this most recent tour will be surprised.
This was my sixth time in the last twenty years seeing Brian Wilson in concert, hereafter referred to affectionately by just his first name. Brian, the sad, chubby guy at the piano, singing about surfing for half a century. Brian, with melodies and harmonies that came straight from God. Brian, who when he looks in the mirror, sees his late brothers every day. Brian, whose songs have dug themselves into my heart since birth. My parents were fans, and played his music often growing up. His expression of innocence is my own innocence. I like “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I’ve covered Surfer Girl with my band. Caroline, No hit me right as I discovered girls could be sad.
I include these things in the preface to draw out a distinction between Brian and pretty much every other artist in existence. You listen to Brian with your heart. Sure, in attendance last week were those old rich people who will see any live act to cross them off a bucket list. They were listening with their wallets. Also, there were maybe a couple of nerdy music students who can parse out every harmonic interval and key change, and appreciate them for the innovations that he brought to early 1960s 1-4-5 pop music. They listen to Brian with their well-trained ears.
But I think Brian really lives in the hearts of people who love his songs. I think of my mom, who when she hears the intro to I Get Around starts waving her hands to the beat and start singing, even if she can’t get up to dance any more. There is a purity in her joy that grew from the seed Brian planted. Being my mother’s son on many different levels, I can’t say I reacted any differently last week, dancing in my seat, and bringing an embarrassed smile to my wife. I love these songs, and his band is able to execute them in such a way that hits that button reliably, year after year. There’s a lot of people like my mom out there.
She couldn’t make it this time. My mom has been sick for a while, and in all honesty, will probably be this sick until she dies. I wheeled her to that 2012 Beach Boys reunion show at Blossom, and she couldn’t stay the full time, so we left early. Even in the parking lot, she could hear the distant strains of Do You Wanna Dance? and thought about staying a little longer. I told her I was going to this show last week, and some part of her thinks maybe she could have managed to go, somehow, someway, but decided against it.
Brian had to be walked out to his piano. I’m pretty certain he didn’t actually play the thing. He often started songs, with a voice pure but short, and then handed off the second verse to a younger singer. He’s sick. Any armchair doctor could suggest possible diagnoses, but who cares? He can’t walk, he can barely sing. He’s going to die.
The disconnect between Brian’s sadness and the sunniness of the Beach Boys sound is a turning point. When you unlock that mystery, the world opens up a little more; it’s a little fuller, more real. The program was a complete performance of his 1966 album Pet Sounds with its aching centerpiece I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. He mostly spoke the lyrics, but his heart was heavy. He’s waited fifty more years, and it’s still not his time. It’s important to note the distinction between “sadness” and “darkness.” Another great legend of song who left us last year, Leonard Cohen, said until the very end “You want it darker.” That’s never true for Brian. As sad as he can be, confronted with abuse and drugs and death, he never let darkness pull him. His music continues to be filled with love and joy.
Is Brian being exploited? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leonard Cohen resumed touring in the 2010s because bad managers left him broke and touring was the best source of income. Brian’s struggles with managers, starting with his own father Murray and continuing on to Eugene Landy, are also well known. Under his wife Melinda’s guidance, he appears to be financially stable, but there might be more people with their livelihoods tied to the Brian Wilson touring industry.
I bring this up because I think the answer hints at why this show last week was so great. I think Brian was up there not to make money but because he loves us. I can clearly see the scene in my mind. Brian gets some bad health news, and he says to his family “I think people want to hear these songs one more time, and if I can give to them, I should do it.” He knows it’s going to be hard. He knows his voice isn’t what it used to be. But he’s a giver, and when faced with hard times, he does what he knows he can do.
The only reason this works is because whatever Brian has given us, has given me, we’ve all repaid him more. What hope exists in this man? What faith? To launch his sadness into the void with just some pretty chords and harmonies. But it’s worked every time. His voice has landed on my fertile ears, who return not just the adoration of a rock star, but true genuine love.
The set last week closed with Love and Mercy, the title of a recent biopic, but the song is from the 1980s. He’s closed with it the last few times I’ve seen him, and I think that’s by his design. It’s a piano ballad about a dopey man going through his day, watching movies and getting dinner and trying to make people happy. Brian has always put himself openly and completely in everything he’s done, but this is Brian 2017. “Love and Mercy to you and your friends tonight.”