Over many years I have seen all the major rock artists of our generation, but never the Beach Boys. And while my head is with Dylan and the Beatles and my gut is with Springsteen and the Stones, I discovered Tuesday night at the Beacon that my heart is with the Beach Boys.
In 2 1/2 hours they played 44 songs, and I sang along to nearly every one, my eyes even welling at times as they evoked so much, but nothing more than my youth, all of our youths. I was in 7th Grade, back in my basement on Homewood Ave. in Pittsburgh, playing pool and rocking around the table as I first discovered this magical California world of surf and cars and girls.
It was exhilarating right from the start as they began with a “surf set,” highlighted by “Don’t Back Down.” And there they all were: Mike Love, up front and animated, his nasal California twang intact; Al Jardine, playing rhythm guitar and looking exactly as he did 50 (my God, can it be that long?) years ago; Bruce Johnston, the first permanent substitute in the Wilson brothers band; David Marks, who disappeared after the “Surfin’ Safari” album but can still play a mean surf guitar.
And then there was Brian Wilson, although even using his last name seems superfluous. He is Brian, as much in the pantheon as John and Paul, Mick and Keith. He sat behind the piano, a stolid figure, but still the focus because this is his music, regardless of his minimal on-stage contributions. He plunked out support and added harmonies, but every time he would take on a solo, sometimes for only part of a song, the audience would cheer.
As much as any of our dead rock heroes, Brian has sacrificed his life to his muse. He always competed with the Beatles. After he first heard “Sgt. Pepper,” he was overwhelmed by despair, feeling he could never match it, and suffered a series of breakdowns from which he has never completely recovered. I hope it is some solace to him today that “Pet Sounds” is #2 on Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time," behind only “Sgt. Pepper.” You can see on-stage appearances aren’t easy for him, and the sophisticated audience knew and honored his struggles.
His first lead vocal was “Surfer Girl,” and if his voice doesn’t have the depth or range that it once did, it really doesn’t matter. It’s Brian and we still feel all that teen longing. It helps that backing the “Boys” is a fabulous back-up group. Between their instrumental and vocal support, the music is just as we remember it.
And, as they used to say on the radio, the hits just kept on coming. The highlight of this “girl-focused” group of songs was “Wendy” and Brian’s amazing arrangement of the old Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers song, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” The Beach Boys can doo-wop with the best of them.
So they’d done surf and girls, and now it was cars! Everyone was on their feet and singing for “Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down,” and “I Get Around,” that for my money was the best song they did all night. They had sung us 22 songs in 75 minutes with barely a break between songs. I didn’t blame Brian a bit for leaving the stage with the last note of “I Get Around” still hanging in the air. We all needed to catch our breath.
After a 20-minute intermission, we were ready to go again. They started with an appropriate cover - “California Dreamin’.” Then Brian got his biggest cheers of the night as he sang “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the opening song on "Pet Sounds."
If there was any lull at all, it came now, with a tribute to brother Dennis, who drowned in 1983, with his song “Forever,” that was marred by technical problems with the backdrop video. But Brian sounded good on his poignant “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” followed by a video of brother Carl, who died of cancer in 1996, singing his lovely “God Only Knows.”
Next was a song off their album of the same name, “That’s Why God Made the Radio.” Not bad for some old dudes!
I knew they were ramping up for the finale, and I kept thinking of all the great songs they hadn’t played yet. It couldn’t have been better. “California Girls” - the audience singing every word; “All Summer Long” - taking us all back to the beaches of our youth; “Help Me, Rhonda” - one of the great choruses of all time; “Gotta Be Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” - they proved that; “Do You Wanna Dance?” - Brian in good voice; “Barbara Ann” - Brian straps on his bass and is up front with the guys!; then their anthem, “Surfin’ USA.”
They were gone for less than a minute as the crowd clapped, shouted and stomped and we were into the encore: “Kokomo,” a 1988 hit, belittled but still fun; “Good Vibrations” - Brian’s best lead of the night and what we all felt. And finally a fitting summary of the evening - “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I can still see that lithe, sun-blonde girl pouting in her room because “her daddy took her T-Bird away.”
It’s four days later and the concert still glows. More than any other group, the Beach Boys make you smile. Make no mistake, there is plenty of art here in the subtle complexity of Brian’s songs and arrangements, but ultimately it’s about the immediate recognition of the rhythms and harmonies and all the happy feelings that bubble up inside you . No, it’s not deep, but, as Brian has proved, there is madness in the depths. What it is, is a perfect slice of time, their youth and ours. I feel very lucky to have shared that time again with them.