You Can Have Real Fun, Fun, Fun in the Presence of Genius

The one and only Brian Wilson

By Dave Price

Imagine you were celebrating your birthday in 2020 and you could go back to 1962 when you were an elementary school student. Or 1965 when you were in 9th grade. Or 1966, 1967, 1968 when you walked the hallways of your high school. Or 1969 when you started college. Or 1973 when you graduated college, got married, and had a son.

Well, of course, there are no time machines, but last night, on the date of my wife’s 69th birthday, Judy and I vicariously had a chance to do the next best thing as we listened to Brian Wilson and his 11-member band perform many of the greatest hits he composed for his Hall of Fame California surf-sound group The Beach Boys at the MGM Casino just outside Washington, DC.

It’s been said that each song we hear from our past is like a tiny time capsule that unlocks to let us vividly recall all the places we were and all the people we were with when we first heard the tune.

And few songwriters have the ability to transport us back to our past better than Brian Wilson and the exquisite harmonies and sense of time and place he incorporated into the string of smash hits, ground-breaking albums, and B-sides he created for the Beach Boys. 

The story of Wilson’s rise to become one of the best of rock & roll music’s greatest songwriters and his subsequent descent into depression and mental illness has been thoroughly documented in print and film. Indeed, Wilson still periodically struggles with mental issues. For example, he had to cancel a portion of his tour last year, saying he felt mentally insecure. In a letter to his fans Wilson wrote: “It is no secret that I have been living with mental illness for many decades. I’ve been struggling with stuff in my head. I’m going to rest, recover, and work with my doctors on this. The music and my fans keep me going and I know this will be something I can AGAIN overcome”.

And on a chilly Wednesday night, Wilson’s fans, ecstatic that he was well enough to resume touring, showered their idol with applause after each song, even those few obscure enough only to be familiar to fervent Beach Boys enthusiasts.

And while Wilson, who will turn 80 in June, today struggles to hit some notes and is forced to rely on a teleprompter for the words to some songs, these were minor setbacks that the audience was willing to ignore as they danced in the aisles and rose as one for a heartfelt standing ovation when the 90-minute, 27-song concert ended. The night had clearly demonstrated they were in the presence of a genius who had created an entire genre (surf music), wrote two dozen Top 40 hits for the Beach Boys, composed a tune – “God Only Knows” – which no less of an expert than Paul McCartney has called the best song ever written, and has had his creations compared favorably with those of such legendary classical composers Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Earlier, Wilson had been interviewed by Jason Fraley of WTOP. Wilson told the reporter that although he hasn’t written any songs for a few years, he has some new ideas which he would like to record soon.

But for now, while new Wilson material would be great, his audience, which spans multiple generations, is quite content to enjoy the hits, the oldest of which would now be qualified to be members of AARP.

Asked why he thinks the Beach Boys and their music have remained so popular, Wilson told Fraley “It’s evergreen. It’s forever”.

And many of his rock contemporaries agree. Here’s a sample of what some of rock’s s best have said about Brian Wilson, his tunes, and his prodigious talent.

Bob Dylan

            Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to the Smithsonian. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.    

Beatles Producer George Martin

            If there is one person that I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson. Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.

David Crosby of CSNY

            Brian was the most highly regarded pop musician in America, hands down. “In My Room” was the defining point for me. When I heard it, I thought “I give up – I can’t do that – I’ll never be able to do that.”

David Gilmour of Pink Floyd

            Even in those very early days of the Beach Boys, songs like “In My Room” and “Don’t Worry Baby” were giving the indication that Brian Wilson wanted to paint with a much more colorful palette than was offered by surf music he was so adapt at. His brilliance leapt from strength to strength over a very short period and, in a little over four years, he mastered the art of songwriting, record production, orchestral arrangements and every form of studio trickery to culminate with the wonderful songs on Pet Sounds.

Tom Petty

            I think I would put him up there with any composer – especially Pet Sounds. I don’t think there’s anything better than that, necessarily. I don’t think you’d be out of line comparing him to Beethoven – to any composer. The word genius is used a lot with Brian. I don’t know if he’s a genius or not, but I know his music is probably as good a music as you can make.

From “California Girls” to “Love and Mercy” Brian’s band was hot.

MGM Set List

  1. California Girls (1965)
  2. Dance, Dance, Dance (1964)
  3. I Get Around (1965)
  4. Shut Down (1963)
  5. Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
  6. Little Honda (1964)
  7. Salt Lake City (1965)
  8. Surfer Girl (1962)
  9. Don’t Worry Baby (1964)
  10. California Saga: California (1973) – written by Al Jardine
  11. Do It Again (1968)
  12. Let Him Run Wild (1965)
  13. Darlin’ (1967)
  14. Heroes and Villains (1967)
  15. Feel Flows* (1971) –written by Carl Wilson
  16. Wild Honey * (1967) 
  17. Sail On, Sailor* (1973)
  18. I Can Hear Music (1969) – Ronettes cover
  19. Wouldn’t It Be Nice (1966)
  20. Sloop John B (1966)
  21. God Only Knows (1966)
  22. Good Vibrations (1967)
  23. Help Me, Rhonda (1965)
  24. Barbara Ann (1965)
  25. Surfin’ USA (1963)
  26. Fun, Fun, Fun (1964)
  27. Love and Mercy (1968)

*Sung by Blondie Chaplain

Notes and Noise from the Show

  • There were many highlights during the night, but my personal concert capstone was the three-song mini-set song by Sonny Chaplain. Chaplain, a South African musician who has toured extensively with the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, also played lead guitar on the three numbers – “Feel Flows,” “Wild Honey” and “Sail On, Sailor.” Chaplain brought both psychedelic guitar effects and an invigorated feel to the show. It was clearly evident that he was enjoying playing with Wilson again, whom he called “the maestro.”
  • When the Beach Boys began, they were known as a family band since Wilson was joined by his two brothers, Carl and Dennis, both of whom are dead. But the family concept is being continued on this tour as Matt Jardine, the son of Beach Boys Al Jardine, who is co-featured on this tour with Wilson, sings high harmony and even some lead vocals.
  •  Wilson was one of the first rock songwriters to use a theremin (a musical instrument with high, outer-space like sounds that is played not by touch, but by running your hands over the instrument to control frequency and volume). It was extremely cool to hear the theremin live on a few songs, especially Wilson’s classic “Good Vibrations”. 
  • Of course, with a catalog as extensive as Wilson’s, not all of his hits can be performed in every show. The one I missed most tonight was “In My Room,” one of the greatest songs about loneliness ever composed.
  • How many artists could close a show with this many super hits in a row – “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barabara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun?”  Well, Brian Wilson can and did.
  • The last song was an extremely poignant, powerful, and, given the current divisiveness in Washington, DC and the country, appropriate “Love and Mercy,” which gave its title to the recent critically acclaimed biographical movie about the head Beach Boy. Wilson played the song alone on his piano, while the other 11 band members joined in on harmony vocals. Here are the first stanzas of Wilson’s moving message we all need to hear in these troubled times:

I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin
Oh the violence that occurs seems like we never win

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

I was lyin’ in my room and the news came on T.V.
A lotta people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

Encore

If you would like to discover more about Wilson and the Beach Boys, you can read my book Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Youth Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation. Come Together contains a relatively in-depth look at two Brian Wilson songs – “The Warmth of the Sun” and “Surfin’ USA”. It can be purchased at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, DC. or by clicking here.