I’m a fan of the early work of Brian Wilson, in particular the 1966 recording “Pet Sounds,” and I say why in my book about Brian and the album: “‘Pet Sounds’ (is) a miraculous and often painful expression of a young man’s desire to find love, acceptance and tranquility, an expression infused with a sense of dread that a place where such things are available in abundance does not exist.” Brian, I added, made his statement “honestly, without hyperbole, through the harmonic structure of his compositions, his wonderfully peculiar arrangements, the luscious vocals and the words he and (Tony) Asher crafted.”
That may explain why I was so disappointed last Saturday by Brian’s performance of “Pet Sounds” at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. Rather than a 50th anniversary celebration of what I contend is the greatest album of its era, the program devolved into a flat, lifeless show that failed to even remotely approach the recording’s magic. You would think that the divine music of “Pet Sounds” would prevent a lackluster reading with Brian onstage, but it could not.
The problems were many, foremost among them is that Brian has shuffled the lineup of his band. Not on this tour is Darien Sahanaja, who was so essential to Brian’s 21st century return to prominence, particularly the completion and release of the “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” album after 48 years in stasis. Also missing is Jeffrey Foskett, long a Brian Wilson associate and late-era Beach Boy who sang Brian’s high parts on stage when his voice faltered. The current Brian Wilson band includes many musicians who have been with him since his comeback and appear on the 2002 album “Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live,” but at Chicago’s Union Park, the ensemble sounded less crisp than in earlier shows I’ve witnessed.
Perhaps their lack of energy came as a response to Brian, who seemed at best disengaged: The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot referred to him as a “bystander” during the show. He sang infrequently, at least as compared to recent years past, and not well. Seated behind a piano, he read the lyrics from a prompter or simply looked away, scratching at the side of his face as another vocalist took on his part. It seemed as if he would rather have been elsewhere.
I’ll grant that I was overly invested in Brian’s performance. I root for him and not only because he’s made life-changing and life-affirming music. I’ve visited him at home several times on assignment for The Wall Street Journal, and he and his wife Melinda have greeted me warmly. Though he is 11 years older than me, I feel protective toward him; at times, there is something childlike about him, and I have an outsider’s sense of what he went through at the hands of his abusive father Murry and vile psychotherapist Eugene Landy, both of whom got off easy in the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy,” believe me.
I last met with Brian in early March at the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood. It was the morning after producer George Martin died; he was distraught and not of a mind for an interview. I understood completely. As the Beatles’ producer and frequent arranger, Martin was one of the rare musicians who could comprehend what Brian had achieved as the Beach Boys’ composer, arranger, producer and visionary. Martin once said, “In Brian's case, he was all things, wasn't he? I was just the arranger and producer of all the great material that was coming from John and Paul. But Brian filled every role…He thought of the stuff in the first place, the way it should be treated, thought up the sound, thought of the contrapuntal devices that should be used, particularly in the vocal work. I don't know anybody else who compares to him in that respect.”
At the Pitchfork Music Festival, there were many “Pet Sounds” fans in the crowd, a great number of whom weren’t alive in 1966. Eager for a memorable experience – perhaps they had never seen Brian Wilson in concert – they flew flags and wore branded baseball caps and T-shirts that marked the album’s 50th anniversary. I shared their sense of anticipation. I expected that Brian and his group would perform “Pet Sounds” with the kind of precision and urgency that reveal how vital the album remains all these decades later.
But it wasn’t to be. As the show wore on, the crowd’s enthusiasm waned, as did mine. There was grumbling about the sound: too low and not dynamic. But the main problem wasn’t technical. The performance was below standard. It failed to honor an exceptional artist and a legendary work.
As a fan, I dread the thought that Brian is somehow playing out the string – that he and his team may be content in the knowledge that he can draw a crowd because he was behind joyous, long-ago music that uplifts mood and spirit almost instantly. That’s fine when his band plays pap like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” or “Barbara Ann.” But “Pet Sounds” deserves much more than to be consigned to part of an oldies show. And it deserves to be performed with vigor and pride, and on Saturday night in Chicago, it wasn’t.
(To purchase a copy of Jim’s “Pet Sounds” book, please click here or order it from your favorite independent bookstore.)