Imagination

The phrase “Brian Wilson is a musical genius” has been part of our vocabulary for better than 40 years. A tow-headed surf rat, I was eight years old when I first heard Surfin’ USA. My contention is I’ve never been the same. Those who know me well argue nothing has changed.

                                                                                            

In 1977 Brian emerged from hibernation to produce 15 Big Ones with the Beach Boys, the band he formed in 1961 with his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. Legendary stories of his reclusive behavior and fragile mental state ran amuck: he had a sandbox built in his living room, surrounding his piano; he remained in bed for more than a year, after consuming Lennon-like quantities of lysergic acid; he listened exclusively to Phil Spector’s production of Be My Baby on his home jukebox for months at a time. Incredible stories, and most of them absolutely true.


Now for the first time since 1964 he would take to the road with his band. Jim Schwartz (my close friend and musical partner) and my closest friend Mark Gardner accompanied me in an overnight freezing vigil to score first row seats for this historic occasion. Brian, we were informed, was back! It is excruciatingly accurate to note I was obsessed with the study of his production techniques, and sophisticated arrangements for voice and instrument.


On the evening of the show, we arrived early and well lubricated. Mark and I had altered our consciousness in the manner suggested by society of that time, and we could barely sit still, bouncing on the front row, shivering with anticipation.


   I should have known I would have to find a toilet, as my bladder is evidently both the size and shape of a lima bean, so I trekked off to the loo. Up on the first level of  Atlanta’s Omni, I osmoregulated, exited the deserted public urinal, and turned to the right. There before me stood a behemoth of a man: bearded, clad in a dark blue terry-cloth bathrobe, timorous eyes sunk deep in a fleshy face. I froze in shock, convinced I was in the grips of a flashback hallucination - something I still ponder. Clawing deep in a pocket for my ticket stub, I approached him in awe. Awash in terror, he began to back away, no doubt convinced I was about to pull a weapon. I held out the ticket and a pen that appeared miraculously.   


Brian looked at the ticket, then back at me.                       




Looked at the ticket, looked at me.                                   


Looked at the ticket, looked at me.


Time stood still.


What do you want me to do?” he entreated.


I was taken aback. “...Would you sign it?


There was a beat, then another. “OK,” he quavered, clearly on the verge of some sort of seizure.


I floated back to my seat and told my unbelieving friends. The Boys opened with California Girls. California eff-ing Girls!! Almost any other band on the planet would save that for the third encore. An unforgettable show, specifically because the architect of the magic was once more on stage - even if it was obvious he was light years from comfortable.


The ticket incident nagged at me, until eleven years later I tracked down his first solo Brian Wilson disc: the voice was battered and weathered, but immensely stronger than that which I had heard on stage a decade before. And he still could troll through my emotions, with songwriting gems like Melt Away and Love and Mercy.

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Certainly we all are older; some of us wiser, some of us gone. Yet, somehow, against all reason, Brian is still here: the last brother standing. Listen to Your Imagination, the title track from his 1998 release. (I always wondered about the similarities between this cover and a scene near the end of  the film Contact, from Carl Sagan’s numinous novel.) From one perspective Your Imagination is a rewrite of the transcendent Love and Mercy from Brian’s eponymous solo effort. The big difference is there are sixty four individual Brian Wilson vocals, eight separate parts reinforced eight times each, including the elusive ‘ahh-oom-dot-didit’ (a refugee from This Whole World on Sunflower) hiding in the tag.


I was fortunate enough to snag tickets for his first tour - the LA psycho-pop band Wondermints brilliantly backing him, in what would become a full time position - at Boston Symphony Hall in 1999. To gaze in giddy awe, my ears lifted like those of puppies, as he painted the eight part harmony that graces Imagination; to unexpectedly burst into tears when the introductory film flashed images of brother Carl, who had succumbed to cancer just months before; and again when the sound system transported me with the a cappella version of Wouldn’t it Be Nice, finally available in the Pet Sounds Box. They opened with the overlooked gem the Little Girl I Once Knew: sonically you can go back in time and hear this begin the musical evolution that arcs though Here Today from Pet Sounds, and resolve with Good Vibrations. There was a time when I thought my chances of hearing him sing God Only Knows were slim and none at all: that I have been proved wrong enriches my life beyond measure.


    Another car running fast, Another song on the beach

           

        I take as trip through the past when summer’s way outa reach.


            Another walk in the park when I need something to do


                And when I feel all alone, sometimes I think about you.....


                    Take my hand, smile and say - you don’t understand


Mozart has been called The Brian Wilson of his time. More appropriately, Brian has been called the first poet of loneliness. It should be no surprise his still-unreleased album is entitled Adult Child: there is a palpable innocence to his music, shining
through the sometimes world-weary lyrics. In his numinous Til I Die:


I’m a cork on the ocean, floating over the raging sea.


        How deep is the ocean?


            How deep is the ocean?  I lost my way.....


                These things I’ll be until I die.                               


Do yourself a favor: as wonderful as the version of this on Surf’s Up is, check out the soundtrack to Endless Harmony. The extended mix (courtesy of engineer Stephen Desper) is mesmerizing!


The music is as - or more - profound as the lyrics. Says Brian: “I was sitting at the piano, putting chords together from one hand position, and it just sorta came out.” But - he has one of the sharpest dead-pan wits around, and often you don’t know when you’re being taken for a ride.


When it’s this much fun - who cares?  Start your engines!



(Brian: onstage Atlanta 1977) ^