I was there in the 1990s when lead Beach Boy Brian Wilson made his return to live performance at the Norris Performing Arts Centre in St. Charles, Illinois. Wilson chose the venue because he had purchased a home and built a studio in St. Charles. His producer lived in the area and Brian had begun making great music again.
People did not know what to expect when Wilson came on stage. He had not sung in public for years. The Beach Boys were not joining him on stage. At least not all of them.
Brian fared well in a nervous debut. His voice was thinning and his speech somewhat slurred, but the performance came off wonderfully. It was rather like watching a dream come to life.
The experience made me think back to a concert that friends and I attended in the 1970s. We tripped on down to Chicago Stadium to see the group Chicago perform with the Beach Boys in attendance. The two groups had recorded a song titled “Wishing You Were Here” that climbed the charts and for good reason. It was one of the most lush and wonderful pop music ballad productions ever recorded.
The Beach Boys were, after all, one of the finest harmonically tuned instruments of all time. Perhaps it was the brotherly connection of those voices. But they also worked hard at what they did.
Heading into the concert I tried to explain to my friends that what we would likely hear were the hits they Beach Boys had recorded. “But they won’t play their best music,” I insisted. As expected, the concert was dominated by songs about girls and cars and surfing. Missing were the amazing pieces from Smiley Smile and Wild Honey albums, to name just a few.
But my brothers and I had long listened to Beach Boys albums that were full of more nuanced and complex music. The Beach Boys had, through combination of shifts in 70s musical tastes and their own internal changes wrought by Brian’s struggles with emotional stability, gone through the music industry wringer.
Yet those who knew the musical quality of the band, and that included mega-groups such as Chicago and the Beatles, all knew the Beach Boys were master talents beyond their surf music.
My friends laughed at me standing up for their supposedly “lesser” music. “Why can’t you just enjoy their hits and leave it alone?” they teased.
And I thought to myself, because that’s not their best stuff!
Now there’s a movie coming out about the life of Brian Wilson. It’s titled Love and Mercy. It stars John Cusack, and in recent radio interviews Cusack has advanced the belief that Wilson is one of the most talented musical composers of our time. Combined with his ethereal voice, his music cuts into line along with songwriters such Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.
For those of us that have stuck by the Beach Boys and especially Brian Wilson through thick and thin (and there have been some thin moments in their history) it is perhaps gratifying to see recognition coming from new angles.
It is hard to describe the feelings one gets from the singing of God Only Knows. The song is so perfectly crafted and the voices are transcendent. Just enjoy.