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A Cork, a Rock, a Leaf: Hearing Life Through Brian Wilson

Bwnow_3Fans have turned out for Brian's concert tours in recent years to pay tribute to his iconic stature and to witness the valedictory public gestures of one of rock music's most unlikely survivors.  These events are actually very curious affairs, juxtaposing splendid playing and great songs with the odd sight of the sixty-something-year-old man at center stage, sitting at a piano he doesn't play, singing awkwardly and strenuously with help from a teleprompter, sometimes gesturing inscrutably with his hands.  The thousands of adoring fans clapping and dancing in the audience, however, see nothing at all unusual.  They've found their bliss because they're actually hearing something different, something more poignant and more personal.  They're hearing the songs the way they remember them, at summer camp during their awkward years, or at a party in high school, or while singing along with a car radio on a cross-country family road trip.  They're hearing history in each note that comes out of Brian's mouth, an awareness of what he's been through since he first sang that note, and what they've been through since they first heard it.  They're hearing a voice they identify now, colored with overtones of a voice they identified with then.  They're hearing the voices of Dennis and Carl, and remembering the voices of their own departed loved ones.  They're thinking of the web of tumultuous journeys that somehow reached that moment of convergence on that miraculous day.  As the concert winds to a close, Brian's final plea for "Love and Mercy" is not only granted but embraced, effusively and unconditionally.  He accepts the affections with the grace and humility of am unwilling hero, "just a hard-working guy," as he once said.  He helps us see that what we all really want out of life is as accessible as it is profound, that a little love and mercy can go a long way.  (Philip Lambert, in Inside the Music of Brian Wilson: The Songs, Sounds, and Influences of the Beach Boys' Founding Genius)

When I was 14 or 15, I used to sit in my room and listen to the then black vinyl 33 1/3 rpm recordings of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.  While I had heard the surfing, car, and girl songs from childhood (I had older sisters), I never truly connected with the music until the 1971 release of Surf's Up, with its cover art (and Brother Records) logo depicting a stooped rider on horseback, a melancholy juxtaposition with the traditionally effervescent Southern California music.  I was perilously deep in adolescence, trying to understand my place in things, wondering if I'd ever have and keep a girlfriend, all the usual concerns of adolescent boys, and so the not so happy music of Surf's Up spoke to me, especially one particularly morose but beautiful song called "Til I Die," a Brian Wilson compilation that, yes, had the ocean in it but no girls, cars, or surfing.  There was a beautiful sadness to the words, Brian singing over and over again in multi-layered vocals

Surfsup_5I'm a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
I lost my way

I'm a rock in a landslide
Rolling over the mountainside
How deep is the valley?
It kills my soul

I'm a leaf on a windy day
Pretty soon I'll be blown away
How long will the wind blow?

Until I die.

Those words seemed to fit perfectly with the sad horseman on the cover and the caked and dried up lake bed pictured in the inner sleeve.  And they described how I felt at times and, no doubt, how many teenagers still feel at times.  At 15, some days time seemed to stand still, and I'd say "how long?" like the Psalmist at times, and other times fleeting moments of pure joy seemed to rush past.

From Surf's Up I began to work my way back, discovering the sunnier and beautiful Sunflower release of 1970, and then further back into albums released in my tween years and unknown to me, like Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, and 20/20.  I became aware of the mythical lost album, Smile, and sought out bootlegs and various interpretations of its rise and demise.  In that process, I felt like I came to know Brian Wilson, to see his genius and yet the deadening effects of his abusive father and the strength sapping effects of alcohol, drugs, and record labels who cared only about not messing with the formula for success.  There were years of inactivity, of sad and uninspired Beach Boys albums, and then occasional bursts of creative activity, only to see Brian succumb again to some new difficulty.  Only in the last decade has he reached a more stable, productive, and contented position in life.  And I'm amazed.  The first time I saw him in concert I was astounded that he could even walk onto the stage and face an audience.  And as I've seen him five or six times over the last few years, I've watched him relax, enjoy himself, and look more and more normal, that is, less scared.

You might say he's iconic for many fans, including me.  There's a lot I don't mean by this.  I don't mean he's the best performer, musician, or singer I've ever heard.  I don't mean I idolize him or worship the ground he walks on.  I've met him several times and yet never ask for his autograph (which he would willingly give) because I care nothing for it and it seems an indignity to even ask for it.  What I do mean is what Philip Lambert says in the quote above.  Essentially, seeing Brian Wilson I see my life.  I see grace at work.  Given the way Brian treated his body, he should be dead.  In fact, his two brothers and his parents are dead.  Or he could be in a mental institution, suffering his own personal demons.  I look through him to points in my life that were turning points, hinges on which my destiny swung, and I know that my life could at many points have taken a different trajectory, skidding off the road, floundering in a back alley somewhere.  That it didn't is by God's grace.

So when I go to a Brian Wilson concert, I see myself, and then I see more of God.  My overwhelming feeling is of gratitude --- that I'm alive, that Brian's alive, that I'm not a cork floating on an angry sea, a rock careening down a mountainside, a leaf blown here and there by a random wind.  Even when he's awkward, saying mildly inappropriate things, gesticulating oddly, and so on, I'm only reminded of my own awkwardness, my lack of social grace, and my discomfort in certain settings.  In some ways, I'm still an awkward kid, and so is he.

When my partner Tony and I produced Making God Smile: An Independent Artists' Tribute to the Songs of Beach Boy Brian Wilson back in 2002, we released it on his 60th birthday, a present to him.  I was amazed at the love for the man, all the artists contributing their songs, writing about him as one who they appreciated and felt an affinity with.  It would embarrass him to read all that, to know how these younger musicians felt about him when he had never met them.  For many of them, his music formed a large part of the soundtrack for their lives.  Mine too.

I don't know how many concerts Brian has left in him, but I'll catch as many as I am able, riding a wave of emotion right on through that final song, like an altar call, when he sings "love and mercy/that's all we need tonight," and we say Amen.  And when the lights go down for the last time, I'll miss him, and yet I can hope that, after a time, we'll all see him and hear him again, no longer a cork, or a rock, or a leaf, but a whole man, restored, recreated. 

Surf's Up, Brian.