That Old Feeling: Brian's Songs

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Elton John and Brian Wilson in TNT's "An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson"

Well I'm lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.
And if you want to find me, I'll be out in the sandbox
Wondering where the hell all the love has gone,
Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun
And singing 'Fun, Fun, Fun.'

—Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies, 1992

Let's play the "25" game. Think of any classic rock-pop star or composer of the '50s or '60s. Divide his career (or hers — but who are we kidding? the form was almost exclusively a guy thing) into two categories: everything he created or performed by the time he was 25 years old, and everything he did afterward. You can take only the early work or the mature music to a desert island that, funnily enough, has a Discman and a lifetime supply of batteries. Now choose which category you prefer.

In almost every case, from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to Phil Spector and the Brill Building songwriters, the Beatles, Stones, Dylan... I'd pick the early years. Then, as now, rock was a young man's game, passion, art. In their relative infancy, people accomplished amazing musical feats, stuff that still thrills. It was harder for them to improve on, or even equal, the sounds they heard in their heads, and sang when they were too young to vote.

You might, for example, have wanted Brian Wilson to keep refining the miraculous music he put together for the Beach Boys. At 25, in the summer of 1967, he had already defined the group's indelible sound, created 16 Top 40 hits for his band and more for Jan & Dean ("Surf City," "Dead Man's Curve") and the Hondels ("Little Honda"). Quickly maturing, he masterminded the superb studio album "Pet Sounds" and dreamed up a "pocket symphony," the all-time fab "Good Vibrations." These were beautifully crafted, emotionally pure tunes — songs so infectious that they have become the year-round soundtrack of summer, as someone says in an impressive and melancholy TV tribute that airs July 4th on TNT. In his first five years as a producer-composer-singer, Wilson had done so much and, as a restless artist, seemed poised to achieve much more.

But something in Wilson kept him from keeping on. Perhaps it was that implicit compact that those who win early success make with the gods and demons of pop music. Or, letting our poetic license expire for a moment, we can see Wilson's late-'60s collapse as a residue of a troubled childhood: nearly deaf in one ear, he is said to have been abused physically and emotionally by his father Murray. (This relationship has earned the special notoriety of an Internet cartoon: Peter Bagge's "Murray Wilson: Rock & Roll Dad" series on In 1964, Brian suffered a nervous breakdown and retired from touring with the group. In the '70s and '80s he relinquished reality, doubled his weight (to 340 pounds), fell under the sway of a psychiatric guru (to whom he gave co-authorship credit on songs for his 1988 solo album) and entered a second, less troubled childhood, "out in the sandbox." He seemed just one more pathetic example of how, for the most promising popsters, 25 is a dead man's curve.

The melancholy fact is that no singer-songwriter of the rock era has had a career like the one Richard Rodgers or Irving Berlin or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer had in pre-'50s pop music. Of course, there were differences from the Depression generation to the Love Generation. Maybe everything was different. Most songwriters weren't professional performers; they were craftsmen, not idols. They didn't have to tour. Surely they had admirers, but the word groupie hadn't been invented. The drug scene for songwriters was pretty much limited to Martinis and Chesterfields. Whether they were Lower East Side Jews like Berlin or Indiana Wasps like Porter, they acquired the manners of the time: a veneer of sophistication, or the real thing. They appeared to be "nice."

In the rock era — when aggressive sex replaced reflective romance as the main product to be sold — manners became about as hip as bow ties; the bad-boy pose was so much hotter. Destruction and self-destruction came into fashion. You weren't a rock star if you hadn't been arrested or shot, or in a plane or motorcycle crash. And nothing will cut down on a singer-songwriter's productivity like a fatal heroin overdose. Then again, nothing is more likely to guarantee his membership in the Burn-Out or Flame-Out Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. There's one other perk to early death: it saves the artist from the toothless indignity of a Geezer-ama oldies tour.

Next Wednesday, at 8 P.M. Eastern and Pacific times on the TNT network, Wilson gets the best kind of memorial: a wake where the loved one is still alive, gets to hear all the nice things people say about him, and even sing along. "An All- Star Tribute to Brian Wilson," which was taped at a Radio City Music Hall concert in March, has contributions by David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Vince Gill, the Go-Gos, Heart, Dennis Hopper, Billy Joel, Aimee Mann, George Martin, Ricky Martin, Michael Penn, Darius Rucker, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Matthew Sweet, Metropolitan Opera baritone Jubilant Sykes, Jimmy Webb and Wilson Phillips — Brian's kids Carnie and Wendy, along with John Phillips' daughter Chynna. It's one "all-star tribute" where nearly all the stars really are all-stars.

It airs just as Wilson — so far away from his early eminence, so long cocooned in a drug haze and blinkered by schizophrenia, so averse to public performance — is embarking on a summer tour. He has teamed with Paul Simon, one of the few rock- era songwriters to mature as he aged, for a double blast of complex musicianship and high harmony. This coming week the Wilson-Simon caravan plays four heartland venues with names (Tinley Park, Ill., Maryland Heights, Mo., Clarkston, Mich., Noblesville, Ind.) that might come from a Disney theme park, or a David Lynch TV series. They could also be Midwestern stand-ins for the cozy Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, where Wilson grew up, and formed the Beach Boys.

Brian, you see, didn't fit the rock-Rimbaud mold. For all his rock-star-type travails, he was defiantly middle-class suburban: a lawn-and-pool California guy. He didn't radiate sulfur — more suntan lotion or talc. He had the pleasant, pre-sexual features of an altar boy or paper boy. He preferred the mellow vocal stylings of the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los to that rowdy rock 'n roll; it was brother Dennis who loved Chuck Berry guitar riffs. Though Brian would gain fame as the pop poet of fast cars and wild surf, he was no aficionado of either; Dennis was the surfer too. In 1961, when he formed the Beach Boys with Dennis and brother Carl, cousin Mike Love and high-school friend Al Jardine, the guys dressed in the striped short-sleeved shirts of the Kingston Trio, another mild vocal group Brian admired. Mike's pinched, adenoidal tenor gave a little bite to the verses of their songs, but they were defined by Brian's angelic falsetto on the choruses. An anachronistic compliment comes to mind: "sweet."

The Boys' elaborate, potent harmonies and Cub Scout sentiments ("Be True to Your School," "When I Grow Up to Be a Man") underlined the exuberant innocence of Brian's enterprise. As the Kennedy years soured into the Vietnam era, the songs retained their sunniness. They sang not of arms and the man but of Huarachi sandals and miniature golf. Even the introspective ballads were rendered harmless by some piercingly inane lyrics: "There's a world where I can go and/ Tell my secrets to" ("In My Room"); "So I say from me to you" ("Surfer Girl"). Brian might adapt Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" into "Surfin' U.S.A."; a few Beach Boys songs placed as high on the R&B as on the pop charts. But this was the most conservative cool group around — so white they were almost albino.

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