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"

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Who knows what discordant music was playing inside Wilson's head after 1967? But what came out was often pitiful. His music, instead of advancing, regressed; the songs became strangely lethargic; they featured a pumping harmonium but very little harmony. The hymns to surf, sun and the internal combustion engine gave way, in Wilson's premature dotage, to songs in honor of vegetables and Johnny Carson ("He sits behind his microphone/ He speaks in such a manly tone"). In the '60s he had written about what Dennis knew; in the '70s he wrote about children, the ones he had sired (Carnie and Wendy) and the one he now was.

"Little Children," a double-step march, describes kids in baby talk: "If the rain comes down/ They put on their coats/ ...If it gets too floody, they get in their boats." The lyrics of "I Wanna Pick You Up" could be sung by a doting dad or a predatory outsider: "I wanna tickle your feet/ Drop you in your little tub/ Wash your body and shampoo your hair/ Be careful not to sting you eyes/ Pat, pat, pat-pat-pat her on her butt, butt/ She's going to sleep, be quiet." (It might even describe a jolly adult relationship of the sadomasochistic stripe.) These bizarre songs, which the listener may find troubling or merely disappointing, are strange choices for the Beach Boys; their naivete was always more adolescent than infantile. The tunes would have been more suited to kids' TV. If Tom Lehrer could write "Silent E" for "The Electric Company," why Couldn't Wilson have written about butt-patting for "Sesame Street"?

At times Wilson wrote about the broken man he had become. In the spooky "'Til I Die" he sings: "I'm a cork on the ocean/ I lost my way, hey hey hey.../ I'm a rock in a landslide/ It kills my soul, hey hey hey.../ These things I'll be until I die." This lusciously orchestrated suicide note must have given his old partners the creeps. Eventually the group split into acrimonious factions. Love fronted a Beach Boys band, Jardine led something called the Beach Band, and lawyers made a nice living off all the bitter litigation. (At the Radio City tribute, Mike and Al were conspicuous by their absence.) By this time — the late '90s — Dennis was dead, from a drowning accident, and so was Carl, from lung cancer. Improbable as it seems, Brian is the last Wilson standing. If there's any evidence that he retains some of his old musical wit, it's that he recently recorded a cover of a Barenaked Ladies song: "Brian Wilson."

So he can hardly be denied kind and grateful words at a New York City concert — even if the praise was fulsome. Host Chazz Palminteri called Brian "the Mozart of pop, the Orson Welles of rock, the George Gershwin of his generation." (Why not just say he was the Jesus Christ of music?) The word "genius" was passed around like a toke at Woodstock. George Martin made it sound as if the Beatles, whose transcendent records he produced, were mere Beach Boys copycats, and "Revolver" a "Pet Sounds" knockoff. Note to young'uns: "Pet Sounds," which came out in 1966, contains three or four indelible songs ("God Only Knows," "Wouldn't It Be Nice"); it is also the most overpraised LP in pop history. Wilson's forte Wasn't concept albums. What he wrote and produced were great singles.

At about 90 minutes (plus commercials), the TNT package contains only about half the Music Hall program, whose centerpiece was a performance, by a dozen or so of the luminous guests, of the entire "Pet Sounds" album. The TV-cast includes only three of these songs. You won't hear Brian's swell duet of the recent "Lay Down Burden" with brother Carl's youngest son Justyn. You'll miss daughters Carnie and Wendy Wilson sing the ballad "You Still Believe in Me" (pretty pretty) or hear Carnie say, when she flubs a line, "Oh fuck it, who cares?" The lyrics to "Sloop John B." — "This is the worst trip I've ever been on" — take on new meaning when sung by Crosby, the Gabby Hayes of acid rock. "I was there in the '60s too," Crosby said, with either pride or regret, "and I have only 18 brain cells left."

Take our word for it: the music sounded wonderful live, fuller and more authentic than on the small screen. Ace producer Phil Ramone, the Pope of Pop, proved, with the opening medley of "California Girls" and "Help Me, Rhonda" (even as sung, with little feeling or skill, by Ricky Martin), that Wilson's studio sorcery could be duplicated. Gill, the guest with the cleanest chops, did justice to "The Warmth of the Sun." Crosby, Simon and Webb made creditable work of "In My Room." And the reproduction of "Good Vibrations," sung by Sykes, Heart and the Harlem Choir, gave the audience a musical blood transfusion.

Halfway through, Brian entered, in that blissfully dazed state he's dwelled in for much of the past 30 years. He called out, "I'm glad you all drove on down here!" to an audience that had arrived, most of them, by subway or limo. (Did he know where he was?) He sang his music, in fair voice, accompanied by clunky Hawaiian hand gestures, as if he were an octogenarian following an exercise tape. It was a poignant spectacle for those of us who were touched by Brian's songs when we were nearly as young as he — and still are, when we are nearly as old. Bless him for still having a life, or a half-life. We hope he enjoyed being joined by the all-stars for a singalong of three airy anthems from the days of innocence: "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun." Joel, John and Simon shouted harmony into one mike; then Joel and John did the Twist and rubbed butts. A voice in the dark cried out, "We love you, Brian!" and Wilson answered, in affable befuddlement, "We love you too, whoever you are."

We love you too, Brian, whoever and wherever you are.

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