The other night I went to see “Love & Mercy”, which is a film about the life of Brian Wilson (creative genius behind the Beach Boys), focusing on the years 1962 through 1992. It is well written and acted but, it’s not about the Beach Boys so you don’t have to be a fan of theirs to like the film. It is the story of a sensitive musical genius and his struggles to overcome an abusive childhood and years of mental health issues and drug addiction. It is the best depiction of one person’s creative process that I have ever seen. It is sad and dark at times but, in the end, it is also about the redemptive power of love; one of my favorite themes.
I became an instant Beach Boys fan the moment I heard “Surfer Girl” in the summer of 1963, when I was 12, and they and the Beatles provided the soundtrack of my life for the next couple of decades. I liked other rock n’ roll groups and other types of music but, because their music was so important to my formative years, they will remain a part of who I am forever. I probably drove my parents crazy by playing the same albums over and over but, as much as I loved the Beach Boys music, I didn’t appreciate the timeless genius of it until I was much older. Not so much the lyrics, because most of those are anchored firmly in a certain time and culture but, the music itself and the amazing production arrangements – both Brian’s creations. There are some songs that still bring tears to my eyes, among them “Caroline, No”, a heart breaking song about the loss of innocence, “God Only Knows” one of the most beautiful love songs ever written (both from the classic “Pet Sounds” album) and “Don’t Worry, Baby”, supposedly about a guy’s fears regarding a drag race but, if you listen closely, I think much more is being said between the lines. In addition, Brian’s soaring falsetto will make your heart ache.
By 1965 Brian had grown creatively and wanted to move away from the “cars, girls, beach” formula but he was under constant pressure to keep delivering Top Ten hits so his family (this was a family business – the three Wilson brothers, Brian, Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine) could continue to make money and maintain the band’s popularity. The pop magazines I bought as a teen presented a fluffy, happy, version of the Beach Boys lives – back in the ’60’s we very rarely knew the truth about our celebrities (or our elected officials!). A sanitized version of the reason Brian stopped touring with the group in 1966 was published – the real reasons were darker and more complicated than just a desire to “focus on song writing and production”. I had no idea of Brian’s true story until 1995 when I read “Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys” by Steven Gaines (if you’re interested in reading a well-written portrait of Brian Wilson I recommend “Catch a Wave” by Peter Ames Carlin).
I saw the Beach Boys in concert every year for 10 years – 1971 to 1981 – and every show was a celebration of youth, summer and good times complete with beach balls and frisbees. I saw them for the first time in 1971 with my fiancée in but in 1981 my marriage ended and I went to my last Beach Boys concert at the Providence Civic Center. Over the years I had often wished they would perform more of their new music instead of relying so heavily upon past hits and, for a few years in the early 70’s, they seemed to be doing that but, eventually they went back to the old formula. As a result of that and changes in my own life, I viewed the Beach Boys through a different prism in that last concert. Suddenly the sight of nearly middle-aged men singing “Be True to Your School” and “I Get Around” seemed sad. At the end of the concert Mike Love yelled out “Party in the bar at the Marriott – you’re all invited!” to 22,000 fans. I looked at my friend and said “Could that be real?” and he said “Let’s go and find out!” The bar in the Marriott was packed but, gradually, some of the Beach Boys back up musicians arrived and then, we saw Mike and Carl across the bar from us. My friend went to the bathroom and, as I was sitting alone at the bar, Dennis Wilson came toward me with a man holding each of his arms. He seemed to be drunk and they were apparently helping him to walk out of the bar. Dennis was always my favorite of the Beach Boys and I was thrilled just to be that close to him but, he veered towards me, stopped and said “What’s a pretty lady like you doing all alone?” I was tongue-tied! I think I said “My friend is in the bathroom” or something equally witty. He asked if I had been at the show and I said yes and he thanked me. Then he kissed me on the cheek and he and his escorts continued on their way. (Years later I read “Dumb Angel: the Life and Music of Dennis Wilson” by Adam Webb and learned what a tragically self-destructive person he had been – ironically, the only real surfer in the Beach Boys drowned in 1983 at the age of 39) When my friend came back from the bathroom he was furious that he had missed the whole thing but I told him it never would have happened if I hadn’t been alone. It was a memorable and fitting end to my decade of Beach Boys concerts.
The good news is that all the beautiful music Brian Wilson has created is still available to me any time I want to hear it and he is still creating. He has an almost unfiltered innocence and vulnerability that touches me and his song “Love & Mercy” is wonderful – after all, who can’t relate to the simple need for love & mercy in their lives?
PS/check out the absolutely gorgeous BBC production of “God Only Knows” on YouTube
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