The term "genius" is overused, especially in pop music, where people often confuse the ability to market and sell with inspiration and invention. Brian Wilson is one of the few rock legends to deserve the genius designation. I have listened to the Beach Boys as much as any band, and the songs still slay me. Just the other day I was listening to the final minute of "God Only Knows" (my favorite 60 seconds in the whole world) and was reduced to tears. And I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit that.
When Brian Wilson did a special "Pet Sounds" tour in 2000, I jumped at the chance to see him at a tour stop in Milwaukee. It ended up being the most depressing concert I have ever seen (and I've seen Korn, Sugar Ray, Jason Mraz and Jonny Lang, among other crapholes). It wasn't that Wilson was a bad performer (though he was, in an almost amateurish way). What bothered me was how reluctant he seemed on stage. Notoriously averse to live performing, Wilson seemed to be going along with what his handlers wanted him to do, just as he had done when he was a young man. It crushed me to see this sad man, an incredible talent whose angelic voice was now destroyed, still unable to find inner peace.
The years since suggest that I, thankfully, might have been wrong. Wilson's "Smile" album from 2004 was incredibly good. And he continues to perform to enthusiastic audience. But I stand by my review posted below. It was painful for me to write, but it came from a place of genuine admiration for one of my biggest heroes.
The Milwaukee chapter of Brian Wilson's support group commenced at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Riverside Theater as the man himself padded on stage.
"Thank you. Thanks folks. Thanks for coming out tonight," he said to a mostly empty house. There's not many of you but that's how I like it."
You've probably heard of Brian the Genius, the mad adolescent behind some of the most life-affirming and introspective pop music in rock history. The man who supposedly could hear entire teen symphonies to God in his head. That wasn't the Brian Wilson on stage Wednesday night. Brian the Genius shattered like Humpty Dumpty in the late 1960s after years of physical and emotional beatings from his father, his family, his band, his record company and his fans, all of whom have tried to put him back together again for more than 30 years.
Hence this current concert tour starring Brian the Rock Casualty. The tour is motivated not by a new album but by Brian's ability to stay alive all these years. After all he's been through, he gets applauded for leaving his bedroom. You'll never encounter an audience like Brian's at any rock show.
No one yells for favorite songs. No one screams or drinks too much beer. No one even whistles. It's just "We love you, Brian," or "Good for you, Brian," or some other feel-good platitude. Maybe with enough encouragement, the thinking goes, our hero can get well again. He reminded me of a turtle up on the stage, a frail little being protected by the huge sounding 10-piece band that surrounded him. The people in the cheap seats could hardly see Brian at all, just his head peaking out from behind the expensive-looking Yamaha piano he didn't touch once during his two-hour concert.
His stage patter was forced and sounded canned ("This next one was recorded by the Beach Boys in 1964..."). He avoided any eye contact, fixing his eyes instead on an imaginary point above the audience. Maybe he was staring at his wife, or like an animal, at one of his trainers telling him to sing, smile or clap.
His once angelic voice is absolutely shot after years of drug abuse, so his band takes care of the high parts. Brian, in fact, hardly sings at all. He just sits up there, slumped in his chair, in front of his band but not leading it.
I wasn't expecting anything musically great when I bought my Brian Wilson concert ticket. I was there because I felt I owed him. Brian's best music has given me hours of happiness and solace, so the least I could do was sit and applaud him for two measly hours. If I wasn't expecting musical perfection or even competence, I was looking for some sense of triumph on Brian's face, some look that would say, "For tonight at least, I've conquered my demons."
Instead, Brian had that now-familiar look of stone-faced awkwardness mixed with fear and defeat. He didn't appear to be enjoying himself at all. I'm convinced he is on tour because that is what people want him to do, and he isn't strong enough to fight for what he really wants anymore. I looked around to see if I was alone in my sinking feeling of depression. The audience, it seemed, was oblivious to what was on stage. They danced to the hits, they sang along to "Pet Sounds" and they shouted their words of encouragement. The band also seemed to be having a great time, playing perfect versions of all those golden oldies. It was clear that they, like the audience, loved Brian's music and loved being in his clouded presence.
But as I looked at Brian and his small unblinking eyes, I couldn't believe that he really wanted to be there. What incentive does he have to tour? Why does rock's most famous case of stage fright, a man who has shunned the stage for 35 years, suddenly decide to go out on the road? How can an artist once obsessed with studio perfection bear to hear his best creations massacred by his own voice?
Flashes of brilliance came out during a trio of Brian's most personal songs, "In My Room," "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" and "Caroline, No." Brian somehow hit the notes he missed all night, and he seemed to come out of his fog a little. Tellingly, all three songs are about isolation and the loss of innocence. When he sang "It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die," I had no doubt Bruce Johnston was right when he said "Caroline, No" was about Brian, not some old high school flame. I don't claim to know what goes on in Brian Wilson's head. Maybe he had a great time Wednesday night. Maybe it was a healthy experience for him. But I don't think so.
I think he was out there for those people who want him to be the Brian Wilson he'll never be again. "A genius musician but an amateur human being" is how Tony Asher once described Brian Wilson. Maybe if people stop expecting him to be a genius, Brian Wilson can be a better, happier human being.