Brian Wilson was at the Hollywood Bowl tonight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album. It’s good to be reminded that that masterpiece came out the year before the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, which is usually considered the landmark inaugurating the period of “art rock.” Brian Wilson himself looked physically exhausted, but the band was in fine form and the songs all sounded great.
The only acknowledgment, in the concert proper, of America’s current trauma was that the flags flanking the stage – the U.S. on the left, the California Republic on the right – were at half-staff. But it was hard not to be reminded that the Beach Boys sound was as countercultural – and therefore welcome – back in its era as it is now. Pet Sounds came out between the Watts riots in ’65 and the Chicago riot in ’68. Then as now, we needed voices that would avoid losing their cool; that would call us back to innocence — which, thank God, has been, in American history, a renewable resource. Listening to songs like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” reminds us of the cultural attitudes of a huge silent majority of sensible folks out there: the kind of people who think it’s wrong for innocent blacks to be shot, but are horrified by the shooting of cops; the kind of people who defend the cops, but are horrified by the shooting of innocent blacks. Go to some news-aggregator websites, and you would not know that such folks are in fact the majority. But they are.
As I said above, no political connections of this sort were made, explicitly, during the concert proper. The classic songs made their point by being nothing but themselves: beautiful expressions of love and longing; appreciations of women, nature, and Southern California generally; reminders of the ordinary joys and sadnesses that take place in the context of ordinary happy lives. But after the concert proper, there was a remarkable half-hour encore in which the band did a medley of pretty much all the Beach Boys hits they hadn’t already done. The culmination of this encore was a gorgeous performance of “Love and Mercy” in which Wilson replaced a central lyric with:
People are being shot out there
And we’re scared as hell
The audience cheered loud and long, as if relieved that what had been implicit all evening was finally out there in the open: that America is better than recent events would suggest, and will resist the efforts of a handful of angry people to make that a new normal for our country.
PS. In addition to the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, I was celebrating a very personal anniversary. It was one year ago Saturday that I arrived in Los Angeles to become a resident of California, after spending basically all my first 51 years on the East Coast. I am a temperamentally conservative person, one not given to drastic changes, and I had no reason to expect that this new life would work out as well as it has. So I am immensely grateful for everything, and all the help I have received in making this change happen.
The songs of the Beach Boys were the “internal soundtrack” of my move to California, and it was delightful to hear them performed live in SoCal, just a few miles north of where Brian Wilson grew up.