There was Brian Wilson video live broadcast on WXPN, a radio station from Philadelphia I stream at work. They played about 45 minutes, mostly Beach Boys hits, a few songs from his not-very-good new duets album. Brian sits at his piano, mostly still from the waist up like an Irish step dancer, mostly with a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. He occasionally does weird things with his hands and engates in akward, clearly-recycled stage banter. His voice at this point is (again, mostly) a low growl. His young band handles the high vocal parts and the instruments. Brian doesn’t even seem to play much piano himself.
It was great: this is Brian Wilson, I kept thinking, the Brian Wilson, singing these great songs, clearly enjoying them in his fashion, and why shouldn’t he? They’re still awesome. But it was also creepy: why does he seem so hollowed out? Is he still medicated? There’s gotta be more going on in there, why can’t he communicate it except through somewhat wooden renditions of these awesome songs?
I saw Brian live about 10 years, when he was touring behind the finally-finished “Smile,” and it was exactly the same mix of wonder/creepiness. I wondered how he could not have recovered any more in those 10 years from the damage he did to himself in the 30 before. And what damage did he exactly do?
“This is a song from my movie. They made a movie about me,” he said, then launched into this song. It’s a beautiful song, with an instantly-memorable melody and simple but-not-dopey lyrics (always a risk with Brian)–lyrics that speak the language of “eternal naivette” of great art, the belief that no one has said this before and so it’s up to you. (Usually you’re wrong but it’s your belief that makes it work.) The singer goes to an unnecessarily violent movie; watches bad news on TV; hangs out in a bar and notices the loneliness of so many people in the room. Nothing earth-shaking, just the usual moments of sadness that stud the life of anyone who looks outward even a little bit.
His answer? “Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight.” Which of course is true, and worth saying even if we’ve heard it before. “So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight,” he continues, a benediction but also a command. Charity, community begins at home. Treat the people around you nicely and let it ripple out. Start tonight. The bridge of the song is a freefall through harmonizing voices, wordless, a chance to think about the profundity of what the singer has offered.
In a better world, I’d be able to say that Brian transcended himself as he sang the song, that every vestige of creepiness melted away. It didn’t. But sitting at my desk surreptitiously watching this while I should have been working, I was moved. I guess a lot of it is what you bring to it, how badly you want a real-life happy ending for the people whose art has given you so much pleasure.
The trailer for the movie Brian mentioned, which is also called “Love and Mercy,” looks pretty good. Brian Wilson, John Cusack, “God Only Knows:” what could go wrong?
(BTW, “eternal naivette” courtesy of Martin Amis quoting Saul Bellow in a recent New York Times Book Review.)