Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pet Sounds at San Diego Fair: Rock's Best Album Comes to Life

The pet sounds you'll hear if you attend the San Diego County Fair on Thursday evening won't be coming from the animal barns at the northeast corner of the expansive oceanfront fairgrounds. They'll be coming from the Grandstand Stage.

Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' mastermind, is in the midst of a tour in honor of the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, the groundbreaking 1966 album featuring such seminal Wilson compositions as Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Sloop John B, Caroline No and God Only Knows

Brian and his current band, which includes fellow original Beach Boy Al Jardine and a longtime Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, will be performing the record in its entirety, along with other Beach Boys classics and a few deep Wilson cuts. Seeing Brian bring this record to life in Southern California, within eyeshot of the beach, is for me the San Diego concert event of 2016.

Greatest Rock Album Ever?

Pet Sounds is now regarded as one of the greatest albums of the rock era. And it may just be my personal favorite. But it didn't get quite so much love when it was first released. Beach Boys fans expecting more of the Fun, Fun, Fun from 1964 were a bit taken aback by the band's more mature direction a year later.

But for anyone who was really paying attention to Brian's musical evolution, this should not have come as a surprise. There were already clear glimpses of Brian's introspective, even melancholy side on such songs as In My Room from as far back as 1963. Even in some of Brian's sunniest compositions, there were scattered clouds.

Pet Sounds found Brian at his creative peak. The world already knew he was a gifted songwriter, but this record was the crowning achievement of this master melody maker's storied career. A record that has aced the test of time, Pet Sounds' creativity and inventiveness are staggering. Sleigh bells, bongos, vibraphones, timpani, g├╝iro, Sparkletts water jugs, empty Coke cans, orange juice jugs and more were used in the songs. It all works.

And the album's stunning centerpiece is God Only Knows, which McCartney has called the greatest song of all time. Written in less than an hour, the song originally included a sax solo that was mercifully scrapped. God Only Knows is nothing less than the perfect pop song, and Brian wisely chose his brother Carl to sing it. Carl's innocent, angelic voice was the perfect vehicle for Brian's longing melody.

While the album produced four successful singles, the public's overall reception to Pet Sounds was lukewarm. It peaked at number 10 on the Billboard chart -- a dud compared to previous top-selling Beach Boy releases. The record label's marketing suits freaked out and insultingly hurried a greatest hits album just two months after Pet Sounds was released.

For some fans, especially the younger ones who loved the Beach Boys but never considered the group as high art, listening to Pet Sounds was jarring. It was not unlike the experience Bob Dylan loyalists must have had a year earlier when the erstwhile folkie released his electrified single Like a Rolling Stone then performed with a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival. 

But both of these legendary artists have always done it their way, and of course both have survived and thrived.

The Life of Brian

Brian Wilson today
Most everyone knows about Brian's tortuous descent into madness. While his monstrous father was alternately pushing him and belittling him, Brian was hearing voices in his head even as he experimented with chord progressions and studied the four-part harmonies of the Four Freshman vocal group.

Armed with great ambition, an obviously innate sense of melody, and a spectator/outsider's curiosity for California subcultures such as surfing and sports cars (he never surfed), Brian, along with brothers Carl and Dennis, family friend Al Jardine and cousin Mike Love, formed what would become arguably the greatest American rock band of all time.

But after the Beach Boys' smashing rock and roll success in the early 1960's, Brian's bandmates, particularly the eternally prickly Love, weren't too enamored of his increasingly inward songs. Pet Sounds, which for all intents and purposes was Brian's first solo record, was his answer to the Beatles Rubber Soul, the acclaimed 1965 record that elevated John Lennon and Paul McCartney to an even loftier level as songwriters.

A casual fan of the Beach Boys might think that Brian's beachy anthems were more influenced by Paul's positive pop than John's darker, more cynical tunes. But Brian was enamored of both. And John's songwriting shined even brighter than McCartney's on Rubber Soul. Arguably John's three finest compositions - Nowhere Man, Norwegian Wood and In My Life - were on that album.

Brian set out to equal if not top the Beatles, which in turn influenced the Beatles to create Sgt. Pepper. Sadly, though, after the cool reception to Pet Sounds, the voices in Brian's head as well as the real voices all around him got louder and drove him into a deeper depression and paranoia.

The dissension in the band that started during the painstaking year-long Pet Sounds sessions exploded with the subsequent Smile album, which was never released (until Brian finished it some 30 years later).

Having his most personal work rejected by his family and to some extent the public crushed Brian, who is too gentle a soul to fight back. He just kept falling deeper into himself. The 2014 film Love and Mercy poignantly chronicles that descent and the Svengali-like control his despicable, disgraced therapist Eugene Landy had over him.

The film also happily shows how Brian's wife Melinda Ledbetter, as well as his brother Carl, moved to get rid of Landy and literally saved Brian, who now seems as emotionally healthy as he has been his entire adult life. This is quite possibly the most amazing mental health recovery in the history of show business.

Seeing Brian smile contently now as he performs his own masterful creations is pure joy. Because of the music, yes, but also because his return from the abyss seemed so unlikely for so long. Brian certainly had help from his loved ones to get his life back, to find himself again, especially from his loving wife. But I think it's fair to conclude that if you can point to one thing that really healed Brian and brought him back from the depths of despair, it was music itself.

Music reminded Brian who he was. It saved him. And I have to be very honest: there have been times in my life where Brian's music has saved me, too. So when he and his bandmates hit the stage at the San Diego County Fair this week, don't be surprised if I'm the one cheering the loudest, and maybe even shedding a tear. It's good to have this American music treasure back where he belongs: on a stage, singing his songs, the greatest pop songs ever written.