Brian Wilson isn’t just one of the greatest, most innovative songwriters in rock history. The former Beach Boy is also a survivor.
While watching Wilson perform his hits (and some surprising deep cuts) during a concert in Boston four months ago, my mind flashed back to a performance 20 years prior in Los Angeles.
At that time, Wilson was trying to emerge from relative seclusion and had agreed to perform for a small group of scribes attending a music journalism conference. Wilson was to play a few songs at Capitol Records to promote a forthcoming re-release of “Pet Sounds,” but due to an issue with his former Beach Boys collaborator, Mike Love, the album was delayed and the show at Capitol was nixed. But Wilson surprised everyone by agreeing to perform anyway.
Wilson played a five-song set in a Hyatt ballroom during the middle of a weekday afternoon, and LA hipsters like Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson crashed the show.
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There was no rust that day, as Wilson performed in triumphant fashion, singing his teenage symphonies to God.
“That was a difficult time,” Wilson said in an interview last month in Atlantic City. “But I made it through it, thanks to my wife. Due to her and the help of my friends, I was able to get by and beat (the) depression.”
Much of the genius and the craziness of Wilson’s life was depicted in the acclaimed movie “Love & Mercy,” which debuted this summer.
“It’s been an unbelievable life,” Wilson said. “I’ve had more ups and downs than probably anyone.”
The good and the bad
Wilson was physically and emotionally abused by his father, Murray Wilson, and his incredibly creative period with the Beach Boys was an emotional roller coaster. There are the storied bouts with drugs and his sad and lengthy relationship with Dr. Eugene Landy, who was as controlling as his father.
“There was a lot of good and bad, but I thank God that I’m still here,” Wilson said.
Beach Boys fans should do the same. Wilson’s Boston show was transcendent at times.
“Here’s the best song I ever wrote,” Wilson said at the concert, as he launched into “God Only Knows.” (That song, initially the b-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” is arguably the most beautiful number Wilson ever crafted. Pitchfork, a Chicago-based online music magazine, named it the the greatest song of the ’60s.)
“Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around” and a bunch of hits were performed that night, and Wilson surprised fans by dusting off buried sonic treasures like “Wake the World” and “Surf’s Up.”
Having a good time
But Wilson is damaged. He doesn’t say much these days, but his genius remains. His mind and body somehow endured incalculable abuse, and he’s able to render some of the greatest songs of a truly golden era – and at times deliver anecdotes that charm the audience.
“I love music,” Wilson said. “It’s what I was meant to do here.”
Music fans sometimes forget that the Beach Boys – particularly, Wilson’s incredible creativity – pushed the Beatles to great heights.
“We had a friendly competition,” Wilson said. “That was for sure. We tried to top each other. It’s tough to forget what the Beach Boys did.”
Not just tough, but impossible to forget the band’s contributions. The Beach Boys sold more than 100 million albums, and 36 of their songs hit the top 40. When Mike Love tours, he seems to play each of those tunes during his two-hour-plus set. But Wilson, who will perform Thursday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, is another sort of animal. He’ll play the familiar, but it’s not just about the hits. And that pleases the true Beach Boys fans.
“I like to play it all,” Wilson said. “I’m still having a good time.”
Who: Brian Wilson
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3040 or carolinatheatre.org