The whole trip had been my idea, but it hadn’t been hard to sell. We drove 200 miles from Charleston, West Virginia to Roanoke, Virginia last weekend to see Brian Wilson in concert. We were lucky to have all our schedules open for the date, but it happened and so my wife, my two adult sons and I jumped into one car on Saturday morning and by mid-afternoon we were standing in line outside the Elmwood Park Amphitheater in downtown Roanoke in the August heat waiting for them to open the gates.
Wilson belongs to my generation, but my wife, whose tastes were formed in the eighties, has learned to love his music and our two boys, both millennials, have, in their separate ways, developed a real appreciation for him. We’ve watched Love and Mercy, passed around copies of Pet Sounds and discussed the life and music of Brian Wilson hours on end.
Our older son is a drummer with experience in several garage/frat-party bands. He has learned something about the history of rock and roll and through his own reading and listening to my stories has come to appreciate the truth that the real explosions in rock music occurred in the sixties and that pretty much everything that has happened after that has been echoes of that first thunder. He’s an unabashed twelve-bar- blues-progression guy and he locks on to the big Beach Boys hits – Barbara Ann, Help Me Rhonda. Our younger son is a guitarist who has played some electric in college campus bands, but is essentially bent toward more pensive stuff. He knows Pet Sounds inside and out by now. My wife loves it all, but, bless her beautiful heart, she gets something extra just from seeing me as happy as that music makes me.
And it does make me happy. I was fourteen when Brian Wilson was twenty-four and right at the peak of his powers. I lived in Houston, Texas for the 1966-67 school year and the Beach Boys were everywhere then. Like everyone else in those days, I would wait by the radio until the DJ played the Beach Boys and then I would turn it up. At night I listened to In My Room while I was in my room, doing my dreaming and my scheming and lying awake to pray. And did I mention that down there in Texas there was this girl. I loved the colorful clothes she’d wear and, oh, yeah, the way the sunlight played upon her hair.
I stayed loyal to the Beach Boys even when I was in college and it was uncool to like that kids’ stuff. My friends looked for the unusual and esoteric in the record stores and I was still cranking Don’t Worry Baby. Living in landlocked West Virginia, I nonetheless bought a surfboard and found ways to get down to the Carolina beaches every summer. They thought I was crazy. What I learned then was that I just wasn’t made for those times.
On the way down to Roanoke we talked a little bit about why Wilson had undertaken such a monster tour. He’s seventy-four years old, for crying out loud, not in great health, either, and this juggernaut consists of 73 dates in places as far away as Norway and Iceland. I think we all came to agree that he doesn’t need the money.
There could be many reasons. Maybe he’s more than a little steamed at cousin Mike Love for cutting him back out of the Beach Boys, Inc. that Love now owns controlling interest in. Maybe he wants to show Mike that he can still do it – still withstand the rigors of the road and still draw crowds. Maybe he wants to prove that whether Mike Love will admit it or not everyone else realizes that Brian Wilson was and is the Beach Boys. Subtract any one of the other founders and not much would change. Subtract Brian Wilson and you would have had four or five teenaged Californians who, if they had a band at all, would never have made their way into anything grander than local high-school dances.
The Elmwood Amphitheater in Roanoke is a pretty comfy place. The terraces going up the hillside are lush grass and the seating is generous and uncramped. We arrived early and staked out seats directly in front and only a few rows back from the stage.
I had seen the Beach Boys once or twice in my younger, concert-going days, but I had never seen Brian Wilson. He didn’t tour with them back then. I knew that when I saw him I would nonetheless feel some recognition, all of it emotionally based. I knew that when I saw him, I would feel like I knew him. But that’s not what happened. At least that’s not all that happened. When Brian Wilson lumbered onto the stage and sat down at his piano, he looked into the crowd. Into the crowd in front of him and a few rows back. He looked at me. And the feeling I got was not so much that I knew him, but that he knew me. Why not? He has written my life.
And I knew then why he took on this tour. It was to see me and people like me who have lived on his music but who he missed the first time around. This was one last gift. This one was for me.
During the encore, a generous helping of powerfully and faithfully-rendered Beach Boys’ up-tempo hits, I stopped my own singing and dancing and took a look around at the crowd. All inhibitions were gone and the air was incandescent and filled with joy. Most were dancing, but a few stood simply entranced, smiling and nodding. Yes, this is it, they may have thought. This is exactly it.
What is it? What are these songs that light us up like nothing else can do? I’ve heard them described several ways – as anthems, even as hymns. But the better analogy is this: the songs of Brian Wilson are the Psalms of young Americans, reminding us, on the one hand, that our struggles are real and shared and, on the other, promising us surpassing happiness in some place without dissonance or grief where all the kids surf and dance, drive hot rods, get the girl, make the varsity and stay true to their school. Wouldn’t it be nice?
The songs of Brian Wilson gave us solace and our first hope of glory. What would our generation have been without them? God only knows.