Wednesday, September 28, 2016


I had hit another rough patch. That happens sometimes.

I circled the date on the calendar as soon as it was announced: August 29th, 2016. Brian Wilson was bringing his band to the New York State Fair for a show at Chevrolet Court, free with admission to the fair. Advance sale fair tickets were a mere six bucks. For twelve dollars, lovely wife Brenda and I would get to see The Brian Wilson Band perform Pet Sounds--likely the greatest pop album of all time--in its entirety, along with a selection of The Beach Boys' hits.  Brenda was off work on that day anyway, and I was due for some vacation time. It would be a date: a day at the Fair.

Pet Sounds is pop music's greatest contradiction: fragile but indestructible, delicate but strong, frail but immortal. Gossamer and granite. It is a wisp of emotion, heartbreak, love, and hope, a precarious house of cards that will still stand long after we're all dust. It is pop, and it is art, but it is not pop art. It is mature, and it as giddy as a teenager in love with the unattainable. The opportunity to witness a live performance of Brian Wilson's masterwork was welcome and irresistible.

I guess I just wasn't made for these times. In high school, a girl I knew (and considered rather cute) wrote in my yearbook, "Carl, you've got to be the most happy-go-lucky person I've ever met!" I could only stare at what she'd written, and say to myself, That's not me. I have always been a square peg, and that doesn't seem likely to ever change. Some days, I'm okay with that; on other days, my freak flag flies at half-mast.

August 29th was one of those days. I hadn't slept well; by morning, my emotions had plummeted into an unpleasant morass of unease and hapless futility. Nothing could nurture a delusion of adequacy. I wasn't good enough. I knew I wasn't good enough. No amount of hard evidence could convince me otherwise. Nothing felt right. Nothing was right. Yeah. That kind of day. I know there's an answer. Seeking higher ground, Brenda and I headed toward the great New York State Fair.

Of course, we listened to Pet Sounds on the drive from the Northern suburbs into Syracuse. The intricate, precious magic of pop music's masterpiece enveloped us, blanketed us. Comforted us? No, I wasn't quite there yet. But I could feel the music's gentle caress, and its unspoken (but devastating) reminder that other folks have troubles, too. And the music still loves us, I heard from somewhere within. The music loves us anyway.

Partial salvation came first via The Kinks. I'd worn my Kinks T-shirt, which is my favorite T-shirt because a) people always notice it and appreciate it, and b) it's The Kinks! Upon entering the Fair, the gatekeeper asked me the name of my favorite Kinks song. I could never pick just one, and settled on my usual dual answer of "You Really Got Me" and "Waterloo Sunset." He nodded in acknowledgement, and offered "Celluloid Heroes" as his choice. We all agreed there aren't a lot of bad choices in The Kinks' catalog, and Brenda and I walked onto the fairgrounds.

At Chevy Court, the afternoon show had already begun: Herman's Hermits, starring Peter Noone. I love '60s music, but I don't generally like oldies acts. The difference is in presentation: The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney (for example) aren't oldies acts in my mind, even though their live sets are dominated by older material, simply because each presents its cavalcade o' hits as a matter of fact--This is the show, let's GO!!--rather than mealy-mouthing about taking us back to yesteryear. An oldies act is laid-back and inoffensive; a rock 'n' roll act is confident in its material and self-assured, even aggressive in its approach. I love rock 'n' roll acts, and can usually do without oldies acts.

But Herman's Hermits put on a fun, fun show. Peter Noone is a consummate showman, an unrepentant pop idol who embraces his role as cute 'n' cuddly 'Erman--and you can call 'im 'Erm, if you like. Noone pays lip-service to the conventions of an oldies act, but does so with a wink and a playful smirk, letting everyone know he's in on the joke, and we're in on it, too. Herman's Hermits played the hits, including a couple of hits that weren't theirs--The Monkees' "Daydream Believer" and Freddie & the Dreamers' "I'm Telling You Now"--and it was all so cheerily and winningly executed that even a curmudgeon like me had to enjoy it.

(As an added bonus, when Peter Noone addressed his guitarist as "Vance," I realized it was Vance Brescia, formerly of a fab New York garage-pop group called The Mosquitos, and the author of The Monkees' 1986 Top 20 hit "That Was Then, This Is Now." Kinda wish the Hermits had performed that song rather than "Daydream Believer," but the latter song is undeniably the bigger crowd-pleaser.)

Brenda and I still had several hours to kill before Brian Wilson's show that evening. My mood had improved slightly (albeit only slightly). Let's go away for awhile. We moved on to lunch from Las Delicias, and explored the midway for a bit. As one who grew up in the Syracuse area, the State Fair was an annual tradition for me, riding all the rides, playing all the games, and eating all the junk food the Fair had to offer. Brenda was born in Brooklyn, but has become a de facto Central New Yorker, and she's certainly a veteran Fairgoer by now. We've seen so many shows here: The Beach Boys (with Carl Wilson), Tina Turner, Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Gene Pitney, Don McLean, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, The Four Tops, Alex Chilton, and more. We brought our daughter Meghan here to see a Radio Disney concert, an American Idol show, Little Big Town, and Lady Antebellum; Brenda and Meghan also saw Sugarland at the Fair. Just as I did when I was a kid, Meghan delighted in the midway, and the rides, and the 25-cent chocolate milk, and the entirety of the New York State Fair experience.

Meghan's a senior in college now. She still loves the Fair, but family trips to the fair are now just fondly-remembered echoes of a time gone by, a nostalgic pang, no more a part of the here and now than a Deep Purple cassette tape or Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Where is the girl I used to know? Still, this was not the cause of my melancholy. Brenda and I walked the midway, our hands touching occasionally. The touch was a comfort. Love and mercy.

By 4:00--still four hours before show time--we'd grown tired and decided to go back to Chevy Court and find a seat. Many seats had already been taken; a lot of intrepid pop souls had staked out space for the Herman's Hermits show, and maintained that space for what was certain to be a packed concert area before too long. Brenda and I found our own spot, and took turns over the next few hours making food and bathroom runs.

Four hours is a long time to sit, waiting. But the weather was pleasant, and we saw so many people we knew, all there for the common purpose of communion. The time passed. I grew...not more comfortable, per se, but less uncomfortable. Again, Brenda's hand touched mine. The warmth of the sun. It was 8:00. The Brian Wilson Band took the stage.

Years ago, singer-songwriter Gary Frenay asked me, "Did you ever think Brian Wilson would be the last Wilson standing?" The story of Brian Wilson's emotional turmoil and trauma has been everyday legend for decades: the tale of this boy genius, this dumb angel, his mind frayed and tattered from abuse, drugs, and inner demons, withdrawing from the spotlight, retreating to his sandbox, lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did; a nervous breakdown, leading him to leave The Beach Boys' touring group in 1964, and retreat to the studio to reproduce the unique celestial sounds in his head; "In My Room;" Pet Sounds; a "pocket symphony" called "Good Vibrations;" and another potential masterpiece, a "teenage symphony to God" called SMiLE, left unfinished, abandoned, as Wilson's world closed in and shut down. Brian Wilson was pop music's saddest living casualty.

Yet somehow, he survived. His younger brother Dennis Wilson drowned in 1982, and the youngest of the three brothers, Carl, succumbed to cancer in 1998. Like a surfer-boy Harry Potter, Brian became The Wilson Who Lived. His voice was ravaged by time and torture, his demeanor a reflection of one who'd spent a season--several seasons--in Hell, but Brian Wilson returned to the spotlight nonetheless. He toured, playing with an incredible band that could recreate his perfect sound live. He completed SMiLE, and he saw that it was good. He did a well-received reunion album and tour with the other surviving members of The Beach Boys. And, commemorating five decades since the release of his enduring masterpiece, Brian Wilson embarked upon a 2016 tour billed as his final performances of the complete Pet Sounds. I'm waiting for the day. The day, and the time, had finally arrived.

The Brian Wilson Band opened their show with hits-hits-hits:  the live sound of "California Girls,""I Get Around,""Shut Down," and "Little Deuce Coupe" filled the jammed-beyond-jammed Chevy Court as if it were a Hawthorne beach in 1964. Wilson's band also includes former Beach Boy Al Jardine, who is still a terrific performer, and whose presence adds even more gravitas to the proceedings; the band, including members of The Wondermints and my Facebook pal Nelson Bragg, is as magnificent as advertised, but their secret weapon is Al's son Matt Jardine, whose soaring vocals did whatever heavy lifting Brian Wilson needed done. Blondie Chaplin bounded on stage to join in for searing renditions of "Wild Honey" and "Sail On, Sailor." Brian was in the center of it, but oddly apart, disconnected. One suspects the days of Brian Wilson actively engaging in a live performance are long, long gone.

But still, he was there: a (presumably) benevolent spirit holding court over a display of some of the beautiful things he created.  His voice creaked, almost croaked...but it too was still there, no longer the impossibly sweet trill of saints above, but weathered, earthy, earthly. Barely there, perhaps--but there.

As the show moved into Pet Sounds, Wilson seemed nonplussed by the very reason we had gathered before him. "We'll get back to rock 'n' roll in a bit," he apologized, "we're gonna do Pet Sounds now." He apologized again a couple of times during the performance of Pet Sounds. Did he really think we just wanted to hear songs about hot rods and surfin'? Was he really afraid we'd tap our feet and look impatiently at our watches throughout a performance of Pet Sounds, anxious for him to get that stuff over with awready and get back to the beach? Could he really think we were an audience comprised of 20,000 Mike Loves?!

I was struck by a notion: is it possible that Brian Wilson himself doesn't realize that Pet Sounds is a pretty big deal?

Unthinkable. How can an artist be so far removed from his own brilliant work that he doesn't even appreciate it?

On this day, as my own doubts and recriminations had tethered my sense of worth to the bottom of the ocean, the irony of me questioning Brian Wilson's self-confidence made me feel both stupid and liberated. I'm no Brian Wilson--I'm not even Mr. Wilson from Dennis The Menace--but there's something good inside me. Something clever. Something engaging. Something worthwhile. I know it. I forget it sometimes. But I know it.

The music of Pet Sounds played. The shackles holding my soul began to fall away.

Wouldn't It Be Nice. You Still Believe In Me. That's Not Me. Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder). I'm Waiting For The Day. Let's Go Away For Awhile. The pacing was thrown off by Wilson's insistence on introducing each song individually (and by his apologies for not rockin' out). But the band was brilliant, translating Wilson's original transcendent work into live music, augmenting Wilson's now-mortal voice with tasteful care, but still letting Wilson be heard, as he is now. Our cherished works of genius can survive and thrive, even in our flawed, impermanent hands.

As "Sloop John B" swelled with its doomed, seafaring tale of woe, I felt the sting in my eye begin its journey; as "Sloop John B" gave way to the majesty of "God Only Knows"--perhaps the most beautiful song that has ever graced our human experience--the sting gave birth to those few stray tears yearning to breathe free: tears of gratitude, tears of joy, tears of appreciation for this chance to feel the music and its power. I held Brenda's hand more tightly, and told her once again that I love her. The cloud was gone.

I Know There's An Answer. Here Today. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times. Pet Sounds. Caroline, No. The performance of Pet Sounds concluded, leaving Brian Wilson free to get back to the uptempo hits. And those hits are indeed wonderful: "Good Vibrations," "Help Me Rhonda," "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' U.S.A.," and "Fun Fun Fun" are great pop songs that should be played again and again, for as long as there are pop songs. But Pet Sounds is special, sublime; hearing it performed, as a whole, was as moving and vital as a concert sensation can be. You still believe in me. Clutching Brenda's hand, my arm around her shoulders, we exited the Fairgrounds and made our way home.

I've often said there are only three things in this world that ever really bother me: the past, the present, and the future. There are long, fulfilling moments of respite--moments of love, family, friendship, art, music, camaraderie, and creation--but the road behind us, the road ahead of us, and the small patch of ground upon which we stand in the moment, all contain perils that can strike at any time from any direction. We carry with us that determination that we can outrace our shadows, we can navigate this uneven path, and we can face whatever the hell that big, gray thing is around the next corner. Love is here today. Maybe it doesn't have to be gone tomorrow. Maybe we can be made for these times.

Wouldn't it be nice?

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