There were moments at Brian Wilson’s concert last weekend at the Beacon Theater that reminded me what, exactly, the pervasive anti-Mike Love sentiment is rooted in. Brian’s music is all about uncertainty and vulnerability; you root for him as a performer because his on-stage presence is so precarious, and because that fragility matches his best songs. By coming across as an arrogant prick, Mike Love strips those songs of what makes them so touching. Think of “Don’t Worry Baby,” a song that takes place on the eve of a drag race, so it fits in the Beach Boys’ car-song canon (note: almost all of the the lyrics of those songs that turn auto-imagery into poetry are by Roger Christian or Gary Usher), but it’s really about dread, the sinking feeling that the singer is in too deep. Or listen to present-day Brian struggle through “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “That’s Not Me,” or the other songs that make up Pet Sounds’ song cycle of doubt, longing and loss. Love can call his self-aggrandizing memoir Good Vibrations, because he thinks of the Beach Boys as a party band. Which they were, sometimes, and once literally (on the album their version of “Barbara Ann” comes from). But he misses the point. He’s like a cheerleader, and an unbearable ham. He’s the guy who still thought it was a kick to sing “Monster Mash” live in 1965, years after the novelty had worn off.
The current Brian Wilson show can bring you to tears for any number of reasons. There’s the whole fountain of goodwill that overflows in the room, the sense that we’re lucky he’s able to do this at all considering all the well-documented tsouris that befell him after a combination of Love’s hostility towards Smile and other factors sent him spiraling. (And while we’re at it, let’s call Love on his complete bullshit regarding the Pet Sounds/Smile era. Would it kill him to admit that Brian’s music baffled him, that he didn’t see the commercial viability, and that he was worried that the value of the Beach Boys franchise would be diminished without obvious hit singles? It’s ok to have creative disagreements within a band, and in retrospect it would’ve made more sense for Brian, Carl, Dennis and whomever else was on board to tell Love to fuck off and start his own stupid band with his own songs.)
Then there is the music itself, of course, which is beautifully rendered by a band that gets all the nuances, and singers who cover nicely for Brian’s diminished vocal range. The truth is, a few decades ago, the whole notion of being in a theater and seeing Brian Wilson and an army of musicians recreate some of his best songs would have been wildly improbable. And really, with Al Jardine singing lead on “Shut Down,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Help Me Rhonda” (which he did on the hit single), and Jardine’s son Matt taking the high notes throughout, and secret weapon Darian Sahanaja doing “Darling” (he should’ve done “Wild Honey” also, because Blondie Chapin botched it), who needs a Mike Love version of the Beach Boys at all? He might own the name – a good thing for him, because “Mike Love” couldn’t fill the Beacon’s lower level – but the music is forever Brian’s. And when it mattered the most, on “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No,” you held your breath in suspense, and felt every word. No one who only has the brand can ever take that away. It was ragged and heartfelt and, in its way, perfect.