As a lifelong fan of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, I was thrilled when, in 1998, he released a new album, Imagination. It was no Pet Sounds, for sure, and there was as much filler as killer, but for all that the old boy was making new music. Your Imagination remains one of my favourite Wilson tunes, Lay Down Burden, all about his late brother Carl was gorgeous. Imagination wasn’t as good as his first solo album from a decade before which yielded the mighty Love and Mercy and featured the likes of Jeff Lynne, yet for all that it was good enough. Each successive album got progressively worse and some were truly terrible. There comes a time when you really should admit “enough is enough”. Those around Brian should have told him long ago, as they now should about his live show.
I have seen Brian Wilson’s live show five times since 2002 and they have been as memorable as any gig I have ever been to, especially seeing Pet Sounds at the Festival Hall, London. His band are quite simply the greatest band on the planet, multi-instrumentalists and sublime singers all. Brian is not what he was both as a singer, a songwriter and, let’s be honest, as a person. At two of the shows, I was privileged to meet him backstage but his empty eyes suggested to me he had little idea where he was. His singing ranged from good to terrible but it was real, not manipulated by auto tune. After he toured the finally finished Smile album in 2004, I felt strongly that it was time for him to call it a day. 13 years on and I feel more strongly about that than ever.
Brian reads the lyrics of every song from a prompter. He is frail and wobbly on his feet. The last time I saw him, I worried he might not make it off the stage. Some of his hard core fans seem to be in denial, blaming a back condition for his obvious frailty. I don’t buy it.
I don’t believe he is being forced against his will to tour. I know some of his backing band by name and they all say, with obvious sincerity, that Brian is enjoying playing live, contrary to how it appears from the auditorium. And those songs – they still remain some of the best songs ever written.
I love seeing my musical heroes live on stage, particularly, mainly, when they have new music to play as well as the hits. For that reason, I am not attending the London 02 appearance of my all time favourite band Steely Dan later this year since they are merely touring their old songs. I’m not paying £100 plus for that, even if the Doobie Brothers are also on the bill. The point is that Brian is probably too old to write good new music and too damaged to perform without a stellar backing band. In all honesty, they paper over Brian’s widening cracks. They played Glastonbury last weekend. I never once thought about going.
There is, of course, a huge market for heritage bands and legends. I get that and Wilson’s live band has more Beach Boys in it than Mike Love’s ghastly auto tuned touring Beach Boys. I suppose the argument is that if Brian is enjoying it, let the people come. That isn’t how I see it.
Almost everyone who sees Brian Wilson live or on TV can see the reality of a man who has been damaged by the travails of life. Damaged by drugs, by poor mental health, by a chaotic personal life. That he ever came back at all, having stopped touring with the Beach Boys in the mid 1960s is one of life’s minor miracles.
It’s time for Brian Wilson to call it a day and spend some quality time with his family and friends. No one ever thought that he would survive both his brothers after everything he went through. Brian Wilson was, is, one of the greatest writers and performers in the history of music. He has nothing left to prove and, increasingly, nothing left to give.