By Bruce Robinson
As the arranger and primary songwriter for the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson created some of the sunniest pop of the 1960s, from the harmonies he added to a borrowed Chuck Berry riff to create their first major hit ("Surfin' USA") to the dazzling mini-suite that was "Good Vibrations," one of the most complex pieces of music to ever top the pop charts. This was the tease, the preview for Smile, the album Wilson intended to surpass even his own landmark Pet Sounds.
But the other Beach Boys balked, the Beatles raised the bar with Sgt. Pepper and Brian's personal demons took charge. Tracks and musical fragments from the Smile sessions were altered, erased, re-recorded, lost. Eventually the whole project collapsed.
So, too, did Brian Wilson's mental health. For most of the 1970s and '80s, the psychologically fragile figure with the gift for complex harmonies remained a tentative shell of his creative past, appearing with decreasing frequency on the Beach Boys' progressively weaker recordings.
Eventually, though, he finally found the strength and support to resume record-making on his own, releasing his first solo album in 1988 and a second disc 10 years later. While neither recording comes close to the standard set by his signature Beach Boy hits, they seemed to provide the necessary catalyst for Brian to overcome his life-long stage fright. He began to perform occasionally, then more frequently as the L.A. power-pop band, the Wondermints, became the core of his touring ensemble. Even so, Wilson watchers were stunned and elated when he began to include complete start-to-finish live re-creations of Pet Sounds in his concert dates in 2002. He appears June 8 at the Harmony Festival.
An even bigger shock came in 2004, when, following a third solo disc stiff, Wilson abruptly released a finished version of Smile, and promptly began giving it the full live-concert treatment too. Performing at Davies Symphony Hall late that year, Wilson was surrounded by a full dozen singers, musicians and percussionists, an aural array that added breathtaking live energy to an expansive set that touched on every corner of his imposing catalogue.
But while the music is glorious, there was also a melancholy undercurrent, triggered in those moments when the large, affable man at the center of it all appears momentarily disoriented and fearful, and in his awkward clearly scripted between-song comments. All in all, it's hard to say which is Brian Wilson's greater achievement, creating all that soaring beauty as a visionary teen, or surviving to enjoy it once again today.
Brian Wilson headlines the main stage at the Harmony Festival on Friday, June 8, at 7:45pm. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1375 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. Gates open at noon. Friday day pass, $20–$32. www.harmonyfestival.com.