I’ve had several days off work in a row (took holiday time because I’m on the brink of collapse from exhaustion) and have spent those days intending, but not succeeding, to write pieces on Batman comics and a short story. I’m failing again to write either of those, because I’ve just heard something wonderful.
Last night I found, more or less by chance, what I might call the motherlode – a website containing links to a hundred and sixty Beach Boys bootlegs, mostly live recordings. I have a *LOT* of Beach Boys bootlegs already, but I’ve found at least forty or so live shows on there I didn’t already have. One is a show from 1976 – a badly-recorded cassette tape of a show right at the cusp of the band’s career. Two years earlier, Brian Wilson had been absent from the band, recording at most one or two tracks per album, they’d been one of the best live bands in the world, recording some of the most adventurous rock music being made, and no-one had cared. They’d been playing colleges and tiny venues.
Since then, everything had changed. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, who’d added so much to the band’s live sound, had left. Brian was back touring with them, but could barely hold a note. They’d just released the worst album of their career so far, the appaling oldies and leftovers album 15 Big Ones… and everyone loved them. The greatest hits compilation Endless Summer had gone double platinum, and they were playing stadiums. They hadn’t yet totally given up on being artists, but they were on their way.
It’s not an especially good show, in comparison with the shows from a couple of years earlier. The harmonies are rough – Brian and Dennis have lost most of their voices by now, but the band haven’t yet resorted to getting in backing vocalists to thicken the sound – and there’s already the first signs of the overuse of synths that would make their 80s shows so sterile. But there’s one moment that still filled me with awe.
In 1962 Brian Wilson and Gary Usher wrote a song called In My Room. It’s a gentle, sweet ballad about solitude:
There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room
Do my dreaming and my scheming, lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing, laugh at yesterday
Now it’s dark and I’m alone but I won’t be afraid
In my room, in my room
That’s the entire lyric – it’s only a short song. Like most of the best Beach Boys songs it hits a weird balance between terrible, terrible sadness (that song should have been as much a sign as anything of Brian’s impending mental breakdown. Just look at it) and comfort (it’s a close harmony song, sung with his two brothers with whom he used to share a bedroom, and they used to sing together at night in the dark, with their cousin also joining in).
The original record, and pretty much every live version I’ve ever heard, is tiny and intimate, led by Brian’s uncannily pure falsetto. This is very different. It’s recorded in a stadium full of reverb, and Brian’s voice is reduced to a husky growl or a yell.
But the entire crowd join in – ten thousand or more people, singing every word.
And normally I hate that kind of thing. I’m not one for big public displays, or stadium shows, or communal moments. They tend, to me, to smack of the inhuman, the oppressive, the fascist.
But here we have a sad, lonely, ill man singing off-key about his fears and being alone, and ten thousand people *joining in with him*. Telling him “you’re *NOT* alone”.
Brian Wilson would eventually get better – as well as is possible under the circumstances – and I’ve seen him live seven times in the last eight years. Those shows were (with one exception) great shows, but there’s also been an element of therapy about them. The audiences have been there as much just to show Brian how much we care about him as a person – because he’s one of the very, very small number of artists who can express themselves absolutely, who can make us share his feelings, good and bad. We’re there, hoping to support this man who’s given us so much joy. It’s often one of the most amazing musical experiences imaginable – Brian’s band is the best I’ve ever seen – but it’s also like watching your kid at school sports day. You want him to win, but you’ll be proud even if he messes up.
This audience wasn’t like that – they’d been told “Brian is back!” and believed it, they were only there to hear the hits – but they were still doing the same thing. Ten thousand people, all singing “Now it’s dark and I’m alone and I won’t be afraid”.
Quite, quite astonishing…