By the time I saw it performed live last week at Pitchfork Music Festival, the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds had been out for 50 years and two months. It’s almost twice as old as Kurt Cobain will ever be, almost twice as old as I am, and somehow I’ve lived 27 years without ever once hearing the whole thing from start to finish. I hear Pet Sounds for the first time when Brian Wilson plays it on a stage underneath a swollen July moon — or really, when a small army of session musicians (plus his Beach Boys bandmate Al Jardine) plays Pet Sounds while Wilson sits at a piano, listening and sometimes chiming in.
It’s not like Wilson isn’t a willing participant in the reenactment of the album he released with The Beach Boys when he was 23 years old. He sings sporadically, he plays piano, he addresses the audience with brief but sincere greetings. “Thank you for coming here,” he says to the crowd. “I’m glad you could all come here.”
But the spectacle isn’t for his sake. Thousands of people, many of them in their early twenties, have congregated not just to hear Pet Sounds but to stand in the presence of the person who wrote Pet Sounds. I’m one of them, despite never hearing the album through before, despite not really being much of a Beach Boys fan, because there are only so many times you can stand near a stage and watch a musician from the history books sing the songs that got him lodged there.
I didn’t avoid Pet Sounds on purpose. My childhood music taste came from my dad, who hated The Beach Boys; by the time I was old enough to search out my own taste, I’d heard too many parodies and derivatives of the band to feel much interest in the real thing. I grew up on the East Coast and had never seen the Pacific, never had much interest in the beach. Wilson’s music, whenever I heard it in passing, felt trite.
I’d heard snippets of Pet Sounds before — it’s hard to reach your twenties in America without “God Only Knows” hitting your ears at least once — but nothing ever made me want to spend 36 continuous minutes with The Beach Boys until I saw Bill Pohlad’s Wilson biopic Love & Mercy last summer. If The Beach Boys’ songs sounded easy and off-the-cuff out of context, Love & Mercy grounded them in the battle Wilson fought to get them out of his head. Pet Sounds wasn’t just a collection of breezy Californian pop songs, but the hard-earned result of painstaking studio work, big creative risks, and brutal infighting among the band.
According to Love & Mercy’s retelling, in 1965 Wilson had started to struggle with the mental illness that would later leave him vulnerable to exploitation by his live-in doctor Eugene Landy. He spent years in seclusion producing no music, merely surviving.
Love & Mercy splits Wilson in two: In his twenties, he’s played by Paul Dano, and in his forties, he’s played by John Cusack. Cusack, along with his sister Joan, hops on stage at Pitchfork for one song, singing alongside the real, third Wilson who lives even as he’s being memorialized. It’s not a stunt, either: During the rest of the set, the Cusacks dance side-stage and sing along with every word.
Wilson is still here to perform music he wrote when he was 23, but in a way, it’s been passed on from him. The life of these songs doesn’t rest with him anymore. He’s there at the center of them, but he’s not buoying them: That work belongs to the musicians who accompany him — who bring his songs to life where he can’t — and to the younger people who find magic in hearing them in his presence.
Music is magic — careful, ritualized magic — and the fact of Brian Wilson’s presence in the performance of his songs means as much as any of the sounds that issue from the stage. Take any legacy act from the ’60s and you’ll find a hundred cover bands that can play their own work back better than they can. The work of these artists isn’t the proficient replaying of the music they’ve lived with for decades. It’s the fact of their survival, the aura of their nearness, the memory we’ll take with us of locking eyes with the person who wrote something as enduring as Pet Sounds decades before we were born.
I wonder if it’s hard for Brian Wilson to sing these songs, to revisit this impossibly strange, idealized youth night after night. Hearing Pet Sounds, I already feel too old for it, too averse to its sunbaked nostalgia and upturned melodies and sweeping instrumental flourishes. It feels futile to fly these good vibrations during a year, a summer, that has been extremely bad so far. But one way of accessing joy is by chasing nostalgia for moments you were too unborn to remember, and hundreds of hands wave during “Good Vibrations,” whose swooping synth figures give me chills.
Back in the mid-’60s, Wilson invented good vibes. Half a century later, he’s still the reason Pet Sounds brings them around the country, even if his participation rests muted in the center of his own party. His affect is opaque. He does not connect with the crowd, but the crowd feels connected to the vibrations that surround him. We’re here for Brian Wilson: It seems impossible to know if he’s here for us.