The Second Spring of The Beach Boys

When Mike Love and co. brought the good vibrations to Huntington, NY

The Beach Boys ’19

The past is that city which holds your favorite memories, your favorite saloons, your favorite used record stores, your favorite doorways where you found shelter on your favorite rainy nights. But when you try to return, you can’t find it anywhere. The entire place has burned to ash, moved somewhere else. Where your past used to be there is steel and glass that vibrates with someone else’s newer memories, memories that have nothing to do with yours.

The past is your favorite foreign country that you will never be able to visit again. Not ever, under any circumstances.

But we play the songs. In our cars, on our phones, on our laptops, in our minds, we play the songs. Likewise, we have been seeing bands for forty, fifty years. We have been standing and sitting in front of stages in low-ceilinged pubs and cathedral-high arenas, crumbling old vaudeville houses and sparkling neon-ribbed nightclubs, for forty, fifty years. We have grown old in front of these stages.

And we still go. When we were young, it was generally pretty easy: We get out of the chair, we turn off SportsCenter, we walk eight blocks up Washington Street to Maxwells, we see Husker Dü.

But it’s different now. It’s so much harder now. We are older. My god, we are old. We are old: We remember the Gimbel’s tunnel. We see Uncle Floyd in our dreams. We drive down the road and look to our left and still expect to see Korvettes, we make that right turn and remain surprised that the Blockbuster is no longer there. Wasn’t there a Bohacks on that corner, over there?

Still wearing Chuck Taylors (but storing them right next to the Merrells), we are shocked to find ourselves living in Blade Runner years, dates that sound like science fiction, tethered to the world by ethereal ribbons of connectivity that we could never have dreamed of with our Partridge Family/Brady Bunch/Room 222/The Odd Couple/Love American Style/ABC is the Place to Be mind.

Yet we still stand in front of these stages.

When you are older, every concert involves not just desire, but intention. We are no longer here just to go out. We are here for a reason. We are in a room with people who share our memories, our touchstones, or ability to know what life was like during the  three-network era. Ah, I know you! I know you, because you, too, can sing beautiful mount airy lodge. We measure ourselves by our relief that our heroes on stage, who looked older than us in 1980, still look a little older than us, and are soft and wide just like us, too.

 

VIDEO: 1982 Mount Airy Lodge commercial

What we do not necessarily expect is for the vintage band on stage to be transcendent. Yet this is what happened when the Beach Boys performed a few weeks back at Huntington’s Paramount Theatre.

The Beach Boys played two (roughly) hour-long sets, split by a short intermission. For the first half of the evening, they met and exceeded expectations: Which is to say, they played their hits and they played them goddamn well. I have seen the current(ish) ideation of the Beach Boys about half a dozen times over the last four years; I say, without hesitation, they really have it going on. They play tight and tough, biting into the natural garage energy of the Beach Boys classics while also presenting powerful yet finessed renditions of the more holy and elaborate productions.

During their set, I am frequently reminded both of the ripping doo-wop-meets-boogie band you hear on live albums from 1965 and ’66 (Live in Chicago ’65, especially, sounds like the Sonics trying to convince St. Peter to let them into heaven), and the more ambitious (yet still slightly bloodied) live recordings of the late 1960s (notably Beach Boys ’69 Live in London and The Beach Boys on Tour 1968). We have become so tangled up in the Wilsonian myth of art, madness, and litigation that it is often forgotten that the Beach Boys were one helluva live band. The current touring version of the Beach Boys, full of grace and grit, corn and prayers, absolutely and utterly maintains that reputation.

But then something remarkable happened after intermission, during the second half of the set. The 2019 Beach Boys achieved transcendence.

What do I mean by “transcendence”? I mean that the Beach Boys took us into the moment, not just the attic of memory. For a significant stretch of the second set, I was hanging on every note, every syllable, and not just using the present as a reference to the past, or a consolation prize for our forever-gone youth. The Beach Boys ’19 were able to create an emotional space, a connection between sound, sensation, and heart, where the artist is not just reminding you why you once loved them, but also asserting a claim to being able to do it again, fresh.

The shivers (shivers that claimed us anew and did not merely source old shivers) started immediately at the beginning of the second set, with a “California Dreaming” that emerged out of the shadows, as the crew were still setting up the stage, before the house lights were even off. This evening’s rendition honored the one the Beach Boys recorded back in 1986 (which copped the Byrds quivering arpeggios, but brought them to church), yet it felt rougher, truer, darker; immediately, we had the sense that we were no longer watching a legacy band playing their hits, but watching musicians trying to reach us in the now.

 

VIDEO: The Beach Boys perform “Disney Girls” in Dusseldorf, Germany July 2019

Shortly after, the band hit an extraordinary run. Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls” has always been a stunning song, but there is something so beautiful, so touching, so right about hearing it sung by an older, wiser, more mortal, more vulnerable man. At age 77, Johnston’s voice has a little bit of a tremble, though it is still strong and full; and it’s that tremble, that edge of sepia, that makes “Disney Girls” so extraordinary. It is Johnston’s composition, and not necessarily one of the more famous Wilson or Love/Wilson songs, that is the emotional peak of the Beach Boys’ set.

Very shortly after this, Mike Love nearly matches Johnston’s emotional depth with his own “Pisces Brother,” his tribute to his friend and fellow spiritual seeker George Harrison. Although it has been in the Beach Boys’ set for years, this song (which appeared on Love’s 2017 album, Unleash the Love) has only grown in stature and loveliness, and the band performs it with the same reverence, rich and evocative, with which it plays “God Only Knows” or “Disney Girls” (the two songs which immediately precede it in the set).

Extraordinarily, this is immediately topped with a cover of “Here Comes the Sun” which takes the song to a shimmering, almost holy place (this same arrangement, by Beach Boys guitarist and musical director Scott Totten, appears on Love’s most recent and thoroughly strong album, 12 Sides of Summer). Dispensing with the signature riff, the Beach Boys treat “Here Comes the Sun” as if it was written for them, and they arrange it as a soothing yet deep lullaby, a close relation to the gentle, sad/happy swells of “Till I Die,” “Surf’s Up,” and even “Caroline, No.”

The Beach Boys then shift gears with another surprise: A version of “Sail on Sailor” which rips and coos and sounds like it was written yesterday, for this version of the band. Having earlier asserted that they can generate new goosebumps (and not just remind us of old ones), the band then show they can still rock with the same kind of Spectorian-meets-meets-garage magic that has always been a backbone of their sound.

They play a version of “Do You Wanna Dance” that sounds as fresh as this morning’s milk, and follow that with two remarkable covers that appear on 12 Sides of Summer: “Summertime Blues” (which sources production and arrangement elements of the Eddie Cochran original, and famous covers by The Who and Blue Cheer), and the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach,” which so resembles a slightly riffed-up early Beach Boys song that it sounds like it was written for them. Tonight, both “new” covers sound like something that could have slotted in beautifully on the full-bodied, peacock-feathered angel rock of Summer Days (and Summer Nights!) or The Beach Boys Today!

VIDEO: Mike Love meets Marky Ramone on stage for a version of The Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” in Huntington, NY, May 2019

Significantly, from first to last, I never doubt that the Beach Boys I am seeing on stage in 2019 is the Beach Boys. I state this adamantly, regardless of the resistance I might receive from other Beach Boys fans. This group on stage at the Paramount, framed around Mike Love and Bruce Johnston but never merely backing Love and Johnston, feels like the Beach Boys.

Scott Totten (guitar), Christian Love (guitar), John Cowsill (drums), Keith Hubacher (bass), Randy Leago (horns and mouth harp), and Tim Bonhomme (keys) are able, energetic, passionate, and engaged, and they feel (there’s that word again!) like the Beach Boys, like they are carrying the weight of the legacy, tragedy, and gravity of the Beach Boys. This quality is pretty remarkable when it comes to legacy bands – not just playing a part the right way, but understanding why it was played in the first place — and you sense it with Totten, Love, Bonhomme, Cowsill, Leago and Humbacher, just as you sense it with, say, Zak Starkey as he drives The Who.

See, even the most casual concert goer can tell when non-original players are just running the parts, and when they actually are band members, part of a continuum, part of a bloodline. For instance, recently I saw the B-52s, and in back of three “legacy” vocalists, you had a band so disengaged that Cindy, Fred, and Kate might as well have been doing karaoke. The B-52s band, as capable as they were, did not seem to know why they were playing what they were playing.

See, you can’t “just” play the parts, even if you play them precisely: You have to have some real and innate sense of the heart, mind, and history they arose from. And the Beach Boys ’19 all seem to understand why they are there. For instance, when Christian Love sings “God Only Knows,” he doesn’t sing it “just” like his uncle, the late Carl Wilson; he sings it like he fucking wrote it, like he’s felt it, like he suffered for it.

And this brings us back to the idea I reference at the very top: For the Beach Boys, it feels like a second spring; like they have connected with the why, not just the how. So, please see the Beach Boys: Come for the hits, stay for your heart.

 

VIDEO: The Beach Boys in Munchen 2019

Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

3 thoughts on “The Second Spring of The Beach Boys

  • November 25, 2019 at 11:18 pm
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    Thank you Tim, you captured the current vibe of the Beach Boys perfectly…

    Reply
  • November 27, 2019 at 8:51 am
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    Speaking of transcendence, your piece here is extraordinary.

    Reply
    • November 27, 2019 at 11:06 am
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      Wow…Braxton, thank you so very much. — Tim

      Reply

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