America’s Greatest Band Understands the Why, Not Just the How

The Beach Boys Live at the Ridgefield Playhouse, Ridgefield Ct, August 15, 2018

Photo by Ken Kurson

All great American music is garage music, because it comes from a place of darkness and invention, a place of woodshedding, a place where limited circumstances are used to create exceptional and original art.

From plantations to tenements, from prison yards to shambolic lofts in shattered cities, those who were told they would amount to nothing used sound and song to prove them wrong. The very, very greatest, most truly perfect American music – Pet Sounds, Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” the Ramones first album – are the product of a garage of the heart, if not an actual physical garage. A lone light bulb illuminates tools, and tools turn the soul’s wordless aspirations into reality.

In the beginning, the Beach Boys were a garage band. Make no mistake. A rather extraordinary one, too, since even before they were baptized in the Jordan River of Genius, they had already alighted onto something huge: Blending the close harmonies of the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los with a (very) primitive and minimal garage rock sound that drew it’s dumb angel-ism from Eddie Cochran, the Los Angeles Chicano garage scene, and a simplification of the slurping sizzle surf rock of Dick Dale, Link Wray, and Duane Eddy.

The result (and I am talking about the boys at the very beginning: the Candix/Hite days and the very first Capitol album) took the thrash and humor of the Kingston Trio, the burping, bubbling soul hijinks of the Olympics or even the Treniers, and the three-chord nut-kick of the punks on Whittier Boulevard and infused it with athletic, charismatic Southern California salty air. There had been nothing like it: Caveman thumps and strums and confident (heck, even arrogant) harmony-mad teens reaching for heaven and bra straps. The newborn Beach Boys were finding an original way to voice purely American vapors, and this is even before anyone knew that god whispered in Brian Wilson’s ear.

57 years later, the Beach Boys are still a garage band. I saw this at Connecticut’s Ridgefield Playhouse on August 15, 2018. Thank fucking god, too, because to keep a legacy alive you can’t just recreate a record, you need to live within the moment of a records’ creation. No matter how sacred the material, you need to feel the why, not just the how. And that, too, defines a garage band: You play more from the heart (the why) then from the fingers (the how).

Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Scott Totten, John Cowsill, Randell Kirsch, Randy Leago, Tim Bonhomme, Christian Love and Keith Hubacher make the superhuman human: they return the greatest pop catalog of all time to the tangled, elated, sad and celebratory emotional garage where it was created. Beach Boys ’18 understand that just because the text is holy, that doesn’t mean that the text is sacred.

The Beach Boys ’18 do not want to show you postcards; they don’t want to grade you based on your knowledge of where the capo was set on the rhythm guitar on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” They want you to feel that same rush of awe and the same connection with your own emotions that you felt when you first heard the songs; they also want you to enjoy a vigorous, tight-but-loose band who treat the songs as celebrations, not as psalms. It’s not enough to reproduce this stuff – plenty of well-trained musicians can do that. But how do you not just follow the notes but also follow the trail of goosebumps?

The Beach Boys achieve this by having a band on stage made up of eight individuals, each of whom invest the catalog with vitality, personality, and wit. Each approaches their instrument and their parts with love, joy, charm and even a little arrogance. The two legacy-holders in the band – Mike Love and Bruce Johnston – have no trouble sharing the spotlight with the other Beach Boys: Totten, Cowsill, and horn player Randy Leago especially step forward, and provide support to the idea that we are seeing an actual living, breathing ensemble, the actual Beach Boys, and not just two old guys and a bunch of hired hands.

Let me also note that even before the show started, I believed that Beach Boys ’18 were the “real” Beach Boys. Listen, there are two “legacy” members of this historic band on stage (Mike Love and Bruce Johnston), and that’s just as many as The Who or KISS have, and twice as many as you’ll find on stage with ELO, Boston, Foreigner, or Jethro Tull (heck, the amazing Motörhead toured for decades with one legacy member, and no one complained). Just as significantly, some of the gentleman in Beach Boys ‘18 have been with the band for decades; guitarist Jeff Foskett (who, unfortunately, was absent from this show due to his daughter’s wedding) joined the Beach Boys 37 years ago, and Totten has been in the band for nearly two decades. But more importantly, the 2018 band feels like the Beach Boys; there is a looseness, a love of the space in the arrangements and the old-school boogie at the heart of some of the material, that actually makes this Beach Boys quite compatible with the band you hear on some of the fabulous live albums from 1964, ’65, ’66, ’70, and ’73.

How many bands, well over half a century old, can play their material on stage with a freshness that allows you to be touched anew and see new angles on the old songs?

The evening was full of such moments: “Disney Girls,” sung though the fainter, more emotional voice of 76 year old Bruce Johnston, took on a power, a Winterful happysad, that made it seem like one of the great Beach Boys songs of all time; this was one of the highlights of the set. Guitarist and vocalist Christian Love (Mike’s son) took “God Only Knows” (a song you can imagine no one but Carl Wilson singing) and he turned it into his own prayer. Drummer John Cowsill bit into “Darlin’” with an adamant power and passion that would have convinced you that he wrote the song himself. And Musical Director and guitarist Scott Totten sang “The Warmth of the Sun” with an intimacy and sentiment that made the 55-year-old song as sweet, blue and cool as a Nick Drake track.

But for me, the greatest revelation came during “Good Vibrations.”

To begin with, the Beach Boys – especially Totten and Cowsill – played the song as if they were a garage band (there’s that word again); they reveled in it, they celebrated it, they enjoyed the hell out of it. They treated “Good Vibrations” as a beloved classic, not as a classical piece. Secondly, this living, breathing, feeling, live rendition caused me to find something new in “Good Vibrations.” I have studied the Beach Boys the way some people have studied Star Trek, and experiencing a revelation – especially under the sonic burr and bright lights of a live performance – really is something special.

Here goes:

Brian Wilson, famously, lost his way when he tried to tell the story of American music in one single pop album. On SMiLE, Wilson wanted to take every fragment of sound that had ever moved or touched him, everything he felt in his Southwestern Okie transplant DNA, and filter it into every song, every bar. From Appalachia to Paul Whiteman to the Imaginary Ballroom, from “Happy Birthday” to the Hi-Los to the Haight Ashbury, he wanted it all in SMiLE.

About two-thirds of the way through “Good Vibrations” (right where the bass vamps for a bit before the Hallelujah Aaaaaahs that introduces the angelgasmic climax of the song), there’s a lonely, circus-at-dusk harmonica phrase. On the recording, you can find it from about the 2:35 point to the 2:52 mark.

On August 15, 2018 at The Ridgefield Playhouse when Randy Leago played this harmonica phrase, he played it with a powerful, earthy loneliness that stood in dramatic contrast to the magnificent opal and glass arrangement of “Good Vibrations.” Even though I had heard it eight thousand times, it felt like a shock. And that is when I realized something:

Everything Brian Wilson was trying to say on SMiLE was said in the twenty-second harmonica solo on “Good Vibrations.” In that boxcars-rolling-out-of-town harmonica solo, Wilson (and Leago via Wilson!) took the space-age summerfolk quasar chorale of “Good Vibrations” and summoned the memories of our first baby blanket, the sound of trucks on a far away highway heard from the crib, the fingernail-thin memory of the feel of the ceramic sink that you were being bathed in before you even knew words, the songs of your parents and your grandparents heard in scraps from the living room Magnavox while you sat in pajamas at the top of the stairs, and the country music on the AM radio heard while you twisted the dial trying to find a ballgame in the 1960s. The old and the new, the banjo and the H Bomb, the safety of mother and the freedom of sin, it’s all in that one goddamn harmonica solo!

And I didn’t realize that until I saw the live performance of “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys on August 15, 2018. And if a live performance can reveal something new about an incredibly familiar song, the band must be doing something very, very right.

Every night, the Beach Boys, America’s greatest band (a phrase I toss around with zero hesitation), carry onstage with them the most gorgeous, filigreed, buttercream-and-tears wedding cakes ever made in pop history. Not only do today’s Beach Boys play this material well, they also find a way to live in it, and to make it alive. The Beach Boys are still playing in the most exceptional, eternal American garage.

 

 

 

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 “America’s Greatest Band Understands the Why, Not Just the How

  • August 21, 2018 at 5:05 pm
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    Great review ! But, to truly see the Beach Boys you have to see Brian Wilson with Al Jardine (and once band member Blondie Chaplin). The band Brian has touring with him in my humble opinion far exceeds the Mike Love Band . Sadly, we may never see these two factions re unite again.

    Reply
  • August 21, 2018 at 6:07 pm
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    Wonderful article! I agree with every word.
    This is the sort of compliment America’s greatest band deserves!
    Thank you Tim!

    Reply
  • August 25, 2018 at 2:24 pm
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    One of the best articles I’ve read in years about The Beach Boys.

    Reply

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