20th Century Boys: Brian Wilson and George Gershwin

I’m on a brief sojourn to L.A. just now, checking back into the Brian Wilson scene in pursuit of some up-close-n-personal journalism for the Times of the UK, the hometown paper and the good ol’ blog. Also some book work tossed into the cracks, but that’s every day these days. Most days, no matter where, feel long and frantic and panic-inducing. So power through and keep an ear on the horizon. Most days, nothing. But just now something’s in the wind. Here comes “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” which on the face of it sounds unexpected and, you might think, impossible.

But listen, listen, listen.

There’s a whole other sphere, a whole other web of influence and connection.  You’ve already heard it from Brian, in fact — consider the textural leaps and bounds in ‘Good Vibrations,’ the way “Surfin’ USA,” blends St. Louis r&b with jazz harmony, surf guitar, straight-up rock ‘n’ roll and more, and you get the idea. Or how about “The Girls on the Beach”? A whole song about social connection, about the easy mix of cultures, styles, ideas. The girls on the beach are all within reach, if you know what to do.

Brian Wilson knows what to do.

At the debut/listening party Brian & friends held at the Pacific Design place last night they spun the new record on vinyl (a few pops on the play-in and play-out grooves; sounded oddly beautiful) and the crowd of 100-plus (including mc/liner notes author David Wild, whose work speaks for itself, and whose boyish enthusiasm says even more for said work’s depth of feeling) sat quietly from the unadorned harmonies in the “Rhapsody in Blue” intro through the amazing GG/BW collaobration “The Like in I Love You” and on and on, through the cornpone riverboat “I Got Plenty of Nothin” through the eerily cool surfin’ noir of “Summertime,” and beyond, beyond.

I sat near David Leaf, my old hero (“The Beach Boys and the California Myth”) and for the last 10 years or so a friend and rabbinical figure, and got a charge absorbing it all alongside him. Some moments so surprising and lovely all you could do was look up, shake your head and laugh.

I do think it’s that good.

Earlier, catching up with the band a few minutes before they trooped out to intro the album with a live performance of the “Rhapsody” opening, Brian perched on a sofa and looked, well, wonderful. His hair shaggy, his eyes full of sparks. Remember when he’d seem like the world’s least happy zombie when he had to stand (let alone perform) in front of audiences? Last night he was raring to go, and delighted to be there. He walked up to Leaf at one point and said, ‘This guy is magic! You walk into the room and I just feel great!”

Brian’s music, the good stuff, anyway, makes me feel the same way. Everyone has peaks and valleys, and some BW releases are mixed bags – some tunes feel inspired, others feel a little more laboredt. But here’s a great and unexpected twist: “BWRG” is the real thing, end to end. It’s the heart of BW, interpreted by Himself, and seemingly unfiltered. It works on levels I can’t even describe yet. Too soon, I need another ten or 20 spins to really get the hang of the songs, to grasp the connections, to trace the journey between young BW’s primal bond to “Rhapsody in Blue” through the length of his own life and work, to this masterpiece of cultural/musical synthesis/imagination/artistry.

A small, beautiful thing. It’s sitting here next to the computer in my hotel room. And really, s’wonderful.

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