On Sunday, July 31, 2011, I accomplished one of my big goals: I met Brian Wilson.
Along with my fiancee, I drove south that day to see the concert being held at the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and we arrived around 3:15 p.m. for the 7:30 show. We met my parents and my grandmother (mom's mom) there. We had some time to kill, but I arrived with the hope (verging on fantasy) that maybe I'd get a chance to actually sneak a peek at Brian close-up, and maybe even get an album signed (I brought along four vinyl records of my favorite albums, just in case).
We saw that one bus was parked along the side, and a truck full of equipment was being unloaded. My dad, being far more bold and adventurous than I, walked up to the guys unloading the equipment and asked if Brian had arrived yet and if he ever signed autographs for fans. The roadies said that Brian hadn't arrived yet, and that he sometimes was known to sign a few items if people were around when he arrived. They figured he'd arrive between 4 and 5, and it was about 3:30.
We all jumped into a car and drove around for a very short while. We discussed possibilities. We could go get something to eat. We could go for a paddle boat ride. We could hit some stores and pick up candy or drinks or something to tide us over during the show. You know, all that sort of stuff.
But I kept talking about how much I'd like to get something signed, if at all possible, and how much I'd even love just getting to see him from closer than the concert audience range. I was probably pretty annoying, but my family was very understanding and nice about my nerdish uber fandom. :)
We went back toward the Surf Ballroom, and we were driving by it at 3:48 p.m. (I looked at the clock to see how close to 4 p.m. it was) when we noticed a second bus had arrived. Well, that did it for me! We drove right over, I grabbed my records and three of us (me, my fiancee and my dad) walked over with the hope that maybe something would happen.
As we approached the buses, we saw there was already quite a group of people waiting, probably at least a dozen or more people. Many of them were holding albums (one lady was even clutching a copy of one of the albums I brought along, "The Beach Boys Love You," which impressed and pleased me), but we hadn't seen anyone actually getting anything signed. I was excited, though, and figured I'd stand out there all day if I had to. It'd be worth it!
I don't know if it was my dad asking the roadies, and them passing the word along. I don't know if it was me wearing the loudest, most vibrant blue Hawaiian shirt that has ever been made. I don't know if it was that we were standing apart from the bigger group. I don't know if it was heavenly intervention. I don't know if it was the fact that I said (rather loudly, I guess), "Hey, those are members of Brian's band! That's Jeff Foskett and that's Nicky Wonder!" and that caught attention ...
But something worked. Something clicked. We had been standing there MAYBE two minutes when Jeff Foskett, guitarist and singer (he does the high parts / falsettos) with the band, motioned me over. I couldn't BELIEVE that we'd been singled out. We'd just gotten there!
I tried to walk over looking calm and confidant (probably looking like a geek, but that's OK). I didn't want to be some crazy hysterical mess that would concern anyone. Sometimes Brian has stage fright, and I didn't want to be adding any kind of concern or stress to his load. Heck, I figured I'd be handing an album or two up and they'd just pass it back and get it signed, anyway, and probably wouldn't even get to see him up close. And that would have been cool with me! I was amazed I was even getting THAT close to him!
As I got within 5 feet of the bus, I was told that I could pick one of my records to be signed (out of the four I'd brought). For some, that might have been an "aw man, can't he sign more than that?" situation. For me, I was just stoked to get something signed at all! So I looked at my pile ("Pet Sounds," "Love You," "SMiLE" and "That Lucky Old Sun") and made the obvious choice ... I handed over "That Lucky Old Sun."
For Beach Boys and Brian Wilson fans, this decision was probably heretical and just plain insane. "Pet Sounds" is an undeniable classic, a record that even haters can understand and praise, with so many classic songs and rich history and subtext. Everyone knows "Wouldn't it Be Nice," and most people probably know or have heard "God Only Knows." Among Beach Boys fans and Brian Wilson enthusiasts, it's commonly chosen as the best work he's ever done. And "SMiLE," well ... it's legendary and amazing and nearly perfect. The drama and friction and stories behind that album are popular grist in every article written about the man since late 1966. Heck, even "Love You" is embraced by the fanatics as a genuine classic that only Brian Wilson could have crafted.
"That Lucky Old Sun?" How could I?
Well, my previous blog entry talks about the love I have for the album. And I do love it. And as perfect as "Pet Sounds" and "SMiLE" are, "That Lucky Old Sun" just hits me in the heart and soul better these days. It suits my current state of mind better.
Anyway, back to the story!
I handed up the album, which was still in the protective plastic. Jeff Foskett is handed the album and he was about to hand it over when he said, "Hey, man, don't you want to take this out of the plastic?" I said, "I own two copies of that album, I love it so much. I just didn't know how Brian preferred to sign things, and I figured I'd leave a copy in plastic if that's what he likes. Whatever he likes, that's great with me!" I wanted to be positive and easy going, but couldn't help being a little eager. I mean, this was Brian freaking Wilson!
Jeff kind of smiles a little and whips out a pocket knife and slits the plastic open, removing the album to expose the paper cover for Brian to sign. I see him hand it over, and then he looks at me and says, "What's your name?" I say, "My name is Chris." He says, "Chris, why don't you come up here and meet Brian."
My heart almost stopped. Literally. I was like, um, really? If you could have heard the sounds in my head, it would have been like a heavenly choir doing the "Hallelujah" part from Handel's "Messiah," combined with teen aged girls shrieking at the tops of their lungs. It was a real, genuine, "oh my good lord" THRILL.
So I step up and peek into the bus, and sitting right there next to the steps is the man himself. Brian Wilson. Showing all of his 69 years, but still looking healthy and relatively calm and happy. Jeff says, "Brian, this is Chris."
Brian holds out his hand and says, "Hi Chris, how are you doing?" I take his hand in mine and give it a friendly shake. His grip isn't strong, but it's firm and welcoming. I am almost totally ready to fall down, but somehow I screw up the guts to reply: "Hey Brian, I'm having a great day! How are you doing?" He smiles a little and says, "I'm doing good. It's a good day."
I start by thanking Brian for his music, and then I thank him for signing my album as he grabs a Sharpie and does his instantly recognizable signature across my copy of "That Lucky Old Sun." As Brian is nodding and signing, I look at Jeff and thank him for his great work. He plays a heck of a guitar and does a fantastic job singing, and I tell him that. I also tell him how much I enjoy some of his solo works. He says, "Hey man, thanks, I appreciate that." And he smiles a bit, too.
I have no doubt they hear this praise often. Many times a day. But they didn't ignore me, and they didn't shrug it all off. They were humble, pleasant and exactly what you hope your heroes will be.
Brian hands me the album and I back away slowly, with a huge dopey smile on my face. "Hey, thanks again! Thanks for everything! I can't wait for the show!" I say. They wave and their attention goes back to other things. They no doubt forgot my name within seconds, and may not have remembered my appearance within five minutes. But that doesn't matter. For about 30 seconds, my head was inside Brian Wilson's tour bus, I shook his hand, he said my name and we exchanged the most simple conversation any two people can have ... and it was momentous. It was huge. It was ... AMAZING.
As I walked back to my fiancee and father, I know I had a big grin on my face and probably looked more excited than a kid in a candy store! WOW! My dad has a grin on his face and my fiancee is smiling and they both ask what all was said, and I tell them. My fiancee says, "That's so cool, you finally got to meet your hero!" And it's true. I finally did.
That was the ribbon on the gift that was that day. I got to spend time with my fiancee and family. We were going to see a concert together. We'd have dinner together, spend time together and enjoy a night of legendary music together. That by itself was going to make for a lovely and wonderful time. But you add on meeting a hero of yours, getting a chance to shake his hand, hear him say your name, smile at you and get something signed by him? Magic. Sheer, inspiring magic.
Sure, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys aren't / weren't the Beatles. They didn't have to be. The Beatles were the Beatles. But Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were one of (if not the only) American artists/groups who competed against the Beatles at the height of the British Invasion and survived (and occasionally won). "I Get Around" was a No. 1 record in 1964, after the Beatles had arrived and broke records with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and owning the top five record spots in the charts. It was Brian Wilson and the gang that broke that stranglehold. "Help Me Rhonda" managed a similar feat in 1965. And the Beatles, ALL of the Beatles, loved "Pet Sounds" and were inspired by it. Paul McCartney calls "God Only Knows" the greatest song ever written (and says "You Still Believe In Me" is his favorite song). George Martin, the producer of the Beatles and the guy who really deserves the title of the fifth Beatle, said that "Pet Sounds" was the direct inspiration for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
So meeting Brian Wilson isn't the same as meeting Paul McCartney (which I haven't done), or meeting Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan, or (insert the name of some other big iconic music legend). Everyone has their favorite singer or group or songwriter or whatever. Everyone experiences these meetings in their own ways. Meeting Brian Wilson, for me, was the coolest thing. To single out just one musician who has made the biggest individual impact on my life/outlook/peace of mind/spirituality, he is it.
We walked away from the bus, the three of us, and I kind of looked back to see if the rest of the line was getting allowed up. I never saw anyone else motioned over. I'm not so big-headed as to think that no one else got anything signed, and thus I was the luckiest person in town that day. I'm sure others did get items signed. But even after we'd left to get some dinner before the show and had arrived to find a place to park, many of those same people were still waiting next to the bus. There were hundreds of people around now. Many of them were clutching vinyl records, CDs, posters, books, T-shirts. The woman clutching "Love You" when I had walked over to the bus was still standing around. Her album hadn't been signed (at least not yet, and it was about 6:40 by this time). Why was I picked? I don't question my good fortune, but I recognize it as just that: good fortune. It meant/means the world to me, and it's a memory (and a signed album) that I will treasure the rest of my life.
We'd seen a group of blind guys walking through the parking lot. You don't need eyes to hear great beauty. We saw people of advanced years there, maybe in their 70s themselves. Definitely many in their 60s. Plenty in their 50s. Dozens in their 40s. My fiancee and I, in our early 30s, were among the youngest there ... but there WERE children there. And they danced with the music. One 8-year-old kid (I'm guessing, he looked about 8) even started doing air drums during "Do It Again." How cool is that? That song was written and released in the late 1960s, maybe 1968/1969 (can't remember for sure off the top of my head, and too lazy to go look it up right now). This kid was maybe born in 2002, 2003. And he was caught up in the mood and energy of the song as much as me, and as much as the people there who heard it when it was a new song.
I got to see my Grandma dance to many of the songs. And she sang along with some of them. And I saw how happy and pleased she was with the six Gershwin songs that were performed that night ("Rhapsody in Blue," "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "I Got Rhythm" and "Nothing But Love"). There were moments when I saw tears in her eyes. I don't know if she was just thrilled to be there with family during this. I don't know if she was reliving moments of hearing that music in other times, at other places, with other people. I don't know if she just was thrilled by the music. Maybe it was all these things. But it was very moving.
I got to see my mom dance and sing along, looking happy and having a lot of fun. She's not the world's biggest Beach Boys fan, but the right songs get big reactions out of her ("Sloop John B" among them). She was moving and twisting along with "Dance Dance Dance" and bopping her head along with "California Girls," singing along with the parts when she knew them and harmonizing along when she didn't. She was in full fun mode, which warmed my heart.
I saw my dad grinning, shooting me thumbs up when some of his favorites were getting played. We exchanged looks often throughout the show. Sometimes I saw him drumming on his legs and knees. I saw him singing along, swaying with the music. And during "God Only Knows," he held my mom's hand and sang along to her, sometimes pointing at her during the "God only knows / what I'd be / without you" parts. Just utterly awesome.
I saw my aunt and uncle, swaying along with the music, clapping along to the big parts of the music, laughing and smiling and enjoying the company of the family. I don't think either are what you'd call fans of the Beach Boys, but they still enjoyed the concert and the energy and the fun ... and the family! (Yes, that's a lot of ands.)
And I got to be with my fiancee, swaying along together, sometimes singing together. Sometimes holding hands, and once even getting a smooch in during a song. I sang along with every song, and she sang along with the ones she knew. She clapped louder than I did, more than I did. The songs may have been "old" hits, but they still had all the energy and love they ever did, and she was open to all of it.
This shows the power of music, and of music of this quality and character. On a hot summer night in Iowa, a bunch of people of different ages and backgrounds came together to the sounds that have come to be part of the soundtracks of our lives.
It was a great night. A perfect night. Standing in line in 90-degree heat with oppressive humidity sucked, but it added a little bit to the good mood inside the theater (when you go from that sweltering situation into an air-conditioned, darkened ballroom, it's a pretty immediate relief). I'd already met my hero, I'd already had my favorite solo album of his signed, I'd already shaken his hand. Now I was seeing him for the third time. Seeing a guy who'd developed a reputation in the later 1960s through the late 1970s as a recluse. Seeing a guy who everyone figured would be dead early in the 1980s because of his drug abuse and physical condition. Seeing a guy who'd been saved and then abused by a doctor who had developed a control over him to an extent where casual meet and greets seemed impossible. Seeing a guy who'd conquered demons to release an album representative of the material that had contributed to his decline in 1967.
There's no simple way to describe how great this night was for me. I've written a ton here, and it doesn't do the feelings justice. It was the second time I'd seen Brian Wilson with my dad (we saw him together for the "SMiLE" tour). It was the second time I'd seen Brian Wilson with my fiancee (we saw him together for the "That Lucky Old Sun" tour). And they were the two who stood behind me as I got to meet Brian. How's that for cool?
I got to see Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, perform at a place called the Surf Ballroom. I mean, that's just a cool little coincidence. And to know the Beach Boys themselves performed there in the early 1960s, that's just a big full-circle trip.
And it may be Brian's last tour. He's hinted at that in many interviews. I would have kicked myself if I hadn't seen him on this tour, especially if it was his last.
And it's the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys' creation. Only Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson remain of the original group. Dennis Wilson died in 1983 (drowned) and Carl Wilson died in 1998 (cancer). Bruce Johnston, who joined as a touring member in 1965 and started singing on records and contributing songs later, continues to tour with Mike Love under the Beach Boys' name. But it's Brian Wilson that really has the heart and soul of the Beach Boys' music.
Brian didn't sing all of the leads on this tour. His band members took turns on some of them ("Wouldn't It Be Nice" was sung by Jeff Foskett, "Darlin'" was sung by Darian Sahanaja, "Sail On Sailor" was sung by Scott Bennett), and Jeff Foskett did the high parts on the songs that Brian did sing ("Don't Worry Baby," etc.). But his soulful, aged voice brought real emotion to the songs. Maybe he doesn't have the beautiful and pure voice he had in the 1960s, but his voice still suits the material. It adds depth and emotion and history and legitimacy to the ballads, and a battle-won triumph to the fun songs.
I could write more, but I don't need to. By this point, you've read all you need to read to know how great this was for me. I couldn't have asked for anything better, and it was already cooler than I'd dared hope.
A big thank you to my family and fiancee for making a perfect day even better.
Here's a review from the website NorthIowaToday.com: http://northiowatoday.com/top_story.php?subaction=showfull&id=1312217201&archive=&start_from=&ucat=11&