It’s a twisted and tragic story. It’s the tale of the Beach Boys, or to be more pointed about it – it’s the near-myth of Brian Wilson and his cousin, Mike Love.
It's a decades-long soap opera that pits tortured creative genius (Wilson) against unflinching lack of cool, often portrayed from beneath the brim of a baseball cap shading a creepy twinkle in the eye (Love). And it will be played out once again over the next week, when Wilson and his band and the Love-led Beach Boys arrive in the region for four shows between them, all of which are sold out.
Two paths did indeed diverge on a yellow beach, back in the late '60s, when Wilson (according to the legend) gobbled too many psychedelics, started hearing pop music as “mini-symphonies to God,” made one of the greatest records ever laid to tape (“Pet Sounds”), alienated his band mates (Love, mostly) and promptly suffered an ego collapse that he soothed by building a sandbox in his living room, moving a grand piano into it, and chain-smoking fatties while pursuing the ever-elusive muse. This is the version of the story presented by the John Cusack-as-Wilson vehicle “Love & Mercy,” and it’s also the basic outline adhered to in simultaneously released autobiographies from Wilson (“I Am Brian”) and Love (“Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy”). Is it the truth? I’m not even sure if Wilson and Love know that for sure any more.
What we do know is that the present-day Beach Boys – led by Love, the only remaining founding member, bolstered by the long-serving Bruce Johnston, and fleshed out by a bunch of able-bodied ringers – is basically a nostalgia act, a jukebox full of memories awaiting only your quarter ($67.80, actually) and your attention.
We also know that the smart money is on Wilson, even if he is – so sadly – only a shadow of the artist who gave us so many Beach Boys classics. Why? Because Wilson is the only living genius in the Beach Boys family tree – deceased brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson were pretty brilliant, too – and Love knows it. Which might explain the crankiness, which pops up periodically in interviews, on stage and in his “Good Vibrations” tome. Just as Paul McCartney was never going to be deemed as cool as John Lennon after Lennon was martyred, so too has Love found himself measured against “Saint Brian.”
Admittedly, it’s too easy to paint Love as the villain to Wilson’s hero. It’s a matter of record that Love found the “Pet Sounds” material to be odd and lacking in commercial appeal, at least initially. Love wanted to continue touring. Wilson – psychedelicized, not into touring and intent on stretching the parameters of pop music – was a threat to what Love perceived as a career that was moving along just fine, thank you. It's convenient to read this as the classic struggle between art and commerce.
The Beach Boys made many great albums without Brian Wilson, but it would be a stretch to credit Love as the main creative force behind any of them. Two of the band’s finest albums of the '70s were driven by the creative vision of Dennis Wilson (1972’s brilliant “Carl & the Passions”) and the then-new guy, Blondie Chaplin (1973’s indispensable “Holland”). Love was in the band, but he was more passenger than cruise director. It was as the face of the touring version of the band that Love made his greatest contributions. The Beach Boys were both passion and business to him, and they still are. He’s more than happy to trot out the hits at a casino or state fair. Lord knows the B-Boys have enough of ‘em to choose from.
Wilson, by contrast, is still measuring himself against “Pet Sounds” and “Smiley Smile,” high watermarks he has not come close to reaching in the nearly 50 years since. His UB show will find him – joined by Beach Boys alums Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, much to Love’s chagrin, no doubt – running through “Pet Sounds” in its entirety, to mark the album’s 50th anniversary, and to lay it to rest, according to the small print.
Though Wilson is not the singer he once was, he surrounds himself with top-tier musicians and singers, and they routinely capture the glory of this epic music. Love, on the other hand, goes through the motions. He doesn't necessarily phone it in, but hey, how many times can you sing “Surfin’ USA,” particularly when you know Wilson is performing the very album you fought against him making, for multigenerational crowds of people convinced that it's one of the greatest artistic works of the 20th century?
Man. That’s gotta sting. But it's just business. Nothing personal. Right?
Who: Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour
Where: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28
Tickets: Sold out, some VIP packages remain (Tickets.com)
Who: The Beach Boys
Where: Avalon Ballroom, Fallsview Casino, Niagara Falls, Ont.
When: 8:30 p.m. Sept. 29, Sept. 30 and 9 p.m. Oct. 1
Tickets: Sold out