I know that what I remember happened between 7 and 8pm, because that’s when the Ed Sullivan show aired each Sunday. If I were to guess, I’d say that we were trick-or-treating, or going door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Those were the events that brought kids of varying ages together as a group back then. But the timing is all wrong, because the Beach Boys made their first of two appearances on the iconic show on September 27, 1964. And that’s what I recall seeing on TV through the front door when we stopped to pick up my sister’s friend Lenore. Perhaps we were going on a scavenger hunt. It was dark. I was ten. And in hindsight it feels like I drove by Woodstock and wondered what that music was. I barely paid attention, but the memory stuck with me.
In the intervening years I came to understand Lenore’s obsession with the legendary surf band. She wouldn’t leave the house until they finished playing “Wendy” and “I Get Around.” The broadcast was monochromatic, which perfectly suited the band’s wide-striped black and white shirts. Earlier that year the Beatles made their American debut on the same stage, so we had gotten somewhat used to audiences filled with screaming girls, and curious parents looking puzzled and somewhat horrified.
It is now days before Brian Wilson is scheduled to play at Ravinia in Highland Park Illinois. We have pavilion tickets for the show. I am neither puzzled nor horrified, but I am now the parent of a second generation Beach Boys fan. My daughter shares my love of all things Beach Boys, and her boyfriend is equally obsessed with Brian Wilson. Go figure.
I have lost track of the number of Beach Boys concerts I’ve attended through the years. A double bill with Chicago was a definite highlight in 1975. Changing outfits, hairstyles and band members never distracted from the overriding joyous California dream that pervaded each experience. Dennis and Carl died, but life went on. Brian toured sporadically, but his music carried the band’s legacy forward through the decades.
I have blasted surf music from an 8-track player through the open T-tops of a Corvette on hot summer nights, from cassettes in a mini-van with kids in the back seat, and poolside from an iPod at the house where I plan to retire. For me, the music is timeless, my reaction is visceral and mood-altering. The Beach Boys make the sun shine on the cloudiest of days.
There used to be a concert venue called Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. I was among the first to subscribe to the “mellow” series – performers like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet and the Beach Boys. My seats were in the third row, renewable each year as long as I wished.
It is now well-documented, in an autobiography and the recently released film, “Love and Mercy” how Brian Wilson struggled with drugs and an emotional breakdown, becoming an obese, bearded recluse while the band played on. Dennis’s death during 1983 shook the Wilson brothers and fans alike. The endless summer was over, for Dennis anyway. Brian quit appearing on stage again.
At a memorable show during Brian’s absence in the early 80s, I smuggled half a dozen small, un-inflated beach balls into the open-air theater. I blew them up, hunched over in my seat, and surreptitiously set them loose. Security tried to snag them over the sound of jeering fans. Eventually, one made it’s way onto the stage to the feet of Mike Love, who never flinched. Holding a microphone in one hand, singing a classic surf tune, he landed a well-place kick on the nearby ball and sent it sailing up and over the head of a man in the front row.
Oh, that man. Motionless, bearded and obese. I wondered how he could be so detached from the action on stage and all around him. He occupied the best seat in the house, alone in the otherwise empty front row. He sat staring at the stage, perhaps experiencing the concert on a level that no one but he could ever understand. There may have been other tunes in his mind, complicated chords or instrumentation that no one else would ever hear.
In yet another Forest Gump moment, I repeated the metaphoric Woodstock drive-by. I barely paid attention, but the visual stuck with me. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what until that time had been only rumored about the health and condition of my musical hero. I turned my attention back to the antics on stage, the music, the magic, the glorious summer sounds on an endless summer night, blissfully unaware that I was sitting twenty feet from the genius who created it all.