A few days ago I saw the new Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy. As I mentioned to my wife Sylvia after the film, and at the risk of sounding a bit too sentimental, I was misty-eyed during much of the movie. Maybe it’s an emotional attachment to the music of the Beach Boys in general, and Brian Wilson in particular. The attachment extends more specifically to the album Pet Sounds, the production of which was an integral part of the film story. Maybe I’m simply a fan.
When Pet Sounds was released in May 1966 I was finishing my sophomore year in high school, had just put together a garage band, and had landed my first full-time summer job as a private groundskeeper for a well-to-do retired businessman in my hometown. I’d always enjoyed the Beach Boys and their songs about summer, surfing, cars and girls. My cousin Mike and I even went to Chicago, driven there by my uncle, to hear the Beach Boys in concert at McCormick Place the previous year. Brian Wilson had stopped touring with the band by then which was a disappointment. However, his place on bass guitar and harmonies was capably filled by Glen Campbell.
Pet Sounds was a different Beach Boys record. It was more introspective and personal music. The songs on that record spoke to me in a way that’s difficult to describe. All day long during that summer I mowed acres of grass, reseeded several patches of lawn, and labored at other outdoor chores. All the while, each song from Pet Sounds played repeatedly in my head. I heard every nuance of every note played and every lyric sung. It helped pass the time while working and would be the equivalent today of wearing earbuds connected to an iPod. But it was all in my head. There was no external device.
As much as I liked that album, most of my friends did not. And I knew this was not music my garage band could play. So at each day’s end that summer, I’d go home and clean up for dinner, maybe have a few bandmates over to practice, and then go to my room to play some records or listen to WLS Radio, the “Big 89.” But the next working day it would usually be Pet Sounds in my head.
Summer ended, school reconvened, I bought a new bass guitar with the money I earned and continued to play gigs with my band. The Beatles released Revolver, the Beach Boys released Good Vibrations and life went on.
I heard the Beach Boys again in 1971 at Notre Dame, again sans Brian Wilson. Sylvia, Colin and I caught them one more time in LaCrosse around 1989, this time with neither Brian nor his brother Dennis Wilson who had died tragically a few year earlier.
At last in 2002, Sylvia and I were fortunate to be at the foot of the stage to hear Brian Wilson and his band at the House of Blues in Chicago. During intermission between sets, a stagehand picked up set lists off the floor and placed new ones. I could read one from where I stood. They would be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety. When the concert was over, they left the stage to thundering applause. Returning for their encores, I caught Brian Wilson’s eye as he walked to his electric piano. I can’t explain why, but he veered toward me and extended his hand to shake mine, which I gladly did. I expected him to shake a few more hands along the way, but he didn’t. Mine was the only one. Maybe he knew… I’m simply a fan.