The Lefsetz Letter: Brian Wilson At The Hollywood Bowl


What could be better than hearing "Good Vibrations" on a hot summer night in America's premier outdoor concert venue?

Hearing "California Girls" for the very first time?

"I Get Around" hooked me. I was an avid bowler. I lived to knock down the pins. I was in a league on Saturday and every Friday Mr. Conley took our sixth grade class to the lanes. Two strings were de rigueur, on Saturdays sometimes I bowled a third, at thirty five cents, before automated scoring, when you were actively involved even if you weren't mowing down the pins yourself, using that big black marker to write down the totals, something seemingly most people were unable to do, like read a map, we live in a modern world where basic skills are no longer needed, arithmetic anybody? But in the dark ages of the sixties you not only scored, you ate french fries, krinkly things from the snack bar, and after cleaning my ball, as I waited for departure, I was glued to the jukebox.


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I remember hearing "Walk Like A Man,' I was a Four Seasons fanatic. My mother purchased "Big Girls Don't Cry," but I was the one who needed "Dawn (Go Away)," that's still my favorite, although I bought "Ronnie" and "Ragdoll" and the British were invading and obliterating everyone in their wake except for a little old band from Hawthorne, California, the Beach Boys, "I Get Around" held its own on the Nutmeg Bowl jukebox that spring of 1964.

Round round get around, I get around.

They played that last night. And when I say "they" I mean Brian didn't sing everything, his high notes were performed by Matt Jardine, who also sang "Don't Worry Baby," his voice was uncannily akin to Brian's on the records.

But when the assembled multitude backed Brian as he sang about being bugged about driving down the same old strip…

Crickets. The Bowl was quiet. Weren't they aware they were in the presence of America's greatest rock and roll songwriter? An icon with so many hits that he can't play them all in one night? The assembled multitude ultimately warmed up for "Pet Sounds," but by that time Brian's voice was ragged, he was struggling, yet before that…

He was the best I've heard him in his comeback days.

I'm not saying he didn't miss notes, but in the early numbers you didn't need to pull for him, he was carrying the show, and I marveled.

When you get infected by a song your whole perspective changes. Your life makes a left turn. It's aural dope, you can't live without it. I rode my bike down to Topps discount department store in July of '65 to buy "Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)" because I had to own "California Girls."

I'd gone back and bought "Surfin' USA." "Shut Down Volume 2" and "Surfin' Safari" previously. Just months before I'd had my dad take me to Korvette's to buy "The Beach Boys Today!," with the ultimately ersatz iteration of "Help Me Ronda," but with "When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)" and "Dance, Dance, Dance" too. But the album started off with their cover of "Do You Wanna Dance?" which I dropped the needle on at the Camp Laurelwood social the first weekend in August and stole Jimmy Calechman's girlfriend Jill Philipson, just like that, I had the music in me, I was inspired.

But "Today!" didn't prepare me for "Summer Days." It contained my favorite Carl Wilson vocal ever, "Girl Don't Tell Me," the hit version of "Help Me, Rhonda," the indelible "Let Him Run Wild"…

And "California Girls."

For the month of July, before I went to Laurelwood, I went to the day camp up at Fairfield Woods Junior High, and I slung my transistor over the handlebars and it was there, riding my bike on the asphalt path, that I first heard "California Girls."

And that sealed the deal, Californ-i-a here I come!

And that's where I am.

And when I heard that intro last night…

"California Girls" was like nothing else, it started with an extended instrumental, and then started to gallop…

"Well east coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear"

It was a different era, the world was bigger, melody ruled, singability was key, harmony was transcendent and…

I kept calling to see if "Summer Nights" was in stock and I rode down the day of release, I had to walk my bike up the hill on my way back, but when I got home all sweaty and I broke the shrinkwrap and dropped the needle…I WAS IN HEAVEN!

And I was in heaven when I heard "California Girls" last night, singing along to all the words I knew by heart.

And when Al Jardine sang "Help Me, Rhonda" the circle was complete, my life made sense, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

I know, I know, Brian Wilson is 74. And tech rules the world. And it's all about personal branding. You boast about your accomplishments on LinkedIn and shoot endless snaps for social media but…

None of that holds a candle to a song.

When it tests limits and pleases all at the same time.


By time Brian cued up "Good Vibrations" everybody was on their feet, singing along, heads aimed skyward in tribute to God, that he delivered such exquisite life-stimulating and life-saving work through his subject Brian Wilson.

We knew it was great back then, but we were exposed to greatness every day. Everybody played the guitar, bands tried to top each other, barriers were to be broken and all we had to do was flick the switch and these mellifluous sounds emanated from our transistors, the iPhones of their day.

Sometimes when I hear these songs I'm just a little boy. The attrition of the years wears off. I'm not only reminded of who I once was, but I'm that same person once again.

It's like I just finished a string at the Nutmeg Bowl, like I just stole Jimmy's girlfriend, like I just came home in the July heat and dropped the needle on the best Beach Boys album of all time.

God only knows how Brian wrote this music, how inexperienced and unheralded Tony Asher wrote these lyrics.

Tony was on stage last night. He's still here.

And so is Brian.

And you know all these songs by heart.

And if you're looking for fun in the sun, go to the show and you'll be happy.

But for those of us who went down the rabbit hole, whose lives were changed by hearing this music… When you see Brian Wilson on stage, singing the story of your life…

You leave your phone in your pocket.

You love instead of hate.

And you feel privileged to have lived through this era and to still be standing.

We came on the Sloop John B. You and me. And last night the boat slipped into the dock and we were most definitely HOME!

P.S. Blondie Chaplin sang "Wild Honey" and his signature song, "Sail On Sailor." And as thrilling as that was, what made me marvel was when he worked out on his Les Paul in between verses, I didn't know the South African had the chops, and as he was wringing out the notes I realized that one Gibson is more powerful than any computer, any app, through its strings you can pull a noise more addictive than OxyContin, people are gonna pick up guitars and other musical instruments in the future, because there's no other way to gain that power, plugging your guitar into a bank of amps and dominating those in attendance, making them pay attention.

P.P.S. The best and the brightest made music. The audience lived for it, there was nothing more powerful. It was the soundtrack to life and love, protest and politics too. If you're younger, I'm not sure you'll get it. If you evaluate last night's show through a modern lens you might find it substandard. Today we expect perfection, we expect everything to work right out of the box and never fail. The record never skips and no one ever hits a bad note. Whereas as great as the supporting players were, Brian was imperfect. As are we. He evidenced humanity. He was stiff, albeit less so than recently. He was reading the lyrics from a too-obvious teleprompter, but he was there, with a smile on his face, he knew he'd written these songs, he knew what they meant to us, he was hanging ten on the ocean of our support. It ended up a tribal rite that left you speechless. Because music possesses that power, the ability to take over your brain and transport you to another dimension. And Brian Wilson was definitely somewhere else when he wrote all this stuff, but he brought it back from another planet just for us, without our ears it's meaningless, with ours it's more powerful than any gun, any weapon of mass destruction, because it's all about hearts and minds, and last night Brian had OURS!