Friday, November 14, 2008

Sail on, Brian Wilson

One afternoon long ago, I walked into the offices of The Daily Targum to find Oregon's foremost financial wizard engrossed in a conversation with Mr. J about the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds. He kept referencing it over and over again.

Finally, I asked.

"What's Pet Sounds?"

He was kind enough to overlook my status as a cultural rube and fill me in. In his mind, it was just about the best album in the history of mankind. His fierce devotion to the album made me curious, and eventually I bought the album to investigate.

Kudos to E.P. for his rabid insistence that I check Pet Sounds out, for it has become one of my all-time favorites in the decade-plus since that afternoon in Suite 431. Out of that, a desire grew to see one of the 20th century's true musical geniuses, Brian Wilson, perform live.

Mrs. VFR and I got that chance Wednesday night when Wilson brought himself and his excellent 10-person band to the Michigan Theater, one of two solid concert venues in town.

Maybe it was because it was a little odd to see Wilson sitting center stage in front of his keyboard, reading his lyrics off a teleprompter, but the show got off to a slow start. The audience was dead.

About three or four songs into the evening, the audience pretty much snored through California Girls. (Mrs. VFR, Baby VFR and myself were rare exceptions, up and dancing).

One of the guitar players then wondered out loud whether we had all be lulled by "sleeping gas," and seriously asked if they needed to play California Girls again to awaken people.

It was an embarrassing effort by Ann Arborites. One of music's greatest living composers played our little stain on the map, and the majority of townspeople sat comatose.

Everyone exhaled a little after that well-deserved admonishment, and let loose. Wilson then introduced God Only Knows, what he called "the best song I've ever written," and the show kicked up a notch.

He rolled through an off-the-hits-track gem in Sail On Sailor, then rallied again with Good Vibrations, Surf's Up and Fun, Fun, Fun. By the time the show reached intermission, we were awash in a melodic mix of horns, guitars and layered harmonies.

While those popular Beach Boys hits of the '60s served as the underpinnings of the show, the best part of the night came in the second act.

Wilson played his new album, "That Lucky Old Son," in its entirety, and was joined on stage by three violinists.

At first, I was a little nervous the crotchety old crowd might cringe over the fact he turned away from the Top 40 stuff, but they survived.

The new album is a wonderful compilation, a love letter to Los Angeles, the city that came of age in the late 1950s and 60s and sold itself to America by offering up surfing and T-Bird images that populate the Beach Boys' music.

But Lucky Old Son is more melancholy than sunshine, and there are corners of sadness and regret for every note of confidence. In that way, it reminds me of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge," their look at loneliness in L.A.

It's just a beautiful album that embraces the boldness and heartbreak of the Beach Boys' brilliance, as well as the modern city as a place of hope and aspiration. It's something Wilson could only have written with age and his kaleidoscope of life experience.

And it was a treat to hear it live.

He closed the show with a rollicking six-song encore that kicked off with a cover of Johnny B Goode, and included Barbara Ann, Help Me Rhonda and Surfin' USA. For those last two, he came off the keyboard and joined his bandmates with Fender in hand.

By that point, the crowd had redeemed itself and we left thrilled, knowing that we had spent the night witnessing one of music's elder statesman put on an excellent show with a very, very good backing band.

Two days later, I'm still ooohing and ahhing, and baa-baa-baabbing.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Garden State pride

A little blend of Jersey and personal history for you tonight:

Before Bruce Springsteen reached the crescendo of his fame and The Sopranos made the Meadowlands a landmark in popular culture, New Jersey had a bit of an image problem.

To the rest of the country, the state was most known for its Superfund sites, syringes on the shores of Sandy Hook, gritty refineries along the Turnpike and stupid 'Joisey' jokes.

There was no avenue to counter those images. Wedged between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey existed as a media oddity. She possessed one of the countries largest populations within her borders, yet had no major media outlets of her own.

All of North Jersey congregated around the New York television channels. All of Southern Jersey aligned with Philly. The result? A full-blown identity crisis for the Garden State.

One microscopic exception to this media-created truism was the New Jersey Network.

The NJN was Jersey's branch of public television and radio. Fifteen years ago, when I used to watch the network, public television and radio did not have the geeky cache it has today, so the station's reach was miniscule and its stature pretty much irrelevant.

After airing its nightly lineup of eclectic programming, it closed its broadcast every night at midnight with the above video, a proud tribute to the underrated qualities of the state.

I'm not sure how we first latched onto this nightly farewell, but those of us who lived at 55 Duke Street during college made it part of our evening viewing. First, it was a curiosity. Then a habit. Then an all-out event.

Watching NJN's nightly sign-off was something that was not to be missed on Duke Street.

(What's that? And you wonder why we never had a date?)

At first, I think we were taken with the corny nature of the video. But then, we grew to actually like it. The joke was on us. I won't speak for others, but I can admit now that we actually enjoyed the video -- particularly the black woman wearing the yellow dress and over-sized glasses, who exudes nothing but sheer joy as she bends down to pick up her newspaper.

She got a rousing round of applause every night.

If nothing else, some of this Jersey celebration was pride. We had all attended our "safe" school, somehow failing to join the legions of others who fulfilled their teen-aged dreams of being sprung from cages on Highway 9 and pulling out of here to win. We didn't quite make it across the border.

So we had to rationalize our failures and grasped at the scant positives we could find.

But some of this also stemmed from Bill Gillette's excellent New Jersey history class, where we learned to appreciate the Jersey beyond the cliches -- the one portrayed in the video -- the one that conjoins the cranberry bogs of the Pine Barrens with the ivy-covered campuses of Rutgers College and Princeton.

The one that courageously hosted George Washington as he toppled the British in Trenton, and the one that provided the cliffs for the backdrop of the Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton duel. The Jersey of Sinatra and Springsteen.

The one that is the true home of the New York Giants and Jets, not to mention the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the one that welcomed immigrants to its textile mills more than a century ago and the one that welcomes them to Edison today.

This is the real Garden State.

So those of you who only know the industrial wasteland near Carteret or the murder rates of Camden, let's keep it that way. You keep making your snide remarks, and we'll keep New Jersey's finer qualities our little secret.

And you with the Joisey jokes?

As Tony Soprano might say, go fuck yourself.


(Kudos go to Army's most intrepid football reporter for unearthing this video in recent days and giving some of us 55 Duke Street veterans a good chuckle).

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