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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Beach Boys back to surf

The group overcome tragedy, enmity and lawsuits for their current 50th-anniversary tour
The Straits Times - August 21, 2012
By: John Lui
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Beach Boys back to surf The Beach Boys in their prime and today (above,from left) Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and David Marks. -- PHOTOS: GUY WEBSTER, CAPITOL PHOTO ARCHIVES

They love The Beach Boys in Japan. On this muggy Thursday night in Chiba City, an hour's train ride out of downtown Tokyo, the band will be playing their first Japanese show in over 30 years with all core members present.

This being the nation where Americana, especially that of the rock 'n' roll variety, is taken seriously, many men turn up in the standard fan attire of Hawaiian shirts.

But half the crowd of 12,000 here to see the band on their 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour are the same age as the grandchildren of the septuagenarian musicians. The fans, born long after drug addiction and musical differences had ripped the band apart, know the words and sing along with the choruses.

The tour touches down here tomorrow night at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

The lights come on and cheers ring out for Mike Love, 71, Bruce Johnston, 70, Al Jardine, 69, and David Marks, 63, as one by one, they bounce onto the stage.

The loudest cries at the QVC Marine Field, a baseball stadium, are for the last member to be introduced: Brian Wilson.

The mentally tortured and physically fragile genius behind many of the band's biggest hits walks slowly to his keyboard seat, helped by an assistant. Then, for a breathless 1½ hours, The Beach Boys and a nine-piece backing band tear through the catalogue of hits - Little Deuce Coupe, I Get Around, Don't Worry Baby, California Girls and Good Vibrations.

By barely taking a breath between songs and rushing back for the encore, they knock out 33 songs, a number musicians a third their age would be proud to achieve. The doo-wop harmonies are not only tight, they also sound just as they do on the classic albums. The audience is ecstatic.

In contrast to his bandmates who sway and strut, Wilson, 70, remains planted in his seat. That ethereal falsetto, once the magic behind Don't Worry Baby and Surfin' USA, is long gone, destroyed by chainsmoking during the 1970s. The high parts are handled by backing musician Jeffrey Foskett, a mere stripling at age 56.

Wilson takes the vocal lead on lesser- known songs Sail On, Sailor and Heroes And Villains. His tone is clear, if a little wobbly. Still, for a few moments, the cloud that appears to hang stubbornly over him lifts. The man with the legendary perfectionist streak seems to be in the present, and enjoying himself.

Life! had met Wilson earlier the same day for an interview. The singer-songwriter spoke in a clipped monotone and had a distracted look. He was not being the impatient rock star.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, he has coped with paranoia and depression, problems made worse by drug abuse. More recently, he has been diagnosed with a type of schizophrenia. A bandmate tells Life! that Wilson is actually less mentally fogged these days compared with the early 2000s, when the illness had a stronger grip on him.

That does not make interviewing him any easier, though. Asked if the lyrics he wrote in the 1960s about cute girls and fast cars evoke different feelings in him when he sings them today, he says: "No. They are the same."

But why? Shouldn't they resonate differently with a singer much older than the man who sang them in the early 1960s?

"Well, we used to write about surfing and cars. Now we write about girls and vacations," he says, to a puzzled silence from those present. We decide to abandon that line of questioning and move on.

The current tour is a minor miracle or, as cynics would call it, an example of how a paycheque can heal all wounds. The 50th-anniversary tour brings together members who for years had communicated only through lawyers firing dockets at one another.

Lead singer Mike Love had sued his cousin Wilson a few times, over matters such as lack of songwriting credit and improper use of The Beach Boys music. Love has also hauled guitarist-singer Al Jardine into court over the use of The Beach Boys name, at a time when former members fronted their own The Beach Boys-like live show.

But bygones are bygones, members have told the media in the months leading up to this year's world tour.

The shows began in April in the United States, mostly full houses. Tokyo is the band's first Asian stop, coming just after a stint in Europe. After two more dates in Osaka and Nagoya, the band fly here, then Hong Kong, before making the final leg through Australia and London.

Wilson is asked, how is he getting along with Love, a man he had seen in court once or twice?

"We're becoming friends. We're becoming friends. We like to share our harmonies with people. Our vocal harmonies," he says. Asked to elaborate, he says: "We travel together, we stay at the same hotels. And we do the concerts."

"It's a good lifestyle," he adds, flashing a rare smile.

Love is in high spirits. Just before the interview with Wilson, he talks about his fondness for Singapore. He has been here thrice on holiday and has considered buying a home on the multi-millionaires' patch of Sentosa Cove.

"You guys run a tight ship," he says, approvingly. The first thing the vegetarian and avid follower of transcendental meditation does when he comes here - head to Little India for a spicy curry.

Love, with Wilson, Marks, Johnston and Jardine, released The Beach Boys album That's Why God Made The Radio in June this year, their first since the 1998 death from cancer of founding member Carl Wilson, Brian's younger brother. His other brother Dennis, also a founding member, drowned in 1983.

Produced by Wilson, featuring mostly songs co-written by him, the new album debuted strongly at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. The tour's purpose is also to promote the album and features a Carl and Dennis tribute segment.

Working in the studio with Love and the others after a break of over a decade was "a thrill", says Wilson. "The guys still sing good. They have good voices."

He, however, is aware his range is not what it used to be. The task of hitting the highs is now in the hands of Foskett, who is present at the interview to give emotional support and fill in information gaps.

Wilson says he does not need to look for motivation to stay the course in the music business. In fact, he still practises singing daily. He loves it so much, he says, he sings for two hours each morning when he wakes up. He finds relaxation in taking walks in the park.

"I walk around by myself, and see the trees and pretty flowers," he says.

Foskett, a musician hired to play with The Beach Boys after he was spotted covering their music in a bar, says Wilson takes vocal coaching twice a week when he is back home.

For now, Wilson says he is enjoying himself very much on the current tour and is looking forward to recording another Beach Boys album and going on another world tour to support it.

It is surprising to hear this, firstly because it is a sign of how much fences have been mended with cousin and bandmate Love. It also reveals how far he has come from the man who suffered a nervous breakdown in 1964 during a flight after which he opted to stay home to pursue songwriting rather than tour.

The band this time are saying that sometimes, bigger is better. Their American shows on this tour have comprised over 40, sometimes almost 50 songs, says singer-keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. It is also why there are as many as 14 musicians on stage. If the feeling is right and if the crowd is responsive, the band dig deep into the complex vocal harmonies of the seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds and the other celebrated work, SMiLE (2004). The thick layering of voices is all done live, says Sahanaja.

These baroque arrangements are typical of Wilson's quest for the ultimate in songcraft. His musical ambition is legendary and is cited as a reason for the band's dissolution as well as for their greatness. Pet Sounds, which got a lukewarm response in the United States when it was released, now appears regularly on the best-of lists in rock magazines and is heralded by musicians and critics as a work that changed the course of pop music.

Getting Wilson to talk about Pet Sounds, however, is another thing altogether. Sahanaja says Wilson is not the type to ponder his own impact on culture.

"Once he has done something, he moves on," he says. In an interview with The Washington Post, Wilson's wife Melinda said he has never fully grasped the cultural weight that others have attached to his work, so it can seem as if he is unable to accept compliments. Asked to analyse his own classic recordings, such as Good Vibrations, he tends to nitpick the flaws, the article noted.

The question is put to Wilson anyway. What does it feel like to have made Pet Sounds, a record enshrined in the annals of rock history as among the greatest of all time?

"I like the feeling of musical ability. It's a good feeling, you know," he says.

And that it is considered a cultural landmark, does it mean anything to you?


He offers a longer answer when asked what he feels when he hears Pet Sounds or SMiLE today. "I have a glow in my heart. And I feel very good," he says.

Later that night, the band walk off the stage following the encore (Kokomo, Barbara Ann and Fun, Fun, Fun). The stadium has a curfew, so the group needs to wrap up after 33 songs, rather than play the usual setlist comprising 40 to 50 tunes. The crowd chant but to no avail. They, obviously, have a glow in their hearts and they feel very good.

'Well, we used to write about surfing and cars. Now we write about girls and vacations.'

Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys

Book it


Singapore Indoor Stadium

Tomorrow, 8pm

$103 to $353. Tickets from Sistic (go to or call 6348-5555)


Bridge to art from Malaysia