For all of its well-deserved accolades, the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion was missing two irretrievable elements. This remastering of a 1976 performance at Anaheim Stadium makes clear just how important the late Carl and Dennis Wilson were.
Carl, more than any other member of the band, seemed to embody the childlike innocence of brother Brian Wilson’s lost-soul symphonies. Without him, so much of Brian’s mythology would have been forgotten — if not the band itself, considering the lead role Carl took both on stage and as producer once his older brother’s influence began to fade into the 1970s. Dennis, on the other hand, was the rock ‘n’ roll rebel. (That’s him throughout the Good Vibrations Tour DVD wearing the shirt emblazoned with “No sweat.”) He was the one who gave the Beach Boys a badly needed sense of visceral danger.
Together here once more, in what then was considered a long-hoped-for reunion show, the sense of loss is staggering. As Carl adds this gleaming incorruptibility to “God Only Knows,” as Dennis offers a blissfully un-self conscious romanticism on “You Are So Beautiful,” the Good Vibrations Tour film becomes something more — something their recent reformation unfortunately couldn’t match.
The Beach Boys, it’s clear, were never quite the same after the brotherly bonds that linked Brian, Carl and Dennis were broken.
Good Vibrations Tour (due June 18, 2013 from Eagle Rock) begins, of course, with cousin Mike Love in all of his strangely florid glory, looking a little odd even then singing “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Be True to Your School” — not just because he was well past such high-school conceits, but because he also didn’t seem to be in on that. This weird dissonance remained, in a much more undiluted form, through to the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary album and tour last year, though by then both of Brian’s brothers were long gone.
In ’76, the principal thing holding them back had been Brian Wilson’s own reticence following the successes of Pet Sounds. Already 10 years on from that triumph, he had essentially become a recluse. So, Brian’s participation in this concert event was news. Yet he remains a shadow, rather than a real presence, as bandmates try to tell his story — as they try to make sense of what’s happened: “He’s very sensitive,” Dennis offers, while the water rushes by on his boat. “There’s nothing special about staying in the house. I don’t know. He just wanted to. He’s crazy! (Laughs uproariously.) With his money, he can do anything he wants.”
All that’s left is to try, somehow, to connect. The three brothers, bearded and a little bemused, are shown fooling around the piano for a song called “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man.” Crudely performed, yet sweetly charming, it stands now as a moment of sad reverie. At one point, this originally being a Lorne Michaels production, we find SNL’s John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd rousting the now-bloated Brian out of his bed in order to force him to surf. After a long ride to the beach, he reluctantly takes to the board — in a green velour robe.
“I stayed in my room for about three and half years,” Brian earlier admits, from beneath the covers of his bed. “I was hiding away from everything.”
The fashions recall another far-away moment, from childhood friend Al Jardine’s Uncle Sam top hat — in honor of the country’s centennial — to Carl’s sparkly jumpsuit. But the things that come out of their mouths are, then as now, timeless. Carl smiles so very shyly as he retraces the lyrics of “Sloop John B” that it provides a window into his soul, while Jardine’s showcase on the chart-topping “Help Me Rhonda” re-connects the band’s core sound once more with its bed-rock vocal-band influences. Unfortunately, there’s also Love, who would become a central figure in the Beach Boys’ on-going legacy as the Wilson brothers fell away. On these in-concert renditions of triumphs like “Good Vibrations,” Love seems as frivolous as the Hawaiian lei strung around his neck. If Carl can be described as the embodiment of that song’s lyric (he appears, really, to completely relive the moment), Love is equally disconnected — just a performer, singing a song.
And maybe he was. Maybe that was always the difference. The brothers’ lost connection (between themselves, and as the lifeblood of the Beach Boys) ran deeper, something Good Vibrations Tour makes so utterly clear. The credits roll as the group launches — whole again, as we remember them, warts and all — into the lonesome ironies of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” For this one moment, you could think and wish and hope and pray, and it did. It really did come true.