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Mostly Good Vibrations as Stars Honor Beach Boys' Brian Wilson

Pop Music: Top artists showcase the musician's innovative songs, sometimes with uneven results.

March 31, 2001|LETTA TAYLER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — For most listeners, the music of the Beach Boys is a male euphoria of endless summer in which the surf's up and the T-birds are revved. But Brian Wilson, the creative force behind that sound, is a far more complex figure, one whose pop music innovations in the studio transcended the seemingly vacuous pursuit of "Fun, Fun, Fun."

For years, Wilson's brilliance was overshadowed by his bouts with mental illness and drug abuse. But four decades after he founded the Beach Boys, Wilson received the honors he deserves as both a hit-maker and a musical trailblazer during a concert at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday that will be broadcast July 4 on TNT.

The star power that turned out for the gala was testament to Wilson's prowess. Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Elton John, Ricky Martin and David Crosby were among the performers who sang Wilson's solo work and Beach Boys material, including the entire "Pet Sounds" album, a masterpiece that few pop composers have topped in the 35 years since its release.

But, fittingly, Wilson proved to be the show's star in his brief appearances on stage. Not that he overflowed with charisma--on the contrary, years of inner turmoil have taken their toll. Wilson's gestures and expressions were so wooden that, although clearly moved by the tribute, he barely smiled, and the hollowness in his blue eyes resembled that of a shellshocked war veteran.

He sang--in a grainy voice with his falsetto long gone--and played electric bass with almost robotic rigidity, even on such emotionally charged songs as his heartbreak ballad "Caroline, No." The very difficulties in Wilson's performance made the depths of his past despair wrenchingly apparent and his recovery all the more remarkable.

It was up to the others to underscore the beauty of Wilson's work, and they did so with mixed results. The Boys Choir of Harlem, opening with an a-cappella rendition of Wilson's "Our Prayer," captured the angelic purity of Wilson's harmonies. A 10-piece band, backing the veteran rock duo Heart, ably reproduced the sounds Wilson toiled over in the studio for his dreamy, symphonic gem "Good Vibrations." Simon, singing solo over his own filigreed acoustic guitar picking, transformed "Surfer Girl" into a gorgeous folk ballad a la "Scarborough Fair."

The Go-Go's provided a welcome gender reversal, snarling in a revved-up "Surf City" (the Jan and Dean hit that Wilson co-wrote) that they wanted "two boys for every girl." Aimee Mann and Michael Penn brought pathos to every bar of their fragile take on "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times."

Many songs, however, failed to capture the wistful ache at the core of so many Wilson songs. Crosby, a fellow survivor of drugs and depression, should have been one of the night's highlights, but his delivery of "Sloop John B" was uninspired--particularly after he flubbed a verse and had to perform the whole thing over for the TV cameras. John's "God Only Knows" substituted slickness for anguish.

Compensation came in the form of a grand finale in which Wilson led all the performers through freewheeling, rocking renditions of "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun." With John, Simon and Joel hamming it up on one mike and Heart doing the same on another, the songs conjured the thrill of limitless possibility that makes early Beach Boys songs a testament to the American dream.

To the producers' credit, though, the show ended with Wilson, backed by the Boys Choir of Harlem, singing the relatively obscure song from his solo career, "Love and Mercy." A gentle, quavering plea for compassion, it was a far cry from fantasies about hot rods and California girls, but no less of a paean to good vibrations.

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