In September of 1964, the Beach Boys appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. In their matching striped shirts, they looked as innocent as their music sounded, and their faces reflected awe at a future full of possibility. Smiling and bobbing along to the beat, they played “I Get Around.” It was the height of Beatlemania, but it was that song—their song—that was number one. The band exported their trademark sunshine pop around the world: in the mid-Sixties, they toured Australia, Europe, and Japan. Despite the endless adolescence they sang about onstage—cars! girls! surfing!—backstage, the veneer of innocence had cracked. They did drugs and fought with each other. They slept with prostitutes and left boyhood behind.
In 1965, Brian Wilson, the band’s musical mastermind, took a break from touring with the goal of producing the greatest rock and roll album of all time: Pet Sounds. This was an inflection point, when the music of the Beach Boys began to mature under Wilson’s genius direction. Last month, almost exactly 52 years after that first Ed Sullivan appearance, Brian Wilson shuffled onto the stage of Charlotte’s Belk Theater to perform Pet Sounds in its entirety. Wilson’s current tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of the record’s release and features fellow Beach Boys, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, as well as Jardine’s son, Matt, and a band. In an interview with NPR, band member Probyn Gregory described his initial reaction to Pet Sounds: “It was like he made manifest in an audio fashion what it was like to go from a teenage boy into a man. That’s part of what Pet Sounds is really about.”
Much of the beauty of the band’s early music is that the nostalgia doesn’t rely on real memory: You’ll be transported to a more innocent time anyway, whether it’s your first or fiftieth time listening to it. That’s what was so appealing about the Beach Boys in the Sixties—a decade of unrest and uncertainty—and that’s what remains so appealing, so fundamentally American, about the Beach Boys today.
Time is insidious, though, and Brian Wilson’s voice is no longer what it was. As he walked offstage for breaks during the performance, a crew member stepped out of the wings to support him as he stepped over the cords lining the stage. The crowd was not all, but mostly Baby Boomers. As Wilson played the opening chords to “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the crowd seemed palpably aware of being in the presence of a legend, a giant in the landscape of American music. But the Pet Sounds lyrics juxtaposed with his singing them was jarring: Brian Wilson was 17 going on 75. Here was a man who had seen the deaths of both of his younger brothers, had suffered crisis after crisis, singing the songs of a time when all of that was unknowable. Life seemed suddenly so short, the workings of time suddenly laid bare.
But then, after the Pet Sounds part of the concert ended with the haunting and wistful closing notes of “Caroline, No,” the band finished the performance by playing some of their earliest hits. “We’re both 74,” Al Jardine quipped near the beginning of the show. “But we’re still the Beach Boys.” And they were. “Barbara Ann” and “Help Me, Rhonda” filled the room, and all of the sudden, we were no longer in the staid and elegant Belk Theater. We were together in some beautiful elsewhere, full of hope and innocence. We were right there with Brian Wilson on the Ed Sullivan stage, basking in a future as bright as the California sun.