Former Beach Boy Brian Wilson performs his landmark album Pet Sounds at the Pantages Theatre on May 26, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Winter/Getty Images)
No one likes to dwell on getting older, pondering the grand sweep of time that carries us from childhood to geezerdom. Age may be a blessing, but let’s not examine that blessing too carefully, lest we strain our back.
On Monday, however, I had no choice.
Founding Beach Boy and chamber pop genius Brian Wilson came to Kansas City along with his astonishing backup band. He was playing Starlight Theater in Kansas City on a dual bill with jazz-pop-rockers Chicago, and I simply had to go. I’ve been a devoted fan of Wilson’s teenage symphonies to God — “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows,” “Heroes and Villains” — since I was a teenager myself. June 20 also happened to be Wilson’s 80th birthday.
But that wasn’t the only anniversary of note. On June 7, 1997 — 25 years and two weeks ago — I headed to Bonner Springs with my father to watch the Beach Boys play a concert with (you guessed it) Chicago. It was my high school graduation present, and my first rock concert.
That quarter century has been eventful on personal, musical and political levels. To put it mildly.
On a personal level, I met my husband and had a son. I mourned the loss of my mother. We moved to Florida and New Hampshire, then back to Kansas. I became a copy editor, then a copy editor and page designer, then a columnist and fact checker, then nonprofit communications professional, then opinion editor. All in the sweep of those 25 years.
Heck, I hadn’t even come out of the closet at the time. As easy as it may be to forget, in 1997 it was still illegal to be a gay person in the Sunflower State.
For Wilson and the Beach Boys, those years proved eventful in their own ways. The tour I saw was the last for Brian Wilson’s brother Carl, who died in 1998. Carl had led the group through decades of turmoil, a calm presence and beautiful voice that made latter-day dreck like “Kokomo” listenable. The group subsequently splintered, with Brian beginning a solo touring career and enjoying an improbable late-career renaissance.
Wilson had battled mental illness and personal demons since the 1960s. Yet a supportive home environment, expert medical care and a band of younger pop stalwarts meant that he toured the world, won Grammys and saw his life adapted into a movie starring John Cusack.
Along the way, our paths intersected. I interviewed him in 2009 and became friends with a member of his band. I went to shows and cheered as he resurrected the long-lost SMiLE album. I watched the Beach Boys reunite briefly and wonderfully in 2012 before splintering again. (Wilson’s cousin Mike Love currently licenses the name for his touring group.)
Life, in other words, happened.
Our country changed, too. In 1997, Kansas politics were at a pivot point, one aptly demonstrated by the state’s Republican U.S. Senate delegation. Longtime Sen. Bob Dole had resigned the year before to concentrate on his ill-fated presidential run. U.S. Rep. Sam Brownback won a bid to replace him and would subsequently distort the state’s politics for years to come. Fellow U.S. Rep. Pat Roberts, a statelier and more centrist politician, followed Nancy Kassebaum in the state’s other Senate seat.
The governor at the time was the moderate Republican Bill Graves. He was succeeded by a moderate Democrat, Kathleen Sebelius, political footnote Mark Parkinson, Brownback and current Gov. Laura Kelly.
The Legislature at times drifted, at times lurched to the right over that time. Moderates staged a comeback in 2016, motivated by Brownback’s colossal mismanagement of the state’s finances, but they soon found themselves imperiled anew.
Over that span our country seesawed too, from the moderation of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to the “compassionate conservatism” of President George W. Bush and the looming fascism of Donald Trump. We now watch and wait, with President Joe Biden managing an ever-more divided country to see what happens next.
The music swelled and overcame the years, binding past and present together. You couldn’t ignore age — Wilson has never been the most charismatic live performer — yet the songs themselves broke over the crowd like refreshing waves.
– Clay Wirestone
These perspectives seemed distant Monday night.
The music swelled and overcame the years, binding past and present together. You couldn’t ignore age — Wilson has never been the most charismatic live performer, and his stage presence has dwindled further after recent back surgeries — yet the songs themselves broke over the crowd like refreshing waves.
“California Girls.” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “Don’t Worry Baby.” “Wild Honey.” “Surfer Girl.” Each one communicating all the passion, yearning and escapism of youth.
We can’t stay young forever. But we can remember. Brian Wilson and his band told us that Monday night. We can’t go back to the days of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum and Bill Graves, but we can remember the examples they set. I can’t go back to my high school days, when the years ahead stretched mysteriously, but I can remember how they felt.
We can remember, and we can build anew. We can share what we’ve learned to others.
I watched Brian Wilson leave the stage on Monday, a freshly minted 80-year-old man guided by an assistant and holding onto a walker. To some, it might have seemed sad. But not to me. I saw a man of ferocious tenacity, someone who built a sonic edifice that endures and who refuses to let others forget.
I can only hope that when I’m 80, when the span of time has swept me deep into the territory of cranky old men, that I’m here to do my own work, contributing to this majestic state I so love.
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