The world of music is a shitty place sometimes. Hell, the world is a shitty place sometimes. It’s unforgiving to those who can’t or won’t play the game. It chews them up and spits them out.
One of the things we admire about people who’ll put themselves up on stage and proclaim that they have something to say is they take this risk. They do our rebelling for us. They refuse to play life’s game, or play it on their own terms. We love them for doing what we never quite have the courage to do. But sometimes the price they pay for doing so can be awfully high.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last coupla days in the context of two artists I’ve been lucky enough to encounter this week – on consecutive nights, no less – Brian Wilson and Gil Scott-Heron. The Beach Boys’ resident sonic visionary and Harlem’s jazz poetry pioneer don’t share a great deal in an artistic sense – indeed, in a sense, they’re pretty much as far apart artistically as two musicians can get. But they do share a fair bit in terms of their career trajectories.
They’re two blazing talents who’ve been ground between the cogs of the industry machine. By all accounts, they’ve suffered immensely over the years. Wilson’s mental problems and decline since the Beach Boys’ 1960s heyday have been well documented, while Scott-Heron all but disappeared during the 1990s and 2000s, lost to crack addiction and the prison system. But they’re both survivors. And both are still here today. They’re so very, very different, and so similar. Both sad in their own ways. Both alive. Both still burning.
Wilson, first. I see him at a listening party for his new record, a selection of George Gershwin covers called Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. The party is thrown in the tastefully sterile surrounds of a swanky uptown club. It’s one of those places where I feel amusingly out of place, where you can observe people so different to you as to almost be another species. How the other half live, and all that.
Even the entrance to the place is disconcerting; the coat check desk is opposite a floor-to-ceiling mirror that’s so meticulously clean that I find myself talking to it, much to the amusement of all present. Once I distinguish reality from reflection and dump my bag, we ride the lift upstairs to the club, where we’re greeted by free booze and expensive furnishings: the whole place is decked out in elegant pseudo-Japanese decor, with paper screens and decking and tasteful Pacific Rim trinkets.
The place is full of besuited older people who are almost certainly someone, although we fail dismally to actually recognise anyone. Canapés and risotto balls and little croque monsieurs and other tidbits do the rounds, and we quickly befriend the Party Down-style crew on duty because a) we scoff the food and booze with unashamed gusto and b) we’re almost certainly the youngest people in the room. I spend five minutes trying to discreetly ditch some sort of prawn salad into the bushes, and then we park ourselves a couple of the seats that have been assembled on what’s presumably the dance floor.
A gentleman from Rolling Stone emerges and makes a speech about the enduring genius of Brian Wilson, clutching the microphone tightly in one hand and his notes even tighter in the other. He’s also the first of several speakers who pay tribute to the sound system that’s been set up for the night, which is apparently very expensive and universally acknowledged as the best thing on which to hear this album. Then Wilson himself emerges to say a few words about the record – how much he enjoyed making it, and how much he appreciates us all being here.
He doesn’t look good, to be honest. I saw him at Splendour a few years back, and he was shaky then – here he looks somehow disconnected, still powerfully built and solid but also like a shadow, present but not present. As soon as he’s finished his “speech”, he shuffles quickly away from the stage, back into the shadows, and the Rolling Stone guy hits play on the record.
It’s sublime – the title actually does say it all, because what we hear are Gershwin’s compositions reimagined as widescreen pop symphonies. The production is flawless and beautiful, and some of Wilson’s arrangements are strikingly innovative, their sound the same sea breeze of freshness that the Beach Boys’ best work felt like.
But there’s something sad about the whole thing. They’re not Brian’s songs. They’re clearly songs that he loves and cares deeply about – apparently his remarkable facility for music first manifested itself on hearing Rhapsody in Blue at the age of two – but it’s a measure of the fracture in Wilson’s psyche that one of the great songwriting talents of the 20th century is making what’s essentially a covers record, no matter how beautifully realised it is. It’s like Wilson’s talent is a museum piece these days, something to be venerated and admired, but something that’s been consigned to the past. And he looks like he knows it. This isn’t a condemnation – it’s perhaps a miracle that he’s working at all, considering his well-documented history of mental illness. It’s just chastening.
It gets worse, too: afterward, it’s announced that Brian has “kindly agreed” to sign copies of the record and pose for photos. We find him back toward the door, slumped next to a piano. A queue of admirers has assembled, and as each approaches the piano, Wilson pops up like a marionette whose strings have been jerked, smiles dutifully for the camera, and sags back down as soon as they’re gone. It’s a depressing spectacle. We decide not to partake of the offer, but before I quite realise what I’m doing, I walk up and whisper into his ear. Wrong ear, he tells me. I bend down again and tell him that I don’t want a photo, just to tell him that he’s made a beautiful record. I still don’t think he hears me. We walk away. Back by the piano, the strings jerk again and Wilson pops back up, smiling mechanically.
Can you imagine Brian Eno sitting there? Or Lou Reed? They’d never countenance the idea. Perhaps Brian Wilson lacks the facility to say no. Perhaps he always has. All those stupid songs about surfing and cars… All those years he spent having his strings jerked by his psychotherapist… All the people who have freeloaded off the back of his talent over the 50 years since he first wrote Surfer Girl… Yeah, maybe he’s never been able to say no. But he shouldn’t have had to. And these days, he most definitely shouldn’t have to. I hope he’ll be OK. I hope he’s happy.
They’re giving out copies of the record at the door. I take one. It’s bittersweet and beautiful. I’m glad to leave.
The next night, at Marcus Garvey park in Harlem, the scene couldn’t be more different. It’s a balmy night, and the park is packed – there’s families on picnic rugs, sharp young men dressed up for the occasion, crack-addled ‘80s relics and earnest fans who cast passive-aggressive evil glances at you for talking between songs. As well they might, though, because Scott-Heron is a performer who demands your attention constantly.
I’m struck immediately by the differences between him and Wilson. They’re pretty much polar opposites. Where Wilson was somehow both large and ephemeral, Scott-Heron is rake-thin and vivid. He’s clad in jeans several sizes too big and one of his own t-shirts, which you get the impression he threw on a minute before he left the house, both of which serve only to emphasise how skinny he is. His body looks fragile and visceral; his bones like iron bars warped by some inner heat.
As with Wilson, it’s a bittersweet experience seeing Scott-Heron, because he’s clearly not what he once was. The cocky, sardonic, silver-tongued and fiercely articulate poet of Small Talk at 125th and Lennox is gone, replaced by a skinny old man who’s spluttering and slurring in an attempt to get the words that still burn in his brain out for the world to hear. His lyrics these days are less fierce than those of his youth – perhaps age and experience have brought a measure of restraint or wisdom – but they’re no less devoid of empathy and anger. The songs he chooses tonight from his back catalogue are less polemic, more reflective: new songs like ‘I’ll Take Care of You’ are paired with the sombre ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’ and the encore, a magnificent version of ‘Pieces of a Man’.
But for all the serious messages that the songs convey, the mood is celebratory. And Scott-Heron’s appearance is a triumph. The goodwill that pours toward the stage is palpable, the music that fills the park exuberant and joyous. Whereas Wilson’s listening party felt like the sort of forlorn family event that everyone wants to get away from, tonight is a celebration of survival, a testament to a talent that’s flared and nearly burnt out, but still survives.
The music industry is a dirty business, and the world is a shitty place. I hope both Brian Wilson and Gil Scott-Heron get through it OK. The world is a better place for their music.