On Wednesday night in New York, I saw The Beach Boys play a concert. Now, if someone back in 1962 told you that the band would be still making music in 2012, you'd think them crazy. But I'm here now to tell you that you'll be able to see The Beach Boys perform in 2062.
At the Beacon Theater, as part of the group's 50th-anniversary tour, I expected a decent show. What I got was fabulous: Nobody owns harmonies in rock music like The Beach Boys. Not The Beatles, not Crosby Stills and Nash, not Fleet Foxes. Nobody. All these years later, they're doing it without brother Dennis or brother Carl.
Their secret weapon — actually, their two secret weapons, are those arrangements of Brian Wilson and the decision to allow others to enrich and carry on the tradition. On stage for this 50th-anniversary tour are all the surviving members of The Beach Boys, along with 10 more musicians referred to as The Beach Boys Band, a group of dedicated followers and students of five-part harmony, surf guitar, rocking sax and good-time fun. From Jeffrey Foskett (covering Carl Wilson's falsettos and sometimes shadowing Brian Wilson's excursions) to Darian Sahanaja, who listened to the band as a child in Indonesia and later came to California and pieced together the fragments of the legendary Smile album into a cohesive touring work, these additional musicians are, in a sense, folklorists. It's with their tender care that I can imagine The Beach Boys performing in 2062.
Now, many would say that the essence of that band is the brothers — of course Brian, as the sole surviving brother, is the last of that thread. If founding members Mike Love or Al Jardine survive beyond Brian, they can call themselves The Beach Boys, but without the Wilsons, many wouldn't think of them that way. But there's something other than the individual performers that makes The Beach Boys into The Beach Boys — and while no one may ever write songs like Brian did, I'd ask you to imagine a group, on stage in 50 years, that includes no original members but can rightfully call itself The Beach Boys.
Here's why (stick with me): Our mind plays tricks on us when it comes to listening to music. For example, I was listening to the new TED Radio Hour, and the psychologist Paul Bloom came on to talk about an experiment The Washington Post did with the world-famous classical violinist Joshua Bell. They put him in a subway station in street clothes and had him play. And despite his brilliant performance, few stopped to listen. The question Bloom asked was this: "How much would people like Joshua Bell, the music of Joshua Bell, if they didn't know they were listening to Joshua Bell?"
And the answer is ... not so much. According to Bloom, "Apparently, to really enjoy the music of Joshua Bell, you have to know you're listening to Joshua Bell." I'm coming back to The Beach Boys in a second, but this all has to do with something called "essentialism," an idea that for humans, there is something to liking something beyond its physical property. History and back story are crucial to enjoyment. Bloom also uses this example to explain our preferences: Let's say I put identical glasses of wine in front of you and told you one was from Trader Joe's and one was from a collector's wine cellar. Odds are you'll like the one from the collector's cellar more. We like history. This has been shown to be true time and time again.
I come up against this notion on All Songs Considered a lot. It's why I try to listen to much of my music without knowing what I'm listening to. I want to react directly to the music and not its history, because it's so hard to separate the two once you know the story.
Finally, back to my theory: The Beach Boys in 2062. This music will be loved in 50 years because it will still have a connection to its origins. It will be tended to and cared for by lovers of the form, and we as an audience will continue to love the music, because we'll see the story passed down from one generation to another. These Beach Boys will have the essence of the real thing. And that's the essentialism so vital to our love of music, like the wine. As Bloom explains, "If you believe you're drinking expensive stuff, parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree," he says. "You really experience it in a different way."
With The Beach Boys, we're witnessing that tradition being passed down, and it's that provenance that will keep this music vital and alive. For all those 2062 audiences who long only to hear those original harmonies, there will always be the records. But I'm telling you, after hearing these boys sing in 2012, even having lost so much of who they were, they sounded better than ever.