Judge Erich Asperschlager has a lucky old sunburn.
At 25 I turned out the light / 'cause I couldn't handle the glare in my
tired eyes / but now I'm back drawing shades of kind blue skies.
Written by Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie in 1949, "That Lucky Old Sun" has been covered by artists as varied as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Willie Nelson. Most recently, Johnny Cash recorded a version for the third in his series of stripped-down American albums, produced by Rick Rubin. Those albums marked a comeback of sorts for Cash, who had spent much of the '80s languishing in recording limbo. It's fitting, then, that the song should be part of another comeback story.
Brian Wilson was barely into his 20s when a mental breakdown caused him to abandon his role as bass player, singer, songwriter, and producer for The Beach Boys. The break happened after the release of rock masterpiece Pet Sounds, and put his highly anticipated follow-up SMiLE on permanent hiatus. For almost 40 years, fans bemoaned what might have been for Wilson's mythic record. Snippets from recording sessions and unfinished songs circulated on bootlegs and compilations. Then, in 2004, Wilson shocked the world by coming back at age 62 and finishing SMiLE. Even more shocking, it was every bit as brilliant as fans and critics had hoped. The success of that album inspired Wilson to return to the stage and the studio. He released a Christmas album in 2005, but it wasn't until September of 2008 that fans got the true concept album follow-up to SMiLE, a love letter to L.A. called That Lucky Old Sun. Now fans are getting the chance to experience Wilson's next great record in a whole new way on DVD, as a live in-studio performance with a feature-length documentary, additional live footage, track-by-track commentary, and more.
Facts of the Case
Rock 'n' roll tragedies rarely have happy endings, but Brian Wilson's story is a notable exception. The worst thing about his story is that something so awful happened to someone so upbeat. Whatever you think of The Beach Boys' music, they presented a clear musical vision of the world as a place of fun, sun, and romance. Even when Wilson bared his troubled soul in songs like "In My Room," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and "Please Let Me Wonder," there was an undercurrent of hope—the knowledge that pain is fleeting and that love is the answer. Having come out the other side, Wilson is now free to re-present that vision of the world, filtered through the eyes of someone who can appreciate the warmth of the sun because he spent so long in darkness.
That Lucky Old Sun is part autobiography, part spiritual, and part travelogue. The 13 songs, with its recurring title theme and spoken word narratives written by long-time collaborator Van Dyke Parks, are all based on Wilson's experiences in southern California. It's an idealized view of a world that probably never existed—though if it did, it's because he helped create it. The songs can loosely be grouped into memories of growing up and being part of The Beach Boys ("Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl," "California Role," "Can't Wait Too Long," "Southern California"), the period between his breakdown and recovery ("Oxygen to the Brain," the haunting "Midnight's Another Day," "Going Home") and the joy of living in L.A. ("Morning Beat," "Good Kind of Love," "Live Let Live," "Mexican Girl"). Is it SMiLE? No, but it's compelling in its own right. Wilson wrote that other masterpiece when he was a kid. This is the work of someone more mature but who still knows how to have fun.
Though it's been out in album form for a while, That Lucky Old Sun feels more at home on DVD. That's because Wilson wrote this new collection of songs not for a record company, but as a live premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in London. This DVD isn't that performance, but it's still a live set with Brian Wilson and his band—and it's amazing! The group is too tight for there to be any big differences between this show and the album, but there's something about the energy of a live performance that can't be beat. The best reason to recommend this performance over the album, though, is the ability to hear it in 5.1 surround. The mix is rich and immersive. The footage is nicely shot and edited, but completely secondary to the music. Why more albums aren't released in 5.1 on audio DVDs is beyond me—probably because only someone as brilliant as Brian Wilson could pull it off.
The song cycle lasts about 36 minutes, but the show doesn't end there. That Lucky Old Sun also features the 68-minute documentary "Going Home," about the making of the album and Wilson's experiences growing up in the L.A. area. Thankfully, the sordid story of Brian's breakdown is given little to no screen time. If you want to know the juicy details, you can find them in any number of Beach Boys and Wilson biographies. It's time to move past that part of Brian's life. "Going Home" is a lot of fun, although it drags a bit towards the end when the focus turns to general topics like surfing and hot rods. Keep watching, though, because it ends with moving footage of Brian playing before a festival crowd in Jackson Hole and an unintentionally funny shot of him looking bewildered when a band mate makes a Spinal Tap joke.
In a weird kind of time warp, most of That Lucky Old Sun's bonus features come from the internet—a good way of introducing Wilson to an audience who weren't even glimmers of glimmers when he wrote his biggest hits, I suppose. From MySpace, there's an odd "Artist on Artist Interview" between Wilson and Zooey Deschanel, of all people. From BlackCabSessions.com, there's a handheld video of Brian and a few band mates singing an impromptu rendition of "That Lucky Old Sun" in the back seat of a cab. And from Yahoo!, there's a 28-minute live set and Q&A where Wilson and Co. play not only cuts from the new album but also classics like "California Girls," "I Get Around," and "Good Vibrations" (in my opinion the greatest song ever written). Calling Brian's answers to audience questions concise would be generous, but if you've ever seen Robert De Niro try to talk about acting you know how hard it is for some people to deconstruct their craft.
The set also includes 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes recording footage, a photo gallery, and a track-by-track commentary with Wilson and collaborator Scott Bennett. Don't be confused by the term "commentary." This isn't an audio track to play over the live performance. It's six-and-a-half minutes of the pair going rapid fire through inspirations and anecdotes for each song. It's very cool. It's just not very long.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
That Lucky Old Sun is more accessible than SMiLE, but if you don't "get" Brian Wilson this probably won't change your mind.
I may be writing this from the chilly Northeast, but I can't help basking in Brian Wilson's warmth. As a young man, he wrote what would become some of my favorite music, and today he's somehow still doing it. His is an inspiring story of love, hope, and redemption, but that's not what he wants us to focus on. He has the great gift of writing beautiful music that makes people happy. God only knows how he comes up with this stuff. We're just darn lucky he does.
Shine on, Mr. Wilson. Not guilty.
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