I’ve long been a fan of Brian Wilson and I’ve been fortunate to see him in concert three times. The first was at one of his triumphant Pet Sounds concerts in London in 2002 and it was probably the greatest musical event I’ve ever attended. The second was in Singapore, when he temporarily reunited with the Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary tour and although it was more of a case study in the dynamics of a dysfunctional family than a gig per se, it was still fun. The most recent was back in London a few years ago; he could no longer hit the high notes, and was having trouble with some of the medium range ones, and barely played the piano that seemed to serve more as a barrier to protect him from the audience than any kind of musical instrument. But the accompanying musicians filled in the gaps very well and the fans seemed to come to a consensus that what were really doing was to say thank you to this damaged genius, for the times when he could do it, and did. I probably won’t see him again if another opportunity arises, but I’m glad I did.
I was reminded of that most recent concert when I watched TV coverage of Elton John’s performance at Glastonbury last night, supposedly his last ever gig in the UK. Elton’s career trajectory has been similar to Brian’s in some respects, with mental troubles and substance abuse threatening to derail things at several junctures. But he too pulled through, and seems to be in better shape than his American counterpart, at all times aware of where he is and what he’s doing, acknowledging and appreciating the love of the crowd. And Elton's hands are definitely hammering away at those keys, unlike Brian’s, which hover a few inches above, never daring to connect.
There’s one problem, though. Elton can’t sing any more. It’s not a matter of not being able to sing in key any more, as with Brian; it’s that his diction is shot to pieces. He mumbles, he slurs, and we hadn’t heard Bernie Taupin’s lyrics a hundred, a thousand times before, we wouldn’t know what the hell he was on about. This is something that was identified during lockdown when he gave us his now-notorious Pub Singer rendition of ‘I’m Still Standing’ and many brushed off his inadequacy with the explanation that he was out of practice, that once the pandemic was over and he started to tour again, all would be well. Apparently not. It’s not clear what’s gone wrong (Something neurological? Cosmetic surgery? New teeth?) but it sounded bloody horrible.
And does that matter? Not really, certainly not to the devotees who bade him farewell at Glastonbury and from their living rooms. Just like Brian’s fans in Hammersmith, they were gathered to remember the good old days, and above all to say thank you.
But I’m baffled by the professional, paid critics (here’s one; here’s another; and there’s more) who’ve been telling us, quite rightly, that this was an emotionally charged, joyous gathering of faithful, a celebration of a long and glorious career, without acknowledging that, as a musical performance, it was all a bit rubbish, frankly.
PS: Vaguely related, an argument that criticism doesn’t require any particular knowledge or contextual understanding. Which makes it just reaction, surely?