I had the most fun this week that I’ve ever had at a concert—seeing the Beach Boys at Red Rocks in Denver.
On tour for the first time in more than twenty years, they played 51 songs, during which I and most of the 10,000 others in the open-air theater sang along and couldn’t stop dancing. It was impossible not to dance. The pleasing harmonies and cheerful beat took possession of the body and made you sway, bounce, wave your arms and cheer. As the band sang, in a new number: “Isn’t it time we danced the night way?”
By God, we’re overdue. It was amazing to hear men in their 60s and 70s sing, Be True to Your School, and hear the graying audience shout, “Rah, rah, rah!” When I looked over the crowd it seemed that everyone was smiling, everyone felt young and alive and no one wanted the night to end.
Musicians often say that Red Rocks is the most beautiful venue in the world. The rows of stone seats are carved out of giant red rock formations that rise in fabulous shapes around the audience. The concert begins before the sun sets and when it does, the performers and audience are bathed in red light.
Before the concert, I hadn’t realized how many hits the Beach Boys produced and how much they’ve been a soundtrack to our lives. They’ve had albums on the Billboard top-ten charts for a span of 49 years, a record that’s only been surpassed by Frank Sinatra.
Almost every song brought a flood of memories. California Girls — that’s me. Born and raised in L.A., I remember spending every summer weekend at the beach and Friday nights cruising Sunset or Hollywood Boulevard, preferably in a convertible. Those were the twin poles of our teen life: the beach and the car. I heard the Beach Boys on car radios and on transistors while lying on the beach, smeared with cocoa butter and holding an aluminum sun reflector under my face to create the perfect red-brown tan. I’m still paying, in visits to the dermatologist, for those years of religious sun-burning.
The music was enhanced by photos that flashed on a screen behind the band: University High, a T-bird crammed with 7 kids and no seat belts, Zuma Beach and State Beach. There was a code: girls wore bikinis but never went in the water for fear of ruining their hairdo, and boys surfed the waves and never used a towel.
On the street where my family lived, the young surfers introduced me to John Milius, an ace in the water who later wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, (Remember the troops surfing on the beach in Viet Nam?) and made Schwarzenegger a star in Conan the Barbarian. Decades later, when I had lunch with John in Malibu, he asked if we could stop at the beach afterward so he could catch a few waves. He parked, pulled his surfboard out of the back of his car and did just that.
But the Beach Boys’ popularity stretched far beyond California. It wasn’t the words but the joy transmitted by the songs and the intricate blending of voices that made them so evocative. Hearing them again, live, I couldn’t help thinking of a young man I met when I first moved to New York, Denis Meacham, who’d gone to Princeton, played 12 string guitar and wrote songs. I thought he was the essence of East Coast intellectual cool, and then he confided that he loved the Beach Boys!
At Red Rocks the band mostly played their hits, and they were legion: Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Do it Again, Sloop John B, Kokomo and that theme of puppy love, Wouldn’t it be Nice?
They sang a beach medley: Surfin’ Safari, Surfer Girl, Catch a Wave and Surfin’ USA. Then came the car medley: Little Honda, 409, Little Deuce Coupe, Shut Down and I Get Around.
But they saved the T-bird for last—Fun Fun Fun. When it ended, I was so revved up I had trouble sleeping and I’m still feeling the buzz. As we started down the miles of steps from Red Rocks to the parking lot, strangers laughed and spoke to each other as if they were old friends, sharing memories and stories. A line from the Eagles played through my mind, about how we haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty-nine. It didn’t matter what roles we played in our everyday lives: progressive or conservative, younger or older, richer or poorer. In the words of the Beach Boys’ California Saga, “The people there in the open air — one big family.”
Reporting on the tour for Rolling Stone, Mike Powell wrote that the band’s best music has the power to “elevate the adolescent to the divine.
PLEASE leave a comment. Can music transcend barriers? What songs or artists seem embedded in your bones?