Just one quick thought

I really, really hate those news stories about a married couple, usually in their 90s, who were married for 65 years and die within hours of each other.

Okay, they probably had a pretty good marriage. But did they have a BETTER marriage than a couple who died five years apart, or 12 years, or 27 years? (That would be 99.99 percent of us.)

I don’t think you could say that.

Did Grandma and Grandpa have a more intense romance, a purer love, than couples who have the misfortune to suffer a premature death of one of them? Did they survive as long as they did because they loved each other more than couples who didn’t croak off within the same 24-hour period?

Again, I don’t think so. I think it was just the luck of the draw — that, plus that we’re also talking about two very old people who were both ready to die in any case.

I think the majority of married couples — reasonably happy ones, anyway — don’t want to contemplate being widowed, and I don’t blame them. Most of them would hope to go at the same time, although most sane ones would admit it’s statistically quite improbable.

But let’s not imply that dying at the same time is the proof of having had a better marriage than the rest of us, or that they were better people.

Because that’s just not the case.


Punk Rock Widower, or Going On A (Metaphorical) Grief Cruise

Note: In the interest of being possibly read more widely (which remains to be seen), I’ve recently put this post available on medium.com along with some other recent writings.

In my early days as a bereaved, if I can use that word as a noun, I read a book — where I’d heard about it I don’t recall, it isn’t important — called Levels of Life, by the celebrated author Julian Barnes. Written after the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, it is a short book in three sections. In the first two sections, Barnes doesn’t discuss himself or his wife at all; he describes in minute detail the lives and accomplishments of several 18th and 19th century balloonists, including a pioneering aerial photographer known as Nadar and the romance between actress Sarah Bernhardt and the British army officer and adventurer Fred Burnaby. Only in the third section does he describe his feelings and emotions after Pat’s death. In the entire book, though, he doesn’t describe her in any way, not even mentioning her name once.

Although I think I know why Barnes did this, and his prose is careful and exacting, the book still pissed me off. I suppose he refrained from giving any specifics about his wife to make the work more universal, but I found it insulting both to his wife and to me, the reader, that he would go into such specifics about historical personages he didn’t know but didn’t so much as give us a peek behind the curtain at the person who meant more to him than anything else in the world.

And so, we come to my story. As Kirsty sang in “Soho Square,” I don’t want your pity, baby. But lend me your ear.

When your brilliant, talented, beautiful and irreplaceable wife dies on the 19th day of the year from terminal liver disease (nonalcoholic, of indeterminate cause), that pretty much puts the rest of the year directly in the toilet. And probably at least the next couple of years after that.

Although Donna had been ill for at least a year and a half, the end came suddenly and, to me, shockingly. I held out hope that she would recover until the last day of her life. I wasn’t ready for it. I still don’t really accept it today, half a year after the bitter fact.

The fourth of July marked six months since Donna left our house alive for the last time, carried out on a stretcher to a waiting EMS ambulance. The following morning she would be flown emergently to San Antonio from Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin, where I’d visited her with the boys the evening before (which, unbeknownst to anyone, would be the last time the boys would ever see her). A brusque doctor from India told me to pack a suitcase with Donna’s clothes and take it to Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio, for her return trip after a liver transplant.

A stubborn bacterial infection foreclosed any chance of her being eligible for the transplant, and after two weeks of ups and downs, driving back and forth between San Antonio and Austin, I received a call from one of her doctors, telling me that Donna’s end was near; a “cardiac event” had foreclosed the chance of any recovery. Donna’s sister and I were able to be with her, waiting for the inevitable, for nearly six hours, as she peacefully drifted away on a morphine drip. I don’t wish the experience on anyone.

On the fifteenth of June I dedicated a bench in her memory at our neighborhood park. A good crowd came, and I was satisfied with the eulogy I delivered.

On the bench is an engraved plaque:

In Loving Memory of

Donna Young Eichenwald


Cherished Wife, Mother, Sister, Musician and Friend

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”

The day after the ceremony I was more depressed than usual, and it occurred to me that subconsciously I might have been thinking that if I built a bench for Donna, she might come back to me. Yes, I know that’s not rational, but what about grief is rational?

The Fourth of July was one week before we would have celebrated our joint 57th birthdays.

Excuse me if I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate with fireworks or anything else.

For fifteen years we knew each other. When we became aware of each other’s existence we were living thousands of miles apart, her in New Brunswick, New Jersey, me in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

We were brought together by a combination of coincidences, the match that lit the flame being the death by speedboat of the British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl in December, 2000.

We began emailing each other the following month, hashing out our mutual grief along with our life stories and philosophies.

Both of us felt an uncanny connection to each other, as if an unseen hand was pushing us together.

Twelve and three-quarter years we were married.

Nearly thirteen years elapsed between my mother’s death (1990) and our marriage (2003).

Also, nearly thirteen years between our marriage and Donna’s death.

Donna was 56 when she died, the same age as my mom.

We were born on the same day, in the same year, about 20 miles apart; she in northern New Jersey, me in Queens.

I was eight minutes older.

This is not in itself a solid reason to get married, but we had others.

I can define myself in many ways: As a father, brother, son in general; to refine the search, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, brother of a successful entrepreneur, and father of twins, one who is nonverbal, with special needs; and most lately as a recent widower (a word I hate), struggling to make sense of life in the wreckage.

The truth is that since 2003 I had defined myself, first and foremost, as part of a couple, as half of Wes and Donna.

Many people on Twitter seem to be repeating the phrase “the remainder of 2016 is canceled,” or words to that effect. A lot of them go on to mention Bowie and Prince and so on. To which I say: Shut up. You have no fucking idea. You didn’t know them. You’re attaching yourself to mass grief to give yourself Internet cred, but it’s not your loss in the sense that they were your friends or family and you actually knew them as people.

As for me, I’m angry that the world is discussing Bowie and Prince and not Donna.

And what am I supposed to do for fun now? Go on a Grief Cruise, to “celebrate” my birthday as well as Donna’s, a joint birthday, once cause for wondrous celebration, now turned to ashes?





Thinking about all the unfinished business is one of the hardest things.

As is waking up every morning and realizing: Oh.

As is coming across what would have been the perfect gift for Donna (who had idiosyncratic but exquisite tastes) and having nowhere to go with the gifting impulse but sadness and regret.

It’s inevitable, what with the DNA transfer between each other from 15 years together.

I dreaded the approach of the 57th birthday, alone again (un)naturally. In a tribute to her popularity, Donna still received birthday greetings from 41 people on her Facebook page: several greetings from people who obviously didn’t know, “happy birthday in heaven” wishes, and many gracefully expressing their loss. My own birthday greetings may have been somewhat fewer in number than last year, which is fine with me. A few of my more sensitive, tasteful friends posted, simply, “Thinking of you today,” quite appropriate and welcome.

And here we are. But where are we going?

It’s yet early. But still, still we continue in the eternal present.

A friend of mine suggested that Donna’s bench is now “an official point of contact” and that I should welcome the opportunity to come there and commune with her.

But the truth is, when I visit that bench I just feel sad, as it confirms…well, you know.

But the other truth is, she is now everywhere and always around me.


If you enjoyed this story (even if perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word), please follow and tell your friends.

Remarks on the Dedication of a Bench in a Park

This is the (slightly edited) speech I delivered at Robinson Playground Park, Austin, on the occasion of the dedication of a memorial bench in honor of my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, on June 15, 2016.

Thank you all for coming.

As I wrote to Donna early in our relationship, “Remembering someone while sitting on a park bench, with the breezes on your face and life going on around you, is just infinitely better than having to travel to a cemetery.” At the time, I didn’t have this in mind. But I think Donna would like the idea of having her memorial next to a children’s playground. She was so involved with life herself, in all its complexity and capacity for joy.


Although I knew Donna had at one time held the status of a minor celebrity in certain parts of Manhattan, it wasn’t until her final illness that I realized how beloved she was to so many, and indeed might have been the human equivalent of an indispensable public institution.

Even now, nearly five months later, with summer upon us, it’s still hard to believe she’s gone. And I don’t really think she is. Someone who was always such a forceful presence in the room, such a key observer, commentator, and participant in the daily comedy, drama and occasional farce that defines life on Earth, can’t just vanish without a trace. I still have the need to speak with her, to check in, to help me find my center, my core humanity and decency.

Donna will be remembered not because of this bench, and certainly not because of me, but because of all the things she did during her lifetime.

Donna Young – an extraordinary person hiding behind a common name – started life in Newark, New Jersey, taking up the double bass at the age of eight, learning recorder and clarinet and several other instruments along the way. She always said she never needed to learn how to read music; she just knew. She played for years in symphony orchestras and chamber groups. Later, when she tired of the politics of the classical world, she became the go-to bassist of choice in the smaller but very happening universe of cabaret rooms and piano bars in Manhattan, playing in shows and helping to put some of them together. She was good at what she did, and she loved the shows and the company of her friends. Even in the last year of her life, missing the camaraderie, she got together a small group of lovers of the Great American Songbook, calling it the Northwest Austin Cabaret-Piano Bar Casuals. And so we had evenings where people came and played and sang in our living room, with Donna, of course, on bass. It was fun while it lasted, if all too short-lived. I’m so glad she got to do that.

Within the context of an orchestra, the bass is aptly named, as it’s the foundation of everything. As one of Donna’s musician friends put it to me, the bassline supports every instrumental part above it. As, too, within our family Donna was our base and foundation.

Donna always liked the classics, whether it was music, literature, fashion, jewelry, architecture, even vintage cars. She was quite comfortable having so many tastes in common with her parents’ and even grandparents’ generation, from the ’30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Mel Tormé, and the composers and lyricists of the great Broadway musicals, which of course meshed so well with her partners in crime in the cabaret rooms.

Donna’s story in Austin, in the 21st century, is connected with becoming a mother relatively late in life, dealing with having a child with special needs and advocating for him and others like him, and becoming a role model and inspiration for other mothers with whom she networked locally and nationally. Alongside me, she was also the co-moderator for the Austin Freecycle Network, which I founded but couldn’t have run nearly as effectively without Donna. Together, we encouraged people to recycle thousands of items that would have otherwise been thrown out.

Donna was steadfast in her beliefs and her actions. She wouldn’t accept anything less from herself than her best, and she constantly encouraged me and our boys and gave us her love. Whatever she did, she put her heart and soul into and excelled at, whether it was music, photography, writing, cooking, or parenting. Donna was as human as anyone else, but she was always herself. She lived at the intersection of logic and compassion, of activism and empathy, with a ton of wit and fun and laughter. She did things her way. You were just happy to come along for the ride.

When I think about what it is that I owe Donna, I end up thinking that it’s pretty much everything important.

When I think of the most meaningful moments of my life, the greatest moments, the most profound moments, they are inevitably, and inextricably, connected with her. I know that she has made me a far better person.

Before I met Donna, I’d never met anyone else like her.

And I’m certain I’ll never meet anyone like her again.

I know that we are here on earth, for all too short a journey, to love each other, and care for each other, and if we’re lucky, to create something beautiful that will survive us.

And Donna did all of that.

Even though she was so sadly taken from her boys before they had even gotten to celebrate their eleventh birthdays, I know that however long they live, Luka and Leo will be forever blessed by their mother’s influence, her caring, her warrior’s spirit and her precious love, and that’s something nobody can ever take away. Nor can anyone take away the years Donna and I had together.

Thomas Wolfe was one of Donna’s favorite authors. This is her copy of his first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.” These lines from the beginning of the book were significant to her:

A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile…Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

Back in mid-August of 2001, shortly before Donna and I would have our first face-to-face meeting in New York, we were emailing each other on the subject of free will vs. predestination, because why not, and we both agreed that we hated the phrase “It was God’s will.”

Donna wrote this to me, and I’d like you to hear it in her own words:

“The whole ‘God’s will’ thing is beyond me. I understand why people say it; they’re at a loss for something comforting to say. Not to wrap this up in religion, but this is why I could never buy into any sort of concrete notion of God, because it makes no sense that someone’s just pulling our strings as though we’re helpless marionettes. I didn’t buy that as a kid, and I don’t buy it now. I’m all for free will, but I also believe there are other forces at work.

“And that brings us to coincidence — that’s a different thing. I confess to having several friends who make their living at being psychics, whatever that might mean. I mention that because they maintain that certain unique opportunities inevitably come our way, and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to cast fear and expectations aside and take advantage of them.

“For the past four or five months I’ve had quite a few people telling me that there are no coincidences, too — and given the events of this year, I’d have to agree.”

And then Donna quotes from another Wolfe novel, “Of Time and the River”:

Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth. Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.

“Again,” Donna wrote to me, “I hate to keep going back to death, but if there’s any blessing to it, it’s that it forces us to take a closer look at our lives. When I was sick, it was surprisingly easy for me to arrive at a certain peace with the prospect of death, and though I was committed to fighting it all the way, I was okay because I’d come to accept the presence of a certain energy, if you will, the wind and the rivers, something that propels us, something more than just a will to live.”

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that one day, we’ll be together again. Until then, this is true for me:

Whenever I hear my boys laughing, or any children laughing, Donna’s there; whenever I hear music that moves me, Donna’s there; whenever our family gets together to share a meal, or whenever someone decorates a Christmas tree, Donna’s there.

Whenever someone helps a friend out of a pure and unselfish desire to give of themselves, Donna’s there. And whenever two people hug and say they love each other, Donna’s there.

In the going out and in the coming in, in the rising of the wind and in the flowing of the rivers; and in all our hopes and dreams for a better world.

Thank you for everything, Donna. We love you, forever.


Some things I’ve learned lately about the whole grief thing

  1. People who are grieving/bereaved are not a separate species apart from the rest of humanity. We’re just like you. We were ourselves before the tragedy happened, and we’re still ourselves, if really shaken up. Live long enough, and you’ll join our ranks.
  2. Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” — Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
  3. Equating the death of your cat or your dog with the death of your sister, or your son, or your wife, or your mother, is not accurate and is insulting to the memory of your dead human loved ones. A “fur baby” is not the same as the blood of your blood. Sorry about that. Dogs and cats have shorter lifetimes than humans. If your dog or cat dies, as it will, you will go to the pet store or an animal shelter and get a new one. You can’t replace your wife or your mother or your son. I’m sorry your cat died, but hey: IT’S A CAT. Don’t pretend it’s a moral equivalent.
  4. Planting a tree in Israel, or Paramus or Pflugerville, doesn’t do much for me. I don’t want another tree. Nice thought, but I’d like my wife back, thanks very much. If I can’t have that, I much prefer a plaque on a park bench to having to visit a cemetery. I like the feeling of life going on around me, really, I do.
  5. On the same thread of less-than-useful advice to the grieving is to “get a dog or a cat.” Donna would find the idea that she could be replaced by a pet to be highly insulting and absurd, and she’d be very right. I already have a dog and that’s nice, but it doesn’t do much for me.
  6. Some already-widowed folks will pounce on you almost gleefully, offering sentiments like, “Life will be hard for quite some time,” or “Things will be very difficult for you now.” Yes, I know. You’re not really helping.
  7. Thanks for the casseroles, but what I could really use is my carpet shampooed about three months in.
  8. We actually like it when you talk about our dearly departed, especially if you knew him/her. Don’t pretend they never existed. What we really want is independent third-party confirmation that their memory will live on.
  9. Check in on us after three, four, five, six months. The rest of the world may have put that one particular death behind us. I and the other widowfolk I know can assure you: we haven’t.
  10. One of the hardest things will always be telling people who haven’t heard what happened. For a few moments, it makes the horror all new again.
  11. There is a serious dearth of good music available to the grieving. We all have our individual choices, but me, I eschew country-music death schmaltz in favor of, say, something like this. See #1.
  12. All things being equal, telling the grieving person you know how they feel because your favorite character on Game of Thrones was just killed off is probably not a good idea.

The soundtrack of grief


Donna, 2007

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new to this blog. Sadly, I’ve had other things on my mind since before the new year. If you haven’t heard, my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, a really exceptional and good person known to readers of this blog as Mrs. Pogoer, died on January 19 of complications from nonalcoholic liver disease. You can find her obituary here.

Donna was way too young to leave us, and she sure as hell didn’t want to, and hundreds of people prayed for her, but she just couldn’t beat this horrible illness. I’m working on a proper memorial site for her, but in the meanwhile, consider this blog a general vent.

What does it feel like to lose your spouse? A common reaction among friends who haven’t gone through this is “I can’t even imagine.” So let me try…it’s sort of like the world ended, only you’re somehow still standing amid the wreckage, disbelieving. So I suppose I can say I can’t even imagine, either, even though the Most Horrible Thing Just Happened.

It’s not getting better, and although nobody wants to go on what I’m hearing over and over again is a “grief journey,” I suppose that’s the forced march I’m embarked upon. I don’t know what’s at the end of this particular yellow brick road (I know it ain’t the Wizard of Oz), but since Donna and I were both focused on music and songs to an unusual degree — she was a professional musician, I’m a professional audience member — and our earliest email correspondence constantly referenced music, songs, composers and musicians, it’s not surprising that I’ve been trying to find appropriate compositions to help me through the long, silent hours without her.

Here are a few other things I know:

  1. No disrespect to them, but it’s hard to give a shit about Bowie, Prince, or that actor from that old TV show you liked when you’re grieving the death of your wife, best friend, and mother of your children. At such times it’s good to give a wide berth to Facebook and Twitter, lest your anger multiply at reading professions of “grief” from people who don’t have a fucking clue what the real thing is about. Nothing makes me feel more isolated from most of humanity than reading these faux-grief screeds from people who never met the recently departed rock star du jour while you’re processing your own, endlessly painful, personal loss. (At this point, Donna would advise me: “If you don’t want to read it, don’t bother reading it; it has nothing to do with you.” She was right, but I can’t help it sometimes.)
  2. Even if you do have a fucking clue, I don’t want to hear about how much you’re going to miss some rock musician. Get over it.
  3. I don’t wish it on anyone, but if you live long enough the real thing is guaranteed to hit you at some point, whether it’s six months from now or 50 years, and at that time you’re going to know the difference between grieving for your husband or wife and grieving for Bowie, Prince, or Lou Reed.
  4. Although I do have a special place in my heart for Kirsty MacColl, and I would be genuinely upset if Jonathan Richman, Chrissie Hynde, or Christy McWilson, to name a few, died before the age of, say, 90. Call me a hypocrite.
  5. Nobody ever said the grief process was logical.
  6. After a Death That Matters So Much, you just want to stay in bed all the time, occasionally screaming. You subconsciously (or maybe consciously) wouldn’t mind if you had a heart attack and died pretty soon. After all, what does it matter anymore? Yes, I know, there are the boys. They need a dad. Okay, okay. Don’t need a lecture from you.
  7. Spare me the schlocky sentiments about how “God must have wanted another angel” or “He only takes the best.” Or the absolute worst thing you could say, “It was God’s will.” No, actually, he takes everyone, and anyway, how do you know what God wants? And it it was God’s will, then fuck God.I much prefer “God couldn’t save him/her and is grieving along with you.” Let’s go with that. I think Donna would agree.
  8. Formerly happy (or at least harmless) occasions become toxic grief triggers. Let’s go through my personal calendar, shall we?   a) The anniversary of her death (Jan. 19); b) the twins’ birthday (Feb. 7); c) Valentine’s Day; d) our wedding anniversary (April 13); e) Mother’s Day; f) Father’s Day, ’cause why not; g) her birthday (July 11) (special added bonus, ’cause it’s my birthday too!); h) the anniversary of the day we met (Aug. 24, a minor holiday in our house); i) Thanksgiving; j) Christmas, with the tree and the presents and so many significant memories and everything, yay! Not to mention every other day of the year for one reason or another, or whenever some rock star dies and the faux grief displays take over Facebook like fireworks on the Fourth. Oh, and in case I forgot: Happy New Year!
  9. Bitter? Who’s bitter? No, let the world do without a selfless, giving, brilliant, multitalented woman who only wanted to play music, raise her kids right, and give good advice to her family and friends.
  10. I know there is a life beyond this one, and it’s probably so nice that if more facts about it were know, there would be a massive wave of suicides across the globe. But it doesn’t make getting left behind any easier. At this point I don’t know whether I should pray for Donna, or she should pray for me.
  11. Does Donna’s death make a mockery of her search for happiness, or mine, or the happy ending we both thought we’d found when we found each other in a demonstration of the sublime mysteries of the universe? No, it doesn’t. But at the moment, it’s impossible for me to find light in this darkness.
  12. Of course I know why the fuss over the dead rock stars is so irksome. To the rest of us, commenting on the dead rock star is just something to do, a way to fill the void. But to you, the very personal loss you suffered meant everything. You just want others to acknowledge it, too.
  13. Some of my friends on Facebook have never been married and are childless, and are well into their 50s. Their deepest relationship appears to be with their dog. Nothing against dogs, but at least I know what it’s like to be married and have a family, and I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs, even with all the pain that loss brings.

Brian Wilson, in the present tense

You’re probably familiar with that annoying cliché job interview question where an unimaginative examiner asks you, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult situation.” Speaking of interview questions, I was well aware that although Brian Wilson has a most impressive body of work behind him as a composer and arranger, answering such questions from journalists isn’t exactly his strong suit; in fact, he’s notorious for terse, sparsely worded responses and an air of disconnectedness when apart from a piano (I trust I don’t have to give a medical summary and capsule history of his many struggles throughout his life). Dealing with a fair way to treat this interview subject would be a good final-exam question in my line of work, but I did my best. I also knew that I’d want to interview another band member to get his perspective on Wilson, suspecting that he’d be able to explain the pop-music legend far better than the man himself. As for the result, you, as always, can be the judge. As originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 17, 2015.

Brian Wilson, in the present tense

As he turns 73, the former Beach Boy is still writing and performing, but is he being overshadowed by his own story?

Summer has come around again; so, for another season, has Brian Wilson. The legendary pop composer has long outlived his two younger brothers and fellow Beach Boys — Carl by 17 years, Dennis by more than 30. He’s survived the splintering of his old band, now led by his cousin/ex-collaborator/frenemy Mike Love; save for a well-received 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012, the group’s endless summer has seen more endless bickering and lawsuits than harmony among the players. Last but certainly not least, Wilson has survived decades of crises due to mental illness, as documented in innumerable newspaper and magazine accounts and, compellingly, in the current biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as his 1960s and ’80s selves.

What, then, should one make of the actual Brian Wilson in 2015? Seemingly against all odds, Wilson not only abides but appears to be thriving. Unlike most of us, the aging icon’s inner child gets to come out nearly constantly, on film, on record and in real life. Those close to him — family, friends, fellow musicians — have long learned to make allowances. Diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, he’s endured auditory hallucinations since the ’60s yet now functions well enough in the place he feels most comfortable — the recording studio — and even in a place that long terrified him — the stage. On Tuesday, three days after his 73rd birthday, he’ll be with his band at Bass Concert Hall, not only basking in the “Love & Mercy” attention but touring behind a new album, “No Pier Pressure.” It’s Wilson’s 11th solo record, but rest assured: plenty of the set list consists of the songs fans expect to hear. Wilson is still crafting minisymphonies. They may not all be great art, but the common thread is a longing for a perfect love and a perfect world that never really existed. You listen to get your recommended dose of nostalgic, wistful optimism in spite of everything. And, of course, those harmonies.

“Love & Mercy,” though filled with compassion for Wilson’s troubles, inevitably rehashes them for the old fan and newbie alike: the breakdowns, the drugs, the years in bed, the years under the thumb of quack therapist Eugene Landy. To its credit, it delves deeply into the reason we’re interested in this story in the first place: Wilson’s singular talents as a composer, producer and arranger. The film lingers on the nuts and bolts of the recording process as young Brian directs the Wrecking Crew, a group of seasoned session musicians, in the forging of the Beach Boys’ influential ’60s masterpiece, “Pet Sounds.” From that time, in every possible way, Brian Wilson’s head would be a long way from surfin’ safaris and hamburger stands.

Has any pop or rock musician been as well known for mental struggles as Brian Wilson? (Kurt Cobain may come in at a distant second, with apologies to local candidates Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston.) Admit it: The difference between the ethereal harmony Wilson pursues in his songs and the well-known discord and tumult in his personal life is captivating stuff. The story of the tortured artist who spends his life creating lasting works of great beauty but suffers greatly for it may have become a cliché, but sometimes it happens.

Most artists, when interviewed, are happy, or at least willing, to talk about themselves and their work; not this guy. For years, one reporter after another assigned to interview Wilson has suffered through awkward silences and minimalist responses. That’s much my experience too. Spending 10 minutes with Wilson on the phone recently, as he zooms down the road fresh from an outdoor daytime concert in Philadelphia to the next venue in north Jersey, he comes off as largely detached; not hostile, just not completely present. After a few minutes of this, the last thing you want to do is keep barking questions into his one good ear. You just want to leave him alone.

Q: “No Pier Pressure” is your 11th solo album, quite an accomplishment for any musician, never mind all your work with the Beach Boys. In your mind, have you finally put the Beach Boys behind you?

A: Yeah, because the Beach Boys wanted to go on tour, y’know, without me, but I’m going to go on tour in June.

Q: When you look back on your life, what were the times that you were happiest?

A: When I was in the studio with the Beach Boys.

The oft-told tale of Wilson’s personal travails, often framed within a California-dream-vs.-dark-reality context, has often overshadowed the actual music he was making, even when that music was by and large extraordinary, like the refabricated “Smile,” abandoned in 1967, then completed and triumphantly taken on the road in 2004. One shouldn’t have to pretend that “No Pier Pressure” ranks with “Pet Sounds” or “Smile” — it has its moments, but also too much sugary adult contemporary schmaltz and a few too many guest artists — but then, one doesn’t listen to Brian Wilson for edginess and acerbic putdowns. When asked what he wanted to express with the new album, he responds, “Mellowness and happiness.”

“Love & Mercy” was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his wife, Melinda, and Wilson calls the movie “very factual and very well-portrayed.” Asked if it bothers him to have his personal life and past troubles so publicly out there and whether it frustrates him when people focus on that rather than his music, he answers, “It does not bother me, because that movie spoke for itself. That movie is a good movie.”

Paul Von Mertens, Wilson’s longtime musical director on tour, does confess some frustration, though. “For me,” he says, “the real story is who he is as a person and as a musician, and the (focus on the) somewhat lurid history really has very little to do with the music and also with Brian’s own heart and soul. He’s a gentle spirit; he had some real painful times in his life, and it would be nice if he could just live in the present and make music and enjoy doing it, because that’s who I know him to be: a guy who’s really gentle, incapable of being mean or sarcastic. That’s the guy that I know and that I love. The other stuff, that’s old news to me.”

Von Mertens (who also plays with Poi Dog Pondering) says the friction reported in the press when the 50th reunion tour ended was misinterpreted. “The tour was always intended to be a finite thing. From the beginning, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to do 50 shows, and that’s it.’ They ended up extending it and doing 75 shows, so everybody went beyond their original commitment because it was going really well and everybody was having a good time. But the agreement was always that everybody would go back to doing what they were doing.”

Von Mertens says the Wilson and Love camps got along reasonably well in 2012. “It was like being at a Thanksgiving dinner with a slightly dysfunctional family every day for six months,” he says. “For some reason, people are fascinated by discord. Mike was kind and gracious to Brian, and I must say, some of the shows were epic, like the most stunning experiences I’ve had on stage. There’s an inherent friction in the Beach Boys’ music that makes it interesting, and this is just my point of view, but Mike is ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ and Brian is ‘In My Room.’ And you can’t separate the two. And the tension that’s built into that was part of the chemistry that has always made the band interesting, and it sparked a lot of vitality for the music.”

Even in our brief phone chat, Wilson struck me as someone who lives very much in the present; Von Mertens, who has worked with him for around 17 years, confirms the man doesn’t like to dwell on the past. “Absolutely. Or the future. It’s what’s happening now — what time do we eat, when is sound check, what time’s the show, when are we going back to the hotel — that is what’s usually on his mind.”

That’s been the case, Von Mertens adds, ever since he’s known Wilson. “Always, yeah. Not a whole lot of examination of the past and motivations and personalities and conflict. It’s just not something that he talks about. At all. Ever. It’s really, like, what’s happening right now. ‘How do you feel? How’s your wife? How’s your kids?’ Those are the kinds of things that he asks me. ‘What kind of music are you working on? Don’t waste your time learning to type, you should be working on music!’ I mean, that’s who Brian is to me.”

Who is the real Brian Wilson? And should it matter to anyone except the man himself, and those close to him? In the end, it might be reasonable to conclude that this survivor, as he ushers in yet another summer filled with his ethereal, eternal harmonies, has already given us more than enough of himself.


Here’s a link to my concert review, to which I took my 10-year-old son; it was his first “adult” concert. Coincidentally, my first “adult” concert was a Beach Boys show at Boston Garden, which I attended soon after arriving at college at age 17. There’s the circle game for you.

What would the opposite of the ‘Cheers’ theme sound like?

Apropos of nothing special, I was amusing my brain recently with reverse-engineering the Cheers TV theme song to express the exact opposite of the original’s sentiments — the Bizarro World Cheers theme, if you like. I stuck to the version heard over the opening credits, although there’s a complete version that was only heard on an anniversary show. Probably best to stick with the short version.

Making your way in the world today

It’s really not that hard.

Taking a break from all your worries

Is a thought you should discard.

So, you don’t need to get away.

Sometimes you want to go

Where nobody knows your name,

Where they don’t care that you came;

You want to be where you can’t see

All troubles are not the same.

You want to go where nobody knows your name.

Thanks a lot, you guys have been great. I’ll be here all week.