Brian Wilson

The Week: See you in the dock

Autumn settles in swiftly, and with it the rhythms of a new cultural season, from "In the Heights" to the sidewalks of Forest Grove

AUTUMN’S SETTLED IN EARLY ACROSS MOST OF OREGON, and with it the rhythms and traditions of a new cultural season. Music, theater, dance – each has its own history and pattern, its own set of rituals. 

Corey Brunish, the Portland and New York performer and producer who has a handful of Tony Award statuettes as a producer on Broadway, has just been named one of more than two dozen nominees for this year’s Broadway Global Producer of the Year Award, on a list that also includes the likes of Gloria Estefan, John Legend, and Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Brunish, whose nomination is for the aggregate of his Broadway work, has an abiding love for the rituals of the theater, and often expresses it in musings about the still time before the curtain rises. He wrote this one, he says, during a California run of the new musical Empire, about the building of the Empire State Building, a show that’s still trying to raise backing for a Broadway run. But, he adds, it could be any show, any time, anywhere:

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Dancing is a highlight of Portland Center Stage’s In the Heights. Above: Alexander Gil Cruz, Eddie Martin Morales, Alyssa V. Gomez, UJ Mangune. Photo: Owen Carey

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Temporary balms for darker times

Brian Wilson and The Zombies make America '68 again

In 1968, the world seemed to be coming apart. A bloody, increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, political assassinations, urban riots, generation gap, conservative backlash against civil rights and other progressive movements…. Even pop music grew darker than the sunny Summer of Love psychedelia of a year earlier, from the Beatles’ so-called White Album to grittier turns by stars like the Rolling Stones and various Motowners, to the rise of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and other heavier sounds supplanting the gentler flower-powered folk and classical music influenced pop of the preceding two years.

In that fraught year, several pop bands released new music overlooked at the time. Then regarded as flops, they later came to be recognized as masterpieces. Two are came to Portland Tuesday, Sept. 17, under the misleading banner “Something Great from ‘68.” For while the music that Brian Wilson and The Zombies released that year has outlasted much of its dated-sounding contemporaries, it was utterly out of step with the spirit of the new, dark age.

In 1968, the Zombies and the Beach Boys were also falling apart. Both had been hitmakers earlier, with the Zombies British Invasion pop and the BBs multiple hits mostly (at least superficially) about surf, cars, and ‘girls.’ Musically, Wilson’s family band was making music as radiant as anything after WWII, but by 1968, their tours featuring surfin’ sounds with striped shirts and white pants seemed increasingly tone deaf in a world coming apart. While psychedelia soared and violence raged, songs about surfing and cruising seemed passe, and the Beach Boys plummeted from pop hitmakers to culturally irrelevant.

Ironically, the band members’ non-musical lives actually represented what was going down in America as much as any other: Carl Wilson was a draft dodger (his status kept them from what would have been a culturally significant appearance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival), Mike Love had accompanied the Beatles to study with TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and became a lifelong devotee of the mind-expanding practice, Dennis Wilson indulged in abundant free love and drugs. And songwriter Brian Wilson‘s own mind expansion with psychedelics had fueled transcendent visions in their long gestating album Smile — as well as his own pre-existing emotional instability.

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The candidates talk about the arts, generally

Multnomah County and Portland City Council candidates meet for a Forum on the Arts

Oregon artist Frederic Littman, by Robert Miller/Portland Art Museum

Oregon artist Frederic Littman, by Robert Miller/Portland Art Museum

Last night candidates for open Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission appeared before a very sparse “crowd” at Portland Center Stage to participate in a Forum for the Arts. In general, it went better than the one two years ago. None of the candidates suggested that government funding for the arts was crazy, for example. And none of them tried to clown his way through the evening. Both happened last time, and one of those candidates actually won his race.

But we are still in the early days of learning how to have a fruitful conversation about the role of the arts in local culture and how we can address the issues that arise around them. In truth I could substitute “transportation” or “education” or “economic development” for “the arts” in that sentence and it would still be true, but maybe my standard for “fruitful conversation” is impossibly high.

I’m going to get to what the candidates actually said in a moment, but first, a hypothetical question. Let’s say you are persuaded that the arts are important—in education, for individuals, for the economy, even for the transmission of central ideas about what it means to be human. Maybe that became apparent to you from your own experience walking through the world or maybe you read one of the many studies that have suggested the same. Here’s the question: How would you go about developing policies that would integrate them more deeply into the larger culture?

Maybe you’d talk to some artists about what they do, what they need, what they have to give. Maybe you’d talk to some kids in arts classes about the same things. And to their parents about their own access to art-making and the art achievements of others. And to “ordinary” people about what they need and want and are willing to pay for. Ordinary is in quotes, because one of the great and paradoxical lessons of the arts is that none of us is “ordinary” and still we can find deep understanding, commonality, with our fellows.

Evidence of THAT sort of fruitful conversation was missing from the Forum on the Arts Monday night. The discussion was general, and though the expressions of support for the value proposition of the arts sounded heartfelt, they weren’t backed up by the ideas that fruitful conversation, even one of them, would have generated. So, one candidate mentioned live-work space for artists—which sounds plausible—but didn’t offer details: Where should that space be, how can we surmount the massive obstacle of current zoning restrictions and the bureaucracy that enforces them, are they rent-subsidized spaces and if they are, what should we expect back from the artists in return? The list is a long one, and for many of them, the artists themselves have at least part of the best answers.

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