Music has the power to heal the soul

Seeing Brian Wilson was less like a performance than a sense of what it is like to compose
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Perhaps it was a side-effect of the belated summer-in-the-city heat that produced an unexpected and, I confess, slightly tearful epiphany this week.

Perhaps it was a side-effect of the belated summer-in-the-city heat that produced an unexpected and, I confess, slightly tearful epiphany this week. I was watching a man seated on a stool on stage. Around him musicians were playing and singers were singing, but the musician at the centre of it all seemed to be in his own world, oblivious not only to them but to the audience too. His small, jerky hand movements, slightly weird and out of sync, were not the kind of thing one normally sees in public - indeed, under other circumstances, they might have provoked curiosity or even pity. There was something not quite normal there.

But this was the Festival Hall, the music in the air was of breathtaking brilliance, invoking memories of the past but remaining powerfully contemporary, and the man on the stool was Brian Wilson, once a trim, tanned, flaxen-haired Beach Boy, now, four decades on, a man of frail, late middle age who needs help to get on and off the stage.

No one remotely interested in the way popular music has developed over the past half century should miss the astonishing, spectacular and moving events that are Brian Wilson concerts. Even those of us who were never great Beach boy fans - too clean, too neat in their harmonies, too close to the sound of barber-shop quartets to be acceptable - will belatedly discover the originality of those ancient songs. Away from the hype, the image-makers and vibe-merchants, the music is born again, rescued from nostalgia and revealed as the product of a complex and tortured musical sensibility.

Wilson has famously been one of the great lost souls of rock, venturing so far into the dark woods of paranoia, drug abuse and mental breakdown as to make the idea of any kind of comeback seem absurd. Yet here he was, performing not only the songs that provided the backing track to a generation, but also a song cycle called Smile, which he was said to have abandoned in 1967 having heard the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album and despaired. Normally, it would be a risky venture for a man approaching old age to resurrect, 37 years after it was written, a composition which was originally described as "a teenage symphony to God", but, against the odds, it was a triumph.

Here was the epiphany. Watching Wilson and his odd little private gestures was less like seeing a performance than getting a sense of what it is like to compose. It was not the human performers who surrounded him on stage and admirers who were listening to him that caused the intensity of those moments, but the shape of the music that he was hearing. At that moment, the Festival Hall seemed to have the intimacy of Wilson's own room, of his brain. Startlingly, the connection between the repetitions and complexity of those sounds and Wilson's mental troubles became clear. Other stars have been destroyed by the rock lifestyle; here it was the music itself which had caused breakdown and collapse.

It was also music that saved Wilson, and that was why seeing him come alive as he sang on stage provided such an unexpected emotional charge. A thought that may seem so bathetic and hippyish that one would need to be stoned even to think it was here being enacted: music has the power to heal the ills of the soul. Writing or painting can be therapeutic, sport sometimes provides an outlet for this or that, but it is above all songs and tunes that can put unhappiness, personal mess and confusion in their rightful place. Those, like Brian Wilson, who in addition have the talent to help others through the darkness with the sounds they create, are truly blessed.

What he has been working out on a grand stage can be seen wherever musicians gather to play and others listen to them. The night before my visit to the Festival Hall, the singer, guitarist and composer Gordon Haskell was playing songs from a new album at the 606 Club. From the look of him, Haskell has not known the extreme miseries of Brian Wilson, but he has experienced his share of personal and professional disasters, years in the doldrums and management hassles both before and, more significantly, since the unexpected chart success of How Wonderful You Are two years ago. But, once the music was rolling from Haskell and his band, there were few people in the audience who would not have envied them.

Let us hope that some of our more sober-sided politicians experience the healing effects of music at first hand during their summer holidays. Charles Clarke might consider increasing the £1.5m addition to funding for musical education in schools. The ridiculous legislation that would require public entertainment licenses for any venue at which music is played might be quietly dropped.

Those holidays might also jog a few parents into action. My life was changed when I was given a ukulele at the age of nine, a cheap guitar when I was 13. Whatever a child's preferred instrument, it is worth helping them open the door to music. The short term may be painful, and they will almost certainly not be a Brian Wilson or even a Gordon Haskell of the future. But the benefits will be there all the same.