Or, a new world.  A new world of drugs?  For Wilson, yes.  First marijuana, then LSD; he took them to open his mind, to compete, to get to that next level.  More competition, more stress?  More drugs.

And so the first song about growing up - "When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)."  How vital and yet fearsome a prospect; the age of the boy-to-man is 14 to 31, as if life really did end when you were 30, that you could no longer really trust yourself after that.  But the future is coming, anxiety is in the air, questions hang around unanswered and maybe unanswerable.  A new world is coming, the signs are all there, the bits of twigs and birds showing the shore of a whole new place is close, and getting closer...

"Wendy" is the first stab here at out-and-out misery, and here the narrator cries; the first real love that lets him down, hurts the narrator so bad.  More growing up, more maturing - "guess I was wrong."  The macho Hawthorne veneer is starting to wear off, or is it that the drugs helped the vulnerability bubble up clearer, stronger?

Never mind, here comes Mike with "Little Honda" and the urgent need to go "faster, faster" - sure it's sexual (all those gears, all that freedom to escape the city and civilization) but the feeling now is so slightly but importantly different.  "It's all right!!!" the chorus reassures, a swoon into something a little more intense, as if the freedom to go wherever you like means you can blissfully leave yourself, ultimately.  This is what California is all about, especially within the context of the USA, and that acute sense just increases over the next section...

But what about dancing, that other blissful joyous body sensation?  "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Do You Wanna Dance?" are about casting aside everything but that body, that elation.  There are some who love The Beach Boys' dance music most of all, as there is no side to it, no irony - not even much secondary meaning.  The beat's really high, let's dance - again, it's all right!  I don't want to say there's anything sacred going on here - we'll get to that soon enough - but there is an elegance to this balanced out by the more profound songs to come...

"All Summer Long" is about the end of summer, about the idea of summer, when awkward things can happen but it doesn't matter because...it's summer.  There is an inherent sadness to this of course - summer is ending - but summer as a concept has been The Beach Boys season, inspiration, their domain.  The light - that particular solid and unifying light of Los Angeles, well that is here too.  Every now and then we hear our song - moments of grace are enough to sustain something that is so warm, so good...the moment, like the light, can almost be grasped, as if it was a physical thing.

And all this time, Wilson still had to please everyone.

"Help Me Rhonda" is where the proverbial dam broke.  Murry Wilson was throwing fit after fit in the studio, trying to direct Al Jardine, trying to produce the thing himself.  Brian put his foot down and Murry left, with his wife, still angry and dissatisfied.  I don't know if its going to #1 helped Wilson recover, but something had to change, and this was the start.  The song is nervous, flooded with urgency, coming back and back like wave after wave, as if Rhonda is the only woman who could help the narrator's broken heart, to clean it out fresh.

And now to "California Girls" - inspired by Bach, it is stately, yet winks and smiles, as if to say, hmm, ohh, hmmm....and "the cutest girls in the world" (note:  not beautiful or gorgeous, but cute - short for acute, striking, as well as signifying sweetness and general adorability).  The descending first notes seem to lower a veil, to reveal something, to induce an experience of something greater than anything that has come before - again a kind of adoration, a magnificence that makes the narrator wish they could all be California girls (which as one I take as a compliment, of course, though I know it's just as big a wish as "if everybody had an ocean").  The music sways its hips and poses and smiles; Mike gets to sing about his favorite topic; it is a triumph all around, a bridge from "normal" Beach Boys into something...other....

"Little Girl I Once Knew" can seem awkward, but with the first few notes - a leap from past to present in sound, an astonishing moment that signifies there is definitely something going on - the pauses, the spoken word "Look out babe" and "Split, man" - she's all grown up and he wants her, and doesn't care if she's got a boyfriend or not ("Look at the way he holds her" the narrator says, in disbelief).  "I'll be movin' in one day" he vows, and the no-messing-around vibe combined with that leap of a chord is like sensing that the shallow end is over, being in a pool and suddenly losing sense of the floor, of floating...a little dangerous, but exciting too, as if now the real action begins...this is the new world...there, here, all around, vivid and sensuous.

It must have been frustrating for The Beach Boys to be so popular in the US with so many of the above songs and yet only get their first UK Top Ten hit with their cover of "Barbara Ann" from their Party!** album - one where Dean of Jan & Dean led in the singing, not Mike or Brian.  Its exuberance sat in the UK charts (or rather, claps & jokes) alongside Gene Pitney, The Walker Brothers and The Rolling Stones to one side and Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass, The Hollies and Nancy Sinatra on the other.  They didn't quite connect in '63, in the full flow of Merseybeat, nor did they get very far in the Big Four period of Britpop Mk I dominance.  This, in March 1966, was just loud and casual and charming enough to win the UK public over, not to mention some young men in Germany as well (Kraftwerk Klaxon, as some might say on social media). 

Surf's Up

There is a direct pounding goodness to "You're So Good To Me," a song sung with real gratitude and astonishment that is disarming.  It's a percussive thing, not too melodic or complex, as if that wonderment fixed the song in place, not so much in a trance-like way as much as a state of joy.  The emotion is raw, unfiltered - Wilson's use of drugs just amplified that naivete he had, but left him bare when it came to defending himself, as we shall see.

Wilson admired Phil Spector greatly - hence this cover of "Then I Kissed Her" - yet that naivete I just mentioned somehow protected him from Spector in a way; Wilson rejected any idea of them working together, as it would be too much for Wilson, pressure-wise.  (As far as I can tell Spector never sensed Wilson's keen ear and complete absorption of Spector's use of the studio as musical instrument; or if he did, he didn't see Wilson as much of a threat.  He writes songs about surfing, for God's sake.)  Wilson rated "Be My Baby" as Spector's greatest song, but Spector rated "Then He Kissed Me" even higher; and so here are The Beach Boys making a song about kissing, not surfing.  It's definitely a physical song - you can tell the kissing part is just the beginning, not the end - but with the harmonics hushed and the beat insistent and simplified, it's a trustworthy eroticism, safe in the best possible way.

I have already written about "Sloop John B" elsewhere, but again to give this some perspective, it was in the same UK chart as "Wild Thing," "Paint It, Black," "Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 &35," "Sorrow" and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." The wide blue skies and seas of the opening few notes soon give to a take of an endless trip with no end with a captain who won't mysteriously let the hapless narrator go home.  The acapella section is enough all by itself to compel repeated listens, as is the exuberance-through-misery of the song itself.  I cannot help but think that the captain is Murry Wilson, and that after this thing are going to get even more intense than they already are. (This is side three of the double album, by the way, which started with "You're So Good To Me."  I had to take a literal breather after I finished listening to side three after it finished, as if something had been freed inside me and needed air.  This hasn't happened to me before while listening to anything for this blog or Music Sounds Better With Two.)

In 2009 a UK rock magazine - I think it was Q - asked Jack Penate (whatever happened to him?  I miss him) about his favorite songs and "God Only Knows" was one of them.  He heard it while working as a bartender at a Cafe Rouge and it was on a mixtape that his boss insisted be played all the time. (Hands up anyone who's experienced this.) It was, according to Penate, the only good song on the tape.

But of course, it would be, with a few exceptions, the best song on any tape.

This is the kind of song that makes chart positions or other comparisons obsolete, way beside any point.  It is a song that in so many ways show that what sounds like it can't work does, like the bumblebee that theoretically shouldn't be able to fly but does so anyway.  Sleigh bells?  (Paging Scott Walker and Sufjan Stevens.) Ba-ba-ba-ba-bom-ba-ba old school frat vocals alongside swooning harmonies?  Flutes, accordion, woodblock, strings?  This isn't The Beach Boys as anyone knew them, so stately and profound and stupefying. The US public were lukewarm to it at best, whereas the UK public took it to the near top (as I wrote about here), understanding that Carl and Brian and Bruce back in Los Angeles were on to something.   "Everywhere it takes risks," writes Bob Stanley in Yeah Yeah Yeah, "...the sentiment is that real love is all-consuming, it's frightening." This song is so deep and complex and sink-to-the-ground overwhelming as love itself, the sort of love that, to quote Richard from Texas in Eat, Pray, Love, "so damn beautiful it'll make you wanna throw rocks at the Taj Mahal."*** 

As a married person I listen to "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and am reminded - as almost all married people should be - that the state of marriage is one that others yearn for, dream about, "hope and pray and wish" for a lot of the time.  That merely being with the Other overnight - not being alone, apart, missing and wishing you were with the Other - is a great gift in itself.  And how wise was Tony Asher (lyricist on Pet Sounds) to call this aspect of married life "nice."

I am going to channel my 12-year-old word nerd self here and give some old definitions of "nice":  foolishly particular, attentive to minutiae, accurate, sweet or very pleasant to the taste, refined.. Nice has its roots in ignorance, foolishness, simplicity.  There is no side to niceness; it's too naive and unknowing that there even is such a thing as "side."  That simplicity is underrated in marriage, and I sense foolishness (the good, silly sort) is too.

Mike Love likes to portray himself as Mr. Upbeat & Optimistic vs. Brian Wilson's Mr. Downbeat & Melancholic, but look who is singing this song about the joys and perils of new love?  It ain't Brian, that's for sure.  The whole horns-and-bass avalanche sensation - the song feels during the chorus just like one - along with the devastating harmonies makes this feel like a warning against falling in love altogether.  It is bound to roll right over you, or lift you up and thunk you down again, smartly.  Love is "here today, then it's gone...so fast."  The oceanic tide is a-comin' in feeling (to put it another way) makes the listener want to hold on to something - your ego, perhaps - as love goes ahead and smashes everything around you, including the fabric of time itself.  We are in the deep end of the pool here, for certain.

We now leave the emotional high and changeable waters of Pet Sounds to travel across the wide and strange and unique world of Smile.

"Good Vibrations" is the alpha and omega of Smile (it was written first but finishes the album).  It fizzes and bop-bops, aaahs and whirrs, pauses quietly and then explodes, like a kaleidoscope, forever being turned and shaken, turned and shaken, for different colors and shapes and levels of sound...

To get to Smile, to really understand it, is, for me anyway, absurdly easy in part.  It grew as I did, in the same Hollywood air, water and light and so on that got to me in the womb directly or indirectly.  The same light and air and water as Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, (minus any drugs they were taking, of course).  For me to say that it affects me, moves me, is a tremendous understatement.  As a girl I heard Smiley Smile and had no idea Smile existed, didn't know it existed (in bootleg form) for a very long time, in fact.  Hearing the bootlegs, Brian Wilson's Smile (2004) and The Smile Sessions (2011) makes me feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, having woken up from her dream and proclaiming "There's no place like home."

But understanding is not the same as being able to write, at times.  I can but try.  Smile crosses time and space, looking at US history and essence.  It is one of the few American works of art that grew in stature because it was hidden, abandoned by Wilson and the rest in May 1967, after much work, pressure and drug usage that had gotten way out of control.  (It was finished by Wilson and Parks in 2004, but the original never was successfully finished, and hence is infinite.)  Smile is delicate and elegant and tender, then goofy and silly and random, and its genius is that it all somehow (like the US itself) fits together.  The luau and the cantina, the fire and the wind, the old master painted and the girl of "Wonderful."****

Wonderful me, in that temporary house; and Wilson, trying to figure out his house and where and what it could be: 

Interlude I  – The House (Or, The French Always Seem To Understand These Things Best)

First, a few quotes from Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space:
A house that stands in my heart
My cathedral of silence
Every morning recaptured in dream
Every evening abandoned
A house covered with dawn
Open to the winds of my youth

“This house, as I see it, is a sort of airy structure that moves about on the breath of time.  It really is open to the wind of another time.”

And:  

“I should like my house to be similar to that of the ocean wind, all quivering with gulls.”

 And:

“A house as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe.  Or, to put it differently, the universe come to inhabit his house.”

After he had his nervous breakdown in late 1964, Brian Wilson went back to the old Wilson home in Hawthorne with his mother; as he writes in Wouldn't It Be Nice, “In my room. These four empty walls, the place it had all begun, where I had discovered  the soul-satisfying pleasures of music and written my earliest songs, was quiet and empty, a skeleton of faded sounds.  Still, with my eyes shut, I had no trouble imagining my bed and the piano and organ in the space that was two steps down.  I wanted to slip back into that special time and place but couldn’t find the way."

It was in this place that the music began, where the silence penetrated him, as in “Cybele’s Reverie” by Stereolab:

Les pierres, les arbres, les murs, racontent
La maison, la maison d’autrefois, la maison, la maison d’avenir
et le silence
me pénétrera

It was a silence so penetrating that Wilson never went back, until there was a plaque put up nearby to where the house once was to mark that it existed in the first place – he attended the unveiling of the plaque, the only Wilson brother left to do so.

Even if he didn’t go back to his childhood home, perhaps the most famous scene – not pictured (that I know of ) but imagined, is Wilson at home in 1966 at his piano, the piano set in a sandbox.  This is a literal way of bringing the universe (the beach, the gulls, the wind) into the house, of making it the literal foundation of the music.  This interior universe happened at some point when Wilson and Van Dyke Parks were working on the Smile album, where the openness of their efforts let in the winds of a different time, a time which stretched back to the earliest days of the US, when it was still a group of colonies, to the promise of the newest state, Hawaii, the Pacific state that represents in Smile something of a utopia, a place even more western and Other than California.  (The sand could just as easily represent Hawaii’s island promise as it could Santa Monica beach.)  

That deep need Wilson had to go home was to really go back to that first place of creativity, only to find it was gone, that it wasn’t the place so much as the person – himself – that was his own house, so to speak, wherever he went.  That he was never called up on his sandbox (save by the piano tuner and Parks, both of whom were repulsed by the situation, especially since Wilson had two dogs) and told that you know, Burt Bacharach doesn’t compose like this, neither does Motown, is perhaps a sign that others around him cared more about what he did rather than how he was.  When Wilson went back to see his old home he was just 22 ½ years old, already feeling old, a failure, confused about his feelings and unable to get anything, it seems, other than “You’re not going crazy” or sympathetic cluckings from anyone...

Wind Chimes

"Surf's Up" is, however, the balancing opposite of "Good Vibrations."   

I am still not sure if the world was exactly ready for Smile*****; this excerpt from Leonard Bernstein's televised look at the state of pop in 1966 shows that he found "Surf's Up" obscure and poetical, a sure sign that something was changing - and if he found it obscure, you can pretty much guess most of The Beach Boys' fans would have as well.  As much as it would be, yes, nice to imagine Smile being released in 1967, I am not really sure anyone would have got it, at least (I must sigh as I admit this) in the US.

If "Good Vibrations" is the upbeat and futuristic end to Smile, "Surf's Up" is the sensuous and dark heart of it, a song of what civilization is - sophisticated and elegant, sure, but also ruined in a way, spoiled.  Songs are dissolved in the dark, the night is toasted, the night is quiet and ending, a man who is feeling grief is nevertheless "too tough to cry."  And whispered now and then - "bygone, bygone" as if this whole "columnated ruins domino" shows a world that is, unbeknownst to itself, about to disappear.  A world of carriages and lamplights, of opera in the city, a world much like the opening scenes of, say, The Age of Innocence.

Renewal of innocence is one of the themes of Smile, and while "Wonderful" is the song I take most personally, it is the end of "Surf's Up" that moves me the most - to cry, in fact.  "I heard the word/Wonderful thing/A children's song..." The Sessions version has the return of "Child Is Father To The Man" as the seeming end of an era is met with "A children's song - have you listened as they play?/Their song is love and the children know the way."

"Surf's Up" starts in the same key as "A Hard Day's Night" - G7 - and is quiet and contemplative (with a shaking percussion that was supposed to sound like jewelry shaken gently, as if by waves) and then shifts key and builds up to some peaks of emotion (the rush of one line being like watching a ballerina do one mind-boggling move after another, only to end on one toe, poised and still) that are the opposite to the groovy catch-and-releases and anticipations of "Good Vibrations."

It is a damn shame that Smile didn't get finished, let alone released; The Beach Boys left Capitol for Reprise, yet another label that hopefully waited for it to be finished.  Wilson, understandably crushed by the lack of support he got in general from his bandmates, did a long bloody retreat into drugs, food, depression - all the while still being expected/hoped to carry the band forward, somehow.  Smile was abandoned.  Van Dyke Parks went on to do Song Cycle, and The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile.

The Old Master Painter

Or, Wilson as the master who got old before his time; change the name and these lyrics could be about him:










Harder, harder, hardest
I am the artist
That makes it easy for you
To paint you in a corner
Marcus said
Or at least he might have said
I know what it is to be sad
You should see what I once had

Alcoholic alchemy
Write a song for me
I can turn lead into gold
Just don't let me get old

Have a heart
Just take one look at my art
It should give me amnesty
It means everything to me

"Marcus Said," Sloan, Smeared (1992)

All that changing of lead into gold, those alchemical processes, take a lot out of a person.  The Beach Boys depended on Wilson’s alchemy, and went along with it, more or less.  To keep reaching up higher, to go further, to get to that next song is (or should be) a joy; but so often songwriters talk about their blank days, ideas that come to nothing, fragments that accumulate but only slowly become a song.  Some can piece things together over years, but for Wilson the song had to be a felt, palpable thing, pop art – the main frustration being taking what he heard in his head and then somehow was able to communicate to others how to make those sounds, notes, archings and soarings and so on.  The best songs are usually the immediate ones (“God Only Knows” was written in an hour or so) though something as complex as “Good Vibrations” took a lot longer, took more alchemy.  That his fellow Beach Boys would have to take over the group because of Wilson’s condition at age 25 shows how intense this alchemy was, and how the failure of Smile – that house of an album he didn’t want to go back to***** – crushed him, he who needed amnesty, to be accepted…     

And yet songs from Smile, the supposedly doomed project, keep cropping up.  "Heroes And Villains" is one of them, the first song Wilson and Parks wrote together, the kind of song that is psychedelic and ecstatic without bearing many of the hallmarks of psychedelia.  It is a happy song, after all; the central figure is a girl who survives life in the wilderness of the west (it is based on a country song, "El Paso") and a narrator who has been away from the city that if he went back there, hardly anyone would believe it was him.  It is full of fine harmonies, "doot-doot-doots" and "la-la-las" and has nothing to do with surf, sun, cars - and yet is indubitably of California, of braveness, of escape from the city...yet with a sense that this world too is gone, kind of...sort of...

By late 1967 Wilson had retreated to his house, and the rest of the band decided to build a studio in his house (just below his bedroom) to encourage him to keep writing and recording - this is when Carl, the youngest Wilson, had to take over the band as Brian continued his retreat.  Wild Honey was the album that resulted, and it is a before-it-was-fashionable back-to-basics album that reflects the 1967 of soul and r&b as well as the beautiful, religious tones Wilson was still striving for (when he was able) as well.

"Wild Honey" is an rock and soul (to borrow a term) classic, with Carl letting loose and getting down with his bad self.  This is a fun song - all the formalism of Smile has been cast aside to get back to what compelled The Beach Boys to make music in the first place - r&b and harmony groups, with a theremin (as in "Good Vibrations" but in a different key) to start it all.  The band were now a band again, not just Brian telling the rest what to do, and though Carl's taking over was necessary Wilson resented it.  But you can tell the band is cohesive, listening to each other, enjoying what they are doing.  And yes, it's back to Mike Love writing the lyrics (hence the "sock it to me" and other slang, just as dated yet charming as "gettin' bugged" was in 1964).  And thus endeth side three, with me gasping, in appreciation, amazement...the kind of feelings that are hard to explain and yet take you over completely...

"Darlin'" is the first song on side four, one where "doggone outta sight" is high praise, with Carl again singing, saying he was living like "half a man" before he met his Other, a song that got into the charts just as 1967 ended; the harmonies are simple, the horns are held close to the melody - while not the formula they started with, this is The Beach Boys gone Stax, in a way.  This isn't so easy to sing, I'd guess (it is still Wilson's music, after all, and maybe not so simple as it first sounds), and Carl sounds joyous, as if he is making up the lyrics as he goes.  (The song was first written in 1963 - see what I mean about songs hanging around? - as "Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby.")

"Country Air" is one of those songs that I must have heard at age 11 and been entranced by, without really knowing or caring why; evocative of the countryside, of early mornings, roosters crowing, wide spaces to breathe in and out, this is like Smile without being a song from it (unlike Smiley Smile, which has several songs from Smile on it in different form - "Wonderful," "Wind Chimes" and "Vegetables" and so on, Wild Honey ends with "Mama Says," a fragment from Smile).  And here they all are, harmonizing together, a harmony that no other group - not The Association, not The Mamas and The Papas - could hope to achieve.  The whistling, the yelled "Come on!" from the distance, the first of many songs about Mother Nature...The Beach Boys as part of nature, as opposed to just speeding around near it, in a car or on a motorcycle.

"Here Comes The Night" is the peak of Wild Honey, with Brian singing lead, and if the eroticism from earlier songs is tender and delicate, this is a rush of hormones, a very physical song in every sense.  (I can well imagine Wilson Pickett doing this, for instance.)  Unlike another song by the same name, this night is eagerly, hungrily anticipated, and Brian sings it in a way where you know that the "hold me, squeeze me" is maybe a request for something else, something so powerful that it can't really be named (and I don't mean in a polite way).  Just when things seem to be more lighthearted, there is this tension, building and building, a tension that feels good (like the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles that come down from the mountains that feel sooo gooood...at first) and yet Brian seems just one step away from falling into a kind of sexual abyss.  It is one hell of a song.
 
Look  (Song For Children)

And into the maelstrom of 1968, The Beach Boys released Friends, a tranquil, you-gots-2-chill album that was essentially the exact opposite of the "this is my scene and I'm freaking out" experienced across the country and around the world.  Having done their back-to-basics soul album, they were now pushing new boundaries in mellowness, that most stereotypical of 70s vibes.  At this point they were far more popular in the UK than the US, which is why this (and nearly all subsequent songs) are here.  "Friends" is a waltz, with Wilson talking directly to the others about the band's struggles and triumphs - indeed all the Wilson brothers and Al Jardine helped to write this song, nearly jazz-like (vibes, soaring, leaping harmonies) and beautiful.

To quote Brian:  "Harmony usually means notes that are perfectly and mathematically related to each other, like 1, 3 and 5.  This is the basic chord of music.  Then there's 1, 3, 5 and 7.  This is a more complex chord.  It gets much more complex than that, but I try to keep it sounding simple, no matter how complex it really is." (Friends liner notes)

I don't think there's a better way of explaining how Wilson hears music in his head to be composed and then communicated to his bandmates; the implication that in The Beach Boys he could write 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 if needed is just another way of saying that sure there's lots of families who sing together, but to have this understanding of harmony and a willingness to write songs that use it is rare.  I think of Gershwin and Charles Ives, Wilson's American ancestors, not to mention Debussy, Darius Mihaud, John Barry, Gil Evans, Carla Bley, Burt Bacharach, Dave Brubeck (not forgetting The Four Freshmen)...and wonder what they would have made or do make of this song, and so many others here...

The big hit from their next album, 20/20  is "Do It Again."  Growing up, my knowledge of The Beach Boys - as gained from a Dutch double album somewhat like this one - was that this was their last big hit (I'm pretty sure the album ended here).  It's a totally Mike Love song, with deliberate stokings of nostalgia - "California girls" get a mention, don't you know - and it's a funky singalong of a song (when are those first snare drum beats, all echoed and huge, going to be sampled? - have they already?).  It took me a while to figure out, growing up, how people in 1968 could be nostalgic for something from 1963; but 20/20, as its name implies, looks forward and backward too...as this song ends, the hammering from Smile's "Workshop" bleeds through, as if Smile is refusing to be forgotten...

"Bluebirds Over The Mountain" was another look back, this time to a regional hit in the US for Ersel Hickey from 1958; a totally new song to me (it got to #61 in the US, #33 in the UK) that is definitely country/proto-reggae, a song Bruce Johnston brought in for the band to do much as Al Jardine had brought in "Sloop John B."  So here they are, bringing back songs that explain their roots...

...as does "I Can Hear Music," a song that - unlike others so far - was produced by Carl, not Brian; a Ronettes song that once again explains influences and roots, and was a hit, but seems like a way for the group to continue sans Brian; and as nice as it is, as good as Carl's producing is, it seems a little...too pleasant, if such a thing can be said.  (This song was sung by one Freddie Mercury as he auditioned for Queen - yet another band indebted to The Beach Boys.)

Leaving 20/20 for a moment, we get to the last song The Beach Boys released as a single for Capitol, before signing on to Reprise - "Breakaway."  A song written by Brian and of all people, his father, it was a last chance for the group to have a hit in the US and for Murry Wilson to make some money (Capitol, as part of their response to being sued by the group for royalties simply refused to sell any of their older ones, making all their lives & Murry Wilson's increasingly difficult).  The song is, in fact, about their wanting to leave the label (paging both The Sex Pistols and Aimee Mann):       

I can breakaway from that lonely life
And I can do what I wanna do
And breakaway from that empty life
And my world is new

When I layed down on my bed
I heard voices in my head
Telling me now "Hey it's only a dream"
The more I thought of it
I had been out of it
And here's the answer I found instead






It is - I'm guessing because of Murry's involvement - a real throwback harmonically to how they once were, solid and with that warmth and optimism that hides a barbedness, not to mention yet another reference to being alone in bed, distracted, seeking hope and a way out...

You'd think this anthology would end here, but no, it ends with their cover of Lead Belly's "Cottonfields."  Yet another song brought in by Al Jardine, it was a hit everywhere, it seems, than in its home, the US (I'm not even sure it was a single there).  And here The Beach Boys stop, doing a song from before they were born, yet another 20/20 gesture towards roots...nostalgia...a way out of the 60s.  (Note:  there are two versions of this, one produced by Wilson, another by the rest of the band, who were tending to take over production as they thought Wilson had underproduced this and "Breakaway.")

The Smile ghost, now two years old, would not go away.  The band, wanting new songs from Brian but not really getting much, went back to "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence." These close the album, making the word nostalgia run for cover; the past is refusing to remain the past.  And how terrible and moving is it that "Our Prayer" - a wordless chant that goes right back to William Byrd - comes after "Never Learn Not To Love," a song Charles Manson gave to Dennis Wilson, who in turn changed the lyrics, upsetting Manson, who then wanted Dennis dead; the massacre on Cielo Drive******* came in August, as Manson wanted producer Terry Melcher dead.  Melcher had moved since '66, though, and you know the rest...

And so this ends, just as I am starting to make that walk down the street in Hollywood; just as a nation is reaching whatever highs or lows it has before the 60s are over.

I have been wondering just why this, of all things, was a hit all over again in the UK, just as it had been in the summer of '76 - was it the heat?  1983 was, as Paul Weller called it, the "long hot" summer, though to Bananarama it was "cruel."  The forward-looking over-the-top here-we-go New Pop bursts of energy and punctum were mostly gone; and with them gone, or in hiding, or distressing the public more than pleasing them, The Beach Boys were a break from the present, a break from having to contemplate God knows how many more years of Thatcher.  This is one way of looking at it, and in a time when Rod Stewart could get to #1 in the chart by giving away a free beach ball with his new single ("Baby Jane"), you can see that people were more than eager to get back to simple pleasures, distracting them from the ever-present threats of nuclear war, for instance.

The irony of course is that they may have been buying this for nostalgic/old time's sake purposes, but The Beach Boys promise of endless summer was one complicated by the rupture around Smile, a past that refused to stay in the past, an album that wouldn't go away.  How many who bought this in the summer of '83 had any idea about any of this, I don't know.

But I do know that in order to have a better perspective on The Beach Boys, it really helps to listen to Smile and then know that bootlegs of it were shared and copied around for years, hence filtering into the musicians lives and works who heard it (I am thinking of Escalator Over The Hill, but also The Beatles White Album). In a way that is eerie, in hearing Smile I can finally hear where so many things came from, and regard it as familiar not just in a geographical sense to where I grew up but sonically as well - and the band's dismissal of this work as too "out there" and not sticking to the formula looks worse and worse over the years, though at the time they did record it, they do perform songs onstage, they did try their best with something so utterly different...

Interlude II, In which Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and Terry Riley’s In C remind me of the Bigger Picture (For Nathan, who pointed me to the Weschler essay)

Illinois as the center, California as the edge of the nation, where the highs and lows are greater.
Earthquakes, landslides, brush and forest fires, droughts, flash floods, all are to be accepted and understood (and prevented if possible).
Man is a PART of nature as opposed to nature.
Are the best American albums about coming to terms with the nation itself?
But not exercises in nostalgia, because a true understanding of the US isn’t just physical but METAPHYSICAL
What CANNOT be seen
What CANNOT be explained
What is in the air, the light********, the rawness of the people and the land
What CANNOT be marketed,
What CANNOT be grasped commercially,
The PURPOSE of the place that can be felt on every street, in every park, though it be rough or smooth, that PURPOSE is always there, within reach

The cold night air of Detroit, the warm Santa Anas of Los Angeles, the hot solidity of Louisville, the clear thin air of the Rockies, the smoggy air every night that summer, the enveloping swamp air of Washington D.C., the relief of fresh air outside a stifling car, the endless winds of New York and Chicago…

This is as much of what the US is as anything else.  And it ends in California, the blue Pacific…as if to say ‘rest’ and ‘there is a whole other world, but yes, rest’

Those who are from California,
Those who moved
Those who moved back,
Those who escaped to it, in fear,
Those who couldn’t leave,
Those who only came back in coffins,
“Never forget you are a Californian."

Twenty years ago a cousin reminded me that our family was able to settle in California during the Great Depression only because other family members had already made their home there; that sense of being accepted and welcomed makes for long memories, and a very loyal attitude towards the Golden State.

Wonderful (encore)

In the end here, I have grasped my roots, not out of nostalgia, I hope, but a sense of where I am literally from; something profoundly different, I am guessing, from the majority of the UK public that bought this in the summer of '83.  The light, the water, the sense of peace, wonder, the air inverted and placid, the glowing beauty that makes any harshness seem worse, the unpredictable human and natural world...that something so unlikely as five guys from Hawthorne - near South Central! - could, with energy, practice and - I can't really skirt from this - genius - produce all this, is one of the wonders of my hometown.

And as you can see, I am attached to them still - appreciating them now more than ever, living thousands of miles away from Los Angeles, in a climate that is so often the exact opposite of the sunny, bright one I grew up in.  Just this morning I heard a new song on the radio and it reminded me of them - "Love Letters" by Metronomy - and wondered if Brian Wilson would ever hear it.  Because this music at its best pushes forward with "warmness, serenity and friendship" as Bob Stanley writes, and these are good and necessary things that are audible in the music, in Wilson's own return to Smile, unthinkable in '83.

In hearing this I know myself better; indeed somehow I have regained part of myself that I didn't really know about, and that is about as much as anyone can ask from music. 

Next up: The Prodigal Son, Part 2.