Saturday, November 18, 2006


I believe you Mr. Wilson
I believe you anyway
And I'm always thinking of you
When I hear your music play
--John Cale, "Mr. Wilson," 1975

Not long ago a friend and former student of mine gave me a copy of The Beach Boys Love You, with a host of bonus tracks, and after perceiving that a warped sensibility was at work, I picked up Sunflower and Surf's Up.

Let's put this in perspective: in my youth I simply couldn't listen to The BB because clean-cut pop stars were OUT once the Moptops arrived. And not only were The BB clean cut, they all were kind of goofy-looking. Then those cloying harmonies, and, then, worst of all, they epitomized California, and not the California of The Doors or Steely Dan, versions of the West that somehow made it past my Easterner artillery to impress themselves on me (as perhaps two different versions of the psychotic or at least neurotic undercurrents of Happyland), but instead the California of some kind of endlessly effervescent middle-school, smacking of the recycled smiles on those Burbank-born sitcoms that inundate the airwaves. Sure, I could even accept the "kind king light of mind," feel-good revels of the Dead-Headers (though always with a wry grin), but you have to draw the line somewhere...

What I've come to see, listening now, is The Beach Boys were waaaayyyy freakier than I ever in my oblivious "surfer girl / little deuce coupe / I get around" associations could ever have conceived. They strike me as a combination of two other Californian musical entities of that era: The Byrds and Frank Zappa. The Byrds because of those precious harmonies, Zappa because those harmonies often swerve toward the borderline dementia of Flo and Eddie in FZ's heyday, and because of things like "Johnny Carson" (wonderfully absurd and featuring that fearless acceptance of the obvious rhyme that I associate with FZ), "Rollerskating Child" ("oh me oh my oh gosh oh gee/ she really sends chills inside of me") and "I Wanna Pick You Up" -- only in Zappa-world, I had assumed, could you find a song about putting your kid to bed that features "pat pat pat her on the butt" and at times even suggests that rock'n'rolling with your little tyke is a kind of high, but whereas Zappa would be winking at things that might make us uncomfortable -- because he knows our sick culture expects the double entendre -- The BB play it straight. And Wilson gets away with it, but only because we were all kids once, awed by the "Solar System" -- "brings us wisdom" -- and were middle-schoolers tickled by things like the knowing high-schooler wink of "takin' it one little inch at a time now/ till we're feelin' fine now/ I guess I've got a way with girls."

Which is why I have to alter my charge of "effervescent middle-schoolers": I used to think The BB just played at "willful naivete" as the way to maintain some kind of undying allegiance to the sock-hop, that they insisted, musically, that middle-schoolers were all pure-minded romantics happy to hold hands and say "keen" together in a certain way, but no: in many of the songs, Brian's in particular, The BB are grown men with kids who have realized that kidness is where it's at. So do these tunes come along, "trailing clouds of glory...." That too would be easy to ridicule -- especially since Love You was released in '77 (77!!, era of Punk, Disco, and the decline and fall of '60s dominance in music) -- because it smacks of all those hippy-dippy parents of the '60s, whacked-out on pscilocybin and groovin' on how "beautiful" their little urchins are as they run about naked smearing each other with body-paint, or cavort in that giant sand-box that Mr. Wilson set his pianos up in.

Yes, whenever I start "California Dreamin'" some such image comes to mind -- the only place on earth where Deleuze/Guattari's schizo could really flourish, I suppose, for awhile. Maybe so, and maybe that's a good thing. And maybe the schizo's name is Brian Wilson and not Syd Barrett, if for no other reason than that British folk, filtered through blues and psychedelia just can't get you there. Where? To the beatific vision, of course.

Surf's up
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children's song

A child is the father of the man.
--Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks, 1971


Anonymous said...

My friend Carsten (he of the near-complete collection of Dylan concert recordings) turned me on to the Beach Boys a few years ago, and the one CD that I bought was "Pet Sounds," which is simply astonishingly brilliant. And an earlier BB era than what you are talking about?

Donald Brown said...

Pet Sounds is 1966 and is the one album of theirs that has been touted so much I had to hear it and finally did some years ago. It is a great record (in my novel, two characters begin their romance in summer '66 and it's dubbed "The Pet Sounds summer"), and was the beginning of my grudging, belated interest in them. But nothing on Pet Sounds prepared me for how wacky this other stuff is.

What on earth would a "near-complete collection of Dylan concert recordings" consist of, since the guy has been playing close to a hundred shows a year for several years, and that's just in the last decade? Put another way, how many shows does he have from the Rolling Thunder tour, and how can I get ahold of them?

Andrew Shields said...

A few years ago, Carsten told me he had every concert since 1974 except the one that was not recorded (which was in Mexico City in the 1980s). I'll email you his email address.