Let’s continue with the musical savants of the Sixties. Today’s birthday boy is Brian Wilson, genius composer and producer/arranger of The Beach Boys and the talent behind Pet Sounds, one of the most highly regarded albums of its era. As time goes on, the album has even eclipsed The Beatles.
I’m willing to concede that in terms of the brilliance in the arrangements of the songs and in the songs themselves, but I also have a cavil. The Beach Boys never rock, indeed I’m not sure that Brian Wilson knows what rock’n’roll is, other than Chuck Berry. Which is fine for its day, but they were not the band to take the form through the Sixties. Wilson is a particularly Californian type of artist, and the sound he created on Pet Sounds epitomizes that ideal. It’s laid-back but its mellowness has an undercurrent of angst because one is never sure how hip or cool or with it one is. There’s a sense that spiritual truths are worth attaining but hedonism is easier, and so ersatz spirituality is rife as is a dream that pop could be more enduring, more true, not just an amazing vibe.
I’m satirizing it and simplifying the spirit of an album like Pet Sounds, but I can’t help it. Call it bad Easterner spite. In my youth, I had no time for The Beach Boys at all—they even looked corny. Only much later did I give Wilson’s masterpiece a serious listen and learned what all the fuss was about. I bought a re-issued vinyl mono version in 2011 and was finally captivated in a way that the CD never quite managed to do.
Today’s song is one that, lyrically, suits me fine. It’s one of my favorites on the album, along with “Caroline, No,” “Sloop John B.,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “I Know There’s an Answer.” Choosing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” suits my mood this week rather well. In the wake of the do nothing but dig the surf and sun and sky at the shore for two weeks, I find myself somewhat in the dumps. And Wilson gets that feeling in with the overlapped lines in the great chorus: “Sometimes I feel very sad / (Can’t find nothin’ to put my heart and soul into).” You said it, brother.
The song is a very tuneful meditation on frustration, some would say depression. Sure, but not of the clinical variety, more like the kind born of actual dissatisfaction: “I keep looking for a place to fit in / Where I can speak my mind / I’ve been trying hard to find the people / That I won’t leave behind.” That kind of dissatisfaction with one’s peers or milieu is not unusual for artists who want to strike out into a new territory, much as Wilson did with this album (to the consternation, to some extent, of his band mates). That nagging sense that there is “somewhere” where one would fit in and find kindred spirits is what makes the status quo—whatever it is—somehow unacceptable.
Where the song really gets haunting is with the climb in register (the use of falsetto and high lead voice with higher harmonies is what used to annoy me about The Beach Boys, probably because their vocals are simply out of my range) to “They say I got brains but they ain’t doin’ me no good” and the sudden drop after “I wish they could” that segues into a little musical interlude that mimics the brief flurry of hope (“things start to happen again”. . . “I think I got something going for myself”), with amazing multi-tracked background voices, between the opening dissatisfaction and the declaration of the chorus—which is kind of two voices in the head speaking at once, and with a drum that sounds like a throbbing headache—that brings us to the lovely melodic line (it sounds like a recorder but is actually an odd electronic instrument called a Tannerin) that supports the song’s title: “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” It arrives like a sweet benediction. Oh, so that’s it; I’m just doomed to feel like I don’t belong in the here and now. The second time, the Tannerin gets a great little workout.
I have to confess to that feeling as a constant in my teens if only because of all the stuff I was reading that had nothing to do with the times of my actual life. See, even if you read fantasy and sci-fi written in your lifetime, you aren’t really zoning out away from your era like you are if you read primarily in much older times. With lit and art of another time you introject a lot of feelings and ideas and ideals that simply are no longer available. It can definitely produce an odd dissociation. But that’s me. I’m not sure what made Wilson, who was certainly enamored of the recording equipment of his day, feel that he wasn’t made for his times. Maybe it’s just a way of saying that time is passing too fast and the music he had a grasp on is getting beyond him.
The great thing about an album like Pet Sounds is that it comes to sound better as time goes on. It’s a time capsule that was made in its time but doesn’t reside there. It’s not outdated, and that may be what finally gives a positive meaning to Wilson’s lyric. Neither he nor his music was made for those times—the mid-Sixties, specifically—but they have become synonymous with the cutting-edge, pop-music-wise, of that time and have maintained a freshness and fascination up to the present. To not be of “these times” is to be for “all time.”