Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Beware, long-winded ramble about the Beach Boys and me ahead.

I don't have a clue when I first heard the Beach Boys. I'm sure it was one of their many big hits of the 60s; perhaps "Barbara Ann", "Fun, Fun, Fun", or even "Good Vibrations". But all of these were in rotation when I was anywhere from 3 to 8 years old, and I just didn't listen to the radio all that much, unless it was in the car with my parents. Sure, I loved the Beatles even then, and had several 45's that my folks had bought for me (and let's not forget my Aunt Lavana's legendary record collection), but I didn't follow music like that then, certainly not the way I did when I got a bit older. By the time I really began to develop my jones, I was 12 or 13 and let's face it, the Wilson/Love family just were not much of a presence, their platinum greatest-hits album Endless Summer notwithstanding- to me, that was ancient history, released by a band that had long passed their sell-by date. Creem magazine rarely, if ever, wrote about them. Neither did Crawdaddy (although there was that big feature article on the aborted SMiLE project...), Circus, or even Canadian music mag Beetle. To 13 year old me, the Beach Boys weren't on my radar. They were old hat, terminally unhip. But eventually, I noticed the odd mention here and there about the Genius of Brian Wilson, and the skill and craft plus plain ol' God-given talent that he and his brothers and cousins brought to their music, and I began to get curious. Two events put me on the path to Beach Boys enlightenment- first, a chance listen to a friend's copy of one of those Warner Bros./Reprise Loss Leaders from 1971 or so in the very early 80s, which contained the Surf's Up track "Feel Flows". That odd, ethereal, haunting cut with its shiver-inducing harmonies and stinging distorted guitar/flute accompaniment absolutely opened my eyes. I began to wonder exactly what the hell was the deal with this group- I had no idea that they were capable of making music this strange and lovely, and my curiosity was piqued. I began to search out books, magazines, whatever I could get my hands on that could give me some history on the Boys, and how they went from relatively innocuous fare such as "California Girls" to something like "Flows". It wasn't easy to do, in the pre-internet 80's. The one book that could have helped me the most, Dominic Priore's Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile! was out of print. Eventually I ran across the story of how the Boys' money train got derailed by the one-two punch of the Beatles' ascendancy plus Brian's growing artistic ambition (and his concurrent mental turmoil), culminating in the wistful, brilliant Pet Sounds, which was a masterpiece but inexplicably didn't sell, which earned the scorn of the others in the group and led Brian to descend further into drug-induced paranoia and depression...which in turn led to the total creative meltdown of what was to be the grand follow-up to Pet Sounds, SMiLE. I just didn't, couldn't understand what had happened to cause Brian to abandon his muse, and how the Boys themselves descended into the obscurity and irrelevance of the years 1968-1973. The second, a little later, was seeing a TV commercial for some BMG vinyl re-package of the Beach Boys' greatest hits, titled The Beach Boys Forever. I thought it was high time I had some classic BB music in my collection (other than "Flows" on a dubbed cassette, I had none, because practically all of their Warners output was out of print, and that's what I wanted to hear the most), so I ordered it, and heard this music as if it were the first time. This little epiphany led me to pick up as much BB product as I could (thankfully, they were enjoying a renewed popularity not long after, thanks to the hit single "Kokomo"; plus I also recall seeing them in videos with the Fat Boys, of all people, and on their own would-be hit "Getcha Back", so it was a bit easier), but the product at the time wasn't as satisfying. Funny thing- I didn't get to hear the entire Pet Sounds album until I started working at the original WLOC radio, with its wide-open format, in 1988. To be honest, it didn't make all that much of an impression on me! I was even more confused, but I was determined to sort it out and finally did after I got my own copy on CD a couple of years later. I went to see the Brian-less Boys in 1988 in Nashville- at least Carl, Mike Love and Al Jardine were on hand. Slick and forgettable, but now I'm glad I got to see Carl perform at least. Also extremely helpful to me was the 1994 box set Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys, which not only had a ton of information about the Missing Years in its booklet, but also sported bits and pieces of abandoned SMiLE tracks in addition to many, many unreleased songs. I also read Brian's autobiography, supposedly ghosted by his disreputable psychiatrist at the time, Dr. Eugene Landy, and David Leaf's fine The Nearest Faraway Place, an ambitious dual history of the Wilson/Loves and the entire Southern California scene. In dribs and drabs, here and there, I managed to piece together the entire story, for the most part. I filled in my BB collection as best I could, vinyl here, CD re-issue there, and while far from complete, I have managed to come to a fairly thorough appreciation of the lads from Hawthorne. Dare I say even a fannish enthusiasm?

Which leads me to SMiLE 2004, surely the most unlikely, and certainly the most heartwarming, popular music release in many, many years. I can't imagine how much Brian must have gone through to revisit one of the darkest periods of his life, and that this music is as triumphant as it is just amazing. I think a huge amount of credit is due to his backing musicians, the band known as the's clear that as Beach Boys disciples, they were given the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues with the Pet Sounds tour, and must have been elated to get a chance to help Brian recreate, and even add ideas to, the long-abandoned SMiLE project. SMiLE is a crazy-quilt song suite; song sections stitched together to form an almost seamless whole and accented with all manner of musical textures- banjos, trombones, bells, honky-tonkish piano, sound effects, orchestral sections, and that's just a few. Much of this music they've made together almost defies description. It's also amazing how, even though I've heard the SMiLE cuts that made it onto the box set such as "Wonderful", "Vege-Tables", "Wind Chimes", a solo piano version of "Surf's Up" (that, truth be told, I still prefer- even to the newest version), Brian and his band make them all sound fresh to these ears even though I've been listening to them a LOT since 1994. Can't overlook the contribution of lyricist Van Dyke Parks- his Edith Sitwell-on-hashish rococo poesy works in mood rather than literal description; a line like the oft-derided "Columnated ruins domino" from "Surf's Up" or "Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield" (which caused Mike Love's famous negative overreaction) from "Cabin Essence" evoke often indescribable feelings and impressions. Much of what Parks has written (and I'm not sure how much of a song like, say "In Blue Hawaii" is current, or was written back in 1966; "Hawaii"'s lyrics remind me a lot of Parks' solo albums such as Clang of the Yankee Reaper or Tokyo Rose.

Of course, I can quibble, even with this- hindsight is so important when regarding this album, and one can't help but note that this album is so good when practically everything the man's had a hand in since, oh, 1977's The Beach Boys Love You has been mediocre at best and a compromised, bland mess at worst mostly because these are songs that are, for the most part, 38 years old and written by young Brian at the peak of his earnest, clumsy, cockeyed, melancholy songwriting glory. I'm not so sure the man has melodies and whimsy such as this in him anymore, as witnessed by his most recent solo CD. Brian also now has a bit of a slur in his voice which is always lurking, but he's in surprisingly good voice for the biggest part...and this slight impediment even adds to the poignancy, in an odd way.

But you know what? That's the worst thing I can say about this little miracle of a CD, and it's a trifling thing indeed. It's alternately juvenile and transcendent, happy and sad, and completely thrilling to have such a downright odd little collection of songs to listen to after all these years. Would it have captured all the hippies and rode high along with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's? Who knows. Its cockeyed optimism and silliness might have resonated with the counterculture and may have helped keep things from going as sour as quickly as it did...and on the other hand it might have turned people off almost as much as the hastily cobbled-together Smiley Smile did back in '68, or sold as poorly as Pet Soundsdid...and the Beach Boys would have slid into irrelevance just as quickly.

All I do know, though, that here it is 2004, I'm 44 and not 7, and I can't stop singing "Vege-Tables". SMiLE makes me happy when I hear it, from the opening "Our Prayer/Gee" and how it surges thrillingly into "Heroes and Villains", in which Bri sounds energized as he barks out the words, on through the galvanizing Ba-ba-ba's in "Wind Chimes" and the intense "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", until the joyful finale of his semi-rewrite of "Good Vibrations", and I know I can't be the only person that feels this way. For that reason, if nothing else, SMiLE is a triumph for Brian, and I think that after all he's been through he deserves it.

What will he do for an encore? Here we go again...!

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