Sunday, August 27, 2017

"Surf's Up" and Pet Sounds

By "Surf’s Up," Brian had used his last match; there was still a blazing fire, but drugs and depression, indeed 60s carelessness, let it go out. As much as I can immerse myself in speculation of what SMiLE should/could have been, the best of it, "Surf's Up," reaches so far that the let down is crushing. At least part of what makes "Surf's Up" so monumental in my critical canon is based, admittedly, on speculation, on what I want the song to be, a 10 reaching toward the 11s.  On this date in 1967, Brian would record a home demo of the song, oddly lowering the key from G minor to F# minor, an interim step in a recording process that would begin in 1966 and end, on the LP, Surf's Up, in 1971.  Of course we all anticipated Smile and got Smiley's Smile, such are life's disappointments, but by overlooking the pluses of LPs like Sunflower and Surf's Up we cheat ourselves.   

Nonetheless (since I'm still in Wrecking Crew mode), we step back; back of course to Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds is aesthetically beautiful, mirror-like, in that within it we see ourselves.  Sorting fact from legend in regards to its creation is beyond impossible (is that like being really unique?), and it's all too simple to conclude that the work is of singular brilliance, of tragic genius, summoning the notion that a complex, challenging work springing from a rebellious mastermind is both romantic and affirming of our continental-myth of the lone cowboy. Here we need to apply the Objective Correlative and determine that it doesn't really matter.  

Essentially, everything stupid or silly or mundane about The Beach Boys is missing from this record (and trust me, I love those California Girls). Pet Sounds is only superficially about youth; indeed it's an adult take on grasping our coming of age; it is the reason they came up with a fancy word like Bildungsroman. (Man, that is fancy.) The music is lush, full of complex and achingly beautiful arrangements, yet lyrically the observations are plain and vanilla, and shockingly universal.

The album-opener, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is the  perfect example.  The song is about first-love, not silly puppy love, but actual honest-to-god love. The song encapsulates something we have all felt, the comfort of a mother's love, the excitement of lust, the longing, the angst. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is an explanation for every stupid teenager who's ever run off and gotten married. Yet here we get it, we understand why. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is as poignant in this respect as "Thunder Road."

"You Still Believe In Me" opens with a confession that the song's narrator has completely fucked up – and yet the elusive she of the LP (Caroline?) still loves him. The wonder here isn't in the bliss of love, but the endurance. Our narrator tries, promises, fails…and yet she still believes in him. "That's Not Me" is another song about failure, while this time our hero has given up chasing foolish impulses ("That's not me").  More than just a song of redemption, "That's Not Me" is the self-realization that one's dreams (and their pursuit) may not only be harmful but the opposite of what we really want. Stoned or sober that's a mind-blowing realization, and parsing out the reality or the bottom line is a crap shoot. Been there.


I cannot effectively analyze "Don't Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder." One can only correlate its bass-line heartbeat as Brian sings "Listen, listen, listen," else the sentiment means nothing. It's like trying to explain the coldness of snow or the difference between mushrooms and toadstools. Instead... I lolled about the sun-swept beach with a lithe blonde from Amsterdam I'd met in Biarritz. Love so maddening. Days into bliss we slept, huddled beneath the canopy of a boat for hire left in the sand. She lay with her head on my shoulder. We softly listened to my Walkman (it was a long time ago). She was crazy about "God Only Knows" and kept rewinding the tape. I made her listen to "Don't Talk" and she laughed, planting a deep kiss on my forehead. (Deadly kisses.) In the morning she talked longingly of home and the next day, I tagged along to the airport, feeling like a little boy; my stomach churning in the madness, in the sadness, in the torment of loss, over the stupid, easy way I let her go, like we were just pals. I should have screamed on the tarmac to make her come back. Would she have heard? - "Listen, listen, listen..."

"I'm Waiting For the Day" would be at a loss in its simplicity but for the off the cuff, Bacharach-styled arrangement that leads so effectively into "Let's Go Away For Awhile," one of pop music's most beautiful and poignant instrumentals, an interlude of genius. (Can you envision Wilson at work here?)

"Sloop John B." is a misfit that somehow fits; like it was a hit on the radio amidst all the Pet Soundy angst. And then there's "God Only Knows."  Not only is it hauntingly beautiful musically, but it's astonishingly rational while romantic at the same time. Unlike a traditional pop-love song where the singer expounds how he can't live without the love of his life, "God Only Knows" acknowledges the fact that both he and the world go on spinning with or without her, even if God only knows where he'd be with her loss. I can live without you, but I don’t want to, is infinitely more romantic than the foolish adolescent declaration "I can't live, if living is without you" (sorry Harry Nilsson).

Within "God Only Knows" (and attach this analysis to the entirety of the LP) Wilson masters the criteria perfectly, inimitably and with sheer musical genius: Eclectic classical/ jazz instrumentation, sophisticated orchestral and harmonic arrangements, poetic lyrics, lovely vocals, structure and chord progression, jazz and classical chordings, diminished, augmented use of counterpoint. The French horn intro is majestic and expresses an all-consuming depth of love with profundity, while the lyric is so profoundly intricate in its unorthodox phrasing. The Wrecking Crew, who provide the orchestral accompaniment on this opus with a virtuoso level of grandeur, add to its sublimity. 

"I Know There's An Answer" is about the search for the meaning of both life and self.  It's about all those Nowhere Men sitting in their Nowhere Lands and how we're all lost and adrift in our lives. There is no Magic 8 Ball answer that's going to fix everything and make us happy, we have only to save ourselves with our own answers.  There's no way of helping all the lonely people in the world without first helping ourselves. Indeed, put on your oxygen mask before anyone else's.

"Here Today" is my least favorite of the album, but the harmonies work, the overblown arrangement enhancing its simplicity, and The Wrecking Crew expertise negates its disposability. There's a dreamy psychedelia about it that saves the track for me, but if there's a track that nixes the LP's shot at 11, it's "Here Today."

Just as "You Still Believe in Me" responds to "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" responds to "I Know There's An Answer."  "I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times" isn't simply my favorite song on Pet Sounds, it's among my all-time favorite Beach Boys songs. "I Know There's An Answer" affirms that there is an answer to all of our questions, yet it's about what happens when we can't find them.  It's about failure and self-doubt.  It's about feeling absolutely stuck as an artist, lover, liver of life.  It's about the profound sadness and dissatisfaction that stalk all of us throughout our lives.  And mostly, it's about that feeling that we have at least once in our lives, that we don't fit in or belong anywhere.  

"Pet Sounds" is bachelor pad fun. Was Brian on drugs? Yes indeed.

Lastly, there's the bittersweet "Caroline No."  It's about the terrible way that time strips us of the things we cherish the most. It's heartrendingly sad and every time I go back to California, I’m reminded of Thomas Wolfe's "You Can’t Go Home Again." Rather than struggle for a cheesy  redemptive silver-lining, "Caroline No" does us the public service that that’s just how life/the human condition is.  

I'm done. Go listen. It's beautiful. I want to cry thinking about it, and then the train comes and the dog barks and real comes back.  Tomorrow, though, I think I'll listen to Surf's Up.