Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pynchon and Wilson

Rubber Soul was the catalyst for Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds for Sgt. Pepper. Indeed, McCartney has stated more than once that "God Only Knows" is the most beautiful song ever written. But it was more than a beautiful song that influenced Paul. "It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian's writing. I love the album so much. I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life. I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs.

"The other thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines on Pet Sounds. If you were in the key of C, you would normally use...the root note would be, like, a C on the bass (demonstrates vocally). You'd always be on the C. I'd done a little bit of work, like on 'Michelle,' where you don't use the obvious bass line. And you just get a completely different effect if you play a G when the band is playing in C. There's a kind of tension created.

"I don't really understand how it happens musically because I'm not very technical musically. But something special happens. And I noticed that throughout that Brian would be using notes that weren't the obvious notes to use. As I say, 'the G if you're in C---that kind of thing. And also putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines."

While McCartney would go on with The Beatles to Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road, Wilson would wander recklessly from manic genius to depression. While there are sublime moments that survived the Smile years ("Friends," "Surf's Up," Sunflower and snippets Holland, Wilson's fractured genius would never again emerge like it did on Pet Sounds.

Although the competitive battle between Beach Boy and Beatle is commonly reported, Wilson's genius affected many other artists as well, from Pink Floyd to Wilco, and most oddly, writer Thomas Pynchon, a writer known for his nearly avant-garde experimentation in literature, most famously in the novel, Gravity's Rainbow.

I took him to my apartment in Laurel Canyon, got him royally loaded and made him lie down on the floor with a speaker at each ear while I played Pet Sounds, their most interesting and least popular record. It was not then fashionable to take The Beach Boys seriously.‘Ohhhhh,” he sighed softly with stunned pleasure after the record was done. ‘Now I understand why you are writing a story about them.’

In 1966, writer Jules Siegel brought Pynchon to Brian Wilson's home on Laurel Avenue in Coldwater Canyon, just a canyon east of Laurel, where it is reported that the famous hipster novelist sat in stunned, unhappy silence while the nervous, stoned pop star — who had dragged him into his Arabian tent to get high — kept kicking over the oil lamp he was trying to light. "Brian was kind of afraid of Pynchon," Seigel wrote in Playboy, "because he'd heard he was an Eastern intellectual establishment genius. And Pynchon wasn't very articulate. He was gonna sit there and let you talk while he listened. So neither of them really said a word all night long. It was one of the strangest scenes I'd ever seen in my life.
One night we all went up to Brian Wilson’s Babylonian house in Bel-Air. Brian then had in his study an Arabian tent made of crimson and purple Persian brocade. It was like being inside the pillow of a shah. There was one light, fashioned from a parking meter. You had to put pennies in it to make it stay on. Brian brought in an oil lamp and tried to light it. The parking-meter light kept going out and Brian kept dropping the oil lamp and stumbling over it. Neither he nor Pynchon said anything to each other. Another night, we went to Studio A at Columbia Records, only to find our way barred by one of Brian’s assistants, Michael Vosse, who explained that we couldn’t come in anymore, because Chrissie [Jules’ wife who was with him and Pynchon] was a witch and fucking with Brian’s head so heavy by ESP that he couldn’t work.
In the mid-60s, both Pynchon and Wilson were forging new creative paths in their respective art forms. Both artists, fueled by visions partially — or significantly — enhanced by the ingesting of psychedelics, were attempting to capture these visions in their work. Pynchon, in Gravity's Rainbow, and Wilson, trying to further extend his idea of "a teenage symphony to God" with the highly anticipated follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile.

Pynchon was able to wrangle his deep and complex vision into an incredible novel, winning the National Book Award in 1974 and almost garnering a Pulitzer Prize (rather than select such a controversial novel, the jurors gave out no prize for literature in 1974). Wilson, however, facing pushback from his father, The Beach Boys and his record company, as well as a psyche increasingly destabilized by his drug intake and mental health, was unable to bring Smile to fruition.

And that's it. That’s all I have: an encounter. Two voices of a generation meeting at the peak of their creative powers, sitting in an Arabian tent smoking pot, not saying a damned word to each other. It's almost perfect.

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