Friday, March 23, 2018

The Last Great Beach Boys Song

On a flight to Houston in 1964, Brian Wilson experienced a terrifying panic attack which led to his decision to stop touring with The Beach Boys and focus on his songwriting and studio work. Wilson dealt with the anxiety and the stress of live performance by taking to the studio to produce a canon of music on par with the greatest popular music of the 20th Century; as the story goes, Brian heard The Beatles' Rubber Soul and said, "We can't let them get ahead of us. I can take us further." The result was Pet Sounds, which Rolling Stone and AM rank the penultimate album of all time (after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was the Beatles response to the Beach Boys album). 

Wilson said he began hearing voices after his first experience with LSD, probably in 1965. Eventually, he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, before a final diagnosis of schizo-affective disorder. The symptoms and subsequent diagnoses of his illness are portrayed in the most poignant manner in the stellar biopic Love & Mercy. T.S. Eliot popularized the idea of the "Objective Correlative," a theory that music or poetry or painting, for instance, should be analyzed purely on its merits alone, with the artist's personal exploits left to the artist. Not buying it. No one will deny the virtuosity of the Beat Farmer's 9th Symphony, but how much more intriguing is Beethoven's 9th when one understands that Ludwig Van was deaf? A song like Lennon's "God" indeed has no meaning without a knowledge of Lennon's bio. With this in mind, the Brian Wilson of the late 60s, and his musical output as well, centered on his psychosis.

Some of the most powerful scenes in Love & Mercy are of Wilson being over-medicated and manipulated by quack therapist Eugene Landy, played in the film by Paul Giamatti. The historical record shows that Landy took advantage of his famous patient, using him to live out his own fantasies of artistic acclaim and celebrity, while Wilson acknowledges that Landy was not just a therapist, but a friend who helped him get out of bed at a time when everyone else had given up on him. 

But more than Landy or medications or external therapy, Brian's recovery seems a product of his work. "I dread the derogatory voices… They say things like, 'You are going to die soon,' and I have to deal with those negative thoughts… When I'm on stage, I try to combat the voices by singing really loud. When I'm not on stage, I play my instruments all day, making music for people. Also, I kiss my wife and kiss my kids. I try to use love as much as possible."

In 1967, of course, after Wilson challenged the very limits of the recording industry with Pet Sounds, the group began to lose its dynamic stranglehold on the very genre they defined. When SMiLE was abandoned, musical peers, critics and fans stopped listening overnight. While 1967's Smiley Smile featured "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains," these, like so many tracks in the early 70s Beach Boy canon, were rehashes of SMiLE. The Beach Boys would go on to create a bevy of accomplished LPs; LPs that were just not hip anymore, with Pet Sounds' genius, and not the lack of SMiLE responsible for the Boys' demise and loss of prestige. Indeed, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone unfairly described The Beach Boys as "just one prominent example of a group that had gotten hung up trying to catch The Beatles." 

The Beach Boys — almost overnight — became dissident imagery in a time of eruptive change. In June 1968 — a period that clearly illustrates that America was in a state of dramatic disarray — Friends was released. The Beach Boys would go on to produce albums that find their way to my turntable 50 years later, Holland in particular, but should we handpick the canon, it ends gloriously with the greatest of rock waltzes, the title track, "Friends." For this writer, "Friends" is the last great Beach Boys track. 

"Pet Sounds is by far my very best album, though my favorite is Friends," Wilson said. "I think that the Beach Boys sound was developing right along. I had developed a sixth sense for everybody’s voices." Sessions for the record started in February at Wilson's home studio, while the writing took place in the dog days of the Summer of Love. The album's title cut was released as a single in April 1968, making it to No. 47. Originally a standard 4/4 rock tune, Brian's genius transformed it into 3/4 time just to be different, and everything is there to extol the track as a Beach Boys masterpiece, particularly its incredible harmonies. Friends
holds a special place for many Beach Boys fans. After a period of discord, the group came together on the record in nearly the same way The Beatles did for Abbey Road, though music fans immersed in the latest records by Hendrix or Cream were no longer interested. There were no songs about revolution, drugs or politics on Friends. Times had changed, but the Boys hadn't, if anything taking a step back.

"Friends" is far more naive and pedestrian than anything from Pet Sounds, but there was a return here to something simpler. "Friends" wasn't about teenage angst or "columnated ruins," it was about the simplicity of friendship.