That Old Feeling: Brian's Songs

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Well I'm lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.
And if you want to find me, I'll be out in the sandbox
Wondering where the hell all the love has gone,
Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun
And singing 'Fun, Fun, Fun.'

—Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies, 1992

Let's play the "25" game. Think of any classic rock-pop star or composer of the '50s or '60s. Divide his career (or hers — but who are we kidding? the form was almost exclusively a guy thing) into two categories: everything he created or performed by the time he was 25 years old, and everything he did afterward. You can take only the early work or the mature music to a desert island that, funnily enough, has a Discman and a lifetime supply of batteries. Now choose which category you prefer.

In almost every case, from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to Phil Spector and the Brill Building songwriters, the Beatles, Stones, Dylan... I'd pick the early years. Then, as now, rock was a young man's game, passion, art. In their relative infancy, people accomplished amazing musical feats, stuff that still thrills. It was harder for them to improve on, or even equal, the sounds they heard in their heads, and sang when they were too young to vote.

You might, for example, have wanted Brian Wilson to keep refining the miraculous music he put together for the Beach Boys. At 25, in the summer of 1967, he had already defined the group's indelible sound, created 16 Top 40 hits for his band and more for Jan & Dean ("Surf City," "Dead Man's Curve") and the Hondels ("Little Honda"). Quickly maturing, he masterminded the superb studio album "Pet Sounds" and dreamed up a "pocket symphony," the all-time fab "Good Vibrations." These were beautifully crafted, emotionally pure tunes — songs so infectious that they have become the year-round soundtrack of summer, as someone says in an impressive and melancholy TV tribute that airs July 4th on TNT. In his first five years as a producer-composer-singer, Wilson had done so much and, as a restless artist, seemed poised to achieve much more.

But something in Wilson kept him from keeping on. Perhaps it was that implicit compact that those who win early success make with the gods and demons of pop music. Or, letting our poetic license expire for a moment, we can see Wilson's late-'60s collapse as a residue of a troubled childhood: nearly deaf in one ear, he is said to have been abused physically and emotionally by his father Murray. (This relationship has earned the special notoriety of an Internet cartoon: Peter Bagge's "Murray Wilson: Rock & Roll Dad" series on In 1964, Brian suffered a nervous breakdown and retired from touring with the group. In the '70s and '80s he relinquished reality, doubled his weight (to 340 pounds), fell under the sway of a psychiatric guru (to whom he gave co-authorship credit on songs for his 1988 solo album) and entered a second, less troubled childhood, "out in the sandbox." He seemed just one more pathetic example of how, for the most promising popsters, 25 is a dead man's curve.

The melancholy fact is that no singer-songwriter of the rock era has had a career like the one Richard Rodgers or Irving Berlin or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer had in pre-'50s pop music. Of course, there were differences from the Depression generation to the Love Generation. Maybe everything was different. Most songwriters weren't professional performers; they were craftsmen, not idols. They didn't have to tour. Surely they had admirers, but the word groupie hadn't been invented. The drug scene for songwriters was pretty much limited to Martinis and Chesterfields. Whether they were Lower East Side Jews like Berlin or Indiana Wasps like Porter, they acquired the manners of the time: a veneer of sophistication, or the real thing. They appeared to be "nice."

In the rock era — when aggressive sex replaced reflective romance as the main product to be sold — manners became about as hip as bow ties; the bad-boy pose was so much hotter. Destruction and self-destruction came into fashion. You weren't a rock star if you hadn't been arrested or shot, or in a plane or motorcycle crash. And nothing will cut down on a singer-songwriter's productivity like a fatal heroin overdose. Then again, nothing is more likely to guarantee his membership in the Burn-Out or Flame-Out Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. There's one other perk to early death: it saves the artist from the toothless indignity of a Geezer-ama oldies tour.

Next Wednesday, at 8 P.M. Eastern and Pacific times on the TNT network, Wilson gets the best kind of memorial: a wake where the loved one is still alive, gets to hear all the nice things people say about him, and even sing along. "An All- Star Tribute to Brian Wilson," which was taped at a Radio City Music Hall concert in March, has contributions by David Crosby, Cameron Crowe, Vince Gill, the Go-Gos, Heart, Dennis Hopper, Billy Joel, Aimee Mann, George Martin, Ricky Martin, Michael Penn, Darius Rucker, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Matthew Sweet, Metropolitan Opera baritone Jubilant Sykes, Jimmy Webb and Wilson Phillips — Brian's kids Carnie and Wendy, along with John Phillips' daughter Chynna. It's one "all-star tribute" where nearly all the stars really are all-stars.

It airs just as Wilson — so far away from his early eminence, so long cocooned in a drug haze and blinkered by schizophrenia, so averse to public performance — is embarking on a summer tour. He has teamed with Paul Simon, one of the few rock- era songwriters to mature as he aged, for a double blast of complex musicianship and high harmony. This coming week the Wilson-Simon caravan plays four heartland venues with names (Tinley Park, Ill., Maryland Heights, Mo., Clarkston, Mich., Noblesville, Ind.) that might come from a Disney theme park, or a David Lynch TV series. They could also be Midwestern stand-ins for the cozy Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, where Wilson grew up, and formed the Beach Boys.

Brian, you see, didn't fit the rock-Rimbaud mold. For all his rock-star-type travails, he was defiantly middle-class suburban: a lawn-and-pool California guy. He didn't radiate sulfur — more suntan lotion or talc. He had the pleasant, pre-sexual features of an altar boy or paper boy. He preferred the mellow vocal stylings of the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los to that rowdy rock 'n roll; it was brother Dennis who loved Chuck Berry guitar riffs. Though Brian would gain fame as the pop poet of fast cars and wild surf, he was no aficionado of either; Dennis was the surfer too. In 1961, when he formed the Beach Boys with Dennis and brother Carl, cousin Mike Love and high-school friend Al Jardine, the guys dressed in the striped short-sleeved shirts of the Kingston Trio, another mild vocal group Brian admired. Mike's pinched, adenoidal tenor gave a little bite to the verses of their songs, but they were defined by Brian's angelic falsetto on the choruses. An anachronistic compliment comes to mind: "sweet."

The Boys' elaborate, potent harmonies and Cub Scout sentiments ("Be True to Your School," "When I Grow Up to Be a Man") underlined the exuberant innocence of Brian's enterprise. As the Kennedy years soured into the Vietnam era, the songs retained their sunniness. They sang not of arms and the man but of Huarachi sandals and miniature golf. Even the introspective ballads were rendered harmless by some piercingly inane lyrics: "There's a world where I can go and/ Tell my secrets to" ("In My Room"); "So I say from me to you" ("Surfer Girl"). Brian might adapt Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" into "Surfin' U.S.A."; a few Beach Boys songs placed as high on the R&B as on the pop charts. But this was the most conservative cool group around — so white they were almost albino.

It's easier to make jokes about the group's themes than to make sense in defining their music. But I'll try, having unpacked some old LPs, including a greatest-hits double album with 20 of the Beach Boys' two-minute classics (one side has a stingy 10 min. 12 sec. of music on it!). Any excuse, dear reader, to stay home and crank up the Victrola.

Brian was a triple whiz: at pop composition, vocal arrangement and record production. He elevated harmony to sophisticated choral work. Emulating Les Paul, he made his magic on a primitive eight-track recorder. But Wilson devoted just one track to the band and the other seven to vocals; as Paul did with Mary Ford, he doubled each vocal part to thicken the stew of sound. Brian, the self- taught studio maven, was his own George Martin — a wizard at weaving eccentric instruments and his pal's voices into a majestic aural tapestry.

As a young songwriter he often worked variations on two familiar structures — 12-bar blues ("Surfin' Safari," "Shut Down," "Little Deuce Coupe") and the C-A minor-F-G pop-ballad progression ("Surfer Girl," "In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby") — with pleasing tweaks to lend distinction to the breezy melody. Later he broke out of the four-chord prison, educating the ears of the world's teenagers. Some of his strongest songs ("God Only Knows," "Good Vibrations," "Surf's Up," "'Til I Die") begin with verses in bold minor keys, then either soar into majors or sour into more meditative minor patterns.

And even when the songs hopscotched over musical logic, they scanned, because — analysis fails here — they sounded so gorgeous. "God Only Knows" is full of blithe contradictions: a declaration of love that is also a warning ("If you should ever leave me/ ...what good would living do me?"); a summer song with the feeling of Christmas (the main percussive elements are sleigh bells and hoofbeats); a verse in fruitless search of a chorus (but with such fabulous filigree work that the melody needs no release). The musical setting comprises an amazing 21 different chords, and you might have to be Einstein or Bernstein to figure which key the song is in; it seems to think it's a mythical bird that would die if it were ever to alight on the ground of its primary chord. "God Only Knows" never does touch down; instead, it ascends into its final contradiction, a fade-out that is song's climax. That vocally precise and delirious coda, a round of five integrated parts, lasts 45 sec., more than a quarter of the song's duration, And as far as I'm concerned, it could go on forever. (Alert my family: if I should ever become mute and paralyzed, they're free to play this song in the hospital room an hour every day.)

Similarly, the patchwork fabric of modes, moods and melodies in "Good Vibrations" is immediately disconcerting, but that's part of the listening thrill: not knowing, for once in a pop song, where the heck it's headed. The flower-power verse bleeds into the doo-wop excitations before modulating into the giddy chorus of countertenor voices ("Good, good, GOOD") that escalate almost to infinity, as if a seraph were having an orgasm. Now the scheme is repeated; but just as we think we're on to Wilson's plan, he steals our compass by introducing another rapturous fragment with harpsichord backing ("I don't know where but she sends me there") and yet another, in a slower tempo ("Gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations a-happenin' with her"), that appears to fade out. Then the jolt of a harmonic "Ahhh" and, one last time, we're back in the chorus. (In my living will, I also ordain a daily 12-hour dose of "Good Vibrations.")

"I believe that music is God's voice," Brian once said. (As the Beach Boys sing in "Add Some Music to Your Day": "The Sunday mornin' gospel goes good with a song.") Listening to the music of Wilson's youthful maturity, people heard angels in tight harmony — the Heavenly Choir of Hawthorne. The more secular among us just marveled at what a fellow could do at 24. Then, in the years that followed, they watched in dismay as his spirit shriveled and his talent atrophied.

Who knows what discordant music was playing inside Wilson's head after 1967? But what came out was often pitiful. His music, instead of advancing, regressed; the songs became strangely lethargic; they featured a pumping harmonium but very little harmony. The hymns to surf, sun and the internal combustion engine gave way, in Wilson's premature dotage, to songs in honor of vegetables and Johnny Carson ("He sits behind his microphone/ He speaks in such a manly tone"). In the '60s he had written about what Dennis knew; in the '70s he wrote about children, the ones he had sired (Carnie and Wendy) and the one he now was.

"Little Children," a double-step march, describes kids in baby talk: "If the rain comes down/ They put on their coats/ ...If it gets too floody, they get in their boats." The lyrics of "I Wanna Pick You Up" could be sung by a doting dad or a predatory outsider: "I wanna tickle your feet/ Drop you in your little tub/ Wash your body and shampoo your hair/ Be careful not to sting you eyes/ Pat, pat, pat-pat-pat her on her butt, butt/ She's going to sleep, be quiet." (It might even describe a jolly adult relationship of the sadomasochistic stripe.) These bizarre songs, which the listener may find troubling or merely disappointing, are strange choices for the Beach Boys; their naivete was always more adolescent than infantile. The tunes would have been more suited to kids' TV. If Tom Lehrer could write "Silent E" for "The Electric Company," why Couldn't Wilson have written about butt-patting for "Sesame Street"?

At times Wilson wrote about the broken man he had become. In the spooky "'Til I Die" he sings: "I'm a cork on the ocean/ I lost my way, hey hey hey.../ I'm a rock in a landslide/ It kills my soul, hey hey hey.../ These things I'll be until I die." This lusciously orchestrated suicide note must have given his old partners the creeps. Eventually the group split into acrimonious factions. Love fronted a Beach Boys band, Jardine led something called the Beach Band, and lawyers made a nice living off all the bitter litigation. (At the Radio City tribute, Mike and Al were conspicuous by their absence.) By this time — the late '90s — Dennis was dead, from a drowning accident, and so was Carl, from lung cancer. Improbable as it seems, Brian is the last Wilson standing. If there's any evidence that he retains some of his old musical wit, it's that he recently recorded a cover of a Barenaked Ladies song: "Brian Wilson."

So he can hardly be denied kind and grateful words at a New York City concert — even if the praise was fulsome. Host Chazz Palminteri called Brian "the Mozart of pop, the Orson Welles of rock, the George Gershwin of his generation." (Why not just say he was the Jesus Christ of music?) The word "genius" was passed around like a toke at Woodstock. George Martin made it sound as if the Beatles, whose transcendent records he produced, were mere Beach Boys copycats, and "Revolver" a "Pet Sounds" knockoff. Note to young'uns: "Pet Sounds," which came out in 1966, contains three or four indelible songs ("God Only Knows," "Wouldn't It Be Nice"); it is also the most overpraised LP in pop history. Wilson's forte Wasn't concept albums. What he wrote and produced were great singles.

At about 90 minutes (plus commercials), the TNT package contains only about half the Music Hall program, whose centerpiece was a performance, by a dozen or so of the luminous guests, of the entire "Pet Sounds" album. The TV-cast includes only three of these songs. You won't hear Brian's swell duet of the recent "Lay Down Burden" with brother Carl's youngest son Justyn. You'll miss daughters Carnie and Wendy Wilson sing the ballad "You Still Believe in Me" (pretty pretty) or hear Carnie say, when she flubs a line, "Oh fuck it, who cares?" The lyrics to "Sloop John B." — "This is the worst trip I've ever been on" — take on new meaning when sung by Crosby, the Gabby Hayes of acid rock. "I was there in the '60s too," Crosby said, with either pride or regret, "and I have only 18 brain cells left."

Take our word for it: the music sounded wonderful live, fuller and more authentic than on the small screen. Ace producer Phil Ramone, the Pope of Pop, proved, with the opening medley of "California Girls" and "Help Me, Rhonda" (even as sung, with little feeling or skill, by Ricky Martin), that Wilson's studio sorcery could be duplicated. Gill, the guest with the cleanest chops, did justice to "The Warmth of the Sun." Crosby, Simon and Webb made creditable work of "In My Room." And the reproduction of "Good Vibrations," sung by Sykes, Heart and the Harlem Choir, gave the audience a musical blood transfusion.

Halfway through, Brian entered, in that blissfully dazed state he's dwelled in for much of the past 30 years. He called out, "I'm glad you all drove on down here!" to an audience that had arrived, most of them, by subway or limo. (Did he know where he was?) He sang his music, in fair voice, accompanied by clunky Hawaiian hand gestures, as if he were an octogenarian following an exercise tape. It was a poignant spectacle for those of us who were touched by Brian's songs when we were nearly as young as he — and still are, when we are nearly as old. Bless him for still having a life, or a half-life. We hope he enjoyed being joined by the all-stars for a singalong of three airy anthems from the days of innocence: "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun." Joel, John and Simon shouted harmony into one mike; then Joel and John did the Twist and rubbed butts. A voice in the dark cried out, "We love you, Brian!" and Wilson answered, in affable befuddlement, "We love you too, whoever you are."

We love you too, Brian, whoever and wherever you are.