Given the fallen state of Rock music in recent decades, I felt it my duty as a father to try to turn my sons on to some of the great stuff of Rock’s golden age in the ‘60s. I was pleased when they went enthusiastically for the Beatles, Dylan, Motown and Hendrix with no coaxing. I was further gratified when my older son actually liked Burt Bacharach, which was more of a stretch culturally. My younger son was learning guitar very fast, and as I pointed him towards second tier stuff, like Love, the Byrds, and Moby Grape, he dug it all, didn’t even confuse Moby Grape with Moby.
Then came the Beach Boys. I’d perhaps instinctively known to hold off on them, even though I had no doubt they belonged in the major leagues. What I didn’t expect was for my younger son to look at me as though I’d suddenly lost it, as though I’d given him a CD of music from another planet.
Yes, the Beach Boys sing of a culture that must seem ancient and alien to Gen Y - hot rods, surfers with woodies, California Girls viewed through lenses that are hopelessly sexist. But I don’t think that’s why he didn’t get it. I suspect it’s their vocal harmonies, the dominant characteristic of their sound, That those harmonies are so closely knit owes to shared genetics between the Wilsons and a cousin. But they also bear the indelible imprint of the Four Freshmen, a fifties group whose sound was as foreign to my ears in the ‘60’s as the Beach Boys’ is to my son’s now. To a young musician like me, the Four Freshman weren’t merely foreign, but the enemy. They represented lounge music, one of the main strains that we aspiring rockers intended to wipe from the face of the earth. And we did, except for that vestige in the Beach Boys. The mystery then is how did the Beach Boys bridge that chasm to reach me and my generation?
Through the genius of Brian Wilson. Just as Bach took the various strains of middling music that came before him – the chorale, motet and fugue –and transformed them into immortal music, Brian Wilson took the saccharine bleatings of the Four Freshman, mixed in some surf guitar, then later odd percussion and an orchestra, and came up with a stack of masterpieces. The best of these can stand with any music from any time, though what comes immediately to mind is Mozart, who also delivers simple delight to our ears.
So what’s guilty about enjoying the Beach Boys? There’s that echo of the Four Freshman, which in the Beach Boys weakest songs (like “Graduation Day”) jolts you to a realization of just how much Brian Wilson owes those guys. There are the cultural anachronisms. Sun and surf are just quaint, but some of the girl stuff is plain creepy (check out the lyrics to “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”). And then there’s the strains of plain musical weirdness that keep cropping up, even in the loveliest songs. “God Only Knows,” Paul McCartney’s favorite song in the world, and one of mine, is gently charming you into some kind of religious state when it is rudely, unaccountably interrupted by a jaunty orchestral interlude, some vestige of Broadway, or marching bands, who knows what. Just as abruptly the song reverts to its prayerful mood, ascending to its heaven, a round that would sit comfortably in a Bach Cantata. Why that break? Is it a tone painting such as Bach employed, Brian reminding us of the contrast between our profane world and the higher one, which only God really knows?
Part of our guilt is that of the voyeur. Joni Mitchell famously pioneered “confessional” songwriting. But as personal as they are, it’s our own personal we feel revealed in them, not Joni’s. Brian though, starting with “In My Room,” is letting us see a lot more than his bed and closet. His most intimate songs give us the uncomfortable feeling that we’re staring into his heart and soul. Our discomfort grows as we witness Brian’s descent from eccentricity into madness. What makes it worse is that the weirder he gets, the greater his music. By the time Brian is working on his long lost masterpiece, “Smile,” he’s utterly bonkers, living in a teepee with a sandbox in his living room, addicted to chips and dip and a warehouse of pharmaceuticals.
And then there’s the rest of the illustrious but insane Wilson clan. The father, Murray, taking a two-by-four to Brian, deafening one of the two most brilliant ears of the 20th century. The brothers and cousin constantly in court suing each other.
Brother Dennis, even druggier than Brian, hanging out with Charlie Manson, then finally drowning, the only real surfer in the band. The irony’s too painful to contemplate. In the book Catch a Wave: the Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Peter Carlin does a good job of depicting all the horrors of the Wilsons, a dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families.
Finally, much of the Beach Boys later music is quite terrible. Yet it need incur no guilt – it simply should never be listened to. “ Kokomo. “ “Barbara Ann.” “I’m Mad at My Old Man.”
But the best stuff? You’re seriously shortchanging yourself if you don’t get to know it. “Caroline No.” “God Only Knows.” “Til I Die.” And the ultimate masterpiece, Brian’s Mona Lisa; “Surf’s Up.” No less an eminence than Lenny Bernstein invited Brian onto a TV show to have him play this song, introducing it with, “ Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, 'Surf's Up' is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today.”
It starts with a steady, inexorable rhythm, Carl Wilson riding it, delivering Van Dyke Parks’ impressionistic poetry, rising to a lovely phrase on the inscrutable words, “Columnated columns domino.” The next line ends with a question - “Are you sleeping?” and the backing track ebbs to a halt. A second verse, music same as the first, with a nice French horn call echoing the words “trumpeter swan.”
The song changes direction and Brian takes over the vocal. The song slows in tempo - a trick Brian employed before in “Good Vibrations.” But the rhythm still has that steady, inexorable flow, and now it’s starting to remind us of something. But we’re distracted by the melody, which from the composer’s mouth grows more adventuresome, stretching out, assuming odd triplets and strange leaps, closer to an Art song than a pop ditty.
The lyric gives us a hint about that insistent groove we’ve been hearing, but we ignore it, caught in the melody:
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave”
Next the melody soars, saying precisely what the words are saying:
“I heard the word
A children's song”
Finally the epiphany, which never ceases to astonish, though I’ve heard it a hundred times. The rest of Beach Boys join in, singing in motet-like counterpoint, words chanted in remote echoes of Doo Wop. And now we know what that groove is, what we’ve been riding all along. Waves. Now the wind has picked up, and this is rolling surf in sound -one voice rising as another falls.
“Child, child, child, child, child
A child is the father of the man”
And floating above, as always in Beach Boys’ harmonies, Brian:
“A children's song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way”
Brian Wilson, the man whose genius is that he’s never far from the child in himself, has somehow transformed the Four Freshman and that bunch of grinning guys with a surfboard they never actually rode, and found the cosmic meaning in surf itself, something about our parents and us and our children succeeding each other like waves on the beach, the son rising as the father falls. He’s distilled it all into this brief chorus, so delightful that as it fades we wish it could repeat forever, as long as there are waves in the sea.