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Part 2 - The Warmth of the Sun

I could come to the neat conclusion that the Beach Boys are part wonderful, part terrible and some strange, and leave it at that.  But there’s a deeper truth hiding in their contradictions.  The Beach Boys are the quintessential American band.  Not just because they sold more records than any native band, but because Brian Wilson from the start intended the band to express his vision of America. It was a big vision, extending beyond surf and girls on the beach to the hope that America would continue its long winning streak, would bask in Endless Summer. Brian made that vision so rich and real in the hope that he could escape there from his personal hell. And I hope he did, at least for moments, as he crafted his masterpieces in the studio.

Brian has decorated his vision with exquisite detail. Those strange jaunty grooves, as in “California Girls,” are calliopes.  When we’re not on the beach on in our Little Deuce Coupe we’re at the amusement park, and Brian makes us smell the popcorn, feel the cotton candy sticking to the side of our face as we glance guiltily at those girls in bikinis.

What Brian may not have been aware of was that at the same time that his band sings of joy, hope, fun, with such outright reverence, the songs also manifest arrogance, entitlement, overreaching, excessive appetites, and plain old frat boy nastiness. This only deepens Brian’s vision, going beyond sweet dreams to uniquely express the contradictions woven deep in the American spirit.

Catch a Wave tends to cast Brian Wilson as the angel, and Mike Love the devil in the band and all its messy dealings. That’s too simple, yet listening to “I Get Around” I’m tempted to believe it, and go a step further.

Brian and Mike co-wrote the lyrics. Mike sings the verse and Brian the chorus, and in their voices I can hear the two sides to the American Dream.

Mike sings, “I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip, I want to find a new place where the kids are hip…” and you can hear in his voice the greed for more, his impatience, and bluster, that says he’s going to get it, because he deserves it, because he’s a red-blooded blond guy from the best place in the world, Southern California, USA. When Brian answers in that ecstatic falsetto, “I get arooooouuund,” stretching the words out like a long highway, he’s already there, relaxing into the bliss of the achievement, no longer striving, but being there.

America caught a big wave in history. Fifty years ago we elected a young president and for a brief moment it seemed we’d be riding high ‘till the end of time. No one captures the feeling of that moment like Brian’s voice hanging ten on those soaring melodies.

The night Kennedy was killed, Brian wrote “The Warmth of the Sun.” It captures the grief of that moment, which may have gone beyond a single death, to our recognition that our long ride might be coming to an end. Only the future will tell. But that song also tells a smaller historical truth, one we know is true.  For its sadness is inextricably wound with beauty. The tragedy of Dallas would be followed by the joy of the Beatles, ushering in the greatest period in pop music history, including the Beach Boys in their prime.

 

image by alvesgaspar via wikimedia commons

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This post gives me G-o-o-od Vibrations ... because you note, "the songs also manifest arrogance, entitlement, overreaching, excessive appetites, and plain old frat boy nastiness." And the impetus to delve a bit more into some of their music that didn't get as much radio play.
"Warmth of the Sun" is one of my favorite Beach Boys songs. I often add it to playlists for long car trips. Besides a melody that makes me swoon, the tinge of sadness is unusual for their early records.

One of my favorite lyrics,from Belle & Sebastian:

“I love my Carl 
I love my Brian my Dennis and my Al 
I could even find it in my heart to love Mike Love 
I wish I could say the same for you.”
Thank you guys for reading. I wouldn't flack the BB's unless I really loved their music. Most of the great writers of the past were guilty of sexism, racism, anti-semitism, you name it. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy their masterpieces, while knowing they were captive of the blindnesses of their times.
Scarlett - a buck will buy you "Surf's Up," the song I dissected (hopefully not to the point of killing it!) at the end of Part One of this post. I'd give you that buck if I could figure out how the payment thing here. Other great ones - "God Only Knows", "Til I Die," "Don't Worry Baby."
I spent a good part of my high school years listening to "Endless Summer", and wishing that I had grown up in California in the 50's or 60's.
I never knew that story behind "The Warmth of the Sun". 

I grew up listening to the Beach Boys, and re-discovered them as an adult. I walk past Swami's Beach every day with "The Warmth of the Sun" on my iPod. To me, it's as though Brian Wilson's work consists of symphonic music crafted purely out of human voices. I'm a classical musician myself, but this stuff is amazing.
I was all pre-pubsecent with "Good Vibrations", socializing at the Y pool and paging thru my Seventeen magazine, wanting to be a California Girl. You shine some nice perspective and warmth of the sun on a time when I still wasn't sure that "fun, fun, fun" was part of my DNA. Still not. (r)
"Help Me Rhonda" is my current theme song.. I listen in the car while driving on errands. Its uplifting beat and teen age angst brings back so many memories from the 60's...Great article....
There's nothing guilty about the pleasure the Beach Boys provided.
It warms me to see all the love coming the beach boy's way. 
Jeanette - I wish I was growing old in California. Kathleen - nice to see someone else from the Classical side digging the BBs. Dirndl - yes, despite all cultural cues aside, Fun Fun Fun is hard to come by. But worth seeking, yes?David, thank you for that video. I can actually enjoy it while avoiding the ironies (Denis drowning, Brian's madness.)
Great post but I have to disagree about one point. There's no guilt in taking this pleasure.
There are many things to love about the Beach Boys. I am amazed by the sounds they used and their arrangements. Masterful stuff, catchy, perfect. I think these aspects lift not-so-exciting lyrics to places they would never go otherwise. Try listening to the sounds, not the lyrics. You'll be so surprised.
Abrawang - just because there's no reason for guilt doesn't stop some of us from feeling it. However, Tom's point is well taken - some very dark sides to those sunny boys (see Part 1 of my post - Dennis hung with Charlie Manson!) But in the end it comes down to what hrndnwwn (did I spell that right?) said. I never paid attention to their lyrics in the day, and don't really now. It's about that lovely, lovely sound.
No, I won't. No clue as to what his words mean, but they work.
Probably Brian escaped the darkness that touring brought about in the rest of the band, though he had his own demons. Everyone else ended up being the quintessential arrogant rock stars, Mike Love most of all. He turned one of my friends onto PCP, lived with her against her Catholic family's wishes, ruined her young (15 years old!) life and then dumped her a year later - she lost her life at a train crossing, high as a kite. Oh yeah, she was a California girl, expendable and one of thousands.
Luminous: I'm so glad I've found your wonderful musical commentary. I think your first part on the Beach Boys is even better than this one and really gets at the wonderful contradictions in their music. I'd say it's the tension that makes it so great, the often banal lyrics, the melodies that soar into the weird heavens. I will always love them, even though they were an anachronism by the time I was obsessed by Pet Sounds in my teens. Rated.
Martha - Thank you! I do think Part 2 is really just an afterthought to part 1. Good to remember that right after he died, J.S. Bach was considered an "anachronism." (He's the subject of my next music post here - if you want a preview it's already at luminoumuse.wordpress.com)

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