It’s common knowledge among Rock fans that the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS has long been rated as one of the greatest albums ‘of all time’. In just about any poll of Rock critics, personalities, and artists, PET SOUNDS is routinely listed in the top 20, top 10, or even top 5. It has been canonized along with titles such as SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?, WHO’S NEXT, THE CLASH, LET IT BLEED, EXILE ON MAIN STREET, BLONDE ON BLONDE, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, LED ZEPPELIN IV, LONDON CALLING, THE RIVER, EXILE ON MAIN STREET, and other perennial favorites.
A common response to such lists is either head-nodding or eye-rolling. Head-nodding, almost to the point of tedium, since some of the titles are indisputable and indispensable masterpieces. It’s like MONA LISA in the list of greatest paintings of all time. On the other hand, everyone is bound to amused or bemused by the inclusion or over-estimation of certain works. SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND has to be the most overrated album o.a.t(of all time). A wonderful album packaged around a neat concept–or gimmick–to be sure, it has several strong songs and one truly great one; but its constant position as the ‘greatest rock album of all time’ has less to do with merit than memory–its cultural-historical significance. Released in 1967, at the height of the so-called Summer of Love, it has sentimental value for many Boomers. It was also supposed to be the first full-fledged foray into Art by the Fab Four, a cultural event declaring Rock wasn’t only here to stay but had something to say. It broke all sales records and was taken seriously by critics(even by specialists of classical music). It was something for everyone: kids, parents, teenyboppers, intellectuals, hippies, musicologists, etc. It offered the pleasures of pop but also the sophistication–or sophistries–of the high concept. It meant something to a lot of people when the London Times compared the Beatles with Bach and Beethoven. The mass consumer and young people could believe themselves to be imbibing high culture through the staple of pop, and the respectable crowd could doff the image of stuffiness and feel attuned to the New Scene.
Of course, in retrospect, much of this seems quaint and silly–not because Beatles weren’t deserving of serious appreciation but because of the cultural insecurity at the core of Rock begging for approval from the very powers it claimed to be rebelling against or feel oblivious to. And for this reason, there has been a fair amount of backlash against SGT. PEPPER and the Beatles as a whole, some of it as ridiculous and extreme as the excessive praise.
Looking back, we can assess the value of something for what it is than what it aspired(or strained)to be. Most people now prefer Woody Allen’s comedies to his unwatchable Bergmanesque ‘art films’ of the 70s and 80s that strained to be heavy in meaning. And many people appraise the early Beatles as superior and more important than their later artier incarnation; though I appreciate the entire span of their career, I agree. Songs like “She Loves You”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “I’ll Get You”, and “All My Loving” seem fresher, more original and unique, than the later Beatles music with something to say. (Does anyone really care what Lennon was trying to say in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, which is a terrific enough song but for its power than meaning?) In ballad form, Beatles reached their high mark in 1965 with “Yesterday” and “Norwegian Wood”. And their greatest rocker, “Ticket to Ride”, came out in the same year, surely the peak period in Rock.
On the other hand, the shedding of artistic pretension and the abandonment of slavishness to high culture didn’t necessarily do away with hype, deceit(and self-deceit), and egotistic pretensions among ‘artists’ and ‘scholars’. Lady Gaga, for instance, struts around like the prophetess of the age. She, of course, takes her cues from the latter day Madonna–who began as a dazzling pop star and should have retired after two hot yrs. What pop stars since the 80s shed in terms of artistic pretension, they compensated with a kind of postmodern megalomania–hardly surprising in the Age of Oprah, a fat TV talkshow host worshiped by countless minions as the mammy of the second messiah Obama.
Though we no longer feel a need to justify the work of an entertainer by invoking high culture, e.g. comparing him or her to Bach or Beethoven, we don’t hesitate to elevate pop stars to the status of spiritual figures, demigods or higher ‘race’ of people. Of course, this is nothing new, but the contradictions are more palpable now because we are so adamant about opposing hierarchies yet put atop the pedestal the sort of people who really should be relegated to the cultural and spiritual gutter. Camille Paglia discusses Madonna in the same breath with the great artists of history. She confuses superficial motifs and symbolism–often noticed by no one but her–with genuine talent and substance, drawing wild conclusions based on outer-shells of similarity than deeper veins of meanings. But what does it matter when Paglia, the scintillectual, is more than willing to supply all the meanings, projecting her own sham-glam fantasies on a figure as tawdry as Madonna? (Paglia’s phoniness becomes readily apparent when we consider her putdown of THE SOPRANOS, which I loathe too, by the way. But if I hate it for its appalling anti-humanism, Paglia’s reasons are confounding when taken at face value, especially in light of the kind of culture she has championed–soap operas, porn, MTV, and just about every kind of trash one can imagine. Her argument against THE SOPRANOS is it’s not authentically Italian-American–since David Chase Anglicized his name–and because it shows Italian-Americans in a negative light as a bunch of mafia gumbas when, according to Paglia, there’s far more to Italian history and culture than the organized crime stereotypes. But what does a show about organized crime have to do with the Renaissance or Risorgimento? And who is Paglia, the lover and promoter of trash, to be putting down THE SOPRANOS for its mindless violence, vulgarity, and trashiness? Her bitchiness is really little more than instinctive mafia competitiveness. She has carved out for herself the role of godmother gatekeeper between Art and Pop, and she simply doesn’t wanna be edged out by the likes of David Chase and Lady Gaga, whom she has also attacked. She also probably feels desperate since the ideas and icons she championed in the late 80s and 90s–when her shtick had an element of contrarian daring–have since become the staple of an utterly pornified interracist pop culture. After all, even the once-priggish feminists and politically correct leftists she once reviled have come around to embracing porn, male gay culture, and mass culture to the hilt. And white liberals laugh their heads silly at the ‘nigger’-studded movies of Quentin Tarantino, not least to show off that they too can be politically incorrect–at least within the perimeters of politically approved irony, i.e. “when we liberals use or laugh at ‘nigger’, we are laughing at the socially convoluted meaning between the quotes or the quotes themselves than at the real thing who is, of course, a noble and holy African-American and certainly not a nigger-nigger.”) After all, any comic book can be ‘intellectually’ perused for themes found in ancient mythology and religions. One can have fun comparing STAR WARS, thematically anyway, with the Bible, but it’d be foolish to make too much out of it, as Joseph Campbell did in THE POWER OF MYTH. His appreciation of STAR WARS was not unlike Paglia’s infatuation with Madonna. Both were indulging in Open-Pit-Sauce-Base-ism, a thought/creative-process where something isn’t so much seen for what it is but as a kind of Mandala–image patterns used in Buddhism as a guide to meditation–onto which one’s dreams, desires, or imagination are projected. It is called the Open-Pit-Sauce-Base Theory because people often use Open Pit BBQ sauce as a base for their own recipes(with spices and other ingredients). Though Open-Pit-Sauce-Base-ism can be fun–and in most cases, harmless–, one should never confuse one’s tangential take on something as that very thing. If Paglia gets her kicks by intellectualizing Madonna, what can I say? Where she erred was in confusing her own fertile(not to mention infantile)imagination with the actual pop star, who was all about insufferable after her first two albums. Though Paglia discussed Madonna in terms of the Madonna/Whore Complex, Madonna is really about Whore-As-Madonna-Industrial-Complex. (She might as well be called ‘Mudonna’ since she’s the biggest mudshark in the world.) In Paglia’s ludicrous and febrile imagination, every woman in porn is a ‘goddess’, HUSTLER magazine is ‘art’ for the working class, and etc. It’s one thing to defend porn and psycho-analyze its appeal–though I think Beavis and Butthead on the subject would suffice–but quite another to make moral, spiritual, or cultural claims for it. While one could argue, as did Freud, that sexuality is at the root of human emotions and thoughts, it is not true that everything involving sexuality is worthy of serious cultural or intellectual inquiry or analysis.
The problem of our age seems to be the contradictory desire to equalize everything yet elevate the icons of this rebellion as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Lady Gaga and her ilk aren’t merely content to sneer at cultural and moral snobs. Their message is not the simple, ‘freedom to be sluts’. Instead, they wanna be sluts-as-goddesses. And our culture, owned and controlled by hideous liberal Jews, celebrates, promotes, and pushes this new religion. Jews have gained control of sensual paganism, turned it into a worship of Negro muscle-and-penis and of white-woman-as-interracist-whore-goddess(Aphrodite into Afrodite sucking on Afro-mighty). Jews employ this neo-paganism or Afro-paganism to control the lusts and passions of the goy population. Long ago, Jews shunned paganism as foul and Satanic. But once pagans stole the Jewish God and gained power as Christians, Jehovah was no longer a God just for Jews. Instead, God belonged to all, and Christians used God and His Son Jesus against the Jews. So, Jews now seek to spread neo-paganism so that Christians will lose interest in God, who shall once again belong solely to the Jews. Just as Jews seek to regain what was stole from them during WWII and the Holocaust, Jews are also trying to take back God, whom Jews feel was stolen from them 2000 yrs ago and viciously used by Christian goyim against the very people who’d invented Him. Of course, most modern Jews are not religious in any literal sense; what they really value in ‘God’ are the moral, historical, and cultural aspects. Jews wanna make it very clear that though they are willing to share God with other peoples, all peoples must understand that Jews have a special patent and copyright on Him. So, all peoples who aspire to be Christian or Muslim must win the approval of the Holy Jews, the Chosen People. But what Jews want most of us is to reduce goyim to a state of mindless neo-paganism, a form of infantilism that can be easily manipulated. (After all, why do so many kids approve ‘gay marriage’? Because celebrities on TV and in Pop music say it’s cool. Why are so many white kids into Afro-muscle-and-penis worship? Because their entire cultural, moral, and spiritual view of the world comes from sports and pop culture controlled by Jews.) Of course, Jews are well-aware that neo-paganism can be dangerous to Jews. After all, pagan Romans sacked Jerusalem and scattered the Jews. And what were Fascism and Nazism but forms of neo-paganism? For this reasons, the brand of neo-paganism that Jews are pushing on white people is not the noble, visionary, and disciplined Euro-paganism or Aryan-paganism but Afro-paganism where black athletes and muscled rappers are the new ‘white knights’ into whose arms white women are supposed to run into while white men are reduced to the status of ‘white boy’ squires and jesters of alpha male blacks.
Just consider rappers. What can be more lowly, debased, and animalistic than rap, though, to be sure, much of punk and metal come pretty close. But some rappers aren’t merely content to be street thugs and two-bit punks. They promote themselves as mythic heroes, the Afro-Nietzschean gods of new values. And there is Eminem who thinks he knows everything and self-aggrandizes as the greatest thing since sliced watermelon. All these clowns, ‘artists’ and ‘scholars’, give the middle-finger to the ‘powers-that-be’, all the while obsessing about having god-like powers of creativity or insight. In movies, there is Quentin Tarantino, who recycles trashy old movies yet also begs for critical appraisal as the great artist of the age.
By comparison, the desire for a measure of respectability among 60s Rockers doesn’t seem to be have been so obnoxious. Whatever their pretensions, they were musicians aiming for something higher than mindless dolts content to remain low–or sink lower–, all the while making claims for themselves as demigods. I don’t think even Dylan and Roger Waters took themselves as seriously as do Lady Gaga and Kanye West, musical porn entertainers whose claim to fame is acting the trashy whore or thug. On the Alternative Right, there are trashy fools like Alex Kurtagic peddling their own brand of junk(mostly ‘black metal’) hyped as the music of ‘superiority’.
Human nature is like a cat that can’t make up its mind to in or out the door. Inside, it wants to go out; outside, it wants to come in. Same goes for hierarchy and anti-hierarchy, to which we are both drawn to and away from. A part of us resents people higher than us. A part of us, like Germanic Barbarians sacking Rome or Red Guards run amok in the 60s, wants to tear things down. This is especially true of sports mentality. Most popular sports are very violent, and they are essentially about destroying the other side. Sports fans, out to celebrate victory or express frustration upon defeat, may channel the aggression on the sports field and attack strangers, burn cars, throw rocks at cops, and smash office building windows with a hockey stick. But, even as the barbarians tear things down, there is a want for a new hierarchy based on aggression, violence, domination, etc. Germanic Barbarians, after all, didn’t sack Rome in the name of equality or justice but to rape, pillage, burn, and party–to dominate. They were imposing barbarian superiority over the Romans. And sports riots, though often carried out in the spirit of youth rebellion, is about the superiority of the warrior, the thug, and the vandal over the hierarchies of a ‘square’ society. This is, of course, one reason why just about every revolution in the name of equality fails. Not only does a new hierarchy replace the old, but hierarchy is paradoxically necessary to maintain a system of ‘equality’. Since absolute equality is not natural, it has to be artificially imposed on the populace, and this requires some people to be ‘more equal than others’–more powerful to force equality upon everyone; but then, things always end up like Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM.
On the other hand, absolute hierarchy is not natural either, which is why the powers-that-be created institutions such as the nobility and clergy to maintain their power and privilege over long stretches of time. The children of the nobility, even when inferior in intelligence and talent, maintained superiority over the populace–even those who were naturally superior–thanks to institutionalized hierarchy.
Generally, people resent hierarchy above them but value and justify their own hierarchy over others. A middle class person may resent the rich but value his own superiority over the lower-classes. But this isn’t an iron rule since many people prefer the security under the rulership of social, cultural, spiritual, and/or political superiors–the fuhrer principle–while others feel morally troubled by their ‘excessive’ wealth and privilege over other peoples. Friedrich Engels was troubled by his ‘exploitative’ advantage over the workers. And Henry Ford insisted on paying higher wages to his workers.
There also seems to be a lot of people who root for their heroes, idols, and demigods to grow even richer, more famous, and/or more famous. Poor blacks, who bitch about rich folks, are happy to learn that some millionaire rapper made $100 million last year. And nothing would make Oprah fans happier than hearing she made a billion more dollars. And for dittohead, nothing is better news than Rush Limbaugh signing a new contract earning him $100 millions more. Black masses may be resentful about rich whites, but they seem to get a kick out of hearing about some superrich black person, even if that person will not share a penny of his wealth with his people. And leftists who bitch about the inequality seem unperturbed by Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, George Soros, Hollywood moguls, Google guys, or many others raking in millions or billions more. Through such identification, the masses feel empowered by the success of the ‘superior’ people on their side.
Or, maybe it has something to do with the natural penchant for attachment that is in all of us. As children, we feel most attached to parents, pets, and friends. As we grow older, our need for attachment turns to the larger world with its ‘great men’ and big ideas, through which we feel anchored in the world and/or guided toward a special direction. Greatness doesn’t even have to be real; even adults watch and rhapsodize over comic-book-derived superhero movies. And when we read the ODYSSEY, we travel with the hero, both admiring and feeling protective of him. We even root for criminals in movies such as SCARFACE and THE GODFATHER. So, we naturally love stories and narratives and come to admire, root for, and/or identify with their main characters. On one level, we seem to be associating with them, hoping to be like them–powerful, heroic, special, and/or larger-than-life. But given that every important story, fictional or real, is about characters or heroes who are faced with obstacles, dangers, and nemeses, we feel protective of them. Reading or watching their adventures from our safe vantage point, we may even feel power over them, like Greek gods hovering over the fate of the heroes. A similar dynamic happens between celebrities and fans. Take Michael Jackson’s ups and downs. On the one hand, he was a superstar loved and adored–even worshiped–by many. Yet, he also got in trouble and seemed helpless. When he was on the ropes, his fans felt protective power over him. In this sense, following narratives allows us to both worship ‘god-like’ heroes and feel like gods ourselves. (This is even true of news junkies. Reading about events from all over the world, they feel like gods surveying the world; though powerless to do anything, they feel they know better, which makes them feel the power they don’t have–in a ‘knowledge is power’ sort of way.) We love the stories of great men, but great men are often brought down by great enemies or labors. Everyone has seen his favorite boxer win and take the belt but then lose and give up the belt. Bigger they are, harder they fall. When a guy wins the championship, he’s the biggest man on Earth. When he loses it, especially in an embarrassing manner, he’s smaller than the smallest man. Hitler was once the biggest god on Earth, but he died the most pathetic wretch. Mussolini fared even worse. But even they have their admirers, not least because of the ‘sad endings’. They serve as objects of both worship and pity. And savvy ‘great people’ understand this, which is why Oprah plays on both her success and her childhood sob-stories. And being fat and ugly, she wins sympathy from others despite her billions.
Similarly then, the story of Brian Wilson has become a story of many Americans. He rose high so fast and then nearly lost it all. For a time, he was like a musical god who could do no wrong, but then for a long stretch, he was like a little boy lost who had to be guided back home.
Though people no longer discuss culture in terms of ‘high brow’, ‘middle brow’, or ‘low brow’ (or in terms of art vs entertainment), equality has never been the main feature or objective of the arts, even among leftists, who actually happen to be neo-elitists. Most culture critics are leftists and liberals, but they pan most of what’s out there. Ridding culture of old standards only creates a vacuum for new standards. There still remains a distinction between seriousness/intellectualism and fanboyism/celebrityism. Humanities departments in colleges may write dissertations on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but it is done in the name of ‘serious’ research and critique. Whether BUFFY is deserving of serious appraisal or not, there still remains the dichotomy of the SERIOUS approach grounded in intellectualism and theoretics AND frivolous approach of mere fan enthusiasm. Dave Kehr and Harry Knowles share a passion for ‘trashy’ movies, but Dave Kehr is a serious critic whereas Knowles is not. Kehr may be as appreciative of old Hollywood directors and recent horror movie directors as of European art film directors, but his general approach is serious and high-minded than populist. So, the consequence of the demise of the ‘high brow’ vs. ‘low brow’ dichotomy was not cultural equality but a greater open-mindedness in assessing the artistic value of movies and music. If prior to the cultural change, serious scholars and critics would not even bother to consider a certain movie or musical work of a certain disreputable genre, the new sensibility was open to giving credit where it was due regardless of the origin or pedigree of a certain work. However, the possibility that PSYCHO could be seriously appreciated didn’t mean that I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was equally good or that the horror genre in general was, on the whole, as worthy as any other. Indeed, a genre work that attains the level of art can be said to have transcended its own limitations. LA JETTE is not just a science fiction film, and L’APPARTEMENT is not just another romance mystery. Rather, they use genre formulations as archetypal frameworks to explore the hidden contours of the psyche, much like the mirror in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, AND WHAT ALICE FOUND THERE. Aspiration toward art provides the personal element(and concern for truth)to the work while genre conventions lend a mythic larger-than-life aura to the work. Perhaps for this reason, some of the most profound works have been genre-art, a.k.a genrart. They reflect and project the duality of consciousness: the real and the imaginary, the subjective and the objective, the waking life and the dream state, the personal and the social, not to mention the faithful and the skeptical; even atheists without belief suspend their disbelief when they read a book or watch a movie, which is always a form of auto-hypnosis to some degree. Social reality is both genre-istic and realistic. Whether in politics, business, church, sports, media, or culture, we are all play-acting certain social roles, certain ‘genre expectations’. There is the fireman persona, police man persona, politician persona, priest persona, intellectual persona, librarian persona, etc. It’s role-playing game to an extent, which makes a person feel than ‘bigger than myself’. From this angle, there’s less of a discrepancy between reality and fiction than we think. A fireman, after all, isn’t just another guy putting out fires but playing the role of ‘hero who would give his life to save other people’. Even if an actual cop or fireman were far from the idealized or mythic exaggeration one finds in fiction, he is a person whose sense of self depends on a social and moral meaning that has been publicly ordained and constructed.
It is for this reason that Objectivists(of Ayn Rand school) and socialists feel such hostility toward one another. The disagreement isn’t simply over rational disagreement over what is best for the economy. Rather, they have opposing genre-istic or mythic view of the world. To Objectivists, capitalist entrepreneurs aren’t money-grubbing, greedy, unscrupulous businessmen but heroes and titans working to create a world of new ideas, possibilities, and products. They are what freedom is all about. According to this mythic narrative, leftist/socialist collectivists stand in the way of true liberty and freedom, of true superiority and greatness that have every right to prevail in a free world.
In contrast, for leftists–at least of the Old School(as new ones seem more passionate about ‘gay marriage’ and ‘jungle fever interracism’ than anything else)–the workers are not just people who work 9 to 5 at the factory, drink beer after work, and talk shit as they watch sports on TV. They are The People, the much-romanticized Proletariat, the Salt of the Earth, the Holy Oppressed, the Sacred Poor, the Unjustly Exploited. And the Union isn’t an organization run by a bunch of crooks but the heroic united front of Noble Workers. (To be sure, American blue-collar workers got it in the neck from both parties, Democrats and Republicans. Democratic Party, increasingly dominated by rich Jews, big government blacks, and elite wasps, gave up on the white working class that remained resolutely socially conservative, especially on matters of religion, race, and national borders. GOP, representing the business class, had no reason to feel close to blue-collar workers whose corrupt unions made unrealistic demands and made it near impossible to run a business in America. Democratic Party disliked white blue-collar workers for voting for Democrats in local elections but for Republicans in national elections. Republican Party disliked white blue-collar workers for voting for Democrats in local elections even as many voted for Republicans in national elections.) Given the different genre formulations of economics on the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, there’s bound to be heated disagreement on economic issues. It’s not simply a debate over statistics and data but a religious battle between two sets of gods and heroes.
Anyway, despite our ‘spiritual’ and mythic attachment to a genre-oriented view of the world, of course we know reality is something quite different. There are corrupt cops, firemen, doctors, etc. A communist commissar could be a ruthless sadist than a humanitarian defender of justice. So, to know the truth, we look beyond social formulations such as ‘doctor’ and ‘lawyer’. We seek the person underneath the suit. But then, is there a pure entity called the Real Person apart from his socio-politico-cultural role-playing? Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA partly addressed this question, featuring a character–an actress–who not only abandoned her profession but speech. Acting is the art of fakery, and words, even spoken ‘honestly’, is a vessel for lies. Words are communicative, thereby social. Oral communication is about conforming or submitting to society; or, it is about imposing one’s privileged social role or power over others. It is essentially political, and what is more compromised or corrupt than politics? By socialization, one either loses one’s ego within the system or one uses the ego to control other egos. But even words spoken to oneself within the privacy of the mind are corrupting since their purpose is to rationalize and to justify one’s selfish ego or the submission of one’s ego to other egos. If social reality–artistic or practical–is compromising and therefore corrupting, what is the true self andthe deeper reality? The moment when the character comes closest to that deeper reality is when she listens to Bach on the radio. (Interestingly enough, one of the tracks on PET SOUNDS is an instrumental, one that Brian Wilson said is the purest thing he ever did. Perhaps he found a new kind of peace and beauty with something that didn’t have anything to say. It simply ‘was’, straight from the heart to the ears–without the egocentric middleman of the lips. Unfortunately, the fate of the actress in PERSONA, which came out the same year as PET SOUNDS, prefigured what happened to Brian Wilson a year later, as he too began a long process of neurotic withdrawal from the world, a kind of self-imposed hibernation). Bergman then made HOUR OF THE WOLF, another film in this vein. And then in the late 60s and early 70s, he embarked on films like PASSION(aka PASSION OF ANNA) and FACE TO FACE that took the idea of self-identity to the point of self-annihilation.
Bergman’s 1953 film, CLOWN’S EVENING–aka SAWDUST AND TINSEL–ends with a clown recounting a dream in which he grew ever smaller, entered into his wife’s womb, and then disappeared into the void. It expresses a desire for a deeper kind of truth, apart from the smoke-and-mirror world of deceptions, humiliations, and facades; a desire to know or return to a state of being that is pure. It’s also there in the story of Buddha who, as a young man, lost his illusions about the world and meditated to return to the very source of being, the eternal void. According to Buddha, what we call reality is an accidental spilling of ego and its illusions from the void of space and time. Nirvana is a return to that place and time that is no place and no time at all. Anyway, it’s as though Bergman, beginning with PERSONA, embarked on a search to find his true self devoid of compromises with a world constructed of formulas and facades. He even set up house on an island, at once playing the hermit hiding from the world and the filmmaker with something important to say, even if much of it amounted to “I’ve no idea what I want to say.” (There must have been something strange in the air in 1966. Jean-Luc Godard and Bob Dylan also made ‘radical’ turns in the same period following what were probably their greatest works. Consider that PET SOUNDS, PERSONA, MASCULIN-FEMININ, and BLONDE ON BLONDE all came out in the same year and were–and still are–considered to be the finest works of these artists. But then, Bergman, Godard, Wilson, and Dylan, for whatever reason, all took a strange turn. Bergman continued to do interesting work but became trapped in an ever enclosing cell of dank self-absorption. Nowhere to be seen during the Summer of Love, people wondered what happened to Dylan. He was actually doing some of his best work with the Band that later surfaced as BASEMENT TAPES. Even so, the persona he’d worked so hard to cultivate in the mid-60s was gone in a puff; he didn’t look back and seemed hellbent on confounding the audience with every new album in the coming years, sometimes disastrously. Godard soon became blatantly political and viciously attacked other directors for not making films meant to change the world, yet the only people who seemed to understand or care about Godard’s political films and statements were none other than Godard himself and his collaborator, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Though some diehard Godard fans and French Maoists tried their best to appreciate the new Godard, Godard’s politics was really a form of neurotics, perhaps not much different than what was happening in the mind of Charles Manson. WEEKEND only makes sense as a work of a madman. As an added bonus, there was Michelangelo Antonioni who, after the triumph of BLOW-UP–also in 1966 of course–kinda went off the deep end too.)
Looking back, the bulk of Bergman’s films of the late 60s to the mid-70s seem doggedly futile. After all, if the conclusion of PERSONA tells us anything, it is there’s no such thing as pure truth. Introspection may reveal deeper insights, but the self cannot escape from the world. But the idea must have been tantalizing enough for Bergman to keep searching for that ever elusive truth. HOUR OF THE WOLF is like one long psycho-traumatic dream. Bergman followed it up with SHAME, supposedly a ‘war film’, but it’s less about war as a social or political event than a horribly inconvenient imposition on private life. In most war films, war is presented as the ultimate form of hyper-reality, a brutal conflict for power, a ruthless contest of life and death. It is a bucketful of cold water, the biggest alarm clock. Though details of war are grim in SHAME, their effect are the opposite of what happens in most war films. Like the woman in PERSONA, the main character in SHAME is drawn ever more inward. His view of war isn’t so much as a physical conflict as a psychic torment. It is less a kick in the ass than an icepick in the skull. If social reality operates by lies and if deeper truth resides within the private soul of man, then war is crime of social lies against the truth of self. And yet, Bergman knew it wasn’t that simple. There is no war in PASSION OF ANNA, but its characters, search as they might, are no closer to the truth and, on occasion, burst into acts of pointless violence. Also, a certain duality informs Bergman’s films of this period, as if to say truths are lies and lies are truths. SHAME is like an expansion of the scene in PERSONA when Liv Ullmann’s character watches a burning Vietnamese monk on TV. His immolation shakes her isolation. She has chosen not to talk–tell lies–and has withdrawn into the relative truth of silence, yet the images from the Vietnam War indicate perhaps that she has withdrawn into a bigger lie of pampered privilege. What has a successful actress living in a peaceful and prosperous nation to be so upset about, to the point of shutting herself from her profession and family? As with Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, who is the real phony? And was her shock at the burning monk an expression of horrified sympathy or personal outrage that the bigger reality ‘out there’ dared to intrude upon her self-obsessed ego, reminding her that she is the phony hiding from the real world than a real person seeking refuge from the phony world. Later, she gazes at a famous Holocaust photo of a Jewish child in a scene that reprises the theme of reality-as-self vs reality-as-world. During this period, Bergman seemed to be probing the deepest foundation of reality, the human soul, apart from the distractions of social issues, war, disease, and etc. On the other hand, he felt guilty for shutting himself from the world to justify an endeavor in which the truth seemed nowhere nearer. Perhaps, it was for that reason that he tended to alternate in this period between deeply private films defined by silence(HOUR OF THE WOLF, PASSION, FACE TO FACE) and deeply social or public films defined by sound(SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, MAGIC FLUTE, SERPENT’S EGG). Without such balance, perhaps he feared losing himself within himself. SHAME is the strangest of the bunch because it shudders with the noise of war yet feels hidden in some deep dark recess of the mind. It’s like war seen and heard through muffled throes of a nightmare.
The question of ‘genre entertainment’ vs. ‘personal art’ is a prickly one. It was and still is generally assumed that ‘genre entertainment’ panders to mass tastes, compromising one’s personal vision for acceptance and success among the larger audience that is neither particularly bright nor discriminating(especially today when the bulk of the movie audience is made up of youths). Despite the claim of the ‘progressive’ cultural community that the old hierarchy of ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ has been dispensed with for good, there is still the dichotomy of Hollywood Product vs European Art Film. Even among liberals and leftists, we have plenty of critics and scholars who sneer at Hollywood blockbusters while rhapsodizing ‘intellectual’ imports from abroad. It could be the human mind is naturally wired feel and think in dichotomist terms of this vs that, A vs B, us vs them, etc. After all, even political liberals obsess about truth and justice in terms of WE ‘gay marriage’ supporting liberals are So Much better than THEM evil conservatives. And liberal Jews often express themselves in terms of ‘we wonderful progressive and open-minded Jews’ against ‘those evil racist antisemites who need be silenced for their odious, nasty, venomous, virulent, rabid, and bilious views that should never see the light of day’. So, even today, despite all the scoffing at the old hierarchies, there are new hierarchies masquerading as equalities, and emotions involved in the debate are much the same. Instead of critics championing Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini(the artists) over Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford(entertainers), we have critics championing European ‘artists’ over Hollywood ‘entertainers’; or we have critics favoring ‘auteurs’ over ‘professional hacks’.
To be sure, sensible critics–and there are plenty of them–can appreciate good movies regardless of their origin, design, or purpose, but basic schools of do remain, if only for the fun of it; after all, what’s the point of being an ‘intellectual’ or critic if you have nothing to argue and bitch about.
There remains, justifiable to a degree, the notion that personal art seeks purity and truth while genre entertainment reeks of fame and fortune. But then, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of a pure personal art. All artists, even the most private ones, are creating works for an audience. An art film director may not be pandering to the ‘masses’, but he could still be pandering to–or seeking approval from–a target audience: the film festival crowd or ‘serious’ and ‘sophisticated’ people. One of the problems plaguing many ‘art films’–a clue as to why so many are dreary and dull–owes to more than a few ‘artists’ are less individualistic than indie-visualistic. Certain rules–regarding subject, style, method, and/or message–have gravitated around the ‘art film’ or ‘indie film’ that have become as formulaic as those governing Hollywood movies. A misguided artist might feel it’s his duty to make a slow stultifying film since an ‘art film’ must be everything a Hollywood product is not. Also, since some of the greatest film artist have worked ‘slowly’, many lesser lights have been led to believe: slowness = seriousness and depth. They don’t grasp the difference between organic slowness and willed/strained slowness. Plants grow slowly, sun sets slowly, and certain emotions–illuminance or distress–slows time; they are all organically and naturally slow. But a sprinter taking two hours to finish a 100 m race is something else. There’s a difference between turgidness and perceptiveness; the former is heavy and cumbersome, a form of Procrustean-ism where everything is squeezed or stretched into a pervasive sameness. People unblessed with the sublimity of artistic vision or talent but loaded with intellectual or ideological pretensions often choose this route. There’s no other way to describe a film as dull as Bruno Dumont’s L’HUMANITE or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unbearable CITY OF SADNESS–or the bloated monstrosities of Theo Angelopoulos. Lacking genuine poetry or vision, they take revenge on the audience–and subconsciously punish themselves–by making the dullest and deadest seeming films one can imagine. This form of neo-puritanism is not to be confused with the purity of artists like Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, or Yasujiro Ozu, whose deceptive simplicity conveys the essence of life, beauty, and meaning as they saw and felt it. Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu did not force the entire world into an aesthetic or emotional box; they focused our attention on their feelings for the world. There’s a difference between ‘what I see and show IS the world’ and ‘this is what I see and want to show of the world’. Fast or slow, loud or silent, a true artist offers more than blocks of ideas, images, and sounds that feel like dead weight. Their creations have a hypnotic quality that lulls us into a kind of heightened or altered consciousness. A true work of art, even when ‘slow’, isn’t boring as opposed to a fake or failed work of art where the slowness becomes downright claustrophobic. In the former, our perceptions expand and broaden; in the latter, they are narrowed and compressed, like men trapped in a submarine many leagues below the ocean. A zeppelin may be slow-moving in the air and a whale slow-moving in the ocean but are impressive just the same. But imagine staring at a grounded blimp or beached whale for hours on end. In fake or failed work of art, the stench of rotting carcass of slowness is palpable.
All artists, no matter how pure or uncompromising, work for an audience, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as the ‘mass audience’. Artists who insist that they do everything ‘my way’ are disingenuousness at best. Why create anything at all without an audience? The artist may rationalize his need to make a living to keep creating art for himself, but that too is disingenuous. Artists seek immortality, which requires the admiration of future audiences. Also, the phenomenon of the ‘I’ is endlessly complex. The ‘I’ of an artist is never just himself but many personalities and perceptions haunting his mind. Not only does the ‘I’ keep shifting and changing within a person–an artist might be satisfied with his work one moment, then loathe it the next–but another aspect of ‘I’ has formed over a long period as refractions of the ‘I’s of other people. The artist’s teachers, friends and family members, the critics and scholars he pays attention to, his lovers, and his rivals and enemies all become a part of his ‘I’. When working on his project, he feels the other ‘I’s looking over his shoulder. Sometimes, he tries to please them, cajole them, persuade them; sometimes, he rebukes and rejects them, like Jesus told Satan to get lost in his forty days of fasting; but even in rejection, he is responding to them, and so they also form a part of his ‘I’; it’s like a person plays tennis with/against his opponent, who is integral to the game. (So, even when an artist works on a project ‘only for myself’ without an intended audience, he is seeking to impress the audience-in-the-mind, which may be called ‘autodience’.)
All of this happens within the single mind of an artist. He has one mind or one official ‘I’, but it is an amalgam of many ‘I’s(that comprise his conflicted selfness)and all the personalities past and present(and real and imagined)that his ego ceaselessly contends with. This was true enough between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Though they composed most of their songs alone since 1965, they always felt the presence of the other–as friend, competitor, ally, rival. Working on a song John might think, ‘What would Paul think of this? What is he working on? ’, and vice versa. They had become part of each other, just like the two women in PERSONA. And though Brian Wilson and Lennon & McCartney never artistically collaborated in person, they came to share their ‘I’s on an almost psychic level. Brian Wilson was so impressed with RUBBER SOUL that he felt the presence of Lennon & McCartney while working on PET SOUNDS. And then, Lennon & McCartney felt Wilson’s spirit hovering over them as they embarked on SGT. PEPPER. So, on that level, there’s no such thing as a purely personal work since the ‘personal’ is far more complex than we’d like to think. We tend to think of ‘personal’ as synonymous with ‘private’, but each of us is surrounded by the ghosts of other ‘I’s surging through our consciousness. (Of course, Jews understand this better than anyone, which is why they’ve been obsessed with control of the media and education. By controlling information, images, and sounds, they have the power to determine the kind of ‘I’s that enter the mind of each person. Overtime, most people’s ‘I’s become invaded with the I-deas and I-mages chosen and shaped by Jews. Why have so many young people been won over to ‘gay marriage’? Because their ‘I’s have been invaded and colonized by the ‘I’s of pop culture and celebritydom controlled by the Jews. Since most people think that their ‘I’ is their true self, they come to think, “I support ‘gay marriage’” when, in fact, they think they do because their ‘I’s have been contaminated by the I-deas and I-mages selected and shaped by the Jews. The Jewish trick is to fool everyone that he or she alone chose to accept certain values and adopt certain agendas when, in reality, most people do so because their ‘I’s are pitifully shaped by those–mostly Jews–who plant the seeds in their brains.)
Having said that, there remains a difference between an artist and an entertainer. A true artist, even as he plays to a select audience–real or imaginary–, needs courage to be original, bold, truthful, and/or different. He takes risks to bring about something new. To be sure, one should never confuse intention with result. In some cases, the most revolutionary and ground-breaking works may arise from cultural populism whereas cultural elitism–insistence on radical purity or intellectualism–may grow rigid and predictable. Hollywood has been, by far, not only the most popular but the most revolutionary and influential force in cinema. Great cultural changes don’t always happen by intent but by accident and through a series of interactions among innumerable social forces. As James Burke illustrated in the TV series CONNECTIONS, historical progress is less the product of a monolectic or even a dialectic but a multilectic. It’s not a matter of one all-wise and all-knowing force or powers-that-be dominating and ordering events nor even like a neat interplay of two opposing forces that clash and then synthesize. Rather, it’s like a game of billiards where unforseen possibilities arise with every strike.
Same goes for culture. Though great artists are often seen as great heroes or gods(in conflict with moneygrubbing corrupt mortals), their success or failure–even their very position as artists–depend on the interplay of larger forces, often unforseen. It’s been said CITIZEN KANE is the only film that Orson Welles had complete control over; it is held up as an ideal of artistic principles–as opposed to merely commercial movies. European cinema has also been contrasted with Hollywood cinema in terms of concern for art vs. avarice for money since the earliest days. But the irony is CITIZEN KANE could not have been made in the more art-oriented Europe because it required the most advanced technologies and very big budget, which Hollywood was better positioned to provide. Besides, artists didn’t invent cinema; Thomas Edison the ‘greedy’ inventor-entrepreneur did. (Jews are an interesting element in this dichotomy of art vs commerce in cinema. On the one hand, Jews have long been associated with intellectualism, elitism, anti-capitalism, radicalism, socialism, the avant-garde, modernism, etc–reasons for which they came to be distrusted and resented by many traditional Europeans. And in the USSR, many Jews led the radical/socialist art movement. Yet, Hollywood, the ultimate symbol of capitalist art emanating from America, was largely built up by Jews. So, on the one hand, Jews have come to be associated with ultra-intellectualism and purism, but on the other, with extreme commercialism and mass-culture-ism. To be sure, there are many similarities between Soviet art and Hollywood art: both favor simple ideas and messages and try to give people what they want. Jews have also excelled in advertising, whether it be political or commercial; many of the great propagandists of the Soviet Union and European communists were Jews, and advertising in America has long been dominated by Jews. For Jews, advertising wasn’t merely promotion or marketing of ideas or commodities but a ‘science’, shaped and advanced according to the latest theories of psychology. Jewish advertising didn’t just come at you straight; it sought to slip inside your SUBLIMINALLY–and indeed Sigmund Freud’s nephew was the leading theorist of advertising in the 20th century. This multifaceted nature of Jews have made them enemies but also allies on all sides. To what extent Jews are conflicted by these contradictions or opportunistically conscious of them–employing various power bases and positions to attain what is ‘good for the Jews’ in way possible–is an open question. But notice how Jews adopt leftism to use blacks and illegal Hispanics against white Americans, use white Americans against Muslims in the Middle East–and also use Muslims in the West against Europeans and Americans. A truly talented, intelligent, and vile people.)
Also, if art is about truth of life, and if life is about compromises, then art, as a product of life, can’t help but be a product of compromises. (Art is also about power. Unless an artist wields great powers over politics and the economy, he has no choice but to win the approval of those with the power to disseminate his work. Since all societies have some kind of taboos, an artist must work within those limitations if he wants a chance. One might even say, ‘artistic expression is not free speech.’ So, even as Mapplethorpe is allowed in our culture as an exemplar of ‘free speech’, a ‘racist’ artist would not be. A ‘racist’ can create art on his own, but he has little chance of gaining fame or recognition. In our celebrity-crazed world, that is as good as being buried alive. One might say underground artists in the Soviet Union were true artists since they wrote books disapproved by officialdom, but they wrote to gain attention of foreigners, which meant they had to play to the ‘truth’ according to the Western elites. Since much of Western-democratic media and academia were controlled by Jews, it meant pro-Jewish Soviet dissidents would be favored over anti-Jewish ones. Therefore, if you wanted your voice heard outside the Soviet Union, it helped to suppress any hostile view of Jews. Notice how even the great Solzhenitsyn became a persona non grata the minute he opened his mouth about Jewish communists.)
And one may well ask, is there greater nobility in mixing with the real world, making compromises when necessary to do ‘some good’ OR is it better to lock oneself in a monastery, academia, or one’s private little world to pursue only that which is pure, perfect, and true? Is it better to accept the world for what it is and get 70% of what one wants OR is it better to keep one’s vision 100% pure even if there’s 0% chance of it ever seeing the light of day? In Ayn Rand’s FOUNTAINHEAD, Howard Roark blows up an entire building because it compromised his purist vision. Is he a hero or fool? If every great filmmaker had refused to make any film unless he could get everything his way, most cinematic masterpieces would not even exist.
Though certain compromises were dispiriting(or even shameful), others inadvertently opened up new means and manners of expression(and, perhaps more importantly, of appreciation; in a way, the Auteur Theory–at least when pertaining to Hollywood–was less about authorship than viewership; it encouraged the viewer to see the movies of great directors on two levels: as Hollywood product with the obligatory formulas but also as works of art where the personal was embedded sub-textually. So, when we see an happy ending in a film by an auteur, it can be seen as a conventional resolution of the conflict or a self-conscious mythic interplay between the wish and the wash. Take the ending of Hitchcock’s SUSPICION for example. On the one hand, we can condemn it as compromised and conventional, but on another level, we can wink-wink with Hitchcock, appreciating it as more a creative process than a finished product, which is to say, we know why Hitchcock did what he did, and that understanding is part of the appreciation. We are not watching the movie-only-as-made but movie-as-how-it-came-to-be-where-art-must-work-with-demands-of-commerce. Or consider LADY VANISHES. On the surface, it’s about good vs evil, with evil characters using subterfuge to fool the good people, but it turns out the good old woman is also a spy who works by deception to serve a Great Power. Also, the title LADY VANISHES could apply to the heroine who, in the happy ending, ‘vanishes’ from her fiancé to go off with another man. We can enjoy it as good-prevailing-over-evil story, but it also seems to say we are all liars and cheats in our own way; we are all compromised. In most conversations, we are not bluntly honest but talk around certain topics, all the while knowing, wink wink, what we are really saying. Though some compromises in art are just pointless and stupid, others are more sly and playful. The artist gave in but turned the giving-in into an art in its own right. This is perhaps truest in A.I. where Spielberg added a sort of ‘happy ending’, which, however, turns out to be even depressing if you really think about it. It’s less a true happy ending than about the need for the myth of ‘happy ending’ within the human psyche. Though some of Spielberg’s happy endings are pretty shameless, some of his movies are not as simple as Terry Gilliam suggests. They are less about simple answers than our addiction to simple answers. Sometimes, Spielberg pushes the simple answer as a drug; other times, he diagnoses it as the problem. We can taste a hint of bitterness beneath the sugarcoating.) One might even say compromises can deepen a work of art. Take the artistic career of Dmitri Shostakovich. One could argue he would have been an even greater artist in the West with complete artistic freedom. But, other than the fact that capitalist market forces exert their own pressures on the artist, Shostakovich’s greatness paradoxically owes to the cultural strictures of the Soviet system. Had he been allowed to do as he pleased, he might have become like one of those forgotten avant-garde composers of the West whose music lacked artistic, moral, or historical resonance. Freedom is crucial for an artist, but complete freedom within a bubble can lead to solipsism.
The problems faced by filmmakers who left the communist East for the Free West tended to be two-fold. First, though culturally free, the capitalist system generally had no interest in financing their projects. Secondly, when funding was attained, the liberated artist preferred to wallow in his freedom than express something meaningful. Many of Roman Polanski’s most personal projects in the West tend to be self-indulgent while his best films such as KNIFE IN THE WATER and CHINATOWN were made under the watchful eye of either the communist system or Hollywood system. (In the case of exiled artists, there’s also the danger of being uprooted from the very soil which fed their imagination. Consider the near-tragic case of Andrei Konchalovsky, the director of SIBERIADE, whose Hollywood career has been mostly one big disappointment. And Tarkovky’s two films in exile, NOSTALGHIA and THE SACRIFICE, are among his weakest. Of course, there is no general rule about art and habitat. Some artists are inspired by movement and change, like Hemingway in Europe. Others, in contrast, can’t help but look back, and their separation from the mother soil can lead to fascinatingly creative crisis or self-pitying dissipation.) It is also interesting that Coppola’s greatest films–GODFATHER I & II–are among his least personal whereas his most personal films–ONE FROM THE HEART and RUMBLE FISH–are his piss-poor worst.
Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies and the film music of Sergei Prokofiev demonstrate the possibility of public entertainment/official propaganda AND personal art than the simple dichotomy of entertainment/propaganda VS pure art. Though during much of the Cold War, Shostakovich was dismissed by ‘serious’ music scholars in the West for his compromises with official policy, one need not approach his music in terms of personal art diminished by demands of entertainment/propaganda. Instead, one could appreciate the themes of entertainment/propaganda adding mythic grandeur to personal expression AND personal expression adding depth and complexity to large grandiose themes. Leni Rifenstahl’s OLYMPIAD succeeds on the same level. We need not ask, ‘is it art OR is it propaganda?’ It is both, indeed one where the two qualities, instead of undermining one another, enrich one another. This could also be said of works like the Sistine Chapel. On the one hand, it belongs in the tradition of Official Christian Art, but then, only as Michelangelo’s genius could have visualized and realized it.
Of course, the fusion of artistic seriousness and officialdom–commercial or ideological–is fraught with dangers, and more often than, the result is a kind of middlebrow lukewarm product like the average Hollywood epic or most Soviet symphonies. Wolfgang Petersen’s TROY falls into such a category. It fails as both art and entertainment though not entirely as the latter. Petersen’s pretensions prevented the fun, and commercial pressures flattened the tragic. It was art and entertainment refusing one another than fusing as one. THE WILD BUNCH and BLADE RUNNER, on the other hand, are examples of the whole being more than the sum of its arts.
These considerations are relevant to PET SOUNDS for Brian Wilson faced many of the same issues. Consider, for example, its authorship. Is it the work of the Beach Boys or Brian Wilson? Though Brian was the creative center of the band since its inception, his role had been as leading player than the dominant voice of the band. Though he composed most of the songs, he did so with other fellas in mind. He regarded the Beach Boys as a pop band, not an art music band. He knew the Beach Boys had an image: happy, sunny, handsome, cool, All-American: the golden boys of California. The band performed his songs, but he created music for the band.
But there is a tension throughout PET SOUNDS; Brian was making his own music and imposing his personal vision on others, whose reactions ranged from fascination to bafflement(even feelings of betrayal). PET SOUNDS is Brian striving to be a personal creative force; it is Rock wanting to be art. Yet, pop music is what Wilson knew and felt comfortable with. PET SOUNDS is not a rejection of pop or of the band. It is an experiment to expand the creative and imaginative limits of the Beach Boys enterprise. Brian’s ambition was especially fraught with dangers because he wasn’t simply going for quality. Indeed, his output prior to PET SOUNDS–‘Don’t Worry Baby’, I Get Around’, ‘California Girls’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and ‘Catch a Wave’–could hardly have been bettered. Brian had nothing to prove in terms of song-writing ability or production skills. What he was after with PET SOUNDS was meaning, mood, beauty.
The main impetus for Brian came from RUBBER SOUL by the Beatles, an album as intriguing and important as PET SOUNDS in Rock history. Prior to RUBBER SOUL, Beatles had also proven their energy and talent as performers and composers. But, RUBBER SOUL demonstrated that the Beatles were here to stay, as an act and musical legacy. If the Beatles had just stuck to their original style and sound, they might have gone the way of DAVE CLARK FIVE, a wonderfully rambunctious British Invasion band that failed to keep up with the times. One of big themes of the 60s was Change, not least due to the convergence of youth consciousness, liberal Zeitgeist and counterculture, and the dynamic of capitalism/consumerism. Young people defined themselves against older people, and by the mid 60s, the ‘old’ included 1950s rock n roll. Elvis was yesterday, Beatles were today. And by 1965 the Beatles of 63 and 64 were yesterday, and Beatles of RUBBER SOUL were today. (Incidentally, Beatles even released an album called YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW.) To remain popular or relevant in the new climate, one had to anticipate and/or shape the Tomorrow(even if tomorrow never knows). Part of being young is discovering oneself and having a sense of boundless possibilities. For Beatles and other Rock acts to stay ahead of the game, they had to prove their credentials as forces, agents, and competitors in the ‘times they are a changing’. Some figures, especially Bob Dylan, led the change while others did their best to keep up, often by pallid imitation. Beatles were somewhere in between in this drama of Change: not exactly the most daring and original but highly effective in catching new trends and spinning them in a manner most accessible, pleasing, and popular. Because of their brilliance in the art of eclecticism and elasticity, some have accused the Beatles of being populist caterers of styles than genuine musical originals and artists. Or, some critics prefer to discuss John Lennon–supposedly the lone artist in the band–apart from the other three. And in a way, Lennon, already by 1966, has mixed feelings about being a Beatle as he grew increasingly alienated from the other three; though he’d loved the fame and fortune of initial success, he also felt limited by the image of the Beatles as an audience-friendly or commercial band. In contrast, Stones were the libertine bad boys of Rock. The guiding and personal creative force of The Who was clearly Pete Townshend. Bob Dylan did his own thing as he chose. And Brian Wilson, though feeling trapped too, represented the creative core of the Beach Boys. But Lennon had to contend with Paul McCartney who was both a friend and a rival. If Jagger and Richard understood one another in terms of style and attitude–what the Stones enterprise was about–, Lennon and McCartney were different–and growing more divergent–in terms of taste, sensibility, and direction. McCartney loved being a Beatle, member of the most popular band in the world. Lennon wanted to be more personal. He felt his hard-edged vision was being watered down on the albums by McCartney’s pop sensibility and Harrison’s mystical mumbo-jumbo. Even in his ballads, Lennon saw the world from odd angles, a leaning toward the sardonic or neurotic. McCartney, in contrast, sounded very well-adjusted. (Brian Wilson was a strange blend of Lennon and McCartney in some ways. He shared the mellower pop sensibilities of Paul but had the personal ambitions and the neuroticism of John. There was even an element of George in his mystical bent.) Anyway, RUBBER SOUL proved that the Beatles could change and develop. As vibrant and daring as their early songs were, the themes were boy-meets-girl. Though shades of change were already detectable on BEATLES 65 album, it was RUBBER SOUL–especially the British version with several more songs than the U.S. version, which, however, sounds more organically whole in concept–that sealed the reputation of the Beatles as a creative force to reckon with. (To be sure, the album HELP!, at least the British version, is as strong and remarkable as, if not more so than, RUBBER SOUL.) Though some of the melodies and arrangements didn’t amount to much–at least compared to Dylan and Stones in the same year–, the emotions took on shadings and suggestiveness rare in pop music, especially in the ballads. Already with the single “Yesterday”, the Beatles had stunned the world with what they could do, discrediting many a naysayer who said the Beatles were just a fad. (Perhaps, a part of boomer generation mysticism surrounding the Beatles has to do with their proving the critics and skeptics wrong. As important as Rock n’ Roll had been in the 50s, it had been eclipsed by folk music, doo wop, and girl groups of the early 60s. Everything that kids embraced were coming and going; it was a rite of passage, nothing more. Teens danced to youth music in high school, then grew up and put childish things behind them. After all, even the King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley himself, signed up for the US Army in 1959. So, when the Beatles arrived, critics said that the mania would last a year and then fade away like everything else in pop music. But the Beatles–along with Dylan and Stones, among others–changed the rules. They had something more than a simple formula as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Jerry Lee Lewis did. Their styles kept changing, evolving, growing. Also, unlike most performers in pop music, Beatles wrote their own songs and thus controlled their own music and meaning–and later even their own image. Beatles seemed like they were here to stay; as such, they became the symbol of fountain of youth. Youth could last forever; Love could last forever; Hope could last forever. Youth was not just a fad, phase, or passage. One could remain forever young while continuing to grow–without growing old. After all, the Beatles went from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “A Day in the Life”; they went from “I Saw Her Standing There” to “Hey Jude”. They changed so much so fast, they remained relevant, and they seemed not to age even as their hair grew longer. It was part of the 60s boomer dream or conceit. And of course, not for nothing was the great Beach Boys compilation of the 70s called ENDLESS SUMMER.) “Norwegian Wood” stood out even more than “Yesterday” in some regards. If most pop songs(even the great ones)tended to be emotionally universal–it could be about ANY guy and/or ANY girl–and thematically generic–I love you, I hate you, I feel happy, I feel sad, etc–, “Norwegian Wood” is personal, even private. “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”, “Stand By Me”, and “Be My Baby” are great pop tunes, but they could be about anyone and anything. It could be about you, me, this guy, that girl. But you know “Norwegian Wood” is about John Lennon. On his part, it’s like a musical diary or a hushed confession. On our part, it’s like eavesdropping or peeping through a keyhole. The song involves a man and a woman, but it’s not about I-love-you and you-love-me; rather, it’s a poetic musing about a twisted and ambiguous relationship. It was this eccentricity that was relatively new when RUBBER SOUL was released. Of course, Dylan had already taken this much further, and if anything, Lennon was trying to catch up with the great Jew. But what was remarkable was Lennon’s nimble ability to walk the tightrope between the personal and the popular. “Norwegian Wood”, after all, is pleasant enough as a melody, and one can enjoy it without much thought. But it’s a song that opens up new layers of meanings if one were to listen closely. And in this fine balance between the personal and popular, Lennon had few peers in pop music since the 60s.
Brian Wilson took notice that RUBBER SOUL captured the essence of 60s Rock–not because it was the end-all of popular music but because it signaled the start of something new, because it embodied the possibility and promise of artistic growth and development. Prior to RUBBER SOUL, perhaps Brian saw himself composing catchy pop tunes for the rest of his life. After RUBBER SOUL, he felt he had to strive higher and dig deeper. If he couldn’t venture outside popular music–after all, he was not a classically trained musician nor an avant garde modernist–, he would expand the walls of pop music/sound as far as possible. It is for this reason that PET SOUNDS is, at once, modest and megalomaniacal, pretty and profound, meaningful and absurd, pop and art. The instructive word here is ‘and’. PET SOUNDS was not an attempt to create ‘art’ at the expense of ‘pop’ or vice versa. It’s the work of a pop musician with a consciously artistic approach. In contrast, the album UMMAGUMMA by Pink Floyd and the ‘song’ “Revolution No. 9″ by Lennon and Yoko Ono(though credited as Lennon & McCartney) were attempts to be artistic, experimental, and/or avant-garde by dispensing with pop conventions altogether. (By the way, the Floyd album is great, and the Lennon-Ono audio-assault is shoddy and pretentious.)
Though of a neurotic temperament(of a troubled artist), Brian felt most comfortable working within musical genres. In a Charlie Rose interview, he named the Beatles(especially McCartney), Motown, and Burt Bacharach as among his favorites. Brian admired and appreciated the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, and the rest of them, but he preferred the pleasantries of pop over the rough ridges of Rock. Though some early Beach Boys are fast and feverish, they also have the feel of cool surfing and smooth driving. Even the bumps are rhythmic, making for a fun ride. And the sad songs have the soothing quality, so different from the prickly, abrasive, and/or taunting sensibility of Dylan’s love songs. And one doesn’t find the lacerating crash-and-burn fury of Hendrix, the nasty bad boy attitude of The Who, or the decadent derangement of the Stones. In contrast, PET SOUNDS is a very lovely and gentle album. Given the penchant for Rock critics to scoff at the Moody Blues and Yes–and other purveyors of ‘art rock’–, one might think PET SOUNDS would have been one of their biggest targets for ridicule. Yet, it is one of the most hailed albums in Rock history. Why?
The answer lies in the perfect balance of Pop and Art in PET SOUNDS. Though the artistic seriousness is palpable, it doesn’t pretend to be more than what it is. It’s the best of its kind without making claims to higher meaning. It is artistic pop than pop-as-art. It’s not like George Harrison strumming a sitar and emanating gibberish and vibes about higher consciousness, Lennon reciting the Tibetan Book of the Dead(in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’), Moody Blues layering Rock with sham-classical motifs, etc. Music can succeed as pop or art–or pop and art–, but it’s almost never a good idea for pop to be art. Though DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED(Moody Blues)is not without merit, it’s probably the most pompous Rock album. Moodies fell into the trap of confusing ‘high art’ motifs with the very substance of art. By this token, one need merely appropriate certain ‘high art’ styles and paste them over one’s own, and presto, it’s art! But is it great art to draw Mickey Mouse in the manner of Leonardo Da Vince? SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB suffers from some of the same problems, though not to the degree of DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED. ‘She’s Leaving Home’, McCartney’s Schubert-ian excess, is nauseating. Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You’ would be laughable if it weren’t so snooze-worthy. Lennon’s ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is special but overloaded with candied imagery and cheesy effects. But thankfully, much of SGT. PEPPER is propulsive, feel-good, or dazzling pop: the introductory title song, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, and ‘Lovely Rita’ are first-rate; and there’s one genuine art rock song: ‘A Day in the Life’, a kind of pop music Dali.
It’s been reputed that Brian Wilson literally went crazy after listening to SGT. PEPPER. He was enthralled and amazed, awed and knocked off his feet. He loved it as the ultimate Rock album the world had been waiting for but also hated it as something he could never top. (It was as if in the space race of Rock, the Beatles got to the Moon first, and so, nothing Brian Wilson could do could top what the Beatles had already accomplished.) If RUBBER SOUL had inspired Wilson to make PET SOUNDS, he had a gut feeling with SGT. PEPPER that he could no longer compete with the Beatles. Besides, while PET SOUNDS was a commercial disappointment in the USA–though much admired and a big hit in UK–, everyone seemed to be hailing SGT. PEPPER as the greatest thing since Beethoven’s Fifth and buying it like hotcakes. It was the favorite of teenagers and the topic of serious discussion by music scholars. The boomers were delighted that the music of their generation was garnering attention and respect even from older people who had disdained Rock music. Young people began to feel validated as worthy of serious recognition via their association with the Beatles. (Though Dylan had already paved the way for Rock as art, he remained something of a cult figure who was not for everyone. Most of his songs were not chart toppers. The Fab Four, on the other hand, were beloved by tens of millions of young people, so their validation as serious artists carried far greater social implications.) Brian Wilson had been preparing a high concept album called SMILE, but it turned into one big frown once SGT. PEPPER came out, dampening Brian Wilson’s ego of creating a Rock album so great that it couldn’t be topped by anything ever.
Brian had a big heart as a pop musician and also a great mind as a musical artist. But, when he lost his mind out of envy, frustration, and worship of the Beatles, his heart failed him too. PET SOUNDS was, in retrospect, both the crowning achievement and swan song of Brian Wilson as a creative force. Arguably, only ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Surf’s Up’ rank as great among Wilson’s post-PET SOUNDS output–though, to be sure, there are a number of good or decent songs. This is one of saddest stories in Rock history, a tragic deterioration of one of the most promising talents in American popular music. How a talent so fresh turned so stale so fast became the stuff of legend in Rock history.
Of course, eventually all musical artists lose their muse. It’s been awhile since McCartney wrote anything memorable, but McCartney had a long good run before his irreversible decline. He did terrific as a Beatle and had many success as a solo act. Though his solo career has been, creatively speaking, only a shadow of his yrs as a Beatle, he hit the charts often in the 70s and the early 80s. McCartney bowed out after having achieved everything he was meant to achieve, after every last drop of his creative juice has been squeezed. Same was true of the Stones and the Who. Lennon, had he lived, may have produced more fine music, but he too had pretty much done what he’d set out to do. Others died too young too, most namely Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix especially was a titan among titans. Even so, one could argue that they crashed and burned only after flying high and mighty and touching the stars; they’d burned so brightly that to burn out was all that was left. Wilson, on the other hand, effectually faded from the Rock scene just after PET SOUNDS, an album that promised much more. But what sounded like a new beginning for Brian Wilson turned out be his premature finale as a musical force. His fevered attempt to top or at least match SGT. PEPPER with SMILE never fully materialized, and he became something like the Howard Hughes of Rock. He shut himself from the world and spent his years in a state of severe depression, solipsism, and semi-madness. (Yet how ironic that Brian outlived his younger brothers Dennis and Carl.)
Though career problems were commonplace in Rock from the beginning, Wilson’s decline is sadder than most because of the lingering hunch on our part that he could have done so much more only if… but there were so many if’s.
Dylan, like Brian, pretty much ducked out around 1966, the year of his greatest album–maybe the greatest in Rock–BLONDE ON BLONDE. During 1967, a.k.a the Summer of Love, which owed no small part to Dylan’s influence, he was nowhere to be seen. But Dylan was actually continuing to experiment(as well as excavate older forms of music), albeit under the radar. His reclusiveness’ was part of his plan and deemed necessary to clear his mind after yrs of drugs and excess. He wanted to come to terms with his identity. He got weary of playing the game of Zeitgeist. He wanted to be a family man. So, he willingly departed from the scene and found fulfilment with new interests and endeavors; he even took up painting full-time. Dylan found something else whereas Wilson got lost; estranged from his own family and the band, he couldn’t even find his way back home. Though not one of the biggest albums of the 60s, Dylans’ JOHN WESLEY HARDING(1968) is one of his great albums. Dylan then took a fresh approach on country music on NASHVILLE SKYLINE(which has the song, “Lay Lady Lay”, one of the best country songs ever). Then, after a few years of uneven output, Dylan made his mark again in 1975 with BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, one of his best albums.
No less remarkably, BASEMENT TAPES(improvisational and off-the-cuff recordings with the Band in 1967)was released in the same year, making it clear as day that Dylan had been in top form in the Summer of Love. In retrospect, the rough and crude-sounding music that Dylan and the Band made in a basement constitute a body of songs more remarkable than any album of that year(considered by many critics as the greatest year in Rock), with the possible exceptions of Jimi Hendrix’s ARE YOU EXPERIENCED and Pink Floyd’s PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN. While most acts were trying to fly high on the wings of euphoria, Dylan and the Band were digging for old bones, treasures, and junks–the musical and cultural odds and ends of American history. Though both SMILE and BASEMENT TAPES are ‘incomplete’ or ‘unfinished’ works, the reasons couldn’t be more different. Wilson didn’t finish SMILE because his ambition ultimately proved too much. In contrast, the raw and rough–and sometimes fragmentary–feel of the songs on BASEMENT TAPES is integral to its purpose. Dylan’s recovery of ‘lost’ American culture paralleled and complemented a renewed interest in his own Jewish background and family roots. So, why didn’t Dylan officially release the songs in 1967(though, to be sure, some did see the light of day as bootlegs prior to 1975)? Why didn’t he fine-tune and re-record them ‘properly’ or ‘professionally’ in a studio? Perhaps, Dylan regarded them as musical experiments and nothing more. Maybe he had other priorities, some of them non-musical. Or maybe he sensed that he was making the wrong kind of music during the Summer of Love when the Zeitgeist demanded SGT. PEPPER and its cousins and clones. Though Dylan’s talent gradually declined over the years, he reached new peaks in the 1970s(DESIRE, which followed BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, turned out to be his biggest seller) and had highlight moments in the 80s and 90s too, especially with the release of TIME OUT OF MIND. Also, he had become so sacrosanct a figure to Boomers that all he needed do was show up a concert and sing “Blowing in the Wind” to be mythologized. Or he could write a book like CHRONICLES and be showered with accolades as a great literary figure. And, academics continued to churn out one ‘Dylanological’ study after another. His songs were studied and analyzed, much like the Torah by Rabbinical scholars.
In film, there’s the strange case of Stanley Kubrick who didn’t release a film from 1987–the year of FULL METAL JACKET–until 1999 with EYES WIDE SHUT. For Kubrick admirers, these were the lost yrs, but there was no reason to pity the man. Kubrick remained busy and happy, and it had taken so long to finish another film because he had ‘too many’ ideas and was mapping out multiple projects. His genius remained intact.
Then there were other artists who remained productive but were unable to achieve anything near their masterwork. Think of 8 ½, a film that excitedly declared Fellini’s genius as capable of anything and promised even greater masterpieces. (The final scene of 8 ½ seemed to say, ‘THIS is only the beginning and you ain’t seen nothing yet!’, as if Fellini had finally figured out what cinema is really about and why he was put on this planet. His genius would no longer be bound by conventionality but explore and flow freely, carrying us away to great new dreamlands, much like the magic brooms in De Sica’s MIRACLE IN MILAN.) Yet, all of his post 8 ½ films combined–with the possible exception of TOBY DAMMIT–failed to live up their promise. WHITE SHEIK or I VITELLONI far outshines the flabby and flatulent excesses of JULIET OF THE SPIRTS, FELLINI SATYRICON, FELLINI ROMA, AMARCORD, etc.
And what happened to Robert Altman after NASHVILLE? And why did Peckinpah fail to make another film that came anywhere near THE WILD BUNCH?
Perhaps, there’s something about a truly great work that drains a person of his creativity. It’s like a woman is never quite the same after having a child. There is a short story called TATTOO by Junichiro Tanizaki where a tattoo artist spends an entire night illustrating a woman’s body. After completion, while gazing at his masterwork–something beyond what he thought he was capable of–, he feels empty or, more accurately, emptied. It’s as if the best of him had been transferred to his creation. In purely physiological terms, extreme creativity must be hard on the brain cells. Maybe the artist feels a loss of purpose after achieving the defining project of his life. Once a climber reaches the mountaintop, what else is there but to climb back down? And what happens to salmon after their epic journey upriver? They mate and they die. Extreme creativity can be like a female spider. When the male spider finally sexually conquers the female, the latter devours him alive. An artist who has yet to create the Great Work of his life has something to look forward to, something to hope for. The Moon was a lot more special before man finally got there. In THE GRADUATE, Benjamin is all excited and dreamy(as well as inspired and creative, not to mention a little mad)during his romantic pursuit of Elaine Robinson, the goddess-and-next-door-girl-fantasy of his life, but after winning her, he feels confused and clueless.
Blessed is the artist who can reach the stars again and again and again. Generally, after a masterwork, artists may continue to do good or even superior work, but rarely do they produce anything near the orbit of the initial masterwork. Kurosawa made excellent films after SEVEN SAMURAI, but none is even remotely comparable to his most famous film. Leone, on the other hand, returned in 1983 with ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, a film on par with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. But it took him nearly 13 yrs of preparation.
There was a lot of pressure on Wilson in the mid 60s or, more accurately, he brought a lot of pressure upon himself with his ambitions. Though Lennon and McCartney were rivals, they were also a mutual support team. They shared ideas, and one carried the load when the other had a creative block.. Lennon usually contributed 45%, McCartney 45%, and Harrison 10%.
Though Brian Wilson had collaborators, in most cases others fine-tuned, smoothed the edges, or added some spice to what was essentially his composition. Brian was pretty much expected to fill up an entire album. Well, so did Bob Dylan, one might say. But Dylan was essentially a solo act and could do as he pleased. Brian, on the other hand, had to balance his role as a Beach Boy and his aspirations as an artist. (There was greater potential for both danger and glory in Brian Wilson’s dominant role in the Beach Boys. More danger because it wasn’t easy to fill up an entire album with first-rate material, but more glory because he could claim the bulk of the credit, not least because the collaborator–be it Mike Love, Tony Asher, etc–was a sidekick than an equal partner. Brian had to work harder, but the rewards were greater than, say, with the Beatles or the Stones where the credit was shared 50/50 between Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. If Wilson’s big gripe was he was the sole–and lonely–brains behind the Beach Boys, Lennon increasingly resented being one half of the Beatles than being an artist standing on his own feet–like Dylan, the man he admired, imitated, and envied most.) In a way, Brian’s extreme reaction–impassioned admiration and enraged envy–to SGT. PEPPER was both natural and puzzling. Natural because the Beatles album was the biggest phenomenon, deservedly so or not, in the biggest and most significant year in Rock. Puzzling because, except for ‘A Day in the Life’, PET SOUNDS is immeasurably a superior album in every respect. Costing $100,000–the most expensive Rock album at the time–and many months in the making, SGT. PEPPER was the most eagerly awaited album of the 60s, and, 1967 being the Summer of Love, and a lot of people were psyched to embrace it as a landmark achievement in music and culture. The hippie, psychedelic, and counterculture movement had been bubbling up since 1965, and SGT. PEPPER was a full-fledged validation of its hopes and dreams. It was both and beyond young and old, both and beyond pop and art, both and beyond mainstream and avant-garde.. or so many wanted to believe at the time(and many still do).
After all, one’s parents might frown on the Stones and the Doors, but the Beatles were ‘cute’. SGT. PEPPER’s brand of Flower Power could be marijuana at the gathering of the tribe or roses in your mother’s garden. Even the druggy interludes weren’t particularly offensive or subversive but rather childlike and innocent.
SGT. PEPPER facilitated the happy convergence of mainstream with counterculture, grown-ups with youth culture, populism with radicalism, and etc. Grownups could even hope that youth culture was a beautiful thing, and maybe even with sex and drugs weren’t so bad if the Beatles were endorsing them. Even the Stones got mellow in the Summer of Love, coming up with songs like “Ruby Tuesday”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “Dandelion”, “She’s a Rainbow”, and “We Love You”, a variation of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”, just like SATANIC MAJESTY’S REQUEST(which was more flowery angelic than darkly satanic)was a take-off on the SGT. PEPPER album. In 1967, it was still possible to believe that the whole youth culture, counterculture, hippie culture, drug culture, hope culture, or whatever one might call it would go wonderfully and make the world feel a little better. Indeed, compare MONTEREY POP(1967 concert) with WOODSTOCK(1969 concert) and especially GIMME SHELTER(Altamont concert in 1969). In MP, hippies seem clean, healthy, and rather appealing. The audience seem to be orderly, conscientious, and cooperative. Even the freaks seem mindful of others. Though some of the performances are loud and abrasive, the fans seem to be there on their best behavior. Watching Pennebaker’s film, one can’t help but think, ‘what nice bunch of girls and lads; a bit strange maybe but well-mannered, respectful, and kind’. One woman even goes around wiping the seats before the audience arrive. Fast-forward to WOODSTOCK where, despite the ‘good vibes’ and ‘idealism’, things are getting out of hand. After three days of ‘music, peace, and love’ the whole area has been rendered into putrid wasteland. Even so, most people(in the movie at least)claim to be having a wonderful time, even gaining a kind of higher consciousness–both political and spiritual–by being with so many like-minded people willing to open themselves to love, sex, music, peace, and nature–though I’m sure they all could have done with less shitting all over the place. Woodstock concert had a lot of ugly things, but what with 300,000 to 400,000 people pretending that it was the greatest day in human history, you have to give it A for effort, A for bullshit, or A for blind faith. But the concert at Altamont seemed to have been an utter disaster(at least on the evidence of GIMME SHELTER, the Maysles brothers documentary, numerous other accounts, and much repeated lore and commentary since.) .
In 1967, people could still hope. After all, it was also the year of THE GRADUATE, whose impact in cinema was much like SGT. PEPPER in pop music. Both were about the fresh adventure of doing something new and different. The chaotic and stale reality set in later, though hints of it were already there in the ending of the movie and in the discordant finale of the album.
Sentiments of hope and renewal are voiced endlessly in WOODSTOCK, but we can’t shake the irony of what we see and what we hear. Too many people look like useless losers, and even the words about peace and love sound cliched, repetitious, and tiresome.
1967 was like the Garden of Eden of the Counterculture movement, a time of innocence, though, to be sure, it was in many ways a manufactured innocence foisted upon the young, gullible, and delusional by a perverse partnership between charlatan gurus of counterculture, savvy media agents and provocateurs, and record executives at big labels who spotted a new cash cow formula. If psychedelia was like a new kind of religion, all the better since the blind faithful are the biggest suckers for those wanna make a buck.
The innocence was eventually(and inevitably) destroyed by (1) excesses of drug culture (2) commercialization of psychedelia, with even the Monkees jumping into the fray–not to mention even the schlocky songs of the Buckinghams and the Association being overloaded with psychedelic mush (3) grave social issues and problems that could not be solved with ‘All You Need Is Love’; songs weren’t going to end US involvement in Vietnam, and Negroes weren’t gonna stop rioting and looting because white hippies held flowers out to them (4) changing demands of a disposable and impatient consumerist society where fashions and fads come and go; kids want to buy new things, and business want to sell new things.
But the Summer of Love came to be mythologized and cherished as the Lost Eden, which accounts for SGT. PEPPER’s ludicrous reputation as the ‘greatest Rock album of all time.’ Whether one agrees or disagrees as to CITIZEN KANE(film), MONA LISA(painting), DAVID(sculpture), PARTHENON(architecture), Beethoven’s FIFTH SYMPHONY(classical music), and GUERNICA(modern art)being the best of their kind, there’s no denying their status as supreme works of art. SGT. PEPPER, on the other hand, comes nowhere near the truly great Rock albums such as BLONDE ON BLONDE, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?, ELECTRIC LADYLAND, WISH YOU WERE HERE, THE WALL, THE BAND, or LED ZEPPELIN IV. In fact, one can easily name a hundred better albums.
To be sure, the status of ‘greatest of all time’ has less to do with absolute quality than considerations like cultural/historical significance and broadness of appeal.
Even people who don’t care about art can tell MONA LISA is a fine work, enjoy Beethoven’s FIFTH, and marvel at the PARTHENON. I suppose same applies to SGT. PEPPER. It was a big hit with both critics and fans. Even so, its greatness is more of hype than honesty. It has one great song, three very good ones, with the rest ranging from good to awful. ‘Getting Better’, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, ‘Good Morning Good Morning’, ‘Fixing a Hole’, and ‘When I’m 64′ are either good or okay, but nothing special. ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘Within You Without You’ are excruciating. (Quite possibly, the earlier release of ‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ set the stage for SGT. PEPPER’s rapturous reception. An outstanding single, it not only perfectly encapsulated the Lennon/McCartney dynamic and chemistry–Lennon’s personal neuroticism and McCartney’s pop romanticism–but represented a quantum leap in Lennon and McCartney’s compositional skills and expressive range. The multi-faceted blend of surrealism and nostalgia made for a strange effect. Both delved into childhood memory but filtered through the impressions of psychedelic reverie. “Strawberry Fields Forever” emits warmth but is cold to the touch. Lush imagery of childhood dissolves into something like a slow-motion funeral chant–the dream of a mummy? Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the song “She Said She Said”–both on REVOLVER–is about Peter Fonda’s boast of having been to Hades and back. Having drifted into strange dimensions under the influence of LSD himself, Lennon seems to have been obsessed with dying–with both spiritual fascination and physical dread–, and there is a subtle ghostly Horror aspect to “Strawberry Fields Forever”–especially the eerie ending–,and it’s no wonder the muffled cry of ‘cranberry sauce’ was later interpreted as ‘Paul is dead’, inspiring rumors about Paul’s alleged death. Yet, if “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Said She Said” are heavy-handed, “Strawberry Fields Forever” derives its haunting beauty from the strange fusion of childhood innocence and apparitional morbidity. Lennon sounds like a departed soul that, despite having journeyed to higher dimensions and plumbed the deepest mysteries of being, still wishes to return to the childhood above all else. LSD was likely having a dual effect on Lennon–as with Brian Wilson. It was both taking him ‘higher’ and ‘deeper’: higher into the so-called Other World but also deeper into one’s own psyche, and of course the core of anyone’s soul is memory, especially the Edenic garden of childhood memory, the Rosebud of our lives when everything seemed both simpler and more magical. Likewise, the famous French sci-fi film LA JETTE is about a man who has mind-traveled multi-dimensionally to the furthest reaches of the future, but his greatest wish is to return to a time when he was a child. The effect of LSD was both transcendental-izing and infantile-izing. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a great guru-baby song, kinda like a nursery rhyme heard through the filter of a dream. “Penny Lane”, in contrast, sounds upbeat and rings with clarity. It’s shines with childhood memories as fresh and tangible as finger pies. Yet, the lyrics relate a nonsense narrative, with a series of non sequiturs interrupting and intersecting one another. It’s like a picture perfect dream, clear and crisp as a sunny day: the normal and the illogical happily wedded, birthing a new kind of so-real-but-unreal reality. Another aspect of weirdness slips in with fanciful trumpets perfuming vignettes of daily street life with aristocratic flair. It’s like working class Liverpool transformed, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, into a kind of mini-Windsor Castle putting on a costume ball. It conveys Paul’s desire since he was a boy. It wasn’t just money and fame he was after; he wanted class. “Penny Lane”, as memory trip and confession, is about the rich and famous Paul reminiscing about the ‘poor boy’ Paul dreaming of one day being knighted Sir Paul. Hey, the kid even grew up to compose a classical symphony or two. The song seems to say, like the French film AMELIE, that imagination is the magical key that transforms mundane reality into wonderland of playful surprises. Though Lennon on “Strawberry Fields” says, “let me take you down…”, there is a sense that childhood is irretrievable, fading and morphing ghostlike. Also, ‘down’ may have a double-meaning: ‘let me take you along’ and ‘follow me into the underworld’. “Penny Lane”, in contrast, says memories are what you make of them. If something is lost, replace it with imagination, reassemble and refurbish it with how it should have been. Lennon mournfully wanders among the ruins of memory whereas McCartney calls in the restoration team to spruce it up. This blend of winsome melodies and oddball scenarios would be a McCartney hallmark to his last day as a Beatle. Consider “Fool on the Hill”, “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da”, “Lady Madonna”, and “Maxwell Silver Hammer”, rather conventional-sounding songs that, however, spin loopy tales, respectively, of a nut, a transvestite, a nun with kids, and a serial killer. I can’t imagine how ‘Penny Lane’ could be improved as a song, and the psychedelia in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is purposeful than preening–the problem of some of the later songs. Anyway, after a single like “Strawberry Fields Forever”/ “Penny Lane”, it’s hardly surprising that the public anticipated SGT. PEPPER with abated breath, as perhaps the gospel of New Consciousness. The Beatles were suddenly the apostles and SGT. PEPPER was like counterculture’s new testament. Up to REVOLVER, Beatles had primarily been a pop/rock band without commitment. With SGT. PEPPER, the counterculture people saw the Beatles as having been converted to the faith and spreading the message to millions of young people all over the world. Soon, even the ‘bourgeois’ McCartney was praising LSD, and then the Beatles traveled to India to learn from Maharishi Yogi himself. They were St. Paul, St. John, and St. George, though Ringo was, well, just Ringo. He left India after a few weeks because the food was too spicy. In a way, SGT. PEPPER was JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR before JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. This is amusing since the previous year saw Lennon in hot water for saying, “We’re bigger than Jesus.” Later with “Imagine”, many people did see him as the equal of the Messiah. And of course, the elaborate album cover and the conceit of the Beatles playing another band added to the aura, a kind of Avant-Garde and Barnum & Bailey.)
Given so many were duped by SGT. PEPPER’s hyped greatness or greatest-ness, it’s hardly surprising that Brian Wilson also fell under its spell, indeed enough to throw in the towel and accept defeat. Wilson had thought RUBBER SOUL could be topped but not SGT. PEPPER. His ambitious SMILE, meant to be a ‘teenage symphony to God’, sounded hollow and shabby in comparison. Wilson felt like Salieri in the presence of Mozart in AMADEUS.
Why would someone as musically gifted and knowledgeable as Brian Wilson believe that SGT. PEPPER was the greatest thing he ever heard? And why did it have such a traumatic impact on him? After all, other Rockers–Jagger/Richards, Townshend, Roger Waters, Hendrix, Bacharach, Paul Simon, Dylan, Doors, Byrds, etc–who greatly admired the Beatles album continued to do excellent work. Perhaps it has something to do with Wilson’s mania for production. He was both composer and producer, poet and engineer. So, perhaps he came to a (fallacious)point where production was confused with the product itself. Through mastery of the recording studio, he’d hoped to expand the artistic boundaries in all directions, but the Beatles album made him lose heart, and then the walls turned claustrophobic, closing in on him. To be sure, he was beset with mental problems and panic–arising from drug use and neurosis–prior to the release of SGT. PEPPER, which may then have been the final nail in the coffin.
SGT. PEPPER was a wonder of sound production, and Wilson may have mistaken its production values for its artistic worth. In truth, only one song, ‘A Day in the Life’, justified the expensive and elaborate production values–but even there the use of a classical orchestra was rather extraneous, not to mention pompous.
Also, even though SGT. PEPPER sounds slicker and richer than RUBBER SOUL or REVOLVER, it is musically and aurally less impressive than Motown sound, Stones’ AFTERMATH, Byrd’s FIFTH DIMENSION and YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY(produced at a fraction of cost of SGT. PEPPER), and yes, PET SOUNDS–or even earlier Beach Boys songs. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘I Get Around’(and the best of Phil Spector)blow away anything on SGT. PEPPER–again, with the exception of ‘A Day in the Life’–, not only in terms of song-writing but sound values.
Brian obviously thought otherwise. Or maybe he thought that he thought otherwise: he may have overrated SGT. PEPPER because of his deafness in one ear. Everyone was saying how great SGT. PEPPER sounded, but Wilson was shut off from its stereophonic wonders due to his handicap. His one good ear heard fabulous production values, but the other ear heard nothing, which means he couldn’t fully appreciate the full greatness of SGT. PEPPER. Yet, everyone around him was saying it was the greatest thing ever recorded. So, maybe Brian took its greatness on faith and imagined it to be more than what it really was. Imagine a movie lover with one blind eye hearing about a great new movie incorporating state-of-the-art 3D technology(stereo-vision or stereographics). Eager to experience what he cannot experience, he may mythologize the movie beyond its true worth. In THE GRADUATE, Ben is crazy about and driven crazy by Elaine precisely because he thinks she is impossibly out of reach. When I was young and couldn’t see DAWN OF THE DEAD–its rating forbade admittance to anyone under 17–, I fantasized the movie as ‘the greatest horror movie of all time’ and to this days I have flesh-eating zombie dreams. Incidentally, I did gain admittance to a showing in a rather permissive second run theater. Because of the circumstances by which I got to know the movie, it was more than a movie or even a great movie. It was as if I’d gained entry into the bowels of hell itself. Brian Wilson, permanently banned from hearing the full wonders of SGT. PEPPER, may have mythologized the album’s greatness far beyond its real merit.
For inspiration–and/or in desperation–, Brian may have turned to even more hallucinogenic drugs to compensate for the deafness in one ear. Maybe he used heavier dosages to surreally hear or sur-hear what he couldn’t normally hear. Some medical experts say that LSD is more likely to cause damage to people with pre-existing mental or neural problems. Possibly then, Brian’s use of LSD further damaged his audio-neural pathways–under strain to transmit what they couldn’t transmit–, culminating in a traffic disaster in the brain circuitry. And then, Brian knew his genius was toast. He still had some talent, but it wasn’t sufficient for an ego with such high aspirations, and so he spiraled into depression. Silver ain’t worth much to seekers of gold.
It also didn’t help that Brian came to prioritize style and mood over the more conventional–though no less essential–features of song-writing. He became obsessed with the beautiful and the beatific, the twilight opiate haze of romance, fantasy, and melancholia. Though McCartney had similar hangups, he maintained his equilibrium with a dazzling eclecticism(though some might call it opportunism). McCartney wasn’t as emotionally invested as Wilson, Lennon, or Dylan; his mode was more artisan than artist. He sought after greatness but mainly to remain on top of the music scene, not to attain higher truth or wisdom.
He could craft songs as divergent in style as ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Lovely Rita’, ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Helter Skelter’. Despite SGT. PEPPER’s ambitions, McCartney wasn’t going for depth or profundity; even his most elaborate and arty song, “She’s Leaving Home” is kind of a joke(‘fuuuuuuun!!’), though a poor one. McCartney was playing–playing around and playing music–, not praying, which was what Brian Wilson was doing with SMILE. With PET SOUNDS, he aimed for the greatest Rock album for young people. With SMILE, he aimed for the greatest album for God. It was his Rock of Ages.
Wilson, during the Summer of Love, seemed unwilling and unable to go back to his wider style ranging from ‘Surfer Girl’ to ‘I Get Around’. He wrapped himself in shades of velvet moonlight and floated in a bejeweled sea, lost in an alternative universe. He became like the wife in INCEPTION who chooses to remain permanently in a state of ‘limbo’. Yet, no one succeeds in pop music without returning to reality, and Brian lost his way back home.
Anyway, it’s possible that Wilson couldn’t have topped PET SOUNDS even with two good ears and mental stability. He was a Beach Boy after all(despite his growing pretensions), and there was only so much one could do with pop music material. Brian took it as far as it would go with PET SOUNDS–and ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Surfs Up’.
Brian, like McCartney, was a pop composer at heart, and the essential virtue of pop is simplicity and appeal.
For Wilson to become a ‘total artist’, he would have had to change his approach and focus altogether, but then he would have lost the essence that made him so good.
Dylan, in contrast, was holding himself back as a simple folkie in the early 60s, and his truer self emerged with albums such as BLONDE ON BLONDE.
In contrast, the songs on ENDLESS SUMMER and SPIRIT OF AMERICA and the album PET SOUNDS were the true Wilson. If Dylan had pretended to be simpler than he really was, Wilson later tried to be profounder than he really was.
Though PET SOUNDS offers something more than the conventional Beach Boys formula, it is still within the formula. Its charm, beauty, and pathos depend on the themes of youth and innocence. It isn’t deep in meaning. Rather, it is rich and beautiful, even sublime at times, as musical expression.
In a way, it was fitting that Wilson as a creative force came to an abrupt not long after PET SOUNDS; the Sixties that the Beach Boys exemplified faded with rise of psychedelia, counterculture, radical politics, growing racial tensions, escalation of Vietnam War, etc. Though Brian experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and dabbled in counterculture mythos, the Beach Boys were a throwback to the earlier half of the 60s of Camelot, New Frontier, and Great Society, a time of great optimism and faith in America and in its promises. The Kennedy assassination came as a great shock, but Americans soon recovered their spirit, not least thanks to pop culture. If George W. Bush told Americans, in the wake of 9/11, to shopping, it was as if Americans instinctively understood following the Kennedy assassination that normalcy could be bought in the form of Beatles records. Besides, the economy continued to grow, federal programs promised to solve social problems, and the war in Vietnam seemed winnable. The optimism lasted until 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, but already the rules had changed. The new hope lay not in America-as-it-is but in America-as-it-must-change(and radically too). The promise of the Summer of Love was that this profound change could be effortless and painless if only we all learned to sing in perfect harmony. Of course, it soon turned out LOVE was not enough; besides, much of it turned out to be demented drugs and sex by dirty kids.
The spirit behind the Beach Boys–including PET SOUNDS–was pre-radical America where good things happened for the simple reason that America was America. Beach Boys songs were like a breath of fresh air in tune with the spirit of the New Frontier, but the spirit was a continuation than a disruption of American-ness. The Beach Boys reveled in youth freedom stamped with All-American-ness. Being young was great for the fact of being young. Beach Boys, in this regard, proffered a Wasp perspective on America and youth culture: Youth exuberance as continuation of Manifest Destiny.
The counter-perspective(often leftist and Jewish)came from the folkie community, and its biggest star was Bob Dylan. He sang about the Other America: Racial inequality in the South, a death of a black maid, American militarism, nuclear holocaust, corrupt politicians, greedy rich folks, etc. Dylan played the role of the angry prophet, and his songs of apocalypse were both warnings and threats(as if America was so sinful it deserved to be burned to cinders). Some of Dylan’s songs were big on idealism and hope–such as the insufferable “Blowing in the Wind”–, but the message was America was fundamentally wrong, and that beauty and truth were not to be found in America itself but in the hearts of those calling for radical change. Dylan also worked on themes of youth, but youth was not a happy rite of passage between childhood and adulthood but a condition of rebellion, dissent, alienation, animosity, and an assault on the old. The brilliantly clever “Times They’re A’Changing” says older people need to shut up and get lost for a better America of young people to arise.
If Beach Boys sounded healthy and handsome, Dylan’s style was ugly or uglesque and subversive. The Left was loving what Dylan was doing… that is until Dylan revealed he wasn’t really sold on leftist politics and didn’t much care for old leftists either. If the folkie Dylan led young people against the Right, the new Dylan led young people against all old people. And then he seemed to tell even young people to get lost, get a life, and leave him alone… and then embarked with the Band to search for the old that had been lost to official history. (In a way, Dylan of the BASEMENT TAPES was again working in the folkie tradition but minus the political and aesthetic dogmas: that music had to serve The People or that old music had to be played reverently in its pristine form.)
Though there is an element of emotional reclusiveness and discontent on PET SOUND, it’s personal than socio-political; it’s culturally contented with All-America. Even unhappiness unfolds within the happiness of American affluence and bounty. The message is not “America is the problem” but “America allows the privilege of problems.” In America of the 50s and 60s, young people had their own bedrooms, record collections, and even cars; they could afford to delve into their own ‘problems’ or even pretend to have problems to show how ‘different’ and ‘special’ they are. Benjamin Braddock of THE GRADUATE, for example, doesn’t suffer from want; his parents are affluent, and he has a great future ahead of him. But that normality(or lack of problems) is what puts him off. He wants to be ‘different’, not well-adjusted like ‘everyone else’. And so, he withdraws into his bedroom during the Graduation party. If it’s not his bedroom, it’s the swimming pool, his car, or hotel room with the neurotic Mrs. Robinson who fills his life with a dose of ‘privileged problem’. Even his obsession with Elaine Robinson could be a search for a kind of meaningful personal problem to define and complicate his life. Braddock doesn’t want to conform to the normal America, yet it’s that very normality and affluence that allows him the freedom and means to search for and wallow in ‘problems’, a kind of happy unhappiness. He indulges in the Problem-Privilege.
Ever since the rise of youth culture in the 50s, it’s been considered lame for a young person not to have ‘problems’. Even normal suburban kids stick posters of deranged Rock stars on their bedroom wall, or they read William S. Burroughs to show off how weird or ‘fuc*ed up’ they are. Some would call this rebellion, but given that Boomer parents have allowed and even encouraged this attitude, it’s less a matter of rebellion than a need to feel special, different, unique. Today’s youth culture is more about what might be called ‘uniks’ than rebels, though to be sure, even unikism has been appropriated by the Pop Industry ever on the lookout for the ‘new’ and ‘problematic’. (The Problem-Privilege has also morphed into a form of radical poseur politics among affluent whites and blacks. Well-to-do black people feel obligated to show that they full of Rage and Frustration in what is still a ‘racist’ America. And rich white kids in elite colleges act as if they or the nation as a whole faces a major crisis concerning whatever social issues their cool hipster professors or public intellectuals cook up. Such normophobia and fetish for problems–oddly enough, in the name of solving problems–has made it unfashionable for anyone to say that he or she is well-adjusted and happy with society-at-large. And this Problem-Privilege has seeped to the Right as well, with a whole bunch of groups actually manufacturing or exaggerating problems to show that they are also hip and cool with all these problems and crises. This isn’t to say that there aren’t serious problem facing this country–from either the leftist or rightist perspective–but to point out that much of the attention is less about addressing and solving real problems than looking for or cooking up problems to hype to lend meaning to one’s life. The danger of the Obama phenomenon for liberals, who’ve made such a fetish of problems, is it promises hope-and-changed reality where old problems would all be swept away. Obama was sold as ‘cool’ and ‘hip’–and his autobiography, which is a New Age politico-psychobabble tract, is not about any real achievement but a narrative of his personal, political, social, racial, and spiritual PROBLEMS, which appeals to many Americans in the age of therapeutism and big pharma when ‘having problems’ is the core meaning of being. And maybe liberals sense some of this, which is why the story of Obama’s ‘depression’ and other psychological problems is used as a narrative of how dysfunctional this nation must be to drive such a cool guy to despair and agony. Psychology is ever more prevalent in American culture because most affluent white liberals are neurotic/narcissistic–or neurocissistic–spoiled brats who inflate every molehill of discontent into a mountain of crisis. So, even though Obama enjoys a certain cachet of being different and exotic, he appeals to white liberals because he’s one of them. After all, despite his uneventful privileged life, he puts himself in league with Malcolm X, Mandela, MLK, Marx, Lincoln, Jesus, etc. Whatever one thinks of those figures, they faced and overcame real hardships or achieved something in life; they earned the right to say something about themselves and the world. It’s not so much that Obama has no interesting story to tell–everyone has some interesting story of his life–but that he thinks his life-story is on par with that of the greatest men of all time. But, so many people bought the horseshit. Now, this could not have been possible in any social order except one so obsessed with psychology. DREAMS FROM MY FATHER really has no story to tell in terms of what Obama actually did in life. Its significance lies in his psycho-political journey into his roots, significance, and supposed calling in life. It is a work of self-aggrandizement based on one’s feeling or fellatio of oneself. It’s a story of molehill of personal angst inflated into a narrative of mountain of achievement based on nothing other than a kind of psycho-spiritual awareness or consciousness-raising. Of course, it is really a combination of psychology-ism and spiritualism. There is an element in Christianity, a spiritual culture where it’s common for a nobody to make a big deal of his life because… he’s seen finally seen and felt the way of the Lord–or da lawd. He may have done NOTHING of any measurable worth, but he had been confused and lost… but God called to him, and that made him a big deal with the right to pontificate about Truth and Wisdom and how all of mankind can finally seek Salvation and be one with God in the Hereafter. Mind you, I’m not knocking psychology or Christianity per se, but merely pointing out that both have been exploited or embraced by those with little actual achievement but lots of claims on deep truths. Especially since it’s ever more difficult to find true black victims of ‘white racism’, new black heroes need to play from the psychological angle. They can’t claim to have been beaten up by British imperialists–if anything, blacks are killing whites in places like Zimbabwe and South Africa, and of course in America–or made to sit in the back of the bus. Rosa Park’s generation has pretty much passed away. There are lots of blacks who are poorly off in the US and Africa, but they are victims of black violence or corruption. Since the physical reality is no longer conducive to the blacks-as-poor-and-noble-victims-of-whites narrative, what else is there but a kind of psychological game where blacks toy with weaknesses and vulnerabilities in white minds. Oprah and Obama have been masters at this game, but then, they got lots of coaching and management support from Jews, the greatest masters of the psychological game. There may be another reason for Obama’s appeal to white liberals. While white leftists really love to dig up the worst of the West, white liberals actually prefer feel-good positivism over feel-bad negativism favored by the radical left. So, white liberals don’t want to hear too much about horrors of past white ‘racism’. It’s just too depressing to read about how a black man was lynched to death. Besides, the issue of white violence on blacks will bring up the counter-issue of black violence on whites, especially since the 60s. So, it’s more pleasant for white liberals to deal with tenderer example of ‘racism’ such as Obama-as-a-child being traumatized by someone touching his hair. Diane Sawyer would rather do a story on how black children prefer white dolls to black dolls than a story of how whites used to hang rapist Negroes from trees. And Obama understood this. If his book had ragged too much about past white ‘racism’ against hapless blacks–with all the grisly details–, white liberals might have seen his book as a real bummer. But since Obama mainly deals with subtler aspects of ‘racism’–and since subtler issues are more flattering to the vain intellectualism and empathy of liberals who pretend to perceive things most people do not–, his message is more appealing to white liberals. Also, the fact that Obama led a pretty good life could also served as proof of real progress made since the 60s thanks to the liberal political activism. If blacks like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson acted in the mode of ‘no real progress, honkey!’–which is an insult to white and Jewish liberals who went out on a limb to help Negroes–, Obama played on the narrative of ‘much has indeed been done, and the fact that a clean-cut Negro such as myself has risen so high so fast is the proof of that… but more needs to be done to make sure all the other blacks follow my lead and stop acting like problem blacks’. This way, Obama both flatters white liberals for having led the change that improved the lot of blacks since the 50s and for wanting to do even more to finally finish the Dream as envisioned by MLK. Obama, along with Jews, slyly uses flattery to flatten the stupid white race. Of course, there is a great contradiction in this psychological approach, but then it’s rooted in Freudianism itself, as well in Marxism, which was as much about the psychology of economics as its materiality. According to Freud, the subconscious is filled with all sorts of dark urges, animal instincts, and sexual drives. Civilization represses those urges, but this leads to neurosis and deceptions. So, modern psychology would search ways to put an end to this repression and allow people to freely express and face themselves. But if indeed what lies within the subconscious are dangerous animal instincts, ending repression may do more harm than good. We may become more nakedly honest but as animals, not humans. So, how does one end psychological repression without bringing about the end of civilization? Through a new form of therapeutism where animal urges are let loose but corralled and channeled in a correct manner. So, it’s okay for men to be funky fuc* machines and women to act like sluts, BUT we must be mindful to respect one another and not sexually harass one another. Allow a woman to dress and act like a slut, but don’t call her a ‘slut’. Allow men to indulge in crazy sports and rebel culture, but make sure they are not ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’. Now one may say that ‘racism’, ‘tribalism’, ‘territoriality’, and ‘anti-gay feelings’ are just natural as sexual feelings, but Political Correctness, with the aid of bogus social science, would have us believe that they are not natural or rational but irrational prejudices programmed into us by repressive social norms and tradition. Thus, PC tries to have it both ways. It claims to put an end to psycho-sexual repression–culminating in interracism between Negro males and white females–, but it says the resentment that white males feel toward the new reality isn’t natural but a form of ‘racism’ that has no basis in science or truth since ‘race is just a myth’. In some ways, UK and Sweden are ahead of the US in this area. They are, at once, more sexually libertine but also more politically repressive. It’s as if for a society to be more sexually open, it must be socially more controlled. Open up one kind of freedom, and another kind of freedom must go. Or, since sexuality is naturally animalistic, if it is to be allowed, then human behavior must be watched even more closely to make sure that sexuality is ‘healthy and safe’ than ‘dark and dangerous’. In a way, there was some of this with the Nazis, with their neo-pagan cult of nudity accompanied by extreme political repression. In Nazi Germany, sexual freedom could mean ‘Aryan’ women sleeping with Jews or Negroes, so the Nazi state controlled sexuality to ensure ‘Aryans’ only boffed other ‘Aryans’. In modern Sweden, open sexuality could lead to resentment by white men over Swedish women going with Negroes and Muslims; therefore, greater effort is necessary to indoctrinate white males into accepting interracial sex as a healthy norm, even if it leads to the gradual loss of Swedish genetic uniqueness. Similar to Freudianism, Marxism critiqued the psychological dimensions of labor–how the proles are ALIENATED from their own work–, and indeed this critique was so severe and extreme that supposedly the ONLY solution to the problem was to end the entire system of economic classes. To Marx, the Proles were to history what the subconscious was to psychology according to Freud. The proles were REAL HUMANITY repressed by the higher classes who put on a facade of civility and good manners while feeding on the repressed toil and misery of the masses. Similarly, the subconscious, the TRUE SELF, was repressed by the conscious mind that pretend to be civilized. But in fact, both were lies founded on repressions of truths. Yet, both Marx and Freud were intellectuals and didn’t believe it was enough for the masses or the subconscious to just burst out and take over. After all, there had been many rebellions in human history, but they all ended in failure with the chaos of mob violence, eventually ushering in a new era of tyranny by new bunch of thugs. And if animal passions are simply let loose, people will act like stupid morons and crazy animals. And so, the liberation of the mind and/or the masses could happen under certain conditions after mankind had gone through necessary stages of progress. There first had to be capitalism to create a super-productive economy for the masses to rise up and overthrow the oppressors. Also, the masses need to be guided and led by intellectuals who know the TRUTH and how to create/operate the new order. For slaves to be free, they must be led and guided by people who understand real freedom; otherwise, slave rebels will in time just become another bunch of slave masters. Similarly, for natural passions to be unleashed and function usefully, it has to be managed and guided by a new systems of control. The repressed subconscious would be set free, but its urges would be channeled to flow smoothly–as mankind has used irrigation to control water. If one mustn’t hold back the water, ensure that it flows ‘correctly’ than floods everything. Freud and Marx may have thought in these terms because of their Jewish roots. Jews were a minority living in gentile lands controlled by gentile elites who repressed the gentile masses. Gentile elites distrusted Jews while gentile masses resented and even hated the Jews. How could Jews take control of this order? Why not spread the notion that the traditional gentile elites are repressing humanity both psychologically and socio-economically. This way, Jews undermine the authority of the gentile elites while positioning themselves as wisemen deserving of elite power. But loosening the power of the gentile elite can lead to mob violence among the uncouth gentile masses who may hate the Jews even more. So, Jews couldn’t embrace populism, as it may lead to stuff like pogroms in Ukraine, Karl Lueger in Austria, or Father Coughlin in America. Instead, Jews pushed for end of old repression accompanied by the new controls by all-knowing intellectuals–often Jewish–who promised the masses the path to paradise. But then, WWII and the Holocaust happened. Since then, Jews figured out that the greatest tool for controlling white elites and masses is ‘white guilt’. Jews know that white people do have a socio-spiritual conscience rooted in Christian guilt and can be milked for all its worth. Mind-numbing pop culture is also important as a tool of social control since most goyim are too dumb to understand intellectual ideas anyway and prefer fun, pleasure, uplift, and the comfort. So, the trick is to control the masses by turning their animal appetites and lust into forms of political correctness. By turning white kids to black culture–and white girls to Negro men–, Jews have ensured that whites shall no longer have pride or unity as white people. Paradoxically, conservatives have made the work easier for the Jews. Conservative anti-intellectualism has ill-prepared most conservatives in the battle arena of ideas, which explains why even conservatives spout the same nonsense about ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, and ‘homophobia’. Conservatives don’t so much counter leftism as argue that the left isn’t leftist enough, e.g. “Leftists are the real ‘racists’ and ‘sexists’!!” Jews even cleverly exploited conservative emphasis on hierarchy and meritocracy against conservatives. After all, Jews can justify their own power on meritocratic grounds–higher intelligence or greater effort–, and Jews can promote interracism as a meritocratic victory for black males over white males. Since white conservative males have stressed the difference between men and women–hinting that women look up to a REAL man with power and charisma–, it logically follows that white guys should admit defeat in the presence of bigger, tougher, and more charismatic Negroes. Clever and brilliant Jews thus run circles around dumb white conservative goyim. Anyway, the contradiction within both Marxism and Freudianism is the obsessive need to critique everything while promising a new reality where such critique may no longer be necessary. That, of course, is a lie since Jews always need new enemies–and will even invent them–to justify their grip on power and greed for more power, all in the name of saving the world.)
Though race riots had already happened in 1965, it wasn’t until later that a sense of rage and malaise about America began to prevail politically, culturally, and spiritually. ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel, released in 1968, went against the grain, but upon closer inspection it is more about America as illusion than reality. A couple travels across America, but the emphasis is on the search than on the find; it ends on a lovely but plaintive note, youthful yearning for what’s been lost or never really was. The innocence is shaded with elegy, as if this America that the couple is seeking is only to be found or imagined existentially. ‘They all come to look for America’, but ‘America’ for each person is the projection of his or her longing, a wish upon a star over the precipice of disillusionment. The wholesome yearning is interlaced with
brass-kindled smoky reference to cigarettes. It’s less about innocence and beauty than the dream of innocence and beauty, one maintained through youthful idylls of idealism. The song’s poignance derives from the aching tension between the wish for myths and the will to reality. America is also both one’s home and a state of exile, a dualistic view that may be more peculiarly Jewish. Not surprisingly, ‘America’ is a song on the album BOOKENDS which counterposes a nostalgia for Old America with barbed sensibilities of New America. (In a way, JOHN WESLEY HARDING by Bob Dylan is rougher take on the same concept.)
The happy norms of affluent America are reflected from a warped looking glass in ‘Mrs. Robinson’. Despite the vocal clarity and coyness, it is a stinging mockery(similar in spirit to ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, ‘Well Respected Man’, ‘Nowhere Man’, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, etc.)of Amerika, weaving a delicate and nimble but hazy and shady web of moral ambiguities.
I wonder if the final song ‘At the Zoo’ was partly inspired by PET SOUNDS.
I suppose music is like a sound zoo(or a sound garden). Music is the most natural and most alive of all the arts, yet complete anarchy of sound is not music. Given music requires form, it is more a zoo than a wilderness of sounds. Simon & Garfunkel and Brian Wilson preferred milder over the wilder species of music–the herbivores to the carnivores, the tame over wild game. In a way, PET SOUNDS is like a petting zoo for the emotions. Its sophistication and maturity are not a denial of wonderment and innocence. PET SOUNDS is to nature what ‘Yellow Submarine’ is to technology: a high concept toy.
I got interested in PET SOUNDS in highschool in the 80s. Like most people, I knew the Beach Boys well enough through songs like ‘California Girls’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘I Get Around’, etc? It was while browsing through a book called ROCK CRITICS’ CHOICE: THE TOP 200 ALBUMS by Paul Gambaccini(in the school library no less)that PET SOUNDS came to my attention, not least because it was #12 on the list. Funny, I thought. How was it that such an highly esteemed work by the Beach Boys was less well-known to the public than their earlier singles? I did recognize one track on the album list, ‘Sloop John B’, a song we had to sing in 7th grade music class so many times that to this day I have a certain aversion to it. Rock/pop music was one of favorite topics of discussions between me and my friends, but none of them had heard of PET SOUNDS either. For one thing, we all grew up on disco and 70s Rock like Journey, Foreigner, Donna Summer, the GREASE movie and album, etc. (Also, our parents tended to be pre-boomer, born in the 30s than the 40s, so they hadn’t embraced 60s counterculture as wholeheartedly as the Boomers. My parents had greater affection for Sinatra and Elvis than Stones or the Who, or even the Beatles.) Of course, my friends and I were familiar with the major hits of 60s band. Who didn’t know ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Hey Jude’, and ‘Good Vibrations’? But just as many kids today are clueless about the 70s or 80s, the hole in my knowledge of the 60s had yet to be filled. It was around then that I decided to take a serious look at 60s Rock, and it became an all-consuming passion until my junior year when my record player broke down–my allowance wasn’t enough to repair it or buy another one–and I happen to come across SEVEN SAMURAI at the local art-house theater, whereupon cinema became my #1 passion, which remains true to this day. Anyway, since my freshman year in highschool, I began to gradually build up my Rock album collection with my meager allowance money, sometimes skimping on lunch to save an extra buck here and there. Though my parents had an album collection, it tended to be mostly classical recordings, film scores, and ‘old fashioned’ stuff. I didn’t get much out of Tom Jones or Doris Day, nor even from Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, though I knew they were supposed to be musical giants. Eventually, I built up a respectable core collection of 60s and early 70s Rock music–Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Fairport Convention, Van Morrison, Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and many others. Though Beatles remained my super-favorite(but then I had a Beatle crush since 7th grade, especially after the news of John Lennon’s death), I also became obsessed with Dylan. With a natural preference for pleasant over abrasive music, I was less enamored with the Stones, though I believed then as I do now that they were probably the greatest Rock band ever–with the possible exception of Pink Floyd, a band I came to admire much later. (My belated appreciation of Floyd owed to three factors: First, in 8th grade, some jerk would always bring THE WALL to school as a badge of coolness, leading me to think, ‘Floyd is the band for jerks.’ Secondly, it was my misfortune to have seen THE WALL by Alan Parker, one of the most ridiculous and pompous–not to mention retarded–movies ever made. Thirdly, all the pseudos in highschool and college were doping out to Floyd. One girl in college taped the lyrics of ‘Mother’ on her door along with ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath. When I bumped into her many yrs later, her newest obsession was Tori Amos. I was not surprised. Much later, however, I was finally able to appreciate Floyd as Floyd. How our younger days continue to haunt us.)
After all these years, PET SOUNDS is the album that still gives me the most pleasure, the one I can listen to any day or night. For me anyway, most other Rock albums, even or especially the great ones, require the ‘right mood’. I gotta be riled up for the Stones or Hendrix, dreamy-dreary for Dylan, or of a gloomy disposition for Floyd. Beatles were great, but maybe I’m just Beatled out. While I still enjoy some of their songs, their albums as a whole don’t do it for me.
With PET SOUNDS, Wilson incorporated greater complexity without losing sight of the simplicity so essential to pop music’s appeal. He understood his limits as well as his strengths and meticulously expanded his range only as far as it would(and should)go. Wilson set out to make the best Rock album, not the greatest music of all time. PET SOUNDS is a work of great artistic care without claims as GREAT art, making it a GENUINE work of art(as art doesn’t have to be ‘great’–a notion that has been the bane of many promising Rock albums that collapsed or combusted as a result of excessive straining for ‘meaning’.) The problems of Wilson’s artistic ego would come after PET SOUNDS, but that’s another story.
PET SOUNDS begins with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a spirited exclamation of youth on the cusp of independence. It is a song of excitement, one of anticipation and anxiety, of confidence and naivete. As such, it continues in the vein of earlier Beach Boys songs. It was also a hit single, and listeners probably expected much of the same in the following tracks. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ abounds in the usual Beach Boy motifs. You can almost see the sunray glimmering on the waves and feel the tingle of the cool surf and warm breeze. The first drum beat sounds like a Fourth of July firecracker. It is full of warmth, an affirmation of life, joys of summer as an elated privilege of youth. It dreams of an endless summer–later the title of a Beach Boys compilation. And yet, the song is as much about frustration as about celebration. It is not about happiness here-and-now but happiness yet-to-be. It could be the sentiments of a high school kid looking forward to graduation, freedom, independence, and sex(than mere petting and love). The fixation on future freedom and romance plays to the emotions of earlier Beach Boys songs, and its fast pace, as with ‘I Get Around’ and ‘Fun Fun Fun’, convey the joys of getting behind the wheels for the very first time, while the surging harmonies swell and rush like waves beneath a surfer.
Though the emotions of the song are in the affirmative, the title of the song is actually a question. It doesn’t say ‘it is nice’ but ‘wouldn’t it be nice?’ While it introduces the album in a typical Beach Boys manner, the lyrics offer an hint of something different. Furthermore, there is a sense that this longing for an endless summer is folly for, if the real excitement and pleasure are to be found in the dream and in the moment of liberation, what lies afterwards? Once ‘it would be nice’ turns into ‘it is nice’, it is no longer an object of desire in the future tense but a part of mundane reality in the present tense, soon to slip and fade into past tense. So, as happy-sounding as it is, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ is also an expression of the neurotics of happiness. It’s like a Catholic virgin looking forward to his or her first sex. The thrill is in the waiting, not in the actual having. This duality makes the song a fittingly odd introduction to the rest of album that, on the whole, unfolds as a series of moody, stylistic, and thematic counterpoints.
The change in tone from ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ to the next song, ‘You Still Believe in Me’, is disorienting–much like finding the next movie scene situated in a radically different place or time period, e.g. in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA where the young Noodles staring into a mirror at a train station is followed by the old Noodles some three decades later looking into another mirror at the same station that now serves as a bus depot. The leap in time between ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘You Still Believe in Me’ isn’t as drastic, but we find ourselves in a different emotional realm altogether. There remains a connection despite the contrast, as between young Noodles and old Noodles standing at opposite sides of time’s looking glass.
In one stroke, we’ve gone from high-spirited youth to adult crisis, from hunger for love to the problems of love, from warm sunlight to breezy moonlight, setting the tone for much that follows. This lunar ambience may have accounted for its relatively lukewarm reception in America. And yet, this change in tone was less a departure from than a shift in emphasis of Wilson’s well-established sensibilities. Though Wilson mentioned Beatles as his main rivals, his musical inspiration owed more to figures like Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, both masters of mood and ambience. Beach Boys were the musicians of Apollo, but PET SOUNDS was a nocturne to Luna. The band that turned kids on to escapades of fast cars, bikini-clad girls, and sun & surf seemed out of sync with their mythos. PET SOUNDS is less a daydream on the beach than insomnia under starlight, less a swim in the ocean than skinny dip into a dark lake.
Brian Wilson had written moody songs–‘In My Room’, ‘Surfer Girl’, ‘Let Him Run Wild’, etc–before(and let’s not forget his remarkable arrangement of ‘Hushabye’, originally recorded by the Mystics), so he had something to draw upon.
The key difference was in the perspective: ‘In My Room’ intones youthful yearning whereas ‘You Still Believe in Me’ is a mature after-the-fact lamentation of love in crisis. The inspiration for ‘In My Room’ came from teenage hangups and fantasies. Even when feeling sad and lonely, there’s the dream of something better in the private chapel of one’s bedroom.
PET SOUNDS signaled something new, an adult sensibility reflecting on experience. Though only twenty-four when he started on PET SOUNDS, Wilson was no longer the ‘kid’ he’d been few yrs earlier–not surprising given the profound changes between late teens and early twenties. ‘When I Grow Up(To Be a Man)’, released in 1965, already foretold the change in direction. Even so, it was Brian pretending to be younger(a teenager)rhapsodizing about growing older(even into his thirties)than about what he felt at the time as a man in his mid-twenties.
After the initial paean to teenage exuberance with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, PET SOUNDS gives us Brian emoting his feelings as he felt them then. It’s Brian as Beach Man than Beach Boy. (An album with a similar thrust is WHO’S NEXT, which opens with the teenage fantasy ‘Baba O’Riley’ and then cruise-controls on more adult concerns.)
Though 60s saw a burgeoning of youth culture and consciousness, Wilson’s formative influences were still in the 40s and 50s when young boys had been reared to be men, not remain youths forever. And Wilson grew up under a demanding father. So, Wilson wanted PET SOUNDS to mirror his changing emotions and attitudes as a man. There’s an element of ‘realism’ in ‘You Still Believe in Me’ missing in songs like ‘In My Room’ that are purely ‘idealistic’. Let me clarify what I mean by ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’ in this context. ‘Idealism’ would be the fantasy of how things should be. Every teenager is an idealist who confuses wishes with the world. In contrast, ‘Realism’, at least in this context, means having experienced life, at least enough to know it doesn’t play by the rules. (Ironically, many Rockers who left behind the boy-meets-girl idealism of pop for the more expressive truth of music-as-personal-art then strove for ‘higher truth’–with the instant karma of drugs–, the pursuit of which rendered them as infantile and addicted as babies to mother’s milk. Hippies and psychedelic Rockers had their lips glued to the teats of the cosmic cow. PET SOUNDS, in this sense, sits between two forms of fantasies that defined Wilson’s career: the happy fantasies of youth–endless summers, two girls for every guy, boundless freedom–and spiritual notion of sharing love and music with God Himself. PET SOUNDS was then a both a bridge and barrier between the two poles of his career. As a bridge, it featured the Beach Boys sound but also introduced an element of sophistication heralding newer possibilities. But the personal realism sets it apart from Wilson’s both earlier and later works, at least until IMAGINATION, a rueful reflection on where he’d been and how he finally found his way back home.)
‘You Still Believe in Me’ is certainly neither stylistically ‘realist’, psychologically complex, or socially relevant. It is however, realist in conveying the darker shadings of love without the comforting balm of teenage escapism: No Cupid’s arrow as cure, no sword to fall on as grand gesture. Consider the difference between ‘You Still Believe in Me’ and ‘Don’t’ Worry Baby’, probably Beach Boys’ greatest song. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is a morose-sounding ballad but wears its heart on its sleeve. Its naive idealism boundlessly flows from the well of love as the healing elixir of the soul. It is not unlike ROMEO AND JULIET where love remains pure and sacred despite or especially because of its tragic mood. The guy in ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ royally messed up and is filled with remorse, but his lover restores his faith and equilibrium. And even if she’d left him, the ‘idealism’ would remain because we’d know in no uncertain terms that he lost the most precious thing in the world. Happy or sad, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ gushes with milk and honey sentiments.
‘You Still Believe in Me’, on the other hand, is a song of some experience, of a love affair that’s been on and off, where faith has been lost and restored time and again, almost to the point of despair and cynicism. The locus of the emotional pull is less the love itself than the luck(or maybe curse)that, even after so many ups and downs, the girl still has faith in him, one that may be betrayed again. The song ends with the plaintive wailing of “I—– wanna cry———-”, an expression of appreciation and gratitude that may have less to do with genuine reciprocative love than the comfort of having someone to turn to after failed dreams. She isn’t the prize or dream but the consolation after the dream–perhaps another woman–has slipped away.
If ‘Poor Side of Town’(Johnny Rivers) were narrated from the perspective of the woman, it might be something like ‘You Still Believe in Me’. Recall how she had left her boyfriend for a dream-lover, a rich guy, only to be dumped, with nothing left but to return to her old flame(who’s still devoted to her). So, the wail of “I wanna cry” at the end of ‘You Still Believe in Me’ could have a double-meaning: One of relief in regaining the love and one of grief in returning to square one. ‘You Still Believe in Me’ is not the usual idealistic love song about you-and-me-were-meant-to-be-from-the-beginning-to-the-end-of-time. It is about the shadows than the radiance of love, about falling to ground from love fantasy to love reality.
What ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘You Still Believe in Me’ share is an element of self-pity–a character flaw of Wilson–, which is sanctified in ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ but only nursed in the other song. The blooming aggrandizement of self-pity is the very premise of love in ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, whereas the self-pity of ‘You Still Believe in Me’ weeps behind the curtains.
At this point, it is useful to consider the role of Tony Asher, recruited by Wilson as the main lyricist. Asher claims to have written most of the lyrics along the themes and feelings outlined by Wilson. Because PET SOUNDS is the product of a close collaboration between Wilson and Asher, we must be careful not to ascribe everything to nor analyze it in terms of Brian Wilson’s vision. Though Wilson provided the creative and visionary core of PET SOUNDS, the issue of authorship is always fraught with danger in close collaborations such as this. Nevertheless, the fact that Wilson chose someone from the advertizing world clues us to his intentions. He wasn’t looking for an equal creative partner–as Jagger and Richards were to one another–but a technician to fine-tune his ideas. Wilson had the concept, the music, and the basic idea of what the songs were about. What he sought was maximum efficiency and dexterity with words, the finesse to pare feeling and impressions down to their bare essence without losing their lush romantic flavor. Though Mike Love had collaborated on earlier songs, his penchant for infusing his own spirit had the effect of countering or even trivializing Wilson’s intentions. The result at their best was magical, a brilliant balance of beautiful pathos and hipster cool, but it must have been frustrating to the side of Wilson that wanted to be taken seriously as a ‘personal artist’. After all, as the Beatles got more ‘serious’, most songs credited to ‘Lennon & McCartney’ were actually written entirely by either Lennon or McCartney.
Though on the creative scale, Brian Wilson far outweighed Mike Love, the latter had a strong enough will to imprint his personality on many songs. Brian probably felt that if he’d recruited another artist, poet, or professional songwriter to collaborate on PET SOUNDS, there might be creative and/or personal differences. But an ad man is essentially a hack who buries his personality to serve the product. His speciality is the knack for the perfect jingle than commitment to personal expression. Wilson needed a wizard with words, someone who would bend to Wilson’s will. The point of advertising is not to advertise itself but the product it is hired to represent. Asher, in this sense, was an ad man hired by Wilson to perfect and promote Wilson’s product. In this sense, one could argue that the essential thrust of Tony Asher’s lyrics are more those of Wilson, i.e. Asher provided the lyrical means to express Wilson’s meanings. Similarly, film auteurs often hire writers to flesh out their basic visions. Asher’s relation with Wilson might have been like Stuart Kaminsky’s to Sergio Leone in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. To be sure, Kaminsky was already a famous novelist in his own right; even so, he wasn’t hired to invent a story but to provide English dialogue for a basically completed storyline. Though some people might scoff at advertising hacks or genre fiction authors–Kaminsky wrote mysteries and crime thrillers–, some of the most skillful professionals work outside the realm of ‘serious art’, which, by the way, attracts some of the least talented people on earth. (For every failed artist who tries his luck in advertising or entertainment, there must ten failed professionals who pretend to be artists.) No artist can be proficient in every department, and so there is the classically symbiotic relationship between the visionary artist and the brilliant technician. Kubrick’s 2001 wouldn’t have been the same film without the collaboration of Douglas Trumbull. Kubrick needed Trumbull’s know-how, and Trumbull needed Kubrick’s vision.
With PET SOUNDS, Wilson provided Asher with a chance of lifetime, and Asher served Wilson with brilliant professionalism.
Even though Asher and Kaminsky were hired to serve as (impersonal)professionals to fill in the holes of other artists(with claim to main authorship), their creative juices must have overflowed given the magnitude of PET SOUNDS or ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. It was no ordinary gig. Asher’s flair for snappy lines rises on occasion to the poetic fragrance; soap peddler becomes a perfumer. Similarly, some of the lines Kaminsky wrote for Leone’s film goes far beyond mere professionalism. It’s hard to imagine a better dialogue between Noodles and Max in their final encounter.
If Wilson was looking for a wordsmith in Tony Asher, he had a creative-soul partner in Van Dyke Parks for SMILE, which makes that album a genuine work of artistic partnership, but not necessarily a better work of art. With Asher on PET SOUNDS, Wilson knew exactly what he wanted and what his and Asher’s respective roles entailed. With Parks on SMILE, Wilson lost the sense of who was leading and who was following, and where it would all go.
The next song ‘That’s Not Me’–my favorite on the album–furthers the themes introduced by ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘You Still Believe in Me’. If ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ is optimism swelling with anxiety and if ‘You Still Believe in Me’ is pessimism tempered by faith, ‘That’s Not Me’ trots between the two sentiments. The music has some of the upbeat anticipatory headiness of the first song but also the element of self-doubt of the second. If ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’ is in the future tense, ‘That’s Not Me’ is in the past tense. The first song looks to a blissful future while the third song looks back to a happier past. The first song wants to break out from home, whereas the third song wants to return home. In a way, it’s like a sequel to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. Where the two songs merge is in the love for the girl. In the first song, the guy is bursting with love and lust can hardly wait for the day of romantic intimacy. In the third song, we are to assume that he’d gotten to know the girl and then took off for bigger dreams and bigger fish in a city far from home, family, friends, and his girl. He wants to bo back to his girl not because she’s the goddess of his dreams but, as in ‘You Still Believe in Me’, the anchor to a life unmoored and adrift. Perhaps, had he found fame and fortune in the big city, he wouldn’t have looked back and gone off with a different girl–on the rich side of town. But having failed, he’s filled with bittersweet nostalgia for hometown with its familiar faces and places. It is about affection and affirmation rekindled as a result of failure than aspiration for and/or attainment of the perfect dream. There is an idealistic element to the song inasmuch nostalgia is a form of personal mythology, but it’s a feeling based on having been soaked in the storm chasing after rainbows. Of course, the past he longs for may also be an illusion or mirage as time dissolves everything and ‘you can’t go home again’(the worst possible scenario being John Cheever’s THE SWIMMER). ‘That’s Not Me’ is a story of a guy who, having lost faith in the future, feels lost and lonely in the dead-end present. So, he retraces his steps back to a time and place when things had been simpler. Even so, there is a sonic rainbow hum throughout the song(as with other songs on the album), a florid ambience suggestive of deeper realms of desire at odds with conscious resolve. The false rainbows in the real world are real enough in the dreamworld, supplying watercolors to quaint longing for home.
‘That’s Not Me’ is like a shadow play of sounds–the lurking percussions, aural depth of field(similar to perspective in painting), trailing vocals, sudden shifts of pace and mood(like altering light conditions under a cloudy sky), the ebb and flow of cocky assertions and fading certitudes, etc–conspiring in an elusive game of hide and seek between longing and belonging.
Most remarkable from a musical angle is the pervasiveness of the organ, used so subtly that it feels like an emotional buzz emanating from within than sound emitting from the speakers. It is as remarkable as Dylan’s use of the organ in ‘Vision of Johanna’. As it quietly but persistently drones on, rather like a telephone tone, the organ spreads a layer of irony, a buzz of anxiety and uncertainty, to the brash bleating of Mike Love.
Even without the simmering organ, ‘That’s Not Me’ is an odd-feeling song, an emotional misfit. One might expect a song that yearns to return home after bouts of disillusionment to sound humbler and softer, a bit more reflective. Yet, the vocals by Mike Love are confident verging on contentious, taking big steps with head held high. He was once cocksure about big time in the big city, and now he expects to return to the happiness he once knew. But then, every note trails off and fades into the ambiguous organ hum that sounds both energizing and enervating, both anticipatory and anxious about returning home.
The protagonist is like a cat caught in a limbo between the impulse to go outside when inside and go inside when outside. It isn’t hard to imagine the protagonist, once back home, dreaming of pursuing another big dream. He is a dreamer–longing for the city when at home and longing for home when in the city–but too proud and quick-footed to admit it. His search for something, via ambition or nostalgia, is as much a form of escapism. At home, he feels trapped so he breaks into the larger world. In the city, he feels lost so he longs for home. He seems incapable of pursuing something to the end. He confuses his restlessness and wanderlust(or maybe it’s closer to wander-lost)as true directions in life when it’s really a turning back from what he set out to do.
(The rich ambiguity of the song might have been absent with the earnest-sounding vocals of Brian or Carl in the lead. It’s the tension between Mike Love’s braggadocio and Wilson’s rueful musing that really makes the song. Love is the proud sailor while Brian supplies the troubled winds.) Even though the protagonist specifically longs for home, the real theme of the song is about longing itself.
Wilson’s use of musical perspective is really remarkable here. At times, the singer seems to be close to us, talking to us face to face, the speakers acting as his big mouth. Yet, at other moments, the sounds are like silent whispers or distant voices, either murmurs within our memory or echoes carried by the winds. (Spanky and the Gang achieved similar effects with ‘I’d Like to Get to Know You’, as did Mamas and the Papas with ‘I Saw Her Against Last Night’. Petula Clark’s remarkable cycle of songs with Tony Hatch also comes to mind.)
Though Brian Wilson had mastered the means of crafting a rich array of sounds–‘I Get Around’, ‘Don’t’ Worry Baby’, ‘Let Him Run Wild’, etc–earlier, it was with PET SOUNDS that he unequivocally embraced the spirit of experimentalism. The new music had to be more than pretty or playful, more than signature Beach Boy tunes; it had to be stamped with personality, even psychology, where Brian was no longer the Every Youth but Eccentric Brian. As expression and statement, his new album would be a convergence of the state of the art with the state of the mind.
Though we should be careful not to over-interpret pop songs, ‘That’s Not Me’ is an ironic multi-dimensional mini-drama about an ego confined horizontally(geographically between home and the city) and vertically(psychologically between dependence and independence). The other polarities are personality(cockiness vs humility) and temporality(past and future).
The irony begins with the title itself. If ‘that’ is not ‘me’, what is the ‘real me’? Home, family, and friends? Or is the ‘real me’ a state of mind wishing for what is not(and perhaps can never be)? Is ‘real me’ then just an imagined ‘me’? Nostalgic idealism is undercut by psychological realism. The song hopes for a happy solution, something that we can’t help but feel will remain beyond his grasp. Though the protagonist has seen enough of life to know reality doesn’t conform to his dreams, he’s still young enough to retain faith in that ‘special place’.
It’s the sentiments of an old young man–old enough to accept the present but young enough to idealize the future or past. He hasn’t yet learned ‘there’ is simply another ‘here’ and ‘then’ is just another ‘now’.
This crisis of identity in ‘That’s Not Me’ was relevant to Brian at the time, both socially and psychologically. No longer content to be a composer of Surf Music hits, he was trying to be an ‘artist’ worthy of serious consideration. Asocial in many ways due to his introvert-personality, he’d been slower to bloom into full manhood than, say, Mike Love or Al Jardine. With PET SOUNDS, it’s as though all these issues came to a head. So, what was the Real Brian, the Real Me? Was the Real Brian to be found on a journey of self-discovery? In his search for the Real Self, could he lose the True Self that he already possessed but failed to recognize? From this angle, the implication of ‘That’s Not Me’ is ‘I’m not me’. Wilson at the time was experimenting with LSD, the influence of which facilitated the erosion of the walls around his ego. His emotions became disassociated from his values. Previously, his music and lyrics–as well as style and content–had been one, indivisible thematically and harmonically.
In ‘That’s Not Me’, however, there are fractured angles between the music and the lyrics–and between melody and the harmony(with sound effects sometimes edging toward dissonance). The song wavers between Tony Asher forlorn lyrics and Mike Love’s assertive vocals(further contrasted with Wilson’s backup sighs); the music is generally awake and upbeat but keeps slipping into daydream reverie; the drumbeats announce determination while tingling guitar chords intimate procrastination; the momentum keeps re-accelerating only to be tripped by speed bumps of doubt. Wilson played loose with rules of pop music in favor of something closer to pure sound(an approach culminating with the instrumental ‘Let’s Go Away for Awhile’); the tempo lurches back and forth between fast and slow; the volume ranges from murmur to bombast. It is like a mini-symphony. Pop music is generally known for consistency whereas classical music, at least the symphonic form, is characterized by range and variation. This is especially noticeable while driving. Set the desired volume for a pop song, and you’re set. Not so simple with a symphony whose tonalities range from wispy caresses to thunderous booms. Though there is a great variety of pop songs, each song more or less belongs to a specific genre: soft ballad, rocker, fast ditty, slow dirge, etc. A loud song is consistently loud, a soft song is consistently soft. ‘That’s Not Me’ has some of the schizoid qualities of the symphony though sufficiently subdued for one not to notice if he so chooses. But maybe enough people did notice, at least to the detriment of album sales. A song like ‘That’s Not Me’ wasn’t merely different as a Beach Boys song but as a pop song. It didn’t sound like one song but a fusion of several songs of contrasting styles and emotions. A song with an irregular heartbeat.
LSD carried Wilson to new dimensions of aural and imaginative possibilities, but it also planted the seeds of doubt and self-consciousness. Wilson, who’d found his place in the sun as a Beach Boy, suddenly came face to face with deeper, richer, and more tantalizing emotional colors and could no longer be satisfied with his popular persona. PET SOUNDS is like a fragile egg perched on a thin wall between the old and the new. Wilson was in the process of hatching new ideas but as a reformulation than rejection of old ones–and it wasn’t a year later when Wilson’s creative egg did teeter over and break, unable to be put together again. (Perhaps, change was a bigger challenge for Brian Wilson than for other major acts of the 60s due to the thematic specificity of the Beach Boys, amply apparent in the very name of the band. Though Beatles burst on the scene as a teenybopper band, the generic themes of love, romance, and youth could be developed into something richer–and more ‘serious’. Though hailing from Liverpool, England, their music wasn’t specific to a place or culture, except as personal myth-making in songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Beach Boys, in contrast, were defined by California sun, sand, & girls and hot rod culture–especially via Mike Love–, and so when Rock culture shifted from the social scene–of celebrating youth–to the psychological realm and political statement, Wilson was more likely to feel like a fish-still-in-the-water-while-others-grew-legs-to-walk-on-land. Beatles needed only to shift their style to go from the ‘mop top’ fab four to hippie pied pipers whereas the Beach Boys would have had to undergo a fundamental shift in theme as well in style, something which Wilson perilously attempted with SMILE. The result was as heroic as ludicrous. Even now, what is one to make of a song like ‘Good Vibrations’, a mini-symphony in ditty form blending All-American golden boy/girl imagery with surreal counterculture psychedelia? It’s like ‘California Girls’ crossed with ‘Eight Miles High’. In a way, it was as far as Wilson could go in stretching the synthetic bridge between two contrasting and ultimately incompatible sensibilities–materialist innocence and spiritualist decadence. Perhaps, the ingenuity required to harmonize such polarities proved to be all the more taxing on Wilson’s psyche, much like the strain from using mono to approximate stereo sound. But as time worn on, Brian’s mono-thematics and mono-sonics, despite the imaginative theatrics, couldn’t keep up with the competition, anymore than analog technology could in the age of the digital.)
In a way, what happened to Wilson with PET SOUNDS was yet another variation of an artist reaching a crisis point and coming to doubt his achievements and reputation. This could actually be said of entire movements. The emphasis in Western painting shifted from using methods to represent reality to an ever increasing awareness of the methods themselves. No longer content to represent, copy, or mimic reality, painting became obsessed with its own language. It became a painting of painting, an exploration of shapes, forms, and patterns intrinsic to its expressive possibilities. Same happened with cinema. Eschewing the ‘conventional’ employment of characters and plot, the rise of ‘art film’ and ‘experimental/avant-garde filmmaking’ led to an obsession with the possibilities of film language itself, with perhaps the most famous case being Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. No longer was film to be a photographic reflection of social reality or a slavish adaptation of narrative forms like drama or the novel. Instead, film would explore and establish its own potentials, qualities unique to itself. So, Fellini went from telling stories about characters to making films of the imagination. 8 ½ oscillated between the two modes, merging and diverging between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’. This was also true of Bergman’s PERSONA and Godard’s films up to the mid-sixties.
It is also true of PET SOUNDS, a work steeped in the past but stepping into new territories. It is a Beach Boys album that tries to more than pop but still pledges its allegiance.
It’s been said conflict is the essence of creativity; it certainly explains the greatness of Fellini’s 8 ½, a product of inspired and playful friction between the personal and the popular, the conventional and experimental. Though we would like to uphold artistic purity as the noblest of attributes, purity in art can turn into a form of puritanism(aesthetic and/or ideological). It can also be like a game where only one person shows up to play.
Consider the many ‘pure’ and ‘radical’ artists of the 20th century who created nothing of any lasting value? How many genuine artists have lost their way by pursuing ultimate purity in art? How many pseudo-artists have feigned ‘purity’ to conceal their lack of talent or vision?
This isn’t to suggest compromise or ‘selling out’ is good for creativity. An artist should be as true to his vision as possible. The real danger arises when the artist limits his own imagination to what he deems to be morally, spiritually, ideologically, and/or formally correct. Much of ‘serious’ modern music failed to win much an audience–even among the cultured crowd–due to its iron rule of intellectual, ideological, and formal purity.
In some cases, an artist who is shunned or neglected may be ahead of the curve, to be appreciated after his time. But more often than not, an artist who purges himself of all ‘impurities’ is only fooling himself. Whether radical modernists with their manifesto against all ‘conventional ‘art or Hitler’s policy of ‘Aryan’-izing all artistic expression, it’s a form of self-deception–rather like a germ-freak pursuing a totally germ-free environment(which is impossible given there are gazillions of bacteria WITHIN a person).
The ideal of ‘absolute liberation’ or ‘total truth’ is just a puritanical trap. Consider Christian puritans seeking spiritual liberation from the ‘sinful’ temptations of the flesh.
By ‘purism’, I don’t necessarily mean the spiritual or intellectual kind but any mentality favoring one thing while expurgating all else. Fellini’s films after 8 ½ indulged in lots of sex and debauchery, but they were purist in the sense that Fellini seemed to operate on the conceit that pure imagination = great art. He began to worship himself as god, as if his films were like Athena pouring out of Zeus’s head. (To be sure, Fellini was trying to have it both ways–as a kind of god/clown or emperor/jester. He’d remark he was no longer interested in ‘art’ and was happy to be the circus master of the imagination unconcerned with what critics and intellectuals had to say. But he was clearly playing for the title of the greatest filmmaker of Italy if not the entire world; he wanted to be taken seriously.) If Fellini came to regard his unmoored muse as
truth-and-beauty itself, Godard attacked and dismissed everything about cinema that didn’t conform to his ideology and/or philosophy.
So, even though the phenomenon of purism manifests itself differently across the field, it’s a rather common condition or crisis that bedevils many a people, especially the neurotically inclined. One possible reason for Wilson’s going off the rails after PET SOUNDS could be tracked to an increasing, almost purist, preference for sounds over music. Under LSD, he experienced music/sound as a universe of colors, shapes, patterns, tastes, smells, etc. It’s been said that certain hallucinogens induce synesthesia, where various senses interact and merge into one another–possibly because ‘different senses’ have a common source in the ‘root sense’. Upon ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ such sounds, ‘conventional’ music probably didn’t seem as interesting to Brian. He became so enamored of these multi-sensory sounds that he began to hear ‘voices’ in his head, leading to bouts of schizophrenia.
Lennon underwent a similar crisis in late 1966 when he began to experiment with LSD, culminating in two great psychedelic songs ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘A Day in the Life’. But, for how long could one chase after rainbows?
A similar problem plagues Terrence Malick since his return to filmmaking with THIN RED LINE(getting more troublesome with THE NEW WORLD). Gone was the interest in characters and story, which became little more than thesis fragments for his free-floating ego(conflated with the harmony of nature, and ultimately with the universe itself in TREE OF LIFE). There is the famous image in the opening scene of 8 ½ where Guido flies into the clouds and hovers weightlessly. His imagination, liberated and free, makes its own laws … that is until a rope around his leg pulls him down to ground. Guido wants to be free but is hamstrung by the business interests, social pressures, and intellectual doubt. His nemeses are the moneymen, the fans(attracted more to his fame than art), and the intellectual(who critiques Guido’s imagination as gratuitous and indulgent). He’s torn between pandering(to obtain and win accolades and prizes) and the passion to go where his spirit wants to go. (There is a dark side to this desire for unfettered and uncompromising freedom. Guido in his dream wants to be free of the rope around his leg but then later fantasizes about a rope around the intellectual’s neck. His freedom isn’t simply the wish to do as he likes in his own space but to make films that everyone should admire and adore. He is as much Mussolini as a poet. Though Guido seems to be saying, ‘leave me alone’, he won’t leave us alone because he needs, indeed demands, our recognition of his new incarnation as the ‘greatest film artist of all time’. This is a common enough trait among so-called ‘freedom loving artists’. They want total freedom to make the art they desire but aren’t keen on the freedom of others to criticize what they’ve done.) Fellini miraculously pulled it off with 8 ½, a huge hit among critics, intellectuals, general audience, and, of course, filmmakers.
Along with LA DOLCE VITA, it was one of those rare films with both great highbrow and middlebrow(if not exactly lowbrow)appeal. It promised a new kind of pure/personal expression transcending(as well as bridging)commerce, conventionality, and intellectualism. The subsequent films, however, turned out to be more hot air than heavenly art. Speaking of hot air, perhaps the opening scene of ANDREI RUBLEV takes its cue from the aforementioned scene in 8 ½. Like Guido in his dream, a group of men in Medieval Russia seek liberation from Earth by constructing a hot air balloon that will carry them to the clouds. Townsfolk gather around: some to observe in wonder, some to stop the blasphemy against Heaven(not least because the balloon is being launched atop a church). One man manages to lift into the air, and he is overcome with a sense of liberation, freedom, power, ecstasy. He feels like a bird, even a god; he defies the rules of nature. Yet, eventually, as with Guido, he falls down to ground as the air seeps out of the balloon. (There’s similar moment in Andrei Konchalovsky’s SIBERIADE, albeit in a lighter-hearted mode: the scene where the radical fugitive builds a wind-sail boat and glides over the frozen lake to the bewilderment of the villagers. And COOL HAND LUKE’s eponymous character doesn’t want to be bound by any rules: legal, social, political. He makes his own rules and break them too. He wants to be free at every moment. He’s like a proto-beatnik Nietzschean, more into will-to-cool than will-to-power. Of course, Luke is only fooling himself and indeed turns out to be as annoying as appealing. But given that we all cower to rules and regulations on a daily basis, he becomes for us the vicarious counter-ideal of pure freedom that we don’t have the courage or charisma to pursue ourselves. Luke doesn’t only rebel against the power-above-him but the power-around-him. He is bullied and beaten by Dragline, a big dumb lug played by George Kennedy, and people taunt him as he’s bloodied to a pulp. But he doesn’t give up. It becomes kinda like Passion of the Luke. Even when Luke follows rules, he’s not so much obeying as playing the game. And since he figures it’s the same inside and outside–rules and regulations and thugs and heels–, he adjusts well to life on the chain-gang. His body works one way while his mind play in another way. But Luke is not free of ego, and paradoxically, he becomes imprisoned in the legend of his own freedom. Though his attitude about life is, “I don’t care”, the admiration by others of his ‘coolness’ makes him slavish to his reputation as maverick and rebel. So, he goes from minding his own business to making a bet about eating fifty eggs. One day, he inspires other guys to work harder, thereby turning their punishment into a joyous display of rebellion against the Boss. His ego keeps building until the ‘bosses’ use his mother’s death as an excuse to put him in his place. And then begins the series of escapes, which too are geared to win the admiration of his inmates. Luke flashes his middle finger to the world but also wants recognition from it. He’s anti-social but uses his anti-sociality to win social praise from other guys, the dregs of society. He’s somewhat schizoid in simultaneously not caring and caring too much about how others think of him. He has no use of people but needs an audience. Even his act of vandalism was, in a way, a manifestation of his need to be noticed. In both entering and exiting the prison, he calls attention to himself. He tells others to leave him alone, but he wants the eyes of the world on his being alone. I mention COOL HAND LUKE because the element of freedom-for-freedom’s-sake has its parallel in creativity-for-creativity’s-sake, both a potential for liberation/freedom/possibilities and delusion/dead-end/madness. It seems Fellini, Wilson, and Malick became, at least for a time, obsessed with ‘pure creativity’ and/or ‘pure expression’ with little regard for much else. 8 ½ , PET SOUNDS, and DAYS OF HEAVEN were instances of striving for greater freedom without entirely abandoning the ‘rules and regulations’ of art. Perhaps, Fellini and Malick found greater fulfilment and satisfaction in ‘pure expression’, but they lost contact and rapport with–and genuine interest in the–the larger world. Wilson also lost something essential after PET SOUNDS.)
The song that follows “That’s Not Me” is “Don’t Talk(Put Your Head on My Shoulders)”, and it comes closest to being a pure mood piece. “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room” are slow ballads too but in the affirmative. “Surfer Girl” is head-over-heels in love with a certain girl, and “In My Room” has something in common with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”: a yearning for a better future. There is also a sense of comfort, however lonely, within the sanctuary of solitude.
“Don’t Talk” is different. It’s not so much an affirmation of emotions as an annulment of the ego. The guy believes in love. He loves the girl. But most of all, he wants to dissolve into the very essence of love. Love isn’t just a feeling but a state of being. Strangely enough, he conveys love without or even against overt expression. It’s not about saying ‘I love you’–spelling out one’s emotions. He asks the girl not to talk and just put her head on his shoulder. The song itself feels as if be drifting into a dream-state, no longer interested in such mundane matters such as lyrics or melody. She rests her head on his shoulder, and his mind dissolves into auto-hypnosis.
The musical flora of “Don’t Talk” is lush and tropical, but the air is cool and crips. It’s like the zen of romance. He asks her to ‘come close, close your eyes, and be still’. It’s not so much about two bodies–or even sensual emotions–coming together but about two spirits swirling into the nirvana of love. It hovers in that zone between waking life and dream state, between possessive passion and pacific surrender, suggesting the highest state of love lies somewhere beyond our awareness.
It also serves as an analogy for the fertile tension between artistic ambition and creative resignation–paradoxical in both cases. Ambition is conscious, but consciousness erects a barrier to subconscious creativity. Resignation, in contrast, taps into the subconscious but is too incapacitated for tangible realization. (This may explain why practically minded conservatives are generally lacking in artistic imagination while many creatively inclined people have a near-phobia for the world-as-it-really-is. Most highly successful people tend to be liberal pragmatists who have the roll-up-the-sleeves outlook of conservatives but also possess just enough fever-dream-madness of artists. Think of Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg. Misfit dreamers but also dedicated doers. Idealists, which most liberals are, are somewhere between pragmatists and dreamers. Smart idealists also know how and when to avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism, the bane of dumb idealists who remain stuck in the rut of old ideas and are supported in government and non-profit jobs by smart superrich liberals who foot the bill through taxes and donations.)
The well of creativity flows deep within. Though artists do–and of course must–work consciously to actualize and realize their visions, their imagination springs from a dark hidden area. This zone exists in every person, but one must turn off his mind to get there, usually in dreams. Some people may reach it with use of drugs–like pagan peoples with peyote or mushrooms–while others may access it through bouts of mental illness, bipolar depression, or sickness. (Ingmar Bergman’s greatest film PERSONA was inspired by feverish hallucinations during a hospital stay, and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” was first heard in his dream.) The creative dilemma is the imaginative/dream state immobilizes the body and the conscious mind. Dreams feel powerfully real but vanish like snowflakes the instance we awake. We sometimes hear beautiful sounds flowing from within as sleep approaches, but they stop the moment we try to gather and mold them into a song. There is an account of how Bob Dylan and the Band were high on marijuana and stayed up all night playing, coming up with all sorts of zany brilliant ideas, only to forget them the next morning. It’s as if light is light and night is night, and twain shall never meet. But exceptional artists have access to the ‘inner light’ within the night and a keener appreciation for the shadows within the day.
The greatest artists have the ability for what might be called ‘hallucid-waking’. If lucid dreaming allows a person to be conscious in a one’s dream, hallucid waking is the reverse: a person accesses or experiences a kind of dream-sense in waking life.
Most people can compose conventional melodies in a simple connect-the-dots manner. Great songs, on the other hand, have something extra. They have a texture, mood, and a feel that seems out of this world or from another world. Even a song like “Yesterday” by the Beatles is not your average ballad. Or take “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones. Or “Quicksand” by David Bowie. This is true even of hard rocking songs like “Satisfaction” and “She Loves You”. They have something more than speed and volume. There’s an element of mystery which affects us in ways we can’t really understand.
Relatively few people have a waking access to the dream zone. Among them, even fewer have the discipline, drive, and skills to shape their access and advantage into concrete forms of art. Beethoven, even in deafness, had it.. Wilson was deaf in one ear, but he had it too. “Don’t Talk” conveys the tension between the will to draw water from and the desire to dissolve into the well. It is one hell of a tonic.
So, it could be the romantic ambivalence–or romantivalence–pervasive throughout PET SOUND reveals something about Brian Wilson’s artistic crisis. Several songs traipse around feelings of faith and betrayal, of wanderlust and homesickness. Consciously or not, the uneasy romantic anxiety of the songs articulates the creative double bind in which Brian found himself entangled.
While the rest of the band was touring Japan, Brian Wilson was conceiving a new idea of what the Beach Boys could be. Strangely enough, though Brian remained in the USA to work on PET SOUNDS, there’s an uncanny Japanese-like feel to the album, especially in the perfectionist attention to detail and arrangement. It is like a musical English or Japanese garden, of course with some animals about–a pet sound garden.
If earlier Beach Boys songs channeled the summer heat, wind, and surf, PET SOUNDS evokes tints and hues, flowery fragrance, and shaded luminescence. It’s more the music of the Garden Boys than Beach Boys, perhaps explaining why PET SOUNDS was a smash hit in the UK. The British were more a garden people than a beach people. (Of course, this was before the UK was irreversibly altered with the advent of punk-junk culture.)
“I’m Waiting for the Day” is my second favorite song on the album. Its vocals, ranging from fragility to frustration, are enveloped in orchestral arrangements wavering between the delicate and the tumultuous. From its beginning, the three basic instruments of Rock n Roll were the electric guitar, electric bass, and drums. Contra this style was Doo Wop, which relied heavily on vocal harmony; the Motown Sound, which preferred brass and sass over rockin’ rambunctiousness; and the Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, a state-of-the-art 3D audio effect. In terms of sheer technique, Spector’s innovation was the most remarkable. Wall of Sound created a rich feeling of enclosure, even a kind of emotional claustrophobia, as if the listener was trapped within the wailing soul of the performer. Some might say the Wall of Sound ingeniously approximated the stereo sound via mono technology, but it was something quite else. While the stereo system also–indeed rather too easily–produces the 3D audio effect, the listener feels the sounds expanding outward from within him. The magic of stereo requires two sets of sounds to converge, from which emerges the richer synthesis. In contrast, Phil Spector’s mono-centric Wall of Sound is complete and overwhelming the instant it leaves the speakers, enclosing the listener in a vibrating bubble of sound. Thus, the listener feels surrounded by sound. It feels as though the sound is coming at him from all directions than expanding out in all directions from him, as is the case with stereo. Spector, as composer and producer, favored technology over individual virtuosity. He brought together excellent instrumentalists and singers, but the real magic was in the way he fused all the elements. If Rock music ever had something like the ‘auteur’ in cinema, Spector was it. His girl groups were distinct from other girl groups in the way he made them sound. If what we remember most about Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly is the guitar–and about Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard the piano–, Spector’s main hallmark was the Sound itself, the totality of everything bound into a master plan. (Perhaps, this obsession for unified perfection was a manifestation of his control-freak personality, later to turn virulent and psychotic. Spector might have been influenced by Roy Orbison, especially the song ‘Only the Lonely’, but don’t quote me on that.) Perhaps the sounds created by Spector and Wilson were, in some ways, an expression of their paranoia, whereupon claustrophobia is inverted into what might be called claustro-philia, a need for a safe haven from the world. Take the song ‘Walking in the Rain’(performed by the Ronettes and half-composed by Spector), which begins with thunder and rain. It’s as if the world is full harshness and heartache, and therefore, the only warmth and dryness are to be found within. Though Spector characterized the Wall of Sound as ‘Wagnerian’, he was, in a manner, creating a safe Jewish-Negro haven from what he perceived as a hostile ‘Aryan’ world. Just as Spielberg took the gentile fantasies of Walt Disney(alleged by some to have been an ‘antisemite’) and turned them into Jewish-friendly version, Spector took Wagnerianisms and turned them inside out. His Wagnerianism was essentially Jewish-Negro Masada-like bulwark against the power of the white goyim. But like most Jews, Spector had complexes and neuroses beyond fear of white goyim. He married the lovely Negress Ronnie Bennett(of the Ronettes) and nearly drove her crazy with his suspicions and fears. On the one hand, Spector was for race-mixing like so many liberal Jews. On the other hand, he was as paranoid as Hitler and believed the entire world–goyim, women, artists, etc–to be conspiring against him. As a skinny Jew, he felt especially insecure and fretted endlessly about Ronnie seeing other men, especially big studly Negroes. Well, imagine that: a liberal Jew marries a Negress and then is worried that she’s fooling around with ‘niggers’. In time, Spector became as nutty as Bobby Fischer, another brilliant but obsessive Jew.
Brian Wilson too was something of a paranoid, a problem that became worse with the use of drugs. He too transformed his claustrophobia to a kind of claustrophilia. He felt imprisoned by his father, the demands of the Beach Boys, and the obligations of family life. He wanted to break out, be free, be his own person. Yet, as expressed in ‘In My Room’, Wilson only knew how to escape inwards. To break free, he dug deeper within; and it is this paradox that makes him such a fascinating personality in Rock history and that makes PET SOUNDS such a strange singular experience. (And it’s his personal biography that makes his music–even the inferior stuff–more interesting to fans of 60s music. Burt Bacharach was no less talented than Wilson–and for a longer haul–, but his less compelling life story makes for a more detached appreciation of his music. In contrast, because of our personal/emotional involvement with Brian Wilson as an American icon and legend, his songs–like those of Dylan and other–simply carry greater significance. This has been both a curse and a blessing for Wilson. Curse in that his diehard fans held out for another masterpiece when he could no longer deliver; blessing in the sense that even his inferior work was often given the benefit of a doubt; we still believed in him.)
Wilson was a huge bundle of contradictions. He became famous for songs about surfing and the beach, yet surfing wasn’t his thing but that of his younger–and more handsome and athletic–brother Dennis. Though leader of the band, he was the most insecure, shy, and childlike. Though a famous Rock star, he was very much a daddy’s boy. In some ways, he was somewhere between Elvis and Lennon as personalities go. Elvis, the King of Rock n Roll, was actually a mama’s boy and remained under the domination of Colonel Parker for most of his career. Rarely was Elvis really free to do what he wanted. Despite the image of him as a maverick, he was very much a ‘good son’, the sort of guy who called older people ‘sir’, a patriot who served in the military, a good citizen who volunteered to lend a hand in the War on Drugs(despite his own penchant for drug use, but then he made a distinction between medical drugs and illegal drugs), and God-fearing man who once said, ‘There is only one King, and that is Jesus Christ.’
Wilson also grow up under a domineering male figure, and his emotional manhood was stunted despite the image of the free-wheeling Beach Boys. The paradox of traditional American Manhood was that it insisted on individual freedom and responsibility–a man standing on his own two feet–, but this ideal had to be imposed/instilled from father-to-son in a hard way. The father figure would rag on his sons to ‘grow up and be a man’, but this insistence–sometimes bullying and overbearing–could have the counterproductive effect of undermining the son’s confidence and self-pride. Some sons, feeling they’d never live up to their old man’s expectations, withdrew inward and became socially awkward. Other sons turned to excessive rebellion, even going so far as to self-destructively hurt themselves to demonstrate their independence, when, in reality, their overzealousness was proof of their emotional bondage to their fathers. By degrading themselves away from the ideals expected by their fathers, they were trying to get back at figure of authority they could never please. If the most valuable possession that a man can have is his son, then a son who degrades and desecrates himself is, in effect, defacing the prized possession of his father. (Of course, many overbearing fathers have actually been ‘losers’ themselves with no real stake in the world and who’d themselves failed to live up to their own fathers’ expectations. Their harsh manner of parenting could easily be a way of dumping their worldly frustrations on their sons. Even as the father rags on the sons to ‘act like a man’–presumably like their old man–, he is repressively saying, ‘do NOT become like me, a loser.’ Since such fathers are filled with repressed self-hatred, the thought of their own sons turning out like themselves is hard to accept.)
Among females, it explains the odd case when a smart girl from a ‘good home’ turns to drugs or porn. With her parents expecting too much of her, she rebels and hurts her parents by degrading herself as much as possible.
Why do some sons turn out this way? In many cases, there is no particular person to blame. It could be the genes or the culture-at-large. With the rise of youth culture in the late 50s and early 60s, there was bound to be more problems accompanying new freedoms. This was all the more problematic since the New Freedom was different from Old Freedom. Old Freedom meant a kid should grow up quickly, look for job after finishing school, get married and have kids. He should have a home of his own and not look back. It was freedom to be one’s own man, take care of one’s own self, and have one’s own home and family.
The New Freedom of youth culture beginning in the late 50s was different. It was essentially the freedom of perpetual irresponsibility. The Old Freedom meant being free of one’s parents but taking on new responsibilities of the grown-up world. The New Freedom meant having lots of fun and putting off tomorrow as long as possible. THE GRADUATE has Benjamin Braddock fresh out of college just wanting to drift endlessly in his swimming pool, lie around his bedroom, or have an affair with an older woman, a kind of mother figure. The main character of HAROLD AND MAUDE is content to be a goofball. New Freedom was not freedom to take on new responsibilities but freedom of no responsibilities. So, we have lots of people on both the Left and Right whose big thing in life is pleasure, entertainment, recreation, drugs, and entitlements. They are so unlike the hard men and women who built this country. They think in terms of ‘this is my right, that is my right’, all the while doing little but slacking around college towns, reading ‘underground’ books, using drugs, and blaming everything on Reagan, Thatcher, McDonalds, and Monsanto.
Why did the culture of New Freedom win out over Old Freedom? The main reason was the phenomenal post-war American economic growth; the Boomer generation enjoyed freedoms and options unimaginable to most people–even most well-off people–before the war. And, New Freedom was more fun than Old Freedom. I’d rather sit around a pool, listen to music, sun tan, and do nothing too than work, pay taxes, and take on grownup responsibilities.
Anyway, the problems associated with New Freedom sprouted from the seeds of Old Freedom. The fact is much of traditional American Manhood culture was a myth and, in some ways, even a fraud. Most men were not John Wayne, and besides, even John Wayne(real name Marion Morrison!)was not ‘John Wayne’. In traditional America, the ideal of the proud, confident, and upstanding man was more a useful collective self-delusion than a reality. Most men were not tough guys; besides, even tough guys couldn’t act so tough. There wasn’t much leeway in terms of what most of them could do. They got jobs and had to take orders from bosses. They had to conform. Even if modern living afforded greater individual freedom in the private sphere, a man at work, in government, in the military, or as part of some organization had to learn to get along. Only in movies did men generally get to act like cowboys or gangsters, which explains the appeal of the Western and the gangster film. (It’s possible that the appeal of both genres declined in the 1960s with the rise of New Freedom whereby boomer kids could enjoy a kind of extended youth or endless summer. The Woodstock generation could really let it all hang loose–use drugs, have easy sex, dress ridiculously, act loose and free. Who needs the myth of the cowboy when you can put off responsibilities and indulge in fun freedom for a long time? While most parents of the Boomers were puzzled or even offended by what their kids were up to, they were still more tolerant of their children than their own parents had been. And in a way, they intuitively understood that their kids were merely taking up another notch what they themselves had started after the war. The G.I.s who returned home after WWII were not merely content with jobs, home, and security. They were part of the first truly mass consumer society where an average American could enjoy a life of consumerism. Once every house had a TV and a stereo, it was only a matter of time before each bedroom had its own TV and stereo. And since consumerism was about freshness and novelty–who wants yesterday’s papers, who wants yesterday’s girl?–, it was inevitable that younger people would be turned on by new and different things. And besides, it’s not like the first great cultural shift happened in the 1950s and 1960s. The real difference was the pace of change. If one were to compare the popular cultures of America of 1900 and America of 1929, people of the former era might have been as shocked as parents of the boomers in the 1960s. It’s often been said that prior to the rise of Rock music culture, parents and kids listened to the same kind of music and shared similar cultural sensibilities, i.e. kids listened to their parents’ music(though we may have come full circle to parents listening to their kids’ music; consider old boomers like Robert Christgau and Dave Marsh trying to be hip with Rap). Even into the 1950s, there were many homes with just one radio and stereo set–in the living room or den–and one TV. Since adults controlled the set, kids had no choice but to listen and watch what their parents did. Also, the culture back then was far more ‘official’, mainstream, and censorious. More square. Then, the great break happened with the coming of Rock n Roll. Kids had their own music, and many adults couldn’t stand it. And excited with Rock n Roll, kids could no longer go back to their parents’ music. So, a great divide formed between the parents and the kids. And yet, this divide was replaced by a new unity between older people and younger people following the passing of another generation. If the cultural gap between the boomers’ parents and boomers was unbridgeable, the gap between the boomers and their kids–and the kids’ kids–wasn’t so wide. With Rock music remaining the staple for generations to come, we can now speak of a cultural unity from everyone from the boomers to the XYZ generation. This isn’t to say that most Boomers care for Britney Spears and Hip Hop, or that today’s young kids are crazy about the Beach Boys or Joni Mitchell. But what has prevailed since the late 1950s is a kind of ‘youth music’ culture that falls under the rubric of Rock. In the 1970s, young kids were not watching the Lawrence Welk Show or even listening to Nat King Cole. Yet, in some ways, the Grateful Dead was bigger in the 80s and 90s among high school kids than it’d been in the hippie-psychedelic days of the 60s and early 70s. During the Summer of Love and at Woodstock, the Dead had been a cult band. By the 80s, they’d become a mainstream Rock Concert phenomenon. Most people at Dead concerts in the 80s and 90s were young people. And when the Dead threw in the towel after Jerry Garcia died, many of the fans went over the Phish and other jam bands. And kids today who dig Cold Play also dig U2, the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Ray Charles. And even if Boomers may be offended by the overt trashiness of stuff like Rap and Black Metal, those genres too are extensions and variations of what began in the 1950s. Before the coming of Rock n Roll, young people tried to emulate the adults. Rock n Roll enabled and encouraged young people to ignore older people and indulge in their own youth. But then, youth doesn’t last forever, and so it had to be turned into a brand, a cult, a spirituality. As expressed in the Dylan song “Forever Young”, youth became a more a state of mind–marketable and romantic–than a stage of life. Thus, one could be middle-aged and still be ‘young’. One could be old as the Stones and still Shine a Light. So, America went from a culture where young people tried to be older to one where old people try to be younger. If at one time, young people were eager to prove that they were old enough to take on adult responsibilities, now we have old people so eager to prove that they are hip and hangin’. This cultural neurosis was mordantly conveyed in the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. Ironically, it was dedicated to Bob Dylan. And yet, there’s a strange irony to all this because the Boomer generation was not simply about being more young and free but being timeless, eternal, and wise. Perhaps, an element of this could be found in Westerns of an earlier era: RED RIVER the Howard Hawks western from 1948 and THE SEARCHERS the John Ford western from 1956. In each movie, the two main characters are an older man and younger man. In both, the younger man is eager to earn the respect of the older, bigger, tougher, and more seasoned older man. And yet, it is the younger man who is, in many respects, more mature and sensible than his older counterpart. John Wayne plays the older man in both movies. He is a hard man, a veteran of life and experience, a leader of men, a doer with broad shoulders carrying a heavy burden. Yet, he is also often willfully stubborn, self-centered, callous, and even petulant at times. In THE SEARCHERS, it is the younger man who maintains a clearer moral sense of the mission whereas Ethan, the Wayne character, often loses his head to vengefulness and recklessness. Wayne’s character in RED RIVER is also half hero and half villain. Sometimes, he lets his rage get the best of him and risks everything to satiate his own ego and preserve his bully-boy sense of honor. In contrast, the younger man played by Montgomery Clift has a firmer grip on reality and a better understanding of human character.
Similarly, the Boomer rebellion of the 60s had two components. On the one hand, young people just wanted more freedom to use drugs, listen to loud music, stay out late, and have sex. On the other hand, especially thanks to the effect of certain mind-altering drugs, music, ideologies, and ‘spiritual’ fashions, many young people thought they were reconnecting with the cosmic balance of the universe and reconnecting with the deeper truths. They were seeking the Grail that the older generation has lost long ago with their dogmatism, materialism, consumerism, compromises, warmongering and gun culture-ism, and whatever-else-ism the Boomers imagined in their drug-induced haze. One might argue that this ‘spiritual’ side of the Boomers redeemed the excesses somewhat, while others might argue that the whole thing was just more Boomer self-centrism, i.e. Boomers, being so egotistical, were not merely content to have sex and drugs but wanted to own morality and spirituality too. At any rate, it was an epochal generation, in some ways more remarkable than the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and won World War II. It goes to show that culture and ideas prevail over material reality. Though the so-called Greatest Generation has been acknowledged for its sacrifices during the Depression and the War, their failure to develop a cult around themselves doomed it to relative obscurity. Though there has been no shortage of discussion about the Depression, New Deal, and WWII, they were not approached as GENERATIONAL but as economic, military, political, and historical issues. In contrast, the Boomer generation gained and projected a collectively conscious identity. If young men who fought and died in WWII did so in the name of the nation and humanistic ideals, Boomers did what they did in the name of their generation, which was said to be more advanced, cool, hip, with-it, far-out, groovy, cosmic, liberated, and so forth and so on than any other generation–before or since. Indeed, we might as well change our calendars to B.B. and A.B.–Before Boomer and Anno Boomini.
One wonders to what extent the Boomer consciousness was natural and to what extent the product of hype. I’m inclined to think it was more or less natural while it happened–though there were plenty of media hype about such things as Dylan-as-the-spokesman-of-his-generation. In the 60s, there was a sense of something happening but not knowing what it was. But the whole Boomer cult probably would have faded away if not for the fact that news media kept on marking the calendar pertaining to everything Boomer. So, we had stuff like WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CLASS OF 65? by Michael Medved. And endless articles about Boomer this, Boomer that. Of headlines like BOOMERS TURN 30, BOOMERS TURN 40, BOOMERS TURN 50, BOOMERS TURN 60, BOOMERS TURN 70, etc, surely to be followed by BOOMER R.I.P. and BOOMER RESURRECTED.
Of course, not all or even most Boomers were so obnoxious. But enough were, and especially significant was the rise of Jewish power in the 60s. Jews, as we all know, pretty much run the media: Big Media like most TV and Radio stations, Hollywood, Music Industry; and small media like magazines and journals like The New Republic and New York Review of Books. Jews especially romanticize the 60s because it was a time when the assault on Old America truly got under way. And many of the leading Jewish figures of this rebellion were pre-Boomer. Norman Mailer the writer and Arthur Penn the filmmaker were both part of the Greatest Generation, but they sided with the Boomers against Old America. Bob Dylan was one of the Jews leading the charge in the early 60s., and radical Jews hoped that he would serve as the pied piper of cultural subversion, but he had enough by 1966 and withdrew from the scene. (Unlike most Jews of a purely urban pedigree for whom folk music was essentially a movement or conceit, Dylan had semi-rural roots in Hibbing Minnesota, a genuine attachment to Old America, warts and all.) Another triumph for Jewish sensibility was DR. STRANGELOVE, directed by the Jewish Stanley Kubrick, whose earlier film, LOLITA, was no less subversive. And the one before that, SPARTACUS, was a thinly veiled attack on the Political Right. If McCarthyism of the early 50s had sent a chill among Jews that America was leaning toward ‘fascism’–and stifling Jewish radicalism and subversiveness, what with even communist Jews insisting that they were patriotic Americans–, Jews could finally emerge from the woodwork starting in the late 50s after the fall of McCarthy, rise of ‘race music’ or Rock n Roll, Castro’s triumph in Cuba with the help from the US media, spread of leftist folk music culture, Civil Rights movement that put White America on the moral defensive–an effective counter against the American conservative attempt to put the ‘commie’ Jews on the moral defensive–, and Kennedy’s victory over Nixon. Within this context, DR. STRANGELOVE is important not only because for its brilliance but for its open signaling of a new sensibility in culture and politics. (Kubrick’s film was also a reflection of both the earnestness and nihilism of the New Left. On the one hand, as with the early songs of Bob Dylan, the movie could be taken dead serious as what might happen if warmongers took control over government. People who loved the movie believed there were plenty of men in the US military and government who’d gladly trigger WWIII. But the kind of stodgy and turgid do-gooder moralism of Stanley Kramer–evident in Sidney Lumet’s FAIL SAFE–was out of fashion. Urban liberals who’d been turned onto bebop, rock n roll, Lenny Bruce, Mad Magazine, the Beatniks, and the increasingly cynical Bob Dylan wanted something more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘daring’. DR. STRANGELOVE’s appeal was you could take it either way or both ways: as a grave cautionary tale and/or as devil-may-care middle-finger to ridiculous humanity itself.)
Such a film in the early 50s would have been unthinkable. The idea of a crazed right-wing general triggering off WWIII would have been considered blasphemous and anti-American, not to mention paranoid. (Funny how liberals who accused anti-communists of paranoia had no qualms about spinning tales of ‘fascist’ lunatics in the US government/military conspiring to set off WWIII.) Yet in the first half of the 60s, three Jewish directors made three films where the world is pushed to the brink of nuclear war because of Right-wing elements in the US military. Jews could do this openly and get away with it. And Dylan had made his mark in the early 60s by singing songs about how the world is on the verge of nuclear war because of the evil American military-industrial complex. The entire era has been mythologized by the leftist Jewish director Oliver Stone in the movie JFK. For the Jews, the 60s were the time and place when they truly felt they were winning the war for the heart and mind of America–and taking revenge on the anti-communist/Jewish conservatives of the 1950s. (Jews, like their God, are the most vengeful people on Earth.) And also for the penis and poon of America. Jews loved the fact that Muhammad Ali was the new model of black manhood who put all white boys to shame. Ali was to sports what Dylan was supposed to be music, what Kubrick was supposed to be film. Though Dylan opted out of counterculture and Kubrick exiled himself and turned more ‘fascistic’, the cultural engine that they helped to fuel had gained its own momentum. As the decade progressed, Jews gained more power while Old America was disoriented and demoralized more than ever. In a way, the Vietnam War was the greatest boon to the Jewish Left. White American patriotic conservatives, trapped in their knee-jerk mentality of ‘my country right or wrong’, invested its heart and soul in fighting communism and saving South Vietnamese from tyranny. As the war raged on, US came to be seen more and more like the new Nazi Germany. Oliver Stone’s BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY presents a useful account of what happened to American culture in the 60s thanks to the war. Even the Right lost its innocence. Listening to songs like the “Ballad of the Green Berets” is almost cringe-worthy. The song is okay in and of itself, but the American Right naively thought it could save its honor by fighting an ‘unwinnable war’–as ridiculous as today’s conservatives thinking that America can be saved by ‘standing up for Israel’. If American conservatives in the 60s and early 70s fought to save a South Vietnam that wasn’t willing or able to save itself, today’s conservatives wanna fight and die for Israel when most Jews hate American conservatives. With the Watergate, the American Right was finished. It made a comeback with Ronald Reagan, but as Pat Buchanan noted many times, the victory wasn’t long-lasting because the all-important Culture War had been lost. Jews won and owned America.
Anyway, Brian Wilson was something of an odd-man-out among the 60s Rockers. Consider Lennon grew up without his real father and mother for most of his childhood. Though his aunt Mimi did her best to raise him properly, he followed his own muse. Bob Dylan left home for college and never looked back. Even as a child, he created his own social and cultural realm separate from his parents. Jagger and Richards broke free too. McCartney remained close to his father but not on any professional level. Wilson, in contrast, remained under the thumb of his father even after he found success. Also, if most 60s Rockers found music on their own as a way to break free from home, Wilson’s musical influences owed something to his father’s lifelong passion for music. Brian didn’t effectively rebel against his father until after he got famous. Murry Wilson’s control over his sons wasn’t necessarily an anomaly in the Pop music culture of that time. Indeed, it was after the mid-60s that Rockers really begin to take control of their own image and define themselves according to their whims. In the 1950s, Elvis and others were carefully groomed by older men who understood the business and were eager to legitimize Rock n Rollers to the mainstream. Sometimes it worked–especially with Elvis the mama’s boy–and sometimes it didn’t–Jerry Lee Lewis the wild man. By the early 60s, Teen Idols–carefully selected and groomed, almost like the Mickey Mouse Club–were all the rage. Teen Idols were clean-cut and wholesome, more Rock-a-bye-baby than Rock n Roll. In many cases, oily Italian-American kids were groomed and cleaned up to be cute and cuddly. (Italian-Americans often stood in as a kind of Lite Negro. They were white but darker complexioned, culturally exotic, sensual, aggressive, and said to possess big salamis. Teen Idol craze both tapped into these stereotypes and cleaned them up. The greasy was made squeaky.) From the early days of Rock n Roll, there was the friendly patriarchal figure who both kept the acts within bounds of cultural/moral acceptability and reassured the American audience that the Rockers and the kids were just having harmless fun. There was Dick Clark, a kind of Father-Knows-Best figure in Rock and Pop. And there was Ed Sullivan, who kinda looked like Richard Nixon. While many TV hosts were uneasy about featuring Elvis, Sullivan decided to bring him on the show and heap praise on him as a good, decent, patriotic son of America who loved apple pie and his mama. And Elvis the Rock n Roll maverick called Ed Sullivan ‘sir’, and American public was reassured that it was harmless fun.
The Beatles had Brian Epstein and George Martin to clean them up and introduce them to the public. Formerly leather-jacket donning band performing in dark-lit clubs, they were put in nice suits and made to smile a lot and be cute and friendly. George Martin the producer was an expert at cleaning up the sound, making it sweeter and crispier. It wasn’t until Beatles began to use drugs and became part of the fast-changing Zeitgeist that they stopped listening to Epstein and chose to fashion their own image. Harrison adopted some funny Hindu stuff, and Lennon became weirder by the day, culminating in the TWO VIRGINS album(1968) where he posed naked with Yoko Ono for the album cover.
By 1967, the strain between communalism and individualism began to show. Ed Sullivan told the Stones to change “Let’s Spend the Night Together” into “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”, which resulted in Mick Jagger rolling his eyes whenever he mouthed the revised lyrics. (‘Rolling Eyes’ isn’t a bad name for a band.) Sullivan also secured a promise from The Doors not to use to word ‘higher’ in “Light My Fire”, only to witness it be flagrantly violated.
The older generation in the 50s and 60s understood the times were indeed changing; even so, they saw a huge cash cow and hoped to hold the cultural and purse strings. Even the maverick Bob Dylan relied heavily on his manager Albert Grossman(the hideous Jew who took gross advantage of Dylan, which goes to show that a Jew will even fleece another Jew). But as 60s progressed and Rockers came into their own and took themselves, their music, and their ‘movement’ seriously, there was a rebellion against the controls by elders.
It really seemed like the world belonged to the young who discovered the fountain of youth and would run the world with new ideals, spontaneity, and free-flowing creativity than by old hierarchies and socio-cultural controls. Brian Wilson, finally free from his dad, immersed himself with counterculture figures and drug experimentation. Beatles ignored Brian Epstein and did their own thing, with Epstein ultimately feeling dejected and dying of drug overdose. The new order(or lack thereof)was most famously embodied by Apple Corp, Summer of Love and Haight Ashbury, Hell’s Angels as modern cowboys, Woodstock, and Altamont Rock concert. Apple Corp would be new kind of arts-and-entertainment company run by artists themselves, where all would be equal and which would be open to all forms of creative expression. Hell’s Angels embodied freedom on the road and the rebel and the pioneer rolled into one. Woodstock Concert was organized by young people of that very generation. It would be a venue without rules and regulations, where people were free to use drugs, dance naked, have sex, and even shit all over(as port-o-sans could handle so much). The Stones concert at Altamont would be even freer. It would be young people getting together to rock and party.
What happened as a result of these new freedoms? We know what happened to Brian Wilson. Apple Corp. proved a business disaster, losing money left and right and looted by everyone from top to bottom. Woodstock, though mythologized as an epochal event, was something of a grand mess. On the first day, more people crashed in through the gates, turning it into a ‘free concert’. The area is reputed to have smelled like human feces even ten yrs after the event.
As for Altamont, everything that could go wrong went wrong, proving once and for all the sheer naivete of young people(especially addled on drugs). And the Hell’s Angels were far from angelic. In time, Rockers crash-landed on reality and relied on business-as-usual to manage them; and the music industry created means & methods and formulas and processes to maintain strict control over the culture of popularity and celebrity. (This overt institutionalizing of pop culture by corporate handlers and operatives may explain why, despite the increasing craziness–Rap, Grunge, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spear’s meltdown, Lady Gaga’s excesses, etc–, there’s been an overall stability in the youth community. However outrageous their acts, Gaga and Jay-Z are corporate products and acts, something that couldn’t really be said for the Doors and Hendrix at their peak. Back then, the corporate suits were of an older generation trying to make sense of Rock music and culture. Since then, the new generation of corporate suits grew up listening to and fully understanding youth culture from within. They know how it works and what makes it hum. Also, they know how to manage the hype, sales, and concerts to minimize the kind of excesses that happened at many 60s venues when people were still making things up as they went along as the changes and developments were unprecedented. One of the things I noticed at Rock concerts in the 80s and 90s was how tightly managed and coordinated they were. The idea of hiring a bunch of Hell’s Angels for security would be unimaginable today. The Grateful Dead concerts of the late 80s and 90s were like psychedelic boy scout outings.)
In the 90s, we essentially saw the revival of the Teen Idol craze, and then there was the wretched TV show American Idol. But few people noticed or commented on our having come full circle because the neo-Teen-Idols are so skanky and obscene than squeaky and clean. If the original Teen Idols were manufactured to be wholesome and safe, the Neo-Idols are encouraged to indulge in sex, drugs, and other excesses, thus fooling the public that they are independent, cutting-edge, and rebellious when in fact, they are toybots of the music industry looking for the fastest and biggest bucks. 60s gave us the Monkees. Now we have the Junkees.
Among 60s Rock stars, few were as contradictory than Brian Wilson. He was withdrawn, even socially awkward, but he was the leader of a band that celebrated surfing, partying, hot-rodding, and girls. He was deaf in one ear but has such ear for music. He was a daddy’s boy but independent-minded. He experimented with drugs as much as any other Rocker at the time, but his creative emotions remained straight and sweet. He was like a cross between Paul McCartney and Brian Jones(of the Rolling Stones). He was, at once, like a boy in a fairytale longing for home AND a mythic adventurer searching for strange new worlds. There is an element of ALICE IN WONDERLAND in PET SOUNDS: innocence transformed into inner-sense; the sincere becoming surreal. Brian Wilson was like a perpetual child who refused to grow up emotionally or socially. Yet suddenly he was thrust into the new world of licentiousness and experimentation–cultural and chemical–that, for a time, had a profoundly creative impact.
The sad part of his story is it was more about flee-dom than freedom. Paul McCartney was able to maintain good relations with his father–not very common in Rock music–because they more or less understood and respected one another and each other’s space. Paul was never the outrageous rebel, and his father accepted Paul’s chosen career. Murry Wilson, on the other hand, was a failed musician who tried to live through the fame of his sons, especially Brian. Murry was both proud, ashamed, and envious of Brian. Proud because of Brian’s talent and success. Ashamed because Brian was something of a social putz. And envious because Brian had the musical talent that Murry did not. Murry, like many traditional American fathers, was something of a contradiction himself. He was a tyrant-individualist. He believed he had to be tough with his sons to make them grow into hardy and independent men. But, his toughness did damage to the confidence of his sons, especially Brian and Dennis. Outwardly, Beach Boy songs prior to PET SOUNDS seem to celebrate freedom, but Brian was really fleeing from his dad through music, all the while trying to win his approval. It was like a circular psychological game: The son runs and hides from his father through music with which he tries to gain the father’s respect. Brian used music to both run from home and to return home. Remember how “That’s Not Me” is both about breaking away from home and wishing to return home.
There’s the movie FEAR STRIKES OUT–with Tony Perkins and Karl Malden–, a psycho-biopic of Jimmy Piersall, where an overbearing and demanding father drives his son to baseball greatness… and mental breakdown. The father consciously thinks he’s doing everything to help his son grow up into an independent man, but paradoxically the excessive pressure emotionally stunts the son, who becomes filled with both loathing and love for his father, leading to a strange kind of guilt and self-loathing. Anyway, the fact that a full-grown man would bully his son to such extent–of course, all for the good of his son!!–betrays weakness than real strength. It as if, brow-beaten and cowered in his own life by larger forces, the father could only assert his manhood by lording over his son. (This may explain why Brian Wilson was so loathe to play the role of parent himself even with his own children.)
In the early yrs of the Beach Boys, Brian could hide his true self as a cheerful member of the band, just as Jimmy Piersall kept his neurosis under check as a member of the baseball team. But as an individual, Piersall was a rather fragile character, all torn up inside, until he finally blew up and ended up in a mental ward until he was finally cured(at least in the movie). Brian Wilson also tried to just be one of the guys. Musically, working with the more independent and assertive Mike Love added an cool and edgy quality to the songs, making the listener believe that Brian Wilson was well-adjusted, content, and optimistic. The true Brian Wilson really shows itself in songs like “In My Room” and “Don’t Worry Baby” and then really pours out in PET SOUNDS with its moods of vulnerability, loneliness, and insecurity.
“I’m Waiting for the Day” begins with the resounding beats of kettle drums, an almost militant declaration of love but then abruptly shifts to sweet cheeps of the flute followed by yearning whispers of love’s compassion. The voice is almost feminine in tone, not that of a alpha male romantic conqueror but beta male healer(or even scavenger). The message is an all-too-familiar one in Pop–‘that guy doesn’t love you like I love you’–, yet with a subtle, sly twist. The song alternates and then blends the solid alpha with the supine beta modes of expression. The opening three stanzas that are sung gently and wispily:
I came along when he broke your heart
That’s when you needed someone
To help forget about him
I gave you love with a brand new start
That’s what you needed the most
To set your broken heart free
I know you cried, and you felt blue
But when I could I gave strength to you
I’m waiting for the day when you can love again.
This first part is sung by Brian Wilson almost in the style of Carl Wilson who epitomized the mellifluous sound of the band. It’s a doe-eyed pleading before a brokenhearted girl to forget her former beau and start anew with him. But then it explodes into the next two stanzas that are belted out in the style of Mike Love:
I kissed your lips
And when your face looked sad
It made me think about him
And that you still loved him so
But you know that pretty soon
I made you feel glad
That you belonged to me
And love began to show
Brian Wilson, with the help of Tony Asher, plays with two sets of emotions here, and the song is like a romantic juggling act. One part of the protagonist wants the girl to put her head on his shoulder and believe in him; the other part wants to conquer, to be the new owner of her heart and body. Emotional turbulence verging on the perilous is made touching and humorous.
Thematically, it furthers the ‘story’ of “You Still Believe in Me”, “That’s Not Me”, and “Don’t Talk”. The girl still seems to believe in and wish for her former lover despite the pleading and bleating of the new would-be lover. There is the tension between compassion and confidence in “That’s Not Me”. There’s also the desire for a redemptive love, pure and beyond words, as in “Don’t Talk”.
Brian Wilson said he was inspired by RUBBER SOUL as an organic album experience, which is to say the songs(especially on the American version of the Beatles album) were not simply an collection of singles but a thematic assemblage producing a larger canvas of musical expression–I suppose in the sense that a movie is not just a series of random scenes but of interlocking and interrelated segments. Music, of course, works differently than a movie, and it would be a stretch to approach RUBBER SOUL or PET SOUNDS as a narrative or story, but there is a synergistic link among the songs in PET SOUNDS. Though each song can be enjoyed alone, it gains deeper texture and shading as part of the bigger picture. This is certainly true of “I’m Waiting for the Day”. After the beautiful pathos of “Don’t Talk”, “I’m Waiting for the Day” is like a burst of sunshine, albeit with intermittent rainbow showers of shy affection. The bipolarity of blushful timidity and rollicking timbre make the song both tame and wild, both pet and animal. Wilson plays Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, or Beauty and the Beast, but with deftness, flicking moods on and off with musical card tricks.
As in the preceding songs, love rubs against limits, purity grinds against compromise. The singer appeals to a girl who is ‘used goods’, someone dumped by her former beau; there is thus an element of pitifulness–a guy besotted with a ‘leftover’. One might even characterize it as the love song of a loser guy to a loser girl. And though his heart is aglow with warmth, flames of frustration leap forth, as when he presses his lips on hers but realizes her heart longs for someone else.
“I’m Waiting for the Day” echoes “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, a song that anticipates future bliss at once ecstatic and elusive. The protagonist is ‘waiting for the day when you can love again.’ But it also works as a counterpoint to the opening song, which is full of naivete and expectant exuberance. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” believes in the love, romance, and happiness of adulthood yet to be. “I’m Waiting of the Day” has bitten into the sweet apple of freedom and been stung by bitter aftertaste of disappointment and disillusionment, a key theme of “That’s Not Me”. The girl in “I’m Waiting for the Day” could almost be the hometown girl who was left behind by the protagonist of “That’s Not Me”.
And just when the song is about to taper off to a sweet lullaby with quivering strings, the kettle drums thunder once again, followed by triumphant(and even threatening) shouts of ownership inflamed with jealousy:
You didn’t think that I could sit around and let him work
You didn’t think that I could sit around and let (watch) him take you
You didn’t think that I could sit around and let him go
You didn’t think that I could sit back and let you go
You didn’t think . . .
The song captures the contradictory nature of romance: love and lust; weak knees and stiff passion; whimper and roar; doubt and confidence; anxiety and exuberance; comfort and conquest. The guy plays soft to win the heart of an brokenhearted girl, but he also wants to own her body and soul. He crafts an elegant key to unlock her heart, but he cages her in his possessive prison. If, from the perspective of the protagonist, she seems emotionally trapped in her former love affair, her own feelings could be one of exile from what she wants most. She wants to remain imprisoned in her earlier affair; she wants to belong to one she loves, the one who cast her out. She’s not seeking freedom; she wants to be the prisoner of love. Thus, the would-be liberator must be someone who can imprison her in a new love as strong as the earlier one.
It is the most sexual song on the album. Though the lyrics venture only so far in graphic terms–kissing–, the act itself carries the feel of daring and violation. It’s as though his lips were pressed against hers without consent. It is all the more alarming because the blast of ‘I kissed your lips…’ comes out of the blue after the opening vocal serenade of caring and sensitivity. The guy who opened the song with ‘I came along when he broke your heart…’ is like Mr. Nice, treating the girl like a delicate flower. But when he kisses the girl, he’s like a rodeo cowboy. Though both “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I’m Waiting for the Day” eagerly anticipate the blissful pleasures of physical love, there’s a slightly perverse edginess in the latter. The girl being addressed in the “Wouldn’t” could be any dream girl, and the song is a fantasy of anticipating the ideal pleasure. “I’m Waiting”, on the other hand, seems to involve a specific guy and a specific girl, both of whom have seen some action.
The emotions are somewhat twisted because the guy wants to empathize with her, to comfort and support her, to give her hope. But what would make her most happy is to be in the arms of her former lover. The protagonist tries to both sympathize with and crush her sadness–the longing for another man. It’s like someone trying to comfort an orphaned child weeping for his lost mommy, all the while trying to make him switch his affections to her as the new mommy.
He wants to be the new man in her life; and he wants to own her love and have sex with her. The use of the kettle drum is especially sexual, like the pounding beats of one’s heart. The lyrics focus on the eyes, the heart, and lips, but the drums and the two stanzas beginning with ‘I kissed your lips…’ have the SOUND of lustful sexual energy.
The next track is “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, one of the two instrumental pieces on the album–though, to be sure, “You Still Believe in Me” and “Don’t Talk(Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” use vocals more instrumentally than lyrically–when it came to vocal lushness and harmony, the Beach Boys were hard to beat. One might dismiss “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” at first glance as elevator music, like something by Mantovani. The images it conjures up are travel ads for a trip to Hawaii with coconut cocktails and sun on the beach. But as it progresses, one drifts into a hypnotic trance–more surreal and dreamlike than innocuous and numbing.
It is more a musical opiate than cotton candy, more aesthetic than anesthetic. It has more going for it than prettiness or pleasantness. It gradually unfurls shades and nuances of a beatific vision. Though initially conjuring the lazy sun and breeze of the tropics, the mood turns aquatic, with waves rippling above the coral and sea creatures. If pre-PET SOUNDS Beach Boys’ music had the listener gliding, surfing, and splashing on the water’s surface, “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” tows us underneath. What Phil Spector developed as the Wall of Sound becomes the Aquarium of Sound. It features a wondrous use of musical colors, from bright to twilight, a bedazzling play of aural shadows. (Perhaps it inspired the aquatic-ism of “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden”.) A certain bittersweet melancholy pervades the music. It sounds beautiful but distant, beyond grasp, elusive and intangible just when you think you can hold it. It’s like memories revisited in a dream, seeming so real, so there, but illusory and fragile upon contact. Like fishes in the ocean, so near a scuba diver but gone the moment he tries to touch one. It is perhaps the druggiest song on the album, a musical approximation of Wilson’s journey into the realm of hallucinogenic paradise that seemed so real under the influence but gone once the effect wore off.
Something remarkable happens around midpoint of the song, when the music blares into a crescendo and then almost murmurs to an end, to be followed by clickity-clackity sounds like that of the bamboo water timer(or shishi-odoshi)one finds in Japanese gardens:
This is fitting because the song is like a musical garden of sorts–tropical aquatic zen–, where nature and ingenuity harmonize into a sublimity at once organic and orderly. Japanese gardens are especially notable for their almost impossible fusion of nature and artificiality. The English garden, in its geometrism/symmetrism, looks very much the imposition of man upon nature. In contrast, the human touch, though crucial and painstaking, is ‘hidden’ in the Japanese garden. Nature looks perfected(as if by meditation)than altered(by manpower).
The trick in Japanese aesthetics is to control, arrange, and rearrange extensively but then remove all traces of the input, so that the final product seems like the (deceptively)simple realization of the thing in its ideal state–a thing crystallized directly from a pure mental image of it. Japanese use extreme artificiality to produce naturalness. Part of the reason could be the emphasis on modesty and humility in Japanese culture. An artist is supposed to create something of perfection but not call attention to himself, as if to say, “Look, I done it!!” So, he works at it with great attention and focus, but he is also careful to make it appear as though it made itself than was made by someone with an ego. The process is Nirvanic than egotistical. It’s as if the artist abandoned his self-pride to access and attain the pure form in its most Platonic state.
Brian Wilson said he became acutely aware of his ego while experimenting with drugs, especially LSD. The paradox of PET SOUNDS is Wilson was, at once, trying to fulfill his ego’s desire to make the ‘best Rock album of all time’ and to let go of his ego and abandon himself to something higher than himself–to be both god and submit to God.
Whether or not Wilson was a fan of Michel Legrand, his–and Paul McCartney’s–musical tastes and sensibilities share something with the famous French composer. Consider the compositions and arrangements of Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Young Girls of Rochefort , both directed by Jacques Demy whose sense of color, decor, and choreography perfectly matched Legrand’s music. What PET SOUNDS and those two movies have in common is an unlikely but alluring synthesis of highly distilled artificiality and genuinely heartfelt emotions. Many critics initially dismissed UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG as musical/visual candy, as perfumed pop or even pap. Though the melodies and lyrics Legrand and Wilson(and their collaborators) may not have been particularly profound or groundbreaking, the manner in which they were processed and purified, then colored and sculpted, and then imbued and instilled with beauty and sincerity make them classics of the Pop form.
“Let’s Go Away For Awhile” serves as a transitional phase in the album, signifying a peering and parting into different mode of expression. The first shift followed right after “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, with the next four songs “You Still Believe in Me”, “That’s Not Me”, “Don’t Talk”, and “I’m Waiting for the Day” forming a unified concept. “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” continues in the dreamy vein of “You Still Believe in Me” and “Don’t Talk”, but if those two ballads are about romantic bonds, the instrumental piece spirals and swirls into a dreamland where human bonds seem to dissolve. “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” is not human-centric or love-centric. It is not about sunlight or moonlight on the girl’s hair but about sunlight and moonlight itself. The emotions of the preceding songs carry over into “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, but they are filtered and transformed into something beyond mundane emotions. The passion in “Let’s Go Away” is tangential than central. It is not about the moment when fireworks explode but when the sparkles disperse, change in color, and fade, like through a kaleidoscope. It has an ethereal misty quality, pervasive but intangible. As the final notes of “Let’s Go Away” ebb away, we feel altered, as if emerging from a daydream reverie, refreshed and ready for something different, which arrives in the form of “Sloop John. B”.
“Sloop John. B”, as it turns out, is a variation of the traditional Bahamas tune “The John B. Sails”. It’s a fine little ditty, and Wilson’s arrangement is amazing, but it’s my least favorite song on the album. Though I like it well enough, it conceptually it sticks out like nail on a plank. (It also reminds me of 7th grade, when a not-too-bright music teacher made us sing it in class over and over.) It doesn’t really belong on the album, but in the strange ‘logic’ of PET SOUNDS, it belongs precisely because it doesn’t belong. Contradictoriness, after all, is one of the hallmarks of the album.
It is, along with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the sunniest-and-happiest-sounding song on the album, with boundless upbeat optimism. One might even say it even functions as a kind of bridge between side one and side two of the album; it may be significant that the mostly melancholy songs of side one have two cheerful songs as bookends. But, as with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, there’s more happening with “Sloop John B”. “Wouldn’t” doesn’t say ‘it is nice’ but ‘it would be nice if…’ Its cheerfulness is actually borne of frustration, buoyed up by expectations than the actuality of bliss. Likewise, “Sloop John B” sounds like fun on the high seas, but the lyrics are actually about a guy stranded in some port town, in trouble with the law, lacking means, and desperate to go back home. I suppose we can read all sorts of meaning into this song and ponder why Wilson took Al Jardine’s advice to do a cover version. Did Wilson identify with the guy wanting to return home? Recall that Brian Wilson once had a nervous breakdown while touring and decided to call it quits, preferring the security of home and studio. But then, Wilson began to journey into distance places with the use of drugs, an experience he found inviting but also increasingly unsettling. “Sloop John B” expresses the feeling of someone who simultaneously wants adventure and home. The lyrics also have something about ‘getting into a fight’, and perhaps it had special meaning in terms of Wilson’s relation to his father and his increasingly estranged band members. Or, maybe Wilson just dug the melody and was excited by the harmonic possibilities. The result is no doubt wonderful.
Conceptually, it serves as both a barrier and bridge between part one and part two of the album(perhaps less meaningful to those who came of age in the era of the cd, in which case the divide of Side A and Side B is rendered meaningless. On the PET SOUNDS cd, the music flows non-stop from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Caroline No”(followed by bonus tracks). But in the age of the LP, there was Side A and Side B, often used by rock musicians as something akin to Act One and Act Two. “Sloop John B” functions a barrier between Sides A and B because it is so unlike other songs on the album. It is brash and folksy, almost like a children’s song–it is, after all, told by a young man(or boy) who went sailing with his grandfather, got more than he bargained for, and wants to go home. If Side A is bookended by two sunny songs, Side B is dominated by relatively rambunctious songs bookended by two tenderest and quietest ballads on the album: “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No”.
“Sloop John B” is also significant for its motif of sailing. Prior to the PET SOUNDS, the Beach Boys were about hot rods and hot bods, about sand and surfing. The music was about the first freedoms of boys growing into manhood–of boys wanting to be men(more freedom), of men wanting to remain boys(less responsibility). The beach and surfs were a perfect embodiment of this intermediate phase between youth and adulthood. You could run and be free on the beach, ogle at scantily clad girls or muscle-bound men. You could go splashing in the water or go surfing, but the waves tuggedl you back toward the safety of the beach. Though Brian Wilson himself was not a surfer and though Dennis Wilson, the surfing devotee, wasn’t the creative force behind the band, their music prior to PET SOUNDS pretty much expressed the world that Dennis knew best. It was about the endless summer, to leave home and hang around the beach and surfs forever as the fountain of youth.
There is a certain irony here. Dennis the younger brother was socially more outgoing and adventurous than Brian yet wanted to remain along the shoreline with the girls, partying, and surfing. Brian was socially more awkward, even withdrawn, yet emotionally and creatively far more adventurous. He tired of the beach and surfing as the primary motifs and motor of his music. He wanted to drift from shore, away from the beach and its noises, to the further reaches of the ocean. Like sails on a ship, he sought to harness the power of higher forces. Cars, surfing, and beaches are all about things below your feet: the rumbling road beneath the foot on the pedal, the rush of waves on the surf board, the warm sand between one’s toes. It was as if Brian wanted to be released from teen-centric physicality and go where his spirit and imagination would take him–so much so that he became increasingly neglectful of his body: staying in bed, overeating, and worsening in health over the years. Paradoxically, many people who excessively favor the spirit/imagination over the body/flesh end up being destroyed by physical degradation. Some like Brian Wilson grow fat and lardy. Others like Hindu yogis who turn into little more than skin and bones, though some do gain amazing mastery over their body, dubious though the abilities may be–like one yogi who used his penis to lift heavy objects: The Penis Yogi
Becoming more introspective, experimental(with drugs and music), and adventurous, Wilson sought to access the divine forces of creativity; he wanted to be close to the muses, to hear the song of the sirens. Indeed, Wilson has said he composed his best songs with the aid of some godly force. Whatever his personal religious views have been, the godly or divine in his case was as pagan as Christian for the sound of Beach Boys is nothing without the sensualism.
With PET SOUNDS, Brian Wilson set forth on a personal journey, emotively and creatively, for places to explore and visit. It was no longer about splashing around the beaches but setting off into the distance, losing sight of land, finding oneself under the stars of the night sky.
One might say PET SOUNDS is the beginning of the Odyssey for Wilson. Like the famous Greek adventure narrative, a kind of push and pull characterize much of the album. Odysseus is both a seeker of adventure, a man obsessed with wanderlust for new peoples and places; he is also trying to return home to his kingdom, wife, and child. Similarly, PET SOUNDS, especially in songs like “That’s Not Me” express both the impatience to conquer the world and the lonely nostalgia for home. And “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” starts off the album with an ecstatic anticipation of freedom and the wish to belong to just one girl. It reaches for the sky but also sure-footing on the ground–for both the sail and the anchor.
In the ODYSSEY, the hero has the backing of certain gods, especially Athena, but he is targeted for destruction by other gods. On his journey, he encounters friendly forces and hostile forces. Sometimes, the ones who love him most become his biggest obstacles. Calypso keeps him trapped on her island for seven long years.
Then, there is the one-eyed monster Cyclops from whom Odysseus and his men barely escape, uncannily paralleled by the figure of Murry Wilson(the one-eyed father of Brian, Dennis, and Carl)whom Brian finally fired. But just as Cyclops took revenge on Odysseus via his father Poseidon, Murry Wilson would later hurt the Beach Boys by selling music rights for a pittance and pocketing most of the money.
Odysseus and his crew come upon the Lotus-Eaters who supply the men with drug-like substances which makes them forget about home. Brian also had problems with drugs, which, for a time, made him forget and neglect things. And just as Odysseus had been a captive of Calpyso–interestingly enough, also the name of a form of music that originated in West Indies that was the source of “Sloop John B”–, Brian Wilson fell under the spell of the Jewish psychiatrist shyster–or Shychiatrist–Eugene Landy who, through the use of psycho-analysis, medication, deception, brainwashing, and emotional manipulation, kept Brian a virtual prisoner–body and soul–for nearly a decade. (Eugene Landy’s control over Brian Wilson should serve as a textbook example of how Jews seek and gain control over gentiles. Brian Wilson had repressed many of his emotional and psychological problems, and he was in need of outside help. Initially, Landy gave sound advice and shaped Wilson back to health. But just as Shylock wanted the guy’s heart, Landy wanted to own Wilson’s soul. Also, while pretending to be Wilson’s companion, helper, friend, and faithful servant–all to make him better–, he was actually trying to be Wilson’s master, lord, and owner. Indeed, Landy even tried to rewrite the history of Wilson, resulting in a so-called autobiography of Brian Wilson over which Brian actually had very little control. When we take an honest look at America, Jews have done to white Americans–especially Wasps–what Landy did to Brian Wilson. Jews say they are loyal Americans who want the best for all Americans. Jews say they want to make America more truly ‘American’, to help white people redeem themselves from the evil past of ‘racism’ and ‘antisemitism’, and to liberate white people from old sexual repressions, cultural taboos, and intellectual shortcomings. In reality, what Jews really want is to gain and maintain supremacy, to take vengeance on white people–for past antisemitism and out of envy for being physically more attractive than Jews–, and to turn white people into their economic, political, cultural, intellectual, and sexual slaves. Jews want to do to white Americans what the Dirk Bogarde character did to the Edward Fox character in THE SERVANT. Know your Jew! Another crucial thing to know about Jews is they’re forever on the lookout for soft spots in their real or perceived enemies, foes, rivals, or competitors. Jews employ a kind of Jew-do, a political and psychological form of Judo. The essence of Judo can be understood as “use the opponent’s force against him.” So, if he pushes, pivot and pull him–using his pushing force–to throw him to the mat; if he pulls, push him–using his pulling force–and slam him on the mat. Since Jews are small in number, they have to be experts at harnessing and turning the force of gentiles against gentiles. Within Israel, where Jews are the majority, they can use naked force to maintain Jewish power. But Jews cannot do this in Europe or America. Jews must use gentile force against the gentiles. So, Jews study the nature of the gentile mind, culture, and politics; and then, Jews use gentile force against gentiles. For example, Christianity is big among white Americans, and so Jews have used neo-Christian-ism of MLK and the neo-messianism in the promotion of Obama. Though created and controlled by Jews, MLK and Obama were designed to appeal to Christian millennialism and iconography. Also, even as Jews express disapproval and even contempt for white conservative emphasis on faith, conformity, and obedience, they also use those qualities to obtain Jewish ends. It is precisely because white Americans are generally lacking in the ‘culture of critique’ and prefer simple faith and answers that Jews have been able to turn so many of them to the church of political correctness with its simple formulations of good and evil. Why have so many Americans become babbling idiots spewing the same nonsense about ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘xenophobia’, ‘homophobia’, and etc.? Because simple-minded and banal conservative/traditional culture taught them to obey, conform, and be sheep. This is where Kevin Macdonald completely misses the boat in his criticism of Jews. He blames Jews for the ‘culture of critique’ when he should blame white goyim for the lack of such mentality that could hone and sharpen their skills in arguing their case, discerning truth from lies, and maintaining an energetic fighting spirit. Indeed, the great paradox in the relation between Jews and white goyim is that Jews have gained great power over white goyim precisely because the latter abound qualities that Jews deplore: simple-minded faith. If white goyim were indeed capable of critique, skepticism, and scrappy fighting spirit, they would not be running dogs to Jews who play them on both the right and left. Just how is it that Jews get to push both ‘gay marriage’ and interracism while garnering the undying support of most white conservatives who are even willing to sacrifice the limbs of their own children in Wars for Israel?)
And of course, there were the Sirens who seduce men with beautiful music, inducing a hallucinatory trance whereby men mistake the Sirens for damsels when, in fact, they are hideous devourers of human flesh. In the Greek myth, Odysseus longs to listen to the Sirens and has his men tie him up while ordering them to plug their ears with beeswax. There was something of a parallel of this among the Beach Boys for it was Wilson who alone heard the special sounds from that strange place. Brian took the plunge with LSD, at least much more than other members of the group.
If Odysseus was saved from the Sirens by his men who rowed the boat to safety–away from the Sirens’ songs–, Wilson lost himself to the Sirens and was devoured and destroyed as a creative force. Others tried to tear him away from drug use and counterculture solipsism but to no avail. He would suffer permanent brain damage, and by the time he re-emerged in relative sanity, he was a crusty shell of what he had once been. (To be fair, there are very fine moments in WILD HONEY and BEACH BOYS LOVE YOU, especially on Side Two. And Brian Wilson’s IMAGINATION is a beautiful work with several near-great songs, and THAT LUCKY OLD SUN is lots of fun. And I’m now more inclined to recognize Brian Wilson’s ‘finished’ version of SMILE as a masterpiece despite its spottiness and flaws. It’s like his version of the Side B of ABBEY ROAD, a mini-symphonic stream-of-consciousness rock album.)
In one important sense, Wilson wasn’t like Odysseus at all. While the Greek hero could be impulsive, self-destructive, and sometimes too-imaginative-for-his-own-good, he was also a man of common sense, cleverness, pragmatism, and physical toughness. When it came to the latter set of qualities, Mike Love was more like Odysseus though only a creative shadow of Wilson. In terms of keeping the band together and leading it on tours, one might say it was Love-as-Odysseus who found the way back home for the band. In contrast, Wilson was like another figure in Greek mythology: Narcissus, a man who fell in love with his own beauty and turned into a flower. Wilson’s narcissism was more tormented to be sure. He wasn’t the most handsome guy in the band; Dennis Wilson was. And he grew fat and gross and probably came to loathe himself. But he was in love with his own genius, and when his genius faded, he was in love with his lost genius or the mythic genius that he’d aimed for. He didn’t turn into a flower exactly but into a vegetable. (Interestingly, Beach Boys released an album called SUNFLOWER, and there was a song called ‘Vegetables’). Wilson lost touch with reality, which is something Love never did, at least not completely–despite his involvement with Transcendental Meditation(which actually may have helped him remain detached from some of the excesses of the late Sixties and early Seventies). Another Greek figure Wilson reminds us of is Icarus who makes himself a pair of wings to reach the Sun but burns and falls to the ocean.
If the final song of Side One, “Sloop John B” signals a new direction, it begins in earnest on Side Two with “God Only Knows”, perhaps the most famous song on the album–and also its best. It has gained classic status over the years, beloved as one of the most beautiful ballads ever. Carl Wilson’s angelic voice provides a level of earnestness and innocence, making it one of the most cleanest and purest sounding songs in Rock.
In mood and spirit, “God Only Knows” continues the motif of sailing introduced in “Sloop John B”. The French horns that open the song have evoke ships at sea, perhaps most famously though Richard Wagner’s THE FLYING DUTCHMAN. But if Wagner’s opera conveys the power of storms at sea, “God Only Knows”conveys the feel of breeze upon the sails under a blue sky pocked with puffy clouds. It conveys perfect weather: calm waters, bright sun, cool breeze. It is perhaps the gentlest and subtlest song by the Beach Boys. It’s almost like a whispered prayer or confession carried by the winds. It has an otherworldly quality, as if detached from the flesh and spiritual in essence.
And yet, it is this gentleness verging on shy worship that supplies the tension in contrast to the lyrics and instrumentation. Tony Asher’s lyrics works on three levels: earnest, ironic, and cosmic. In terms of vocal performance, there can no doubt about the emotions. He loves her dearly. But there is an element of self-doubt. Though the song is addressed to a woman, it’s almost as if the guy is singing to himself about an ideal love that he hopes to attain without really possessing–a love so pure and refined that it might crumble if embraced. Though he sings, “If you should ever leave me…”, the IF sounds also something like, “If you did belong to me”. The object of love is so idealized that she doesn’t seem like a real person but almost a spiritual object. The song speaks of God, but it’s really about woman as goddess–pure, divine, unattainable. He wants her, but it’s as if he’s afraid to touch her, lest the reality of his touch turn gold into lead. It’s not clear if it’s a song to a lover or an ode to a fantasy lover. “Venus” by Frankie Avalon and countless other songs(like “Earth Angel” and “And I Love Her”)gave us the woman as a goddess-like figure, but “God Only Knows” has something more going on. It is less about the feelings for the object of one’s love than about the feelings about the feelings of the object of love. It is in love with one’s love for the object of love. It could have lost itself in narcissistic solipsism, but Carl Wilson’s sincerity and devotion smoothly guide the song to its destination. Its faith revolves around beauty, physical and spiritual(or the physical as spiritual), and few songs in Rock are as beautiful. Yet, that too is the source of tension because nothing is as fragile, ephemeral, and short-lived as beauty. “God Only Knows” yearns for beauty everlasting but knows eternal beauty is not of this world. The world goes on while beauty comes and goes, but it is beauty that makes life worth living and the world worth existing. Beauty and love are most fleeting in actuality but most eternal in our psychology; they could be said to be fleeternal. Even when a guy wins the heart of his dreamgirl, the romance may fade; he may lose her poetically if not in person.
Tony Asher’s lyrics are playful and clever–and masterly. The song begins with the line, “I may not always love you…” and the second stanza begins with “If you should ever leave me… life would still go on, believe me”. The song begins like a snub but actually elicits the opposite: mundane reality would go on, but it’d mean spiritual death to lose her love.
As with most love ballads, the lyrics don’t say much on their own. The basic content wasn’t new; it was the style and manner that made the difference. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is special in the same way. It’s about a woman walking out of a man’s life(though there’s the other meaning in allusion to his mother’s death). But the spare yet pointed expression–a moody prettiness–was new in Rock(and perhaps in the history of music, or maybe not: consider Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata)–a prime example of ‘less is more’. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, and the Rolling Stone’s “Ruby Tuesday” are also comparable. Paul’s song is poetic and somber, John’s is wry and sardonic, Dylan’s is cynical yet tender, and the Stones’ is brooding and elegiac. They are now deservedly part of the classic repertoire of modern pop songs.
With Brian Wilson as composer and arranger, Tony Asher as lyricist, Carl Wilson as lead vocal, and the rest of the band as harmonists, “God Only Knows” reached a new stratosphere of beauty, ethereal as tangible, in pop. The complex orchestration supplies the florid colors while the elegant vocals have a vaporous quality. The fineness and purity make the song less about beauty than the beauty of beauty. It’s as if Wilson crafted gold into a silken screen, both radiantly gleaming and invisibly transparent. We are tuned into and eavesdrop on frequencies normally too heavenly for mortal ears.
Wilson orchestrated the simple ballad form into a mini-symphony. When McCartney attempted the same with “She’s Leaving Home”–or Moody Blues with some of their songs–, it sounded pompous, like an over-stacked cake collapsing from its own weight. “God Only Knows” is elaborate but not belabored. To be sure, it had precursors in the ‘wall of sound’ ballads of Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers. What set Wilson apart was his balancing of gushing passion with hushed shyness. Love ballads tended to be either heavy/thick(“Unchained Melody”) or light/thin(“And I Love Her”). With “God Only Knows”, Wilson melded the thick and thin into a new musical alloy–attained also for a time by Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, best of Motown, Peter and Gordon at their best, and several others. But, it was more a slippery secret–difficult to gain but easy to lose–than a sure formula. Even if one could identify the lock, one needed the key supplied by the muse, something no artist could take for granted.
Notice how the song invokes God. It’s not the angry God nor the God of universal love. It is God of personal romance who listens to the murmurs of one’s heart. The one-and-only moral God of the Bible has been sensual-paganized(or pagan sensuality has been moral-spiritualized.) Though I prefer three or four other songs on PET SOUNDS, “God Only Knows” is probably the artistic highlight of the album. It’s as if Wilson caught a few notes from the gods in a dream and smuggled them into our world. (Like so many figures in religions and mythology who steal from God or gods, Wilson paid a high price, not least because he kept returning to ‘steal’ more. Drugs, useful as keys to the mind of gods, were turned against his own brain like an ice pick.)
The otherworldly quality infuses the music with an extra layer of beauty. Despite the song’s perfection, there’s the intimation that it is but a veneer of something infinitely more sublime; it is a mere trinket from the mother lode. The implications are both humble and megalomaniac, i.e. (1) I humbly cherish love as a gift from God and (2) God cherishes nothing more in the entire cosmos than my love(not for Him, by the way, but for my girl; it is as if God meant Adam and Eve to love one another more than Him).
The four tracks that follow “God Only Knows” are loosely united in style, manner, and/or theme; and the album ends with “Caroline No”, almost a moodier variation of “God Only Knows”. As stated earlier, gentle songs are framed by two loud songs–“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B”–on Side A while brash songs are hemmed between two light ballads–“God Only Knows” and “Caroline No”–on Side B. I’m not sure if this was conscious–and if so, thematic or conceptual–, but it works formally. Also, if love songs dominate Side A, the four songs between “God” and “Caroline” on Side B mainly deal with ‘meaning of life’ issues.
“I Know There’s an Answer”–originally “Hang on to Your Ego”–, “Here Today”, “I Wasn’t Made for These Times”, and the instrumental “Pet Sounds” are essentially guy songs that are self-reflexive or addressed to other guys. “Here Today” is more a song about than of love; it’s like an anti-“God Only Knows”.
“I Know There’s an Answer” was adapted from the original version known as “Hang on to Your Ego”, allegedly because the latter was too obviously a ‘drug song’. It was just as well because IKTAA works much better.
Given the influence of LSD on Wilson at this time, much of PET SOUNDS could be said to be drug-inspired, but it’s not the same as drug-invested. Wilson was still using drugs to know the world around him and himself better, not to escape from them to alternate dimensions. HOTYE, though not exactly explicit about drugs, sounds off-key in relation to the other songs because of its somewhat clinical self-absorption. We could accept a Wilson who was more artistic or personal but not one that was so brazenly psychoanalytic. ‘Ego’ just doesn’t belong in the Beach Boys vocabulary. And so, IKTAA was a necessary improvement for the sake of the album.
That said, both “Hold onto Your Ego” and “I Know There’s an Answer” tend toward contradiction and ambiguity. The singing is forceful and adamant, but the message is unclear and self-negating. The songs are both judgmental and confessional(or self-critical). The song begins with lilting notes on the Hammond organ evoking wiggly sun rays upon the water. It is classic Beach Boys imagery distorted by an altered, mildly surrealist, perception. It is similar to the montage sequence in THE GRADUATE where Benjamin Braddock(Dustin Hoffman)drifts in a pool of tingling rays to “Sounds of Silence”. The lyrics unfold like a conversation with oneself. On both HOTYE(composed with Tony Asher) and IKTAA(composed with Terry Achen), Wilson’s persona has split in two: one anchored to the partnership with Mike Love and the other setting sail for new adventure. The Mike-Love-personality mocks the burgeoning drug-influenced and ‘anti-social’ Counterculture. It sneers at people who think they can transform themselves by shutting off reality and experimenting with drugs and the like. Yet, the counter-personality confesses it is becoming one of those people disdained by the Mike-Love-personality. This is especially true in HOTYE:
I know so many people who think they can do it alone
They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones
Now what can you tell them
And what can you say that won’t make them defensive
Hang on to your ego
Hang on, but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight
They come on like their peaceful
But inside they’re so uptight
They trip through the day
And waste all their thoughts at night
Now how can I say it
And how can I come on
When I know I’m guilty
The singer addresses the listener(or himself) to hang on to one’s ego(against the influence of drugs)but then admits the futility of resistance; he admits he too is guilty. It’s as if drugs are like an irresistible femme fatale.
Some have called it an anti-drug song while others have called it a pro-drug song. It is neither. It’s about the hazards and rewards of the creative search for beauty and meaning. To see and hear more, one journeys further from the shore but with the danger of losing one’s way.
On the song, the clean-cut Brian, raised with All-American values, wants to dismiss the new culture of drugs, permissiveness, and solipsism, but Wilson simply couldn’t shake off and deny the creative and ‘spiritual’ possibilities let loose from the pandora’s box of drugs. Brian doesn’t want to be ‘one of those people’, yet confesses he is becoming one of them, albeit in his own peculiar way.
Another layer of tension, one pertaining to the notion of ego, wavers throughout the song. In songs like “All You Need Is Love”–and innumerable others–during the psychedelic era, there was the sense of cosmic or collective consciousness uniting all of humanity through drugs, meditation, love, and music. Modern society was said to be ailing morally and spiritually due to excessive conformism and individualism. Conformism–a.k.a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’–turned Americans into soulless consumerists, and consumerism turned Americans into ultra-competitive individuals who wanted ‘more than the Joneses’. (This view wasn’t particularly original as Jean-Paul Sartre made a similar observation in the early 1950.) In contrast to this sorry and soulless state of affairs was the promise of regeneration and renewal by young people ‘dropping out’ of consumer-material society and abandoning their vain competitive ego in favor of a collective cosmic consciousness. Yet, the whole shtick was a joke. THE RUTLES said it best with their parody ‘All You Need Is Cash’.
And if spirituality was about transcending one’s ego, why was Lennon hyping himself as the sage-guru-saint of Rock with “Imagine”? He was no less an ego-driven narcissist than Grace Slick and all the others.
No cultural genre–not even Classic Hollywood during its Golden Era–hyped its ‘artists’ and personalities as gods, messiahs, visionaries, and saviors as much as Rock culture did–indeed so much so that being called a ‘rock star’ is the highest compliment in the land. The president would rather be compared to a rock star than vice versa.
Also, many users of LSD weren’t so much trying to rid themselves of the ego as obtain a bigger one. The so-called cosmic consciousness is really an massively inflated ego. Though ostensibly about becoming one with the cosmos, it could just as well conflate one’s own consciousness with the cosmos. Instead of deflating the balloon called ‘me’, the ‘me’ was inflated to ‘we’. In 1967, because John Lennon was feeling fuzzy about ‘love’, he thought everyone should share the same vibes–think and feel like him–, and the world would be saved.
This was as true of Carlos Santana as with Timothy Leary. Why did Santana, while purporting to be about communal-spiriutal equality, play his music so loud and aggressive? It was less about becoming one with everyone than imposing oneness on everyone.
In that sense, Rock culture shared something with religion, communism, and Nazism. Buddha and Jesus were megalomaniacs who proclaimed unto mankind that ‘I’ found THE answer to Truth or Salvation–and that ‘my way’ is the only way. Adolf Hitler attacked individualism and promoted communalism, except that it had to be HIS brand of communalism, to be imposed on all Germans(and even non-Germans). Hitler couldn’t stand individualism because individualities of the people got in the way of his own hoggish individuality. And communism never asked humanity what it wanted; it shoved its vision of goodness down humanity’s throat. And now the radical gay agenda tries to shove ‘tolerance’ and ‘oneness’ up the anuses of every young impressionable child. They all claim to be for the common good, for unity and togetherness, for higher justice, and so on, but it’s really about the ego of megalomaniac individuals or the vanity of power-mad radicals. Of course, the worst offenders in this regard are the vile and vicious Jews who endlessly preach sermons about higher and universal justice when, in truth, their real agenda is to maximize Jewish advantage, power, wealth, and influence.
None of this is to deny or diminish the remarkable visions, talents, or achievements of certain figures in history, religion, and the arts. Santana and Lennon made some great music; and some leading figures of the Counterculture contributed interesting and worthwhile critiques of society-at-large. But, the Counterculture produced some very deluded individuals who seemed hopeless in recognizing the hypocrisy and inconsistency of what they thought, preached, and practiced–but maybe this was to expected in an era defined by Jean-Luc Godard as the ‘generation of Marx and Coca-Cola’. And though the Counterculture Zeitgeist wasn’t long-lived–having burned out by the early 70s(psychedelia having burned out even sooner)–, it’s effects have lingered and even grown in pop culture, politics, academia, and business, much of which are now dominated by the Boomer Generation, surely the most narcissistic, materialistic, vain, and hypocritical that ever lived(at least since the high times of decadent Rome). The genuine achievements of the Boomers notwithstanding, no other generation probably claimed as many virtues and broke as many promises, not least to themselves. It was addicted to money, hedonism, materialism, youth, and comfort; and narcissism was the conjoining pivot that linked those facets with idealism, spiritualism, love, peace, and selflessness. The Boomer generation seemed to believe it could have it all because the narcissism(and power-lust)inherent in both consumerism and radicalism made them not only complementary but interchangeable.
Though one could make the case that the so-called X, Y, and Z generations are even more insipid and retarded(probably true), they all grew up under the shadow and influence of the Boomers who refused to grow up to take on adult responsibilities. Even ones that amassed huge fortunes and power used them to spread more irresponsibility, more vanity, more narcissism, and more infantile entitlementality. The likes of Bill Gates fund the likes of Bill Ayers. Bill Ayers who claims to be for the People spent most of his life as a bratty campus radical who, at one time, even played at Bonnie-and-Clyde and was sprung from prison by his rich father’s political connections. Affluent white boomers whine about their unfair ‘white privilege’ and justify the whining as evidence of their moral superiority–like Christians taking pride in their confessions of sin. (These days, talk shows are the confessional sanctuaries of America, with people spewing their shameful secrets as proud acts of courage and expecting sympathy and forgiveness. ‘Nobody knows the trouble I seen, Nobody knows but Montel–and the TV audience, which I shall rejoin to catch the next spectacle of the shameful-proud sinner air his or her dirty panties.’)
Anyway, the real issue facing the Sixties generation was not clinging-to-ego vs letting-ego-go but clinging-to-ego vs aiming-for-bigger-ego. Some sought the bigger ego via the pretense of abandoning one’s ego, but this was really a form of Jesus complex. Remember Jesus let go of his identity as the Jewish son of Mary and Joseph, only to replace it with His newfound status as the Son of God and Savior of All Humanity.
Some people seek the bigger ego by identifying with a ‘great figure’. So, fans of Oprah or Obama think they are better, happier, and more enlightened people because they’re associated with the soulful billionaire mammy or the 21st century messiah. This isn’t about surrendering one’s ego to a larger community to live as equals but latching onself onto and leeching off the bigger ego to make oneself feel bigger and more important.
Certain Hindu yogis were among those who went furthest to be rid of their egos. Some inflicted their flesh with extreme measures to attain and demonstrate the spirit’s transcendence over pain that had once nagged and guarded one’s precious ego. But, their brazen display of ego-less-ness could be seen as another manifestation of the ego–the ego showing off its anti-egoism(akin to false humility calling attention to itself): “Look ma, no ego!!”
Given the keen ambivalence and irony so evident in “Hang Onto Your Ego”, it’s too bad Wilson lost sight of the pitfalls of mind-altering drugs and suffered more grievously than most other major Rock stars–at least the ones that didn’t end up dead. While plenty of Rockers indulged in drugs, their sociable nature kept them better grounded in reality than in the case of Wilson. Consider Keith Richards whose drug abuse far exceeded that of Wilson and turned him into a mummy by the mid-80s; even so, Richards remained an integral and active part of the group, and he seemed to take his health and mental problems in stride, as the price for being a Rock star. Wilson, on the other hand, crawled into a dark hole and either lost his grip on reality or couldn’t face it any longer. It underlines the importance of personality in creativity and biography. It wasn’t just the drugs but his personal moods and family background that made fated Wilson to cope less well with changing times. As one of the songs on Side Two intones, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times…” Wilson sought to balance innocence with illuminance, and beauty with irony. Though having struck the right notes on a tightrope act that became PET SOUNDS, his increasing fascination with psychedelic possibilities–and eccentric personalities like Van Dyke Parks, collaborator on SMILE–presented him with an ultimatum between the real and the surreal, and he chose the latter.
Wilson’s reaction to SGT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND proved LSD could be as much an ego-expanding as an ego-dissolving drug. If LSD negated one’s ego, why was Wilson so envious of the new milestone in popular music achieved by the Beatles? LSD was to the Counterculture what the Forbidden Fruit was to Adam and Eve. The partakers, for all their mantras about love and peace, sought the consciousness of God or the gods. But if Adam and Eve gained the knowledge of shame from their transgression, the acidheads–who called themselves ‘Freaks’ and were labeled as ‘Hippies’ by the media–were shameless in their acceptance of the mind-altering substance as the key to higher consciousness and ultimate wisdom(and instant creativity).
People were attracted to LSD for different reasons, but much of them revolved around the ego. For extroverted people with naturally big egos(like Timothy Leary), LSD was a means to gain even bigger egos, to feel AS gods. But for people with small or lackluster egos, it was a means to belong to a sacred community, as if they were WITH God or the gods. Also, by pretending to abandon their egos(that had never amounted to much in real life)to the ‘cosmic community’, they could therapeutically make believe in the unimportance of success and power. Though their lack of accomplishment had really been determined by their mediocrity(i.e. they couldn’t have ‘made it’ even if they’d tried), the psychedelic community gave the convenient lie that their failures had been conscious decisions favoring higher truth for crass materialism. One might call it the George Harrison Rule. Unable to compete on equal terms with the far more talented Lennon and McCartney, Harrison hid behind Eastern Mysticism and the sitar, as if he couldn’t be bothered to compose pop songs anymore while peering into profound mystical truths.
It’s like how some poor people join a church to make themselves and others believe that money is ‘not important’ when, in truth, it’s really a post-facto justification of one’s modest(or even miserable)position in life.
Brian Wilson was a walking-talking contradiction, both naturally insecure and megalomaniacal, both boyish and godhead-strong. Paradoxically, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy may fuel megalomania. Unable to find meaningful expression and outlet in the real world, one turns to fantasy or one’s own version of reality. Perhaps, Brian Wilson would have been reasonably well-adjusted had the British Invasion, new forms of drugs, and Counterculture never arrived. He would have felt proud of as the leader of one of America’s most successful bands. But competition from British bands filled him with heightening anxiety. Against tough competition, one tries to do better. But against competition way over one’s head, one gives up and maybe even spirals into depression. (This is true enough in sports. When blacks first entered sports such as track, boxing, basketball, and football, whites worked even harder to stay up with the tougher, faster, and stronger Negroes. But when blacks continued to outperform whites by an ever-widening and unbridgeable margin, many white guys just gave up and resigned to their lot as ‘pussyboys’ who don’t even have the sexual right to keep their women who increasingly went off with tougher and studlier Negro males. It’s now come to a point where interracist music and porn have become the mainstream, where the most popular sports are about white women cheerleading for Negro athletes, and where the product of a Negro humping a white woman, namely Obama, is the president of America. White boys–formerly white men–are now so browbeaten, defeated, demoralized, castrated, and pussified that they don’t even bother to stand up and work to reverse this demeaning reality. And some that do make some noise, like most writers at Alternative Right, offer little more than ineffectual whining about ‘so, it is how it all ends?’ in the manner of pathetic pussyboys.)
Upon hearing RUBBER SOUL, Brian Wilson thought he could go one step better. But when he heard SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, he felt like Jim Jeffries after being man-raped in the ring by Jack Johnson the fearsome Negro. It was Game Over. Wilson slumped into depression. It didn’t help that Rock music began to be taken seriously in the mid-60s, with luminaries like Leonard Bernstein and respected music critics hailing SGT. PEPPER as a bridge between Pop and Art. With such stakes at hand, it became a matter of All or Nothing for Wilson. His album after PET SOUNDS either had to be the absolute best or would be nothing at all. Overshadowed by SGT. PEPPER, Wilson all but gave up, and the grand project of SMILE fell by the wayside. SMILEY SMILE, a pastiche of unfinished musical ideas from the SMILE sessions, was mostly limp and lackluster except for “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations”.
(BRIAN WILSON’S SMILE, released in 2004, is more a finished project than a finished work, i.e. Wilson finally revised and pieced together the surviving fragments from the original project, but it is certainly not the full realization of Wilson’s original vision, which was lost for good with his neurons and the tapes destroyed in fits of paranoia. On the revised SMILE, Wilson may have taken some cues from ABBEY ROAD’s Side B, which mostly consists of musical sketches threaded seamlessly into a tapestry of loosely interconnected themes. What it lacks in substance, it makes up for in sparkle and polish, an ebullience that gives the music wings.)
Though Wilson was never an official member of the Counterculture, he was in some odd way affected more deeply than most. The Counterculture had gone through its motions and begun to fade by the late 60s, making way for new cultural trends wrought or adopted by established stars–McCartney with Wings, Paul Simon’s solo career, the revamped Stones and Dylan, etc. But, Wilson clung to the dream of what-might-have-been in that forever-lost Summer of Love. Like Miss Havisham in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Wilson seemed incapable of letting go of what should have been his moment of triumph. He could not purge himself of the failure to present to the world his artistic testament when it had mattered most. He’d lost his chance and there was no getting it back. Just as agonizing was the dreadful sense that he’d lost his muse and mind as well. If he’d achieved greatness with SMILE in sacrificial exchange for his future talent or if he’d maintained his mind/muse while having failed to achieve absolute greatness, he still would have had something. Alas, he felt he’d not only failed to create a masterpiece but blew his mind along in the process. A tragic loss-loss than a consoling win-loss.
Beatles and Stones went from success to success from 1967 to 1969. (Even with Lennon growing weirder, in no small part due to LSD and Yoko Ono, Beatles remained at the top as emblems of the era.) Dylan sort of vanished from the scene, but his retreat was deliberate than debilitated. He’d done enough and sought shelter from the storm(of demented youths following him as the messianic ‘spokesman of his generation’). He needed time out to regain equilibrium and try other things. He didn’t lose his way but embarked on new paths.
Brian Wilson’s trajectory following PET SOUNDS is tragically different. He hung around the ‘wrong’ kind of people–especially given his naive personality–and used the ‘wrong’ kind of drugs–given his preexisting audio-neurological problems–, releasing his latent mental problems into full-blown psychosis, which would come and go, haunting him for many yrs to come. (Interestingly enough, Phil Spector, Mr. Wall of Sound whose impact on Wilson was profound, also enclosed himself within a psychological wall of his own making. Roger Waters had his own neurotic ‘wall’ to contend with but cleverly–and perhaps therapeutically–used it as the basis for his creativity. Perhaps, it’s not so maddening to feel at home with one’s ‘madness’. Waters accepted and made something of his weirdness. Wilson and Spector, in contrast, were weird men who devoted their energies to making mainstream music. They could never face or accept their weirdness as weirdness and stressed themselves out shaping it into something ‘normal’. Imagine if David Lynch had only made G-rated movies like STRAIGHT STORY, where the darkness is muted or hidden.)
The lyrics of “I Know There’s An Answer” are vaguer than those of “Hang On To Your Ego”, but the ambivalence remains and works all the better for the vagueness:
I know so many people who think they can do it alone
They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones
Now what can you tell them
And what can you say that won’t make them defensive
I know there’s an answer
I know now but I have to find it by myself
The first four lines are much like in HOTYE, but instead of “hang on to your ego, hang on but I know you’re gonna lose the fight”, we get, “I know there’s an answer, I know now but I have to find it by myself.”
The song begins by excoriating those who try to ‘do it alone’ and offers a solution… but then says this solution can only be found alone or ‘by myself’. The song’s circularity is self-negating, either exposing one’s hypocrisy(say one thing, do another) or positing a paradoxical truth(know yourself before knowing others).
The song is, at once, cautionary and a come on. It cautions those embarking to do their own thing–presumably with mind-altering drugs–with the confidence of one who had already done that, been there. It’s like a veteran warning volunteers about the dangers of combat, all the while being, on some gut level, drawn to war himself. Or, one could just as well substitute drugs or war with love(with all its highs and lows).
In a sense, there may be an element of self-sacrifice in the song, as if Brian bit into the fruit to test its poison. And yet, as sung by Mike Love and Al Jardine, it sounds brash and declaratory than thoughtful or reflective. It’s as if Brian put himself in Mike Love’s shoes during one of his drug reveries and had a conversation in which Brian-as-Mike confronted Brian-as-new-Brian. There’s a cockiness in the tone, as if the singer knows what’s up and what’s down, what’s right and what’s wrong; yet, the contradictory lyrics tell another tale of why the narrator must do as he warns others not to in order to find the reasons why others shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. Brian may have put himself in the shoes of Mike Love, who was especially critical of Brian’s new direction/vision. It’s all the more meaning since Love was upset with music journalists regarding PET SOUNDS as Brian’s personal statement than a group effort. Brian might have felt some guilt, and the song’s accusation against those who ‘do it alone’ could well have reflected what the other guys were thinking about him as he increasingly took on the role of lone star than a team-player. The songs seems to partly agree with others’ frustrations while also rationalizing his new approach as means to attain deeper truth.
Next song on the album is “Here Today”, which continues in the vein of “I Know the Answer”. Though ostensibly about romance, it’s really a cynical and contentious anti-love song. Like most Beach Boys songs, there’s an element of whimsy and tenderness, but it’s a reverse-image of “God Only Knows”. The lead singer is Mike Love, famous for his nasal sneer that conveyed emotions ranging from West Coast hipster cool to whiny petulance. Here, more than usual, he taps into the full spectrum of his signature style. One moment he sounds cocky and nasty, next moment lonely and tender, and then resigned and pensive, and finally good-humored and bit wiser. Its multifaceted demeanor is in marked contrast to the Carl Wilson’s angelic devotion on “God Only Knows”. Carl’s vocals have the distilled purity verging on spirituality, almost as if emanating from the heart itself. In contrast, Mike Love on “Here Today” is all mouth, complaining and mocking(the girl, other guys, and himself), if only not to be fooled by love again. If “God Only Knows” is a paean to love as an eternal ideal, “Here Today” is a pan of love as a flimsy myth. One says love shall outlast the stars, the other says love sets along with the Sun. To be sure, the cynicism of “Here Today” tends toward wounded reaction than genuine conviction. It is less about emotional certainty than disillusionment as self-therapy. If love is a fairytale for fools that always ends badly, then there was nothing special about his losing the girl, and he can steer clear of future heartache by disavowing the element of love in relationships. (Perhaps, there’s an added significance in that Wilson’s growing interest in the Other World via drugs made him feel more ambivalent about the conventional themes of love. Furthermore, though “God Only Knows” is thematically the opposite of “Here Today”, it too offers an unconventional angle on love–not so much a straightforward ‘boy loves girl’ as a self-conscious ‘boy is infatuated with his own love for the girl’. Love as a high than passion.)
Right now you think that she’s perfection
This time is really an exception
Well you know I hate to be a downer
But I’m the guy she left before you found her
Well I’m not saying you won’t have a good love with her
But I keep on remembering things like they were
She made me feel so bad
She made my heart feel sad
She made my days go wrong
And made my nights so long
It’s cautionary and self-pitying, and a funny rebuttal to “God Only Knows”. There’s even a hint of envy, that he’s still in love and warning others to keep them from her. He could be both Good Samaritan and sly devil.
Musically too, “Here Today” is in stark contrast to “God Only Knows”. In “God Only Knows”, the brass instrumentals blare with sea-faring uplift, illustrative of an epic heart’s journey. In “Here Today”, they convey a fun-house carnival atmosphere, especially during the instrumental
mid-section, romping and bomping with cheers and jeers.
Given its circus-like quality, it might have directly influenced SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, a work festooned with showbiz glitz on the cover and the grooves. Songs like “When I’m Sixty-four”, “Lovely Rita”, “Good Morning, Good Morning”, and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” especially come to mind.
Generally, two kinds of songs comprise PET SOUNDS: songs addressed to a girl and songs addressed to oneself. “Here Today” stands out as a song that’s addressed(as a cautionary advice) to another guy–though, to be sure, it also functions as a self-reminder of love’s disappointments.
As with other songs on the album, the keynote of contradiction twists the meanings. Though wary, the heart beats to love’s irresistible charms:
It starts with just a little glance now
Right away you’re thinkin’ ’bout romance now
You know you ought to take it slower
But you just can’t wait to get to know her
A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing
But if you’re not careful think about the pain it can bring
It’s a song dosed on uppers and downers, both Cupid’s golden and lead arrows.
“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, the next song, may well be the most personal on the album. Unaware of who exactly wrote what, I’m guessing Asher fine-tuned Wilson’s rough outline of his estrangement from the band and his former persona. In the simplest sense, Wilson bemoans the fact that other guys are fully supportive of his new direction. Melancholy permeates the song, especially with the oft-repeated line “Sometimes I feel very sad” and the use of theremin in the closing. One might even say Brian mopes and wallows in self-pity verging on self-righteousness. It is, along with “I Know There’s an Answer”, the only Wilson composition on the album that makes no reference to romance. Thematically and emotionally, they cover some of the same ground, but if IKTAA blurts with bombastic flair so characteristic of Mike Love, IJWMFTT is pure Brian Wilson. It rehashes the hangups of “In My Room”. The difference is the Wilson of “In My Room” hides from the world, dreaming of one day to find a place in it, whereas the Wilson of IJWMFTT wants the whole world to be his room. He seeks the people who will understand him, work with him, and support him.
In the old house, he had one small room as a sanctuary for private dreams and fantasies. As a successful Rock star, he lived in a big mansion and could live out his fantasies right in the living room; he filled it with people who admired him and might nurture his genius. (Ironically, Brian ended up hiding from that too. If in the old home he hid in his own room from the relatively mundane world of his parents and brothers, in the mansion he eventually hid from the fantasy world of his living room–with the piano in a sand box and etc–in his upstairs bedroom. Within his private hole in the old house, he’d dreamt of one day living in a sky castle. But with the failure of SMILE and other problems, the fantasy castle he’d built for himself reminded him of lost opportunities. He couldn’t face them either, and so he hid again. In his room.)
In retrospect, Wilson’s big wish turned out big curse. By 1967, the rest of the Beach Boys were essentially a concert band while Brian Wilson was collaborating with people like Van Dyke Parks to compose more challenging and far-out music. Whatever the merits of this creative partnership, Wilson attracted lots of hangers-on claiming to appreciate his ‘real self’ while mooching off his generosity, naivete, and vanity, all the while egging on his self-indulgence yet further. The Brian who “wasn’t made for these times” was actually better off than the Brian who soon came to be “made for these times”. Like many of his peers and counterculture youth in general, Brian immersed himself in psychedelia and surrounded himself with the ‘hip’ and ‘beautiful’.
Something similar happened with John Lennon around the same time. His LSD habit estranged him the rest of the Beatles–who either weren’t so enthused about the drug or were less inclined to be affected as profoundly–, which led him to search out his ‘kind of people’, which is when Yoko Ono entered his life and introduced him to her ‘radical’ crowd. Wilson and Lennon began to regard other band members as too pop, safe, or conventional. Wilson gravitated to Van Dyke Parks as his artistic soulmate; Lennon did likewise with Ono. (Incidentally, Wilson possessed the romantic sensibility of McCartney and the eccentric personality of Lennon.) We all know Ono didn’t do anything for Lennon’s music, but the jury is still out on Ronk’s collaboration with Wilson. Given the epic problems associated with SMILE, many critics regard Ronk as little more than a pretentious counterculture charlatan, though nowhere near as crazy or dangerous as the supposed guru Dennis Wilson associated with: Charles Manson. But upon the release of BRIAN WILSON’S SMILE, we can now say with some confidence that the Wilson-Ronk partnership in 1967 was not just a wash or a case of The Emperor Has No Clothes. Ronk’s Merlinesque wizardry complemented Wilson’s Arthurian romanticism. Ronk’s set of magic keys opened up paths for Wilson to venture across on his new pair of wings, that is until he got close to the sun.
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” sounds like a roundabout way of saying “I’m no longer right for this band”(or “This band is no longer right for me”) , but such candidness would have been rude. Wilson couldn’t help noticing in 1965–and especially the year after–the rapid and profound changes in musical styles and sensibilities. In 1963, the Beatles and the British Invasion landed on American shores like a tsunami, creating a tidal engulfing many American acts. The Beach Boys were among the handful of American bands that could surf through this storm. The challenge had seemingly come from nowhere–who would have the hoity-toity drab post-war Brits could do Rock-n-Roll even better than the Americans?–, and the bar had been raised in pop music. Even so, many observers dismissed the British Invasion as a passing fad. And they might have been right but for the fact that the Beatles, Stones, and several other key bands weren’t about to cash in their good luck and retire. They caught the vibes of a crucial shift in larger culture, something they would both follow and lead.
As the Beatles dominated pop music in 63 and 64 with something new–title of one of their albums–, they knew well enough that the name of the game was to stay ahead of the game. After all, the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley, the biggest star of the 50s, was already a has-been by the 60s, dethroned by the revolution in music. 50s Rock n Roll stars chose certain personas and stuck by them. Elvis was always gonna be Elvis, Chuck Berry was always gonna be Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis was always gonna be Jerry Lee Lewis; and if he’d lived, Buddy Holly would have been Buddy Holly. They defined an era, but they didn’t–and for whatever reason couldn’t–change with the times. In contrast, the 60s was defined not only be the possibility of but the (ruthless)necessity for change–“or you’ll sink like a stone”. Though 50s Rock n Roll was indeed something new, the big stars still defined themselves and behaved within the traditional strictures of pop, i.e. you took on a public personality and indubitably remained defined by it, turning into nostalgia acts as soon as the fashioned changed. Elvis may have unseated Sinatra, but by the 60s, the King was no more relevant to current music than Old Blue Eyes–arguably even less since Sinatra’s appeal had been to mature audiences whereas Elvis flaunted the primacy of youth, which had passed all too quickly for teens in the 50s.
Two kinds of changes were availed to 60s Rockers: chameleonism and metamorphosism. Chameleonists remained much the same on the inside while changing colors according to the Zeitgeist. Neil Diamond for example. Though classically of the Brill Building showbiz school, he stylistically adapted with changing times to maintain a modicum of hipness.
During the psychedelic era, many musicians turned psychemeleon, as evinced in the artsy instrumental diversion in Buckingham’s “Susan”. Of course, even major acts sometimes went the chameleonist route, as when the Rolling Stones cut a discoesque album with SOME GIRLS, their biggest hit yet but to the consternation of many purist Stone fans.
If chameleonists are superficial and opportunistic in their stylistic evolution–jumping on the bandwagon of whatever happens to be happening–, metamorphosists are true believers undergoing profoundly organic changes into something else. Lennon was a metamorphosist. At some point, he wanted to stop being a ‘Beatle’ and morph into a true ‘artist’, a maverick, and radical. McCartney, though no less talented musically, was essentially a chameleonist adept at gauging which way the wind was blowing and riding it better than anyone else.
The figure who best embodied the tension within 60s Rock was Bob Dylan. In one sense, Dylan was a protest singer who railed against the ‘social injustices’ and political crises of his time. In another sense, Dylan was singing about the young vs. the old. “Times They Are A’Changing” warns old people that the world is changing and belongs to the idealistic young with fresh ideas. Yet in another sense–and in a manner bound to stir up controversy–, Dylan’s problem with the ‘times’ was the tiresomeness of the leftist save-the-world-and-we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters folkie scene. Though the folkie scene was filled with young faces, they were spiritually, culturally, and politically toeing the party line commandeered by old square ideologues like Pete Singer. Dylan didn’t want to be a young version of Pete Singer, nor even a young version of Woody Guthrie(at least not anymore). He wanted to be himself. In this sense, both Dylan and Brian Wilson faced similar problems around 65 and 66. They wanted to venture into new territories, but this meant ‘betraying’ their loyal fan base. Fans of folkie Dylan freaked out when he played electric guitar at Newport; and even up to 1966, some fans were calling him ‘Judas’ at concerts because he made ‘amoral’ personal music instead of socially committed political music. Likewise, Brian Wilson’s image was inseparable from the Beach Boys, emblems of surf and sun. Given the mellower nature of Beach Boys fans, they didn’t protest PET SOUNDS or denounce Wilson in public. Instead, the sales of the album proved disappointing. Even so, Wilson was proud of PET SOUNDS, just as Dylan with HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED and BLONDE ON BLONDE. Not only was it a huge hit in the U.K.–the home turf of the Beatles–, ‘serious’ people–music critics and Wilson’s musical contemporaries–heaped it with praise.
Change was in the air, and expectations–commercial and artistic–reach new heights at breakneck speed. And from 1965 to around 1973, groundbreaking Rock albums–artistic and commercial successes–were commonplace. With the bar being raised ever higher, some Rock musicians boldly, dangerously, courageously, and/or recklessly set sail to discover new territories of the imagination. For the counterculture Magellans this often meant experimenting with more drugs. For some, the road to heaven detoured into hell–ironic since the conceit of drug culture was letting go the ego to be one with the cosmos. More often than not, the great Rocker or wanna-be-great Rocker made a Faustian pact to steal music from the gods. This envy and egotism fueled competition and resulted in lots of great music; they were also obfuscated by sweet-smelling lies about ‘all you need is love’.
Anyway, it would have been obvious even by 1965 that it was sink-or-swim for a Rocker of ambition. The Dave Clark Five had been an outstanding British Invasion band in 1964 and continued to score hits in 65, but sticking to the same formula cost them their relevance by 1966. In contrast, the Beatles and the Stones kept gaining as cultural and commercial forces because they exulted in the new rules of the game, which weren’t only about cranking out hits in tune with current tastes; the trick was to anticipate or, better yet, inaugurate the next big trend. While Herman’s Hermits and the Monkees had their share of hits–sometimes outselling even the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, etc–, everyone knew they were fads: here today, gone tomorrow.
Brian Wilson sensed this as much as anyone else, especially after listening to the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL, which presented a remarkable change in tone, style, and conception. It was more than a bundle of songs; it was like a musical picture album of fancies, musings, and memories. If previous Beatles songs blasted at you, hugged and smooched you, danced with you, and screamed with you, RUBBER SOUL was relatively subdued and shaded with nuance, interactive. At times, the Beatles weren’t so much playing for an audience as sorting through their own feelings in their own private spaces. (Possibly, McCartney’s “Yesterday”–the Beatles’ first truly mature song–convinced the band that an entire album of ‘art songs’ was now within their creative reach.) “Norwegian Wood” is as though we’re eavesdropping on Lennon’s whispers. “I’m Looking Through You” frets about the evasiveness of love. “Michelle” is notable for its mood than melody, for its tone than tune.
Why was RUBBER SOUL a mega-hit when the Beatles appeared to be ‘betraying’ their audience, or why didn’t they have face the problems Wilson did with PET SOUNDS? Maybe because the songs on RUBBER SOUL are more accessible than on ones on PET SOUNDS, a more densely complex album(even more so than SGT. PEPPER). Or maybe because the Beatles’ changes were more gradual. Already with the album HELP!(and especially the hit “Yesterday”), they had demonstrated an expanding range and ambition. Also, the ‘real’ Beatles were harder to pin down because they’d burst out of nowhere(from Liverpool of all places), and there were four distinct personalities: the acerbic Lennon, lovey-dovey Paul, little brother George, and cute Ringo. The Beach Boys, on the other hand, were artistically dominated by Brian Wilson who failed to develop as compelling a cult of personality(which paradoxically took off only AFTER his artistic decline and reclusiveness that shrouded him in an aura of mystery)—in a contest where personality was as crucial as the music. Also, Beach Boys performed in a manner where everyone more or less sounded as part of a unified harmony. Mike Love had a distinct style, but he preferred sticking to formula(and was rather oblivious to changing times, though he did pursue Transcendental Meditation, which, however, did more to disassociate him from the Zeitgeist.)
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is self-serving and self-justifying, especially with Wilson’s lamenting vocals. “I Know There’s an Answer” is personal too, but Mike Love and Al Jardin’s spirited vocals veer from Brian’s self-professed confoundment. IJWMFTT might have sounded similarly contradictory with the vocals of Dennis Wilson, originally slated to sing lead. It’s fitting that the final version featured Brian as lead vocal. It’s really his song and statement–or whine and complaint–and would have sounded amiss from anyone else’s lips. It’s not a song about an ideal girl, imagined romance, or generic problem of youth but a moan of despair of being caught between two worlds: the beach & surf that made his fortune and the sea and sky that beckoned his future. One constant was Brian’s greater affection for things in his head than in the world. Even as a composer/performer of surf songs, he’d preferred the privacy of room over sand and sun. And his creative wanderlust with LSD almost entirely took place within the walls of his own house. He exiled himself from the world within the confines of home and then exiled himself from his own house in his bedroom. This self-imprisonment was, for Brian, a kind of freedom. By hiding from the world(including family and band members living or recording in his house)with its demands and expectations, he could be himself in his own mind. But he was also ashamed to present himself to the world as someone who’d become grossly fat, addled in the head, and failed to produce anything to match the highlights of his earlier career.
After PET SOUNDS, he promised himself and the world that he’d emerge from his creative seclusion with the greatest album of the all time. But having failed, he fell into a kind of MULHOLLAND DR-like funk in which he could fantasize a different outcome. Since he couldn’t materialize his intended masterpiece–due to psychological problems, loss of muse, angst, self-pity, and/or addiction to lethargy–, he beheld his dreams in a seemingly endless loop of fantasizing. Films such as VERTIGO, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, BEAUTIFUL MIND, AVIATOR(story of Howard Hughes), and A.I. also remind us of Wilson’s dilemma. In the Hitchcock film, the James Stewart’s character loses the woman and falls into a tragic obsession wherein he recreates her through a kind of mental projection. In the Leone film, the character of Noodles loses everything and spends his life in exile replaying old memories, both as they were and might have been, even hinting that half the movie might be a dream in Noodle’s head. There is also something of CITIZEN KANE, the man who gains everything but loses his bearings and becomes a prisoner of his own fantasy mansion called Xanadu. But perhaps the movie that best captures Brian Wilson’s self-exile is TRON: LEGACY where a computer genius becomes entrapped within his own perfection-obsessed ego, to the point of losing his way back home. Wilson, in his obsession to create the greatest and most perfect Rock album, could not let go of the failure of SMILE, preferring to remain within the ideal domain of his fantasy than return to reality.
Though “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is about being misunderstood and rejected by the world, it also slyly tries to justify Wilson’s rejection of his own band(with, of course, the song-smithing talent of Tony Asher).
I keep looking for a place to fit
Where I can speak my mind
I’ve been trying hard to find the people
That I won’t leave behind…
Every time I get the inspiration
To go change things around
No one wants to help me look for places
Where new things might be found
“I keep looking for a place to fit where I can speak my mind” is amusing since there were plenty of Rockers in 1966 who shared Wilson’s ideas. So, there were plenty of places to fit in, and in a way, Wilson was fitting in with the new Rock Zeitgeist. So, the problem was not Wilson against the world-that-wouldn’t-have-him but New Wilson vs the Old-Wilson-attached-to-his-band. As with rest of the album, a sense of ambivalence pervades the song.
“I’ve been trying hard to find the people that I won’t leave behind” cleverly reverses the blame. Wilson’s the one who’s leaving the band behind, but it’s worded to suggest that the other band-members are unworthy of Brian Wilson’s devotion.
In terms of sentiment, it’s a variation of “You Still Believe in Me”, a song about betrayal where the betrayed remains loyal. One part of Wilson wishes to leave the band while another part feels grateful to the guys for sticking by him despite his ‘betrayal’. Yet on some level, the band’s loyalty to him must have been frustrating for it emotionally obligated him to stick with them as well. But then, Brian maybe sensed that he could never let go of the Beach Boys. Even with all his experimentations, Wilson’s genius was wedded to the Beach Boys sound. Who else but Mike Love could have imbued “That’s Not Me” with that barbed sensibility teetering between sentimentality and spiky machismo? Who else could but Carl Wilson could have delivered “God Only Knows” with angelic perfection? And there was the image of the band, among the most appealing in Rock.
Though certainly not a fruiter, Brian’s real love affair was with the guys in the band. Just as cops, firemen, and soldiers are wedded to other guys in life-or-death professions, artists tend to develop strong emotional bonds with their partners. Like man and wife producing a child, collaborative artists ‘spiritually’ birthe or create something together.
The artistic balance within the Beatles or the Rolling Stones was stabler than among the Beach Boys. Beatles had two major talents, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who, jointly or (increasingly)on their own, came up with non-stop series of great songs until the band’s dissolution. Though relatively a minor talent, George Harrison wrote some good songs and, on occasion, even a great one. Good-natured Ringo, though creatively insignificant, served as a conduit among the other guys. Among the Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards worked very closely. Also, each member was a great musician and integral to the sound of the band. If Stones had a Brian-Wilson-like figure, it was Brian Jones, who wanted to take the band into more ‘artistic’ directions but ended up dead from drug overdose. (Also, Brian Jones was more a stylistic than substantive influence since he hardly wrote any songs. But for a time, he contributed a killer bohemian bad boy image to the band, perhaps even more effectively than Mick or Keith. If Stu Sutcliff had stuck with the Beatles, his role might have been akin to Brian Jones’ with Stones.) But among the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson was clearly the dominant creative force fueled by an ego anxious to keep up with or better the competition. Other guys just didn’t ‘get it’; and while they could sing and do harmony, they were not great instrumentalists. (Beatles weren’t either but more than adequate.) Also, John, Paul, and George were busy composing their own material than just hanging around for the one dominant composer to write all the songs. John was busy, Paul was busy, and George was busy. In the Beach Boys, Brian was busy while other guys mostly stood around and waited. (Mike Love did collaborate on some of their earlier songs, but he was like a helper than a creative partner). Brian was wedded to the band, but the band couldn’t provide him with creative-collaborative satisfaction. So, he sought out creative affairs on the side, which is how Tony Asher and later Van Dyke Parks entered the scene as partners in creativity. Emotionally though, working with Asher was just a fling whereas Brian got seriously involved with Ronk. This is the great paradox of Brian Wilson–and perhaps others like him. His intense desire to be alone(or left alone)fueled his desire to know, possess, and be possessed by the one true friend. Unable to connect with most people, he sought to connect, almost on a ‘spiritual’ level, with someone who ‘truly understood him’. Van Dyke Parks seemed to be that special person. But that didn’t work out in the end. The great doppelgänger of Wilson’s life was, of course, the vile and hideous Jewish psychiatrist Eugene Landy. For over a decade, Wilson became dependent on Landy as not merely a doctor, consultant, or friend but a kindred soul(like the identical twin brothers in DEAD RINGERS).
Brian Wilson, like many people infected with megalomania, had difficulty relating to other people as people. He came to regard himself as musical god above the fray of daily life and conventional pop. He felt surrounded by people who didn’t or couldn’t understand his vision and genius. But he was also distrustful of people who either worshiped him or expected all his subsequent works to be masterpieces. This is a problem among political megalomaniacs too. They grandly play god high above but can’t play either god or man with followers on ground-level. Worship requires distance.
In the film THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, Idi Amin grows chummy with a white guy, an outsider with whom Amin can relate on a one-on-one basis with all the highfaluting bullshit. The white guy is also smart and ethical(relatively speaking)–qualities Amin desires in a friend but can neither expect nor allow those who must obey, fear, or worship him. Funny that Amin, the god of Uganda, could be human only with some white guy. This may explain why some of the richest or most powerful men sometimes most closely attach themselves to an ‘outsider’ who has no direct stake in the man’s wealth or power.
Eugene Landy the cunning Jewish psychologist understood that Brian–especially in his status as a fallen god–was simultaneously seeking a fellow god and a fellow human. Brian wanted to return to his godly pop stardom of the 60s but also to come down to ground and be normal again. Eugene Landy played it both ways. He stoked Brian’s ego, making Brian believe that with Landy’s special treatment, he would be restored to his artistic greatness. But he also tugged at Brian’s heartstrings, as if he was Brian’s one true friend in a world of sharks, phonies, egomaniacs, and etc. Landy not only controlled Brian’s mind and heart but his biochemistry with medical drugs. Just as Jews control our minds(media), hearts(‘white guilt’ political correctness), and bodies(big pharma), Eugene Landy long held sway over Brian Wilson through dirty Jewish tricks.
The next is the instrumental “Pet Sounds”, which, like “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, is the penultimate track on its side. Both are purely the works of Brian Wilson and session musicians without input by other Beach Boys or Tony Asher. They are, in a sense, the purest indication of Brian’s creative inclination, to be carried by the muses to wherever they may lead.
The instrumental tracks provided Brian with a chance to drift away for a while from the role as Beach Boy, just as Odysseus on occasion went off on separate journeys away from his men. Originally meant as a playful variation on the 007 movie theme, the end-result is a springy number with kinked notes, like a safari ride through a theme park zoo. It’s like a mind jungle filled with toy animals and vegetation–in a sense, a precursor of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” with cellophane flowers and rocking horse people.
“Pet Sounds” flirts with psychedelia but maintains an innocent childlike quality; it’s like fun-house corkscrew jazz for little children, or a James Bond flick with animal crackers and gummy bears. The electric guitar licks swipe and bunt as if with horns and claws made of rubber. It’s like a musical version of what later came to be known as Pixar animation(defined by bouncy elasticity). It doesn’t have the rich layering of “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, but with its jumble of moods and styles it’s the most unusual track on the album.
Also, the impressionistic motifs of wildlife–stalking predators, swinging monkeys, trampling elephants–tamed into artifice of toys resound with shades of irony. (Maybe the tune is an unwitting indication that Brian Wilson didn’t take seriously enough the more dangerous side of psychedelic jungle. He thought he could tame into pet sounds the exotic fauna discovered during psychedelic forays into his mind, but the creatures remained wild and turned on him . It’s like Hindu yogis going into the jungle to meditate on the tranquility between man and nature, only to be pounced and eaten by a leopard. Or it’s like Siegfried & Roy and the tiger attack. And, children play with matches, oblivious to the real dangers of fire.)
“Pet Sounds” features an ingenious and endearing use of Coca-Cola cans, a kind of musical parallel to Andy Warhol’s Campell soup cans in the sense of appropriating and transforming emblems of American consumer culture into elements of Pop Musical Art.
Even so, “Pet Sounds” is an honest and fun piece of music whereas Warhol’s painting is conceited tripe. Warhol perfected the art where the artist needn’t think nor do much since there were plenty of suckers, charlatans, and fools who would do all the thinking for him. All he needed do was hype his own celebrity(largely be acting as a magnet for other celebrities) and ‘provoke’ others to draw attention–all the while, pretending to be utterly clueless and without purpose as to what was happening around him. Even the phenomenon of debunking Warhol was part of Warhol-ism(just as being anti-Howard-Stern is part of Howard-Stern-ism), all gauged to keep the cultural community’s interest focused on him. (Warhol was the worst kind of phony for he knew he was a phony and admitted as much but then turned his phoniness around as a mirror for culture as a whole, as if to say everyone was a phony too. It’s like Gordon Gekko in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS saying he’s greedy because everyone else is greedy, and since everyone is greedy, his greed is only superior brand of greed. Of course, many smart people adore and even revere Andy Warhol, not least because the notion of art as a finished product came to be regarded as passe in the second half of the 20th century, not least because modernism had also formulaic and predictable. If the great figures of early modernism established their singularity against tradition and conventions–Picasso was unmistakably Picasso and Matisse was none other than Matisse–, by midpoint of the century modernist works came to resemble one another and constitute conventions of style no less stultifying than those of 18th century English landscape paintings. Becoming ever more difficult to distinguish the great individual artist from the rest, the art world turned into a game of an exclusive number of critics and intellectuals positing highly esoteric reasons as to why ‘this’ was good and ‘that’ was bad. Naturally, cynicism and conceit-ism gained ground in the art world, which, however, was too fancy, lucrative, and alluring to reject out-of-hand. After all, it was the exclusive club where the rich, famous, and powerful could rub shoulders with the creative, important, and cutting-edge. Rich people wanted to be associated with elite culture, and artists–even or especially radical ones–wanted access to privilege. Rich people wanted to shmooze with ‘geniuses’, and artists wanted a taste of the good life. Andy Warhol’s greatest achievement was constructing the beginnings of a post-modern bridge between the wealthy and the artists, where both parties accepted the game of playing the poseur. There had long been a crucial and conflicted relationship between rich patrons and artistic talents as far as anyone could remember; but, there had also been a clearer understanding of what was expected of artists and what was and wasn’t art. Some artists could be different and original, but even they worked mostly within accepted norms. Also, the wealthy and powerful were respected and honored before the rise of late modernity. This was especially true of kings and nobility, and the early bourgeoisie emulated then in talk, dress, and manners. So, the rich and powerful were supposed to patronize the noblest, highest, and most beautiful art, and artists were supposed to create things of genuine artistic worth for the ‘best’ of society. But by the second half of the 20th century, the world had drastically changed. The nobility was all but gone, and especially after WWI, the Depression, WWII, and spread of populist, liberal, and/or socialist ideas, it wasn’t morally nor ideologically great to be a member of the elite–though, of course, people still wanted admission to the club. Also, there was the rapid rise of Jews in nearly all the institutions of power. Jews, who had at once been at the bottom of the totem pole of cultural and moral respect in the West, came to control many of those institutions. If non-Jewish white elites were eager to affect anti-elitism to disassociate themselves from ‘evil white privilege’, Jewish elites promoted anti-elitism as both a kind of revenge and as remembrance of their heritage, wherein they had long struggled against ‘antisemitic’ white gentile elites. Of course, in some ways, Jews feared white gentile masses more than white gentile elites. After all, the German and Austrian elites had been tolerant of Jews in the 19th century and early 20th century; it became truly dangerous for Jews when men like Hitler began to play on populist hatred against Jews; the bloody masses, without the sense of dignity, restraint, and honor possessed by aristocrats–even antisemitic ones–, didn’t hesitate to go-all-the-way and tear Jews limb from limb. Today in the West, Jews have succeeded more in winning over and gaining control over white elites than white masses defined by the Tea Party. Jews know that the white elites in both the Democratic Party–the Clintons and Gores–and the GOP–Bushes and McCains–are their pet dogs. White elites, due to Ivy League brainwashing or fear of losing their considerable privilege and wealth–especially by being accused of ‘antisemitism’ or ‘racism’–will do anything to be in good graces with Jews. Though most white gentile masses too have been turned into sheeple of Jews–thanks to Jewish-controlled public education, media, Hollywood, and etc–, there are still a good number of white gentiles who have not bought into the Jewish-controlled agendas of Open Borders, ‘Gay Marriage’, hysterical Anti-‘Racism’, Radical Feminism, and other such rot; some of these people have shown their mugs via the Tea Party Movement, and the vile Jews are livid with anger that not all white people are lining up to kiss their disgusting Jew ass. Of course, there are plenty of brainwashed white boys and girls whose whole moral universe revolves around MLK worship, Magic Negro obsession, Gay-as-saint idiocy, Jew-is-never-wrong mantra, and Diversity-is-next-to-godliness lunacy; but even that degree of mass slavishness isn’t enough for Jews who, with their hunger for total power, will not rest until ALL of us nothing but their robots, cattle, running dogs, and sex slaves. Anyway, the point is Andy Warhol understood better than anyone the psychology of the two kinds of people who mattered most in the Art World: the rich people and the hungry artists. He knew that rich people loved their riches but were morally uncomfortable with elitism in the demotic age. He knew that modern artists rhetorically sharpened their blades on the conceit of innovation, rebellion, and anti-elitism, but they really wanted to be allowed into the cloistered and privileged Art world. And both the rich and the artists were increasingly allured by the thrills of pop culture and celebrity; they wanted to be hip and cool. Warhol bridged the three realms, not so much artistically as psycho-socially. By dilly-dallying with celebrities–Rock stars, models, movie stars, etc–, he turned himself in a magnet of what was cool. So, for many rich people and ‘serious’ artists, Warhol became a conduit between themselves and the pop culture scene. A rich person who might not have approached a Rock star might rub shoulders with such a person through Andy Warhol’s chic salon. It also helped that he dabbled in all the arts, including filmmaking or designing an album cover for Velvet Underground. It didn’t matter that his films were unwatchable as long as the ‘right kind of people’ saw them and wrote about them in journals that turned them into ‘events’ or buzz of the town. As for aspiring artists who could not get themselves noticed for their art alone, they might find a way into the Art World via Warhol or the Warhol method, which was a kind of ‘cult of personality’ or brand of personality. After all, it didn’t so much matter what Warhol did as much as the fact that HE did it. So, through Warhol’s networks or via a clever application of his method, other ‘artists’ could also create a certain buzz or faux-notoriety around their personas. And there was something in it for intellectuals, who’d pretty much run out of ideas as to what art should or could in the ever newer age. Since they were too advanced, smart, and hip to find much use in the old definitions of Art and since they took pride in their penchant for nimble mental gymnastics and mind games, Warholism provided them with a hall of mirrors game of Emperor Has No Clothes. In this game, it didn’t matter than the Emperor had no clothes since Warhol declared he had no clothes. It was more like “How the emperor with no clothes spins clothes out of no-clothes-ness and how we pretend that no-clothes is a kind of clothes, indeed more so for being no clothes at all, which means it can be any clothes.” According to this conceit, to say, “the emperor has no clothes” is obvious, lame, and dimwit. Of course, he has no clothes, the intellectuals will say. The trick is understanding and toying with the phenomenon of how, in the human mind and society as a whole, no-clothes-ness can endlessly be constructed into a kind of clothes. In the post-modern scene, it’s passe to say something like “There’s a sucker born every minute.” A post-modernist will say, “of course, there’s a sucker born every minute, and it shall always be so.” What really matters is to understand the phenomenon of this suckerdom, play with it and be played by it, subvert it and be subverted by it. Since there is no fixed or absolute truth, everything is either a lie or partial lie, and so our path toward truth–which will forever be beyond us–is to deal with lies, matching one against another, a lie reflected in a lie reflected in a lie reflected in a lie, ad infinitum. This is the new parlor game, and its advantage is the sheer inexhaustibleness for every idea, fact, or piece of data that never exists in its own right but in relation to something else. You may end up talking nonsense, but it’s never-ending nonsense, which gives the nonsense speaker the feeling that he’s connecting some profound dots that connect to yet more and more.)
Wilson, unlike Warhol, was immersed in real creativity, and one doesn’t have to ‘think’ or mentally putz around to enjoy the best of the Beach Boys. Van Dyke Parks was kind like a Warhol-ian figure in Wilson’s life, a kind of deceptive all-purpose self-promoter of elusive nature and hyped ‘genius’, and maybe Wilson would have done better to collaborate with someone else. But there’s no doubt Wilson took his music very seriously, and his disappointment over SMILE proves it, especially in contrast to the Beatles’ great success with SGT. PEPPER. Can anyone imagine Warhol being distressed by artistic failure or being bettered by someone else? One might say Warhol was the better man for his lack of envy, but it’s more like he overcame envy not by producing superior work or through a generosity of spirit but by helping reduce the Art World into a kind of joke where real art didn’t matter anymore. Warhol-ism didn’t truly creep into Rock culture until the 1970s, when certain Rock critics and faux-aesthetes took hold, for a time, of what Rock was supposed to be.
The final song on the album “Caroline, No” is the perfect bookend to “God Only Knows” that began Side B. It too is a wispy ballad emoting from the quietest region of the heart, conveying both the frailty and resilience of love. If “God Only Knows” is affirming and hopeful, “Caroline, No” is rueful and elegiac. It sounds a bit silly as it’s about a girl who got a haircut. Yet, it is a great tragedy to the singer, conveying both his self-absorption and poetic sensitivity to beauty. It shares with “God Only Knows” the sense that the personal is cosmic. In “God Only Knows”, love’s devotion is linked to the life of stars; the girl possesses a beauty that is near-cosmic; the singer is humbled by her beauty, adoration turning into worship.
In “Caroline, No”, a girl’s ‘rash’ haircut might as well herald the extinguishment of stars, as if her shortened hair also shortened the life of the universe.
By rights, I think Carl Wilson should have provided the vocal, if only to emphasize its thematic and tonal connection to “God Only Knows”. But the only vocal on the song is by Brian, which though very fine, lacks the purity of Carl’s. (On the other hand, it is a ballad with somewhat sullen and sagging emotions, and Brian’s voice certainly had more mass.) It sounds like Brian did his best to sing like Carl–even slightly speeding up the final version to refine his voice. Despite the despair, the mood is thin than thick, more like a deflating balloon than a sinking ship.
If “God Only Knows” gushes with boundless love, “Caroline, No” hushes with thoughts of finite love, sighs seeping from a wounded heart.
At face value, it’s silly love song like many others, especially by girl groups of the early 60s- produced by Phil Spector. But as with the songs of Burt Bacharach, there’s a refinement missing in most pop songs of the era. “Caroline, No” is as minimalist or essentialist as a song could be. It is like a Bonsai love song. Of course, minimalism isn’t the same thing as bareness or starkness. A minimalist object is the finished product of pruning, trimming, and cutting whereby the result signifies more than what meets the eye, i.e. ‘less is more’. Minimalism directs the process of paring to a point where every component signifies and invokes an essence or purity. It is a sculpting by negation, or adding poetry by removing property.
In this sense, most simple ballads are not minimalist but merely elemental, or basic emotions expressed simply. “Caroline, No” is deceptively simple in contrast. On the surface, it’s about some sully guy getting all upset over his girl’s new look.
But from another angle, the shades of emotion convey something deeper; and of course, the hair has metaphoric significance. Hair, after all, is like threads of a fabric. The way it flows, sways, and streaks in the sunlight(unless it’s the nappy hair of a Negress)has a musical quality–not for nothing does “Good Vibrations” wax romantic about the ‘the way the sunlight plays upon her hair’. So, Caroline’s hair is like the story of their love, growing and binding them closer together. Cutting the hair could be cutting the bond.
In a broader sense, it may be a comment on social changes of the sixties when guys began to grow their hairs long while some women decided to cut their hair short in the name of ‘equality’ or ‘liberation’.
But where the song is most touching–and ironic, which oddly makes it more touching–becomes apparent in relation to Wilson’s point in his career. PET SOUNDS was a remarkable departure from his previous music, and he had plans to be even more bolder and experimental. In other words, he was cutting his musical ties or hair to the past too. In one sense, the Caroline of the song was inspired by a woman Tony Asher knew(who got a haircut he didn’t like) and someone named Carol that Brian had a crush on in highschool; but in another sense, it’s Brian, consciously or not, reflecting on his changes as an artist. Other guys in the band were wondering, ‘Brian, No’, i.e. ‘Where did our surf songs go, where is the Brian we used to know?’
There is yet another layer of meaning to the song. It’s as if Brian, knowing he was about to move into strange and possibly dangerous new directions, wanted to anchor himself to something safe, friendly, and permanent. In the film BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, Ron Kovic(Tom Cruise)runs to the highschool prom on the night before shipping off to military base and dances with the girl he loves. He’s all revved up and thrilled to serve his country, but he also feels confused, fearful, and lonely. Though having resolved to skip the prom, it’s what he needs most at that moment. And in the Greek epics by Homer, the men venture into war and journey into far-off places, but they also long for same/safe home. To remain faithful to Odysseus, Penelope weaves a shroud over and over with the same threads; it is her way of maintaining links with Odysseus through all his travails, keeping their hopes alive for the restoration of the life they used to know.
In a similar sense, “Caroline, No” continues in the ambivalent vein of the album. As the final song on the album, it’s Brian venturing off to new places and saying good-bye forever to the original concept of the Beach Boys while, at the same time, hoping to maintain some ties to his original self and the things that made him what he is. But an overwhelming sense of loss pervading the song intimates the irretrievableness of what’s been let go. In “That’s Not Me”, a guy who left his hometown to make it in the big world feels lost and thinks of returning home. In “I Wasn’t Made for These Times”–which faintly sounds similar to “Caroline, No”–
there’s the wish to meet new people and faces but also longing for familiar people and places. In “Caroline, No”, there is nothing to return to. Even Caroline, the symbol of innocence and purity, has changed with the times and will go her own way. And so, as Brian ventures into the new world, his path is his own.
Whoever said “There are no second acts in American lives” couldn’t have been more wrong. Perhaps, it had been true enough when first expounded–in a period when public fall from grace permanently branded one for eternal damnation. Since the 1960s, America has become a far more permissive and shameless place, and it’s near impossible to permanently destroy anyone’s career or reputation–unless, of course, he happens to be a ‘racist’ or ‘antisemite’. If anything, scandals as often make as break careers. But if some people don’t deserve a second act–indeed not even the first–, some have truly earned it. Whatever one thinks of crazy Negroes, George Foreman’s recapture of the heavyweight championship by defeating Michael Moorer was one of the most moving in sports history. At his peak in the early 70s, he was considered unbeatable and indestructible. But in one of the greatest shocks in sports history, he was defeated by Muhammad Ali in Zaire. He didn’t just lose but was knocked out pitifully in the 8th round. It was so traumatic that he couldn’t regain his footing in boxing and retired, becoming a preacher. When he returned to the ring, he was treated like a freak show or circus act. He still had the power, but no one expected him to go toe to toe with best of the young heavyweights. But by some miracle, he defeated Moorer to reclaim the heavyweight belt that had been taken from him at the peak of his career.
Brian Wilson too was at the peak of his powers when, suddenly and shockingly, he faded from the musical scene and descended into a private hell. Though he continued to make music, and there were flashes of brilliance on subsequent albums, the tragic decline of his genius was undeniable. And things got only darker in the late 70s and 80s. It was as if the man who had ventured far off into new creative territories would never return home. Would he remain lost at sea forever?
But the famous Greek hero Odysseus did finally return home, even if all alone. By the late 90s, Brian, on the painstaking path to recovery, had lost his two brothers: Dennis to drowning in the 80s and Carl to cancer in 1998. Finally though, in his own way, Wilson found his way back. The sight of home crystallized with his sparkling album IMAGINATION. And then, he made the landing with the finalized version of SMILE. Ironically, the object of ambition that had taken him so far from home became the source of inspiration for his return. That had been the great project after PET SOUNDS, the one that was supposed to change everything. He poured his heart and soul into it only to lose his bearing and sanity along the way. It turned into the most famous shipwreck in Rock history, one that surfaced only as bits of debris across several albums. It was a project Wilson gave up as lost and irrecoverable. But, almost as an act of last hurrah, the wizened survivor reassembled and remolded the broken fragments together. In a way, it was as futile as putting Humpty Dumpty back together again; so much had changed since the golden 60s. However, despite the cracks in the reconstructed SMILE, it is a thing of beauty, a refreshing restoration of the heavenly vision that Wilson once beheld and a somber reminder of the tragic futility of perfectionism. It is not the greatest Rock album of all time, but it no longer matters. What Wilson lost in terms of ambition and reach, he gained in wisdom and humility. As such, his finished SMILE is less a presumptuous teenage symphony to God than an old veteran’s hymn of gratitude for having come so far, for having survived. There is something IKIRU-like(film by Akira Kurosawa)in the way Wilson finally finished SMILE. In the film, an old bureaucrat doomed with cancer decides to do something of meaning in his last months on Earth. Having had given up on life before the diagnosis, he finds a new urgency as he faces death,
and wants to do at least one thing that will prove, if only to himself, that his life served some purpose in the world. Of course, Brian Wilson achieved much more than most people, with or without SMILE, and he wasn’t dying of some dreaded disease. Even so, like the old man in IKIRU, he had once given up on life and lived a kind of mummy existence. But he finally broke out of his living tomb and set about creating more music. And no longer to prove something to the world but to confirm what he loved most.
The Odysseus who returns to reclaim his wife and kingdom is not the same man who’d left 20 earlier. He’s worn and weary, recognized by virtually no one. But only he can bend and fit the bow; only he can shoot the arrow through the axe-heads.
Wilson the over-the-hill has-been was not supposed to have the energy, resolve, and concentration to produce another major work, which may explain why IMAGINATION–a major work in my opinion, a giant leap from his other solo in the 80s–was unfairly dismissed by many critics. But, Wilson proved many a naysayer wrong: drawing on his deepest reserves of energy, aligning musical ideas into place, and finally threading the pieces into a unified concept worthy of its title SMILE.
In one sense, Odysseus came last in the race home after the Trojan War, yet it is his return that is remembered and celebrated most. (Agamemnon, who returned early, didn’t fare so well.) Sometimes, the importance is not so much in who finishes first but in how one finishes at all. In the famous film VISION OF EIGHT–on the Munich Olympics–, the final segment covers the marathon, but the main focus is not on the winner but on the runner who finishes last. At one point, he falls from exhaustion, and we think, just one more runner out of the race. But later, he’s up and running and finishes the race hours after the victory and closing ceremony, entering what is an empty stadium. Technically he’s the biggest loser but in his resolve to finish what he started, he becomes the symbol of resilience and redemption of the human spirit(despite being an African Negro). It says something about the awesome power of storytelling. In terms of athletics, he’s a nobody who came last. But in terms of mythic narrative, his defeat is turned into a kind of victory. If sports and politics are about winners, art has the power to humanize defeat or tragedy and turn it into a kind of triumph. (It’s no wonder the life of Jesus, who couldn’t have lost worse in this world but then triumphed as the Son of God through mythic narrative, is called the ‘greatest story ever told’.) Even when all seems lost, there is meaning to be gained, at least through the power to reflect, recount, and recover. Brian set sail with PET SOUND, wandered off and got lost on an epic search for musical immortality, but he made it back home in the end. He may have finished last in the competition to create the greatest album in the Summer of Love, but, SMILE is all the more special for the many reasons it took so long to come together. It is not just an album of Rock but an album of life.