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In Pursuit of Paradise – The Beach Boys

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I own about ten different Beach Boys collections, but I am always willing to look at a new one. Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys is an outstanding single-CD compilation with 30 songs covering the Boys’ entire career, the best single-CD set yet from the greatest American group of the ’60s.

Not only does the collection have 30 great songs, but it also has invaluable information on each one: year of release, highest chart position, producer, songwriter, and the name of the lead singer, which helped me finally sort out once and for all who sounds like what. All of that for $13.99 – now that’s value.

The story of the Beach Boys is the story of the pursuit of paradise. The Beach Boy’s immaculate blending of angelic voices provide the auditory and symbolic thrill of an earthly paradise. The darker Brian Wilson songs don’t touch this same nerve. The public has largely ignored them as aberrant. The Beach Boy’s amazing success with compilations and live shows over the years emphasizes this point: the public would rather not have to do the filtering.

Historically, the New World was sold as an earthly paradise from the outset. America was a land where “God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state” (Roger Williams, 1644). America was a land of vast natural resources and uncountable acres of land free for the homesteading.

Prior to that, America was the home of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Instead of Eternal Youth, Ponce de Leon found Florida, land of the Eternal Old, but that’s another story. The hope of eternal youth persisted, just below the surface, until the frontiers of America had been exhausted: no magic fountain, not even boundless land. Even if America didn’t hold the secret to eternal life, it didn’t seem unreasonable that America could still yield paradise.

American history is littered with tales of failed Utopian societies. There has been one great success: Mormon Utah. The Shakers and the Harmony Society awaited the millennium communally. The denizens of Fruitland, in 19th century New England collected thousands of books on metaphysics, but neglected to figure out agriculture and went down the horticultural toilet in a few years.

“Brook Farm” was created with the notion that the individual, not God or nature, had the power to create a better world through spiritual and mental development. “Modern Times” was an experiment in communal anarchy.

America has seen the dark side of Utopian idealism as well: autocratic rule doomed Oneida as it has all personality cults from Jonestown to Jeffrey Lundgren’s.

Americans as a whole have generally dismissed these efforts as impractical, but most Americans secretly harbor the notion that America itself is one large Utopian society. We suffer in the face of a reality that fails to meet our ideals. This utopian ideal is the reason that we have made America the “land of opportunity” – the land where failure is never viewed as permanent.

In America, bankruptcy is no particular shame, many entrepreneurs boast of it as a great turning point in their lives – the only failure is giving up. The whole structure is set up so that one doesn’t give up. (This is the insidious danger of a permanent underclass. The career welfare recipients have given up, thereby short-circuiting the entire system. America has created a society where everyone desires the same material ends; but a significant portion of that society (the permanent underclass) doesn’t have access to the ends through societally approved methods. This has led to an epidemic of acquisitional methods not approved of by society at large, like crime.)

In the introduction to his great rock ‘n’ roll book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus addressed America’s promise: “To be American is to feel the promise as a birth right, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal, of a mass of shadowy, shared hopes.”

Bruce Springsteen addresses this promise in the aptly titled “The Promised Land,” from Darkness of the Edge of Town:

    “…Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
    That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
    Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
    Blow away the dreams that break your heart
    Blow away the lies that leave you nothing
    But lost and broken hearted”

The Promise is what we make of it. The Promise is not a guarantee, it is the structure of opportunity. To survive its rigors is tantamount to surviving a storm. Don’t be deceived by false promises, promises of material wealth are not the point. The point is the struggle itself. America offers an environment where the impediments to an honest struggle have been minimized.

The Promise of America is a beautifully manicured, well-lit field on which to play ball, and the umpires to make sure that the contest is run by the rules. We must pick our own team and choose our own opponents. The Promise is not one of victory.

    “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man,
    And I believe in a promised land.”

With this song and this album, Springsteen graduated from the perpetual summer of Born to Run to the autumn of adulthood. Springsteen had the will power and the artistry to make this transition. It was much-resisted. Darkness sold poorly compared to Born to Run but Springsteen persisted – yet another story.

It is exactly this transition from boy to man, from notions of Paradise to the realities of the Promise, which the public did not allow Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to make. Brian’s frustration at the blockage of his public maturation exacerbated personal instabilities and amplified his drug abuse. Wilson’s subsequent emotional breakdown incapacitated him for much of 20 years.

The Beach Boys’ success at promoting the themes of an American paradise and perpetual youth precluded them from growing up, lest America be forced to do so as well. For Brian, youth and paradise were primarily themes to focus his song writing upon. Dennis Wilson was fixated not with paradise, but with water, and it was water that eventually killed him.

Only Mike Love (the “oldest” Beach Boy in appearance though not age) – bald at 25 – understood the nature of the Beach Boys appeal. His boyish personality and goofy onstage demeanor define the appeal of the Beach Boys for many people. The Beach Boys made a triumphant return to the stage (and through compilation albums) in the ’70s with Mike Love out front, not fat freaked-out Brian Wilson.

Now to he songs: “Surfin Safari” was the Beach Boys first national hit, released in the fall of 1962. Mike Love was the tour guide with a broken-nosed twang that millions of flatlanders interpreted as a “California accent.” Mike Love was the spokesman for the Southern California paradise from the get-go.

The very first verse evokes California as a paradise, the kind of place where guys get up early in the morning and are so happy they sing. Beautiful girls accompany them to their “job,” which is surfing. They love this job so much that they do it for free – it is untainted by the stench of commerce (kind of like blogging). Also, in the Beach Boys’ version, the occupation is open to everyone, “Let’s go surfin’ now, everyone is learning how, come on a safari with me.” This does not correspond well to reality.

The social structure of surfing is built upon the concept that not everyone can do it. It is difficult. It is physically demanding. It requires more time than golf to master. It requires great patience. It requires the ability to swim very well and it requires an ocean. If these impediments weren’t enough to prevent “everyone” from surfing, then the open hostility of the “locals” to invading flatlanders, would be. The turf wars of surfers have been as intense, if not as deadly, as those of street gangs.

Even on the Boys’ first hit, symbolism and metaphor superceded reality. Surfing wasn’t a reality for the vast majority, it was a symbol of a magical ever-youthful place. Surfing brought good health through exercise and sea air. It brought popularity through its mastery. It brought success with the opposite sex, who were driven to hormonal overdrive by the sea air, surfing prowess, and lots of skin.

These were things that anyone would wish for, and anyone could partake of these delights through the music of the Beach Boys and through the attitudes and dress of the beach. No real surfers would have spread the gospel with the evangelical zeal of the Beach Boys. No real surfer would want the competition for precious wave space.

The rest of “Surfin Safari” is a travelogue of choice surf locations and techniques: “They’re anglin’ in Laguna,” “They’re kicking out in Doheney too.” These were codes to learn and use.

“What are the choice surf spots as delineated in Surfin Safari, Poindexter?”

“Gee, I don’t know Miss Crabfish.”

“Just as I suspected, you haven’t done your homework.”

“Don’t Worry Baby” (1964) is where Brian established himself as a production, as well as songwriting genius. He out-walls Phil Spector without the bombast, just plush layers of shag carpet vocal, chugging guitar and drums. Some say that this is where Brian began to let the dark side show, but the essence of the song isn’t the foolhardy braggadocio that gets the singer’s character in trouble, it’s the encompassing and omnicient love with which girlfriend comforts him.

When the girl tells him, “When you race today just take along my love with you,” she means her love is something palpable that will protect him like a great pink airbag. This fits into the Beach Boys paradise theme: in paradise, love protects you from harm.

“Help Me Rhonda” (1965) is another plaintive song, but the music is so cheerful that the singer knows with certainty that Rhonda will indeed lend a hand, and probably a gland. The singer is cheerful because he believes he knows the answer before he asks the question, a question that confirms what is already known through eye contact, body language and “vibrations,” in this case “good.”

We love to ask questions to which we already know the answers, and ask favors we know will be granted: these confirm our perception of ourselves as perceptive individuals.

“California Girls” (1965) is another production and melodic master work, with great good humor and a dose of ribaldry that even David Lee Roth could appreciate. Now the worldly sophisticates, the Boys detail the amenities of girls from the far corners of the USA. None compare to California girls.

Brian Wilson was insightful in his recognition of the power of environment to transform people. For example: many new arrivals to Southern California immediately a) get a tan b) lighten their hair c) lose weight. The first two are functions of the beach and the weather, the 3rd a function of the “California lifestyle,” which basically says that if you are going to go to the beach and engage in the year-round outdoor activities, you better not look like a big fat toad or you are not going to fit in, babe (unless you don’t care – in which case, why move to Southern California in the first place? – it’s expensive and crowded, so stay home).

Sure, the “East Coast girls are hip” and the southern girls have a beguiling way of speaking. Certainly, the midwest girls have learned a few things watching the farm animals, and the northern girls, having nothing better to do and having extra padding, know how to keep a guy warm. But if you could move them all to Southern California you’d see a transformation! Darker, lighter and lighter is the way it ought to be, the way it’s got to be! The Beach Boys don’t travel to the babes, the babes come to them. (David Lee Roth found this image hilarious: we’ll transform this nation! In his version of the song, the vocals rise to a crecendo of hometown boosterism and visions of endless miles of streamlined, color-coordinated nymphettes, forever young, forever nubile.)

Don’t take the Boys wrong, though. They know that it’s all a joke. You can hear them smiling as they sing. It’s a nice fantasy though, like a Budlight commercial.

By 1966, Brian figured he’d join the psychedelic generation where he could disguise his adult expressions in the jargon of peace, love, understanding, flowers and “Good Vibrations.” The story of the six months in the studio (studios – they recorded in four) and the fanatical perfectionism with which Brian attacked his “3 Minute Symphony” is well known. What isn’t often discussed is the why.

Early in his career, Brian used the surf-youth culture as his theme upon which to make music that would be popularly successful and pleasing to himself. He felt restricted in the latter in order to maintain the former. The growing gap was driving him, quite literally, insane. To top it all off, the Beatles, his only real peers, had just released the baroquely ornate and rapturously received Sgt. Pepper album.

“I can top that. I can put together an even better album that will confirm once and for all that I am not only their equal, I am their superior. I have this handicap. I must remain a child. That’s all they will accept from me, even my own brothers and cousin want children’s stories. I’ll show them. I can get hip to this psychedelic lingo. I’ve taken acid, too. My Mother used to always talk about vibrations – how dogs and animals could pick up on fear and stuff. Why not people too?”

Mike was into it. He was a psychedelic guy himself, always ready for something new. Anything to stay young and take his mind off of his hair, or vice versa.

The song took all Brian had. By the time he finished “Good Vibrations” he was drained emotionally, physically, mentally and artistically. The proposed album, Smile, fell apart. Brian destroyed the master tapes. “Good Vibrations” was great, but was it worth it? Probably not. It would have been preferable to have a sane Brian Wilson for the next 20 years.

That was basically it for Brian for almost 20 years as a functioning human being, although musically he had a brief, beautiful return to form with “Do It Again” and “I Can Hear Music” in ’69, the latter exquisitely sung by Carl Wilson.

The 70s were fallow. The Beach Boys Love You was a sweet, painfully childish album. It bore no hits. It was as though Brian had rebelled against the pressure to make adolescent music by making blatantly childish music. And this was the highlight of the ’70s.

The ’80s were better – the Regans had them to the Whitehouse. “Getcha Back” was catchy and broke the Top 30 in 1985. Things really picked up with “Kokomo” and Brian Wilson’s first solo album, both in 1988. “Kokomo” was the Beach Boys first #1 single since “Good Vibrations.”

“Kokomo” revived the idea that paradise is a place that can be reached here on earth. Brian Wilson had lost his ability to write toward that paradise – he had lost his willingness to explore a myth in which he no longer believed.

“Kokomo” was written by the unlikely tetrad of Mike Love, Terry Melcher, John Phillips and Scott Mackenzie with a Beach Boys-Turtles-Mamas and the Papas-“San Francisco, put some flowers in your hair” type of sound. This hodgepodge, written for a numbskull movie, sounded more like the Beach Boys than the Brian Wilson album did.

First, it has Mike Love on lead vocals; second, it has Carl Wilson coming in with his falsetto “Ooh I wanna take you down to Kokomo, we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow, that’s where we wanna go, way down in Kokomo.” Third, it has a nonsensical but great sounding chorus, “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, I wanna take you, to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty momma,” which is chronically adolescent, just like the Beach Boys. The thrill is there. Brian of ’88 can’t fight the Beach Boys of ’64 and win.

There is also conceptual brilliance at work in “Kokomo” – it completes the Caribbean exploration that was begun with “Sloop John B.” The Caribbean connection does many things: it allows the Beach Boys to extend the idea of paradise from Southern California to the Caribbean, a repository of many of the same pleasures as Southern California and a place to pick up new and enticing rhythms.

The Caribbean is another vision of Paradise – in some preferable to over-crowded, busy, expensive, Californa. “Kokomo” updated the Beach Boys appeal to a more exotic locale with sympathic vibrations.

It has been very nice to see the revival of Brian Wilson, ironic that he alone remains alive of three very talented brothers, brothers whose pursuit of musical Paradise will remain one of the 20th century’s greatest musical legacies.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com/ Bill Sherman

    Phew! You pack quite a lot in this appreciation (goin’ for a bit of Griel Marcus-ianism yourself, eh?) Only thing I’d take critical issue with re: the band itself is your assertion that the seventies was a fallow period for ’em. That may’ve been so in terms of radio hits, but I’d stack Sunflower or Surf’s Up, maybe even Holland, up against a disc like Summer Days and Summer Nights for some gorgeous sounds. (I’ve long felt that Love You was more than a bit overrated – cartoonist Peter Bagge once called it the Beach Boys album for people who don’t really like the Beach Boys and he may be right.) The albums as albums may not be perfect – the only solid monument that band produced was arguably the great Pet Sounds – but as celebrations of California life in the early seventies they’re unsurpassed.

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