Recordings of February 1991: Surf's Up, etc.

Caribou/Brother/Epic ZK 46950. Stephen W. Desper, eng. TT: 36:48
Caribou/Brother/Epic ZK 46951. Stephen W. Desper, eng. TT: 33:36
Caribou/Brother/Epic ZK 46952. Stephen Moffitt, Rob Fraboni, engs. TT: 48:13
All three: CD only. The Beach Boys, prods. Digitally remastered by Joe Gastwirt. AAD.

Late August, 1965, Westminster Lake, New York—those of you who grew up Presbyterian in New York in the '60s might recognize the name of the Northern Synod Church Camp where I'd just finished my yearly week of circumspect recreation. I was 14, and there was a dance held at the main Lodge. I stood in a deep bed of wallflowers as a local high-school band took the stage—white slacks, red blazers, blue ties, and a name I can't recall. They started playing and, obnoxious classical-music snob that I was at the time, I stopped listening.

Until the intro to this one god, they were changing key all over the place! And rhythmically, pretty interesting. Then the kid with the cowlick stepped up to the mike and sang "Those East Coast girls are hip, I really dig the styles they wear..." By the time the chorus came along, I was standing there with my mouth hanging open at the song's musical sophistication and (it seemed to me) powers of observation. Two summers before, on vacation with my family, I'd returned to Southern California after living for eight years in the Northeast. I'd remembered just enough of my first five years on the West Coast to suffuse those recollections with a hazy golden glow of surf, sun, and winterless euphoria, and had just enough interest in girls to be totally intimidated by the tawny-skinned blondes that seemed to be everywhere. And now this incredibly cosmopolitan song ("I've been all 'round this great big world and I seen all kinda girls") was summing up my entire personal mythology of California in a mere two minutes and thirty seconds.

I turned to my buddy Dave, who I saw only for a week each year at Church Camp. "Dave, this song is amazing! That's just what it's like! I mean, California girls really are like that! There's something special about them! Wow!" (I was 14, remember.) "Did these guys write this song?"

Dave's dad was a software designer for IBM before anyone had ever heard of "software"—pretty exotic for 1965—and Dave himself was into cool jazz and Third Stream music. He looked at me with 14-year-old contempt acidic enough to dissolve my own 14-year-old enthusiasm. "Jesus Christ," he growled, turning away in disgust, "it's a goddamn Beach Boys song."

So, no, those kids in blazers weren't the Beach Boys, but the song was "California Girls," and I realize now that my long, slow, grudging acceptance and eventual love of pop music began at that moment.

Nevertheless, I've never been entirely comfortable with my love of the Beach Boys' music. For a time in the late '60s and very early '70s, these five clean-cut WASPs in Pendletons—Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine—from suburban Hawthorne, California stood for all that a certain hip sector of youth had supposedly left behind, musically, culturally, politically, and spiritually. When the Beatles sang "Those Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind...," we were all so sure that Lennon/McCartney were delivering a savage musical riposte rather than a grateful tribute to the group that had created Pet Sounds, which album Paul McCartney has admitted was the immediate inspiration and challenge that resulted in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But we had left a lot of the Boys' world behind, and a good thing too. America was on the cusp of trading its childhood innocence and acceptance of authority for the equally innocent idealism, discovery of its own body, and pure adolescent rage that fueled and created what remains our least understood, least assimilated, most important era and profoundest cultural blind spot: the late '60s. I remember the contempt with which the Beach Boys were mentioned, when spoken of at all, but that contempt was telling: the scorn of the rebellious teenager for the ten-year-old who still accepts Mom & Dad's word as law.

Nevertheless, from 1963 to 1966 the Beach Boys were America's most popular rock band—no small achievement. Musically, they were an odd, often brilliant amalgam of Four Freshmen harmonies and Chuck Berry riffs, Motown rhythms and Phil Spector production values. In turn, they influenced virtually everyone who followed them, from the Beatles to Elvis Costello to the Fine Young Cannibals. And the lyrics? Well, the lyrics...inane, simplistic, ingenuous, artless, vacant, quite literally sophomoric—all that and less. As for anything even remotely resembling a social conscience, that had to wait until 1971 and Surf's Up. And, as most of this music and lyrics were the product of one Boy—Brian Wilson, the oldest of the three Wilson brothers—the interior contradictions of any given Beach Boys song or album—wondrous music, awful lyrics—too often tore those songs and albums apart, just as they eventually tore apart their maker.

Much has been made of Brian Wilson's musical talent, and almost as much of his human weaknesses. Rock writers love to throw the word "genius" around, and that word has been applied to no rock musician more than to Brian Wilson. But "idiot savant" is, I think, a more accurate term. Reading Steven Gaines's sobering Heroes & Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, and listening again to their music, reveal a Brian Wilson who not so much never left adolescence as never entered it in the first place. His lyrics are so often the fantasies of a sensitive, lonely prepubescent, while the astonishingly distinctive music soars and changes and pulses, sometimes rocking straight ahead, sometimes chiming with uniquely creative voicings, basslines, vocal arrangements, and studio effects. Not to make too much of the parallel, but imagine if the eight-year-old Mozart had been writing his own opera libretti as well as composing.

My fiancée loathes the Beach Boys because, she says, they're everything she hates about American men: immature, decadent, and sexist. But in 1964, who wasn't? Inevitably, there's unconscious cruelty to many of their songs ("The girls on the beach are all within reach"), and an automatic misogyny, but it's less an actual hatred of women—excuse me, girls—than that eight- or ten-year-old, still in his "I hate girls" phase, trying to ape his teenage brother's newfound virility while having no idea what it's all about. Though so many of Brian's lyrics obviously have little connection to any real world of relationships between boys and girls, let alone between men and women, they were obviously very real to him; the care and passion with which he crafted the songs is achingly sad, poignant, and ultimately tragic.

(A telling verse in Brian's very brief "This Whole World," from Sunflower: "When girls get mad at boys, you know / Many times they're just puttin' on a show / But when they leave, you wait alone." Brian moves from desperate faith in his own implicit denial of any real source for women's anger, to bewildered victimization when they really are angry enough to leave him: a lonely struggle for acceptance without understanding.)

As long as we're basking in the golden glow of historical hindsight, it's even harder to accept the Beach Boys' innocent California daydream of sun, surf, cars, and chicks (in just about that order) even at face value—as the sincere if unexamined wishes of a handful of lower-middle-class postwar white kids—when you know about the cynical Mike Love's violent rages (the Maharishi's TM notwithstanding), Brian's long retreat into madness, paranoia, schizophrenia, agoraphobia, obesity, alcoholism, and drugs, and Dennis Wilson's self-destruction with coke and booze, not to mention his welcoming into his home the entire "family" of his good friend, Charles Manson. Their heads were high in the clouds that hid the Pacific sunset, their feet firmly in the California muck that the perennially stunned Joan Didion has described so well in The White Album and elsewhere.