Pet Sounds at 50
All kinds of cool things are turning 50 and 100 these days — I’ll never catch them all. Both Pets Sounds and Blonde on Blonde hit the half century mark yesterday. I had on my calendar to blog about them both, but found myself momentarily paralyzed. Honestly, I could write an entire book about either one of those records, and each deserves it. I also dallied with the idea of doing a post that contrasted the two albums. They are both so AMERICAN, and yet in vastly distinctive ways. The oversimplification would be that Brian Wilson is about exploring the music as far as it can go, and Dylan about exploring language as far as it can go. The problem is that there are some positive things to be said about Loren Schwartz’s lyrics on Pet Sounds — and many more positive things to be said about the music on Blonde on Blonde. So I figured I’d jot a few notes on the former today, and save the Blonde on Blonde post for early June, when my friend Alexis Thomason and her friends are doing a musical tribute.
Also, I had written in excruciating detail about Pet Sounds in my ‘zine The Herald of Freedom in the late ’90s. The multi-part article I wrote was called “The Genius of Brian Wilson”. But I don’t have the original files, and the thought of retyping all that seems prohibitively onerous. That’s one of the main reasons why, despite having blogged here about Dennis and Carl, I have not done one yet on Brian. Such a huge topic! And I felt I’d already tackled it, even if it is inaccessible. And starting from scratch also seems a pain. But the article I wrote was sort of uncooked anyway — lots of analyzing of specific musical moments that only about two people would want to read. So today I share a few thoughts and recollections.
I grew up listening to the Beach Boys. My brothers had all their early albums through 1965’s The Beach Boys Today and had left the records behind when they moved out of the house. So I was discovering the music 10, 15 years after it had originally come out. But it wasn’t like I was the only kid in school doing this. Tons of kids at my school did. Other kids had those compilation albums from the mid ’70s, Endless Summer, and Spirit of America. In later years I came to know all their original albums through the early ’70s.
But oddly, I was well into adulthood before I listened to Pet Sounds. I’d read about it for years, of course, in the context of its influence on the Beatles, and I knew its more famous songs, “Sloop John B.”, “Caroline No, “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” But I’d not heard the rest. And I recall not warming up to it immediately. For me, the point of the Beach Boys was a kind of fun and fast quality, the kind of feeling you get from a song like “Little Honda”. There was and is a kind of inclination on the part of Brian Wilson to evoke concrete things through his music. Part of the joy is the fantasy…being transported to some spot where some action was happening….a drag race, a trip to the beach, a party, an amusement park. The sentiments and desires they were expressed were near-universal (among teenagers at least), hence the popularity of their singles.
But like any great artist (pop or otherwise), Wilson also explored the subjective. “In My Room” is an early example of this kind of thing. I’ll confess that I often moved the needle over the introspective songs. I was a teenager. Frankly I found the slow songs somewhat, well, boring and Pet Sounds initially struck me as an entire album of such material. But like I say, I was an adult at the time I finally got around to exploring it. I was intrigued by the album’s legend. I got most deeply into it in my late ’20s when I was away at the MacDowell Colony for a two month writing retreat. My music of the moment was a Beach Boys boxed set (including the first ever released versions of songs from Smile), and a cassette with Pet Sounds on one side and the original Broadway production of Threepenny Opera on the other. With nothing but time on my hands, in the hours when I wasn’t writing (and sometimes when I was) I played these albums to death. And so this when I first truly HEARD the album, absorbed its complexities, noted its wit, paid real attention to it, and let its beauty move and inspire me.
Of course, it is the farthest thing from boring. Certain parts of the record are EXHILARATING and I now go straight to those songs. The almost evangelical “I Know There’s an Answer” would be chief of these, but I also love “I’m Waiting for the Day”, especially the surprise outro section. Surprise! That’s the key. There’s not a single moment of music on the album Wilson hasn’t labored to make interesting in some way, either melodically, or rhythmically, or harmonically or (perhaps especially) in terms of instrumentation. Like his hero George Gershwin, he opens the door of possibility, he brings unprecedented ambition to a popular art form. (I always think of the bicycle horn in “You Still Believe in Me” as a nod to Gershwin, who used a taxi horn in “An American in Paris.”) I know very little about musical education, but I’ve always thought Pet Sounds would be the perfect record to use to get young people interested in orchestration. Kettle drums aplenty! Strings! Horns! Harps! And then weird stuff you have to keep listening to figure out, and sometimes you never do. Americana creeps in (low notes on a harmonica, an autoharp, a banjo). Yes, if I were one of Brian’s brothers (especially Carl), I would have been more than a little pissed about being sidelined by session men. But they all get their moments of glory as vocalists on this record.
As for the lyrics, if not up to Beatle standards, I find most of them on this record to be quite clever. I’ve always been fond of the couplet:
I know so many people who think they can do it alone
They isolate their head and stay in their safety zone
It sounds commonplace enough until you make a football reference out of the last two words, which for me ties the song to their earlier “bubble gum” music thematically. And we must never forget that though Wilson be a genius, he’s first, foremost and ONLY a bubble gum genius. I always pair him mentally with Quenton Tarentino. Master of his chosen form in every way you can think of, a true artist in all the ways that matter, so eloquent in the work itself — but when they open their mouths to speak in interviews, they sound about 14 years old. How did someone so apparently elemental make something so sophisticated? There’s something very American about this virtual savantism, something that makes them akin to inventors like Edison or the Wright Brothers. “Hey, I’m just a guy tinkering in his garage.” And suddenly, they hit something and the entire universe explodes.
Now, as we all know, Wilson went a little too FAR out into the universe. Pet Sounds ended up being his last completed masterpiece during the most successful phase of his career. (This is something, too, the album has in common with Blonde on Blonde, although in the case of the latter album, I am aware I would have much arguing to do to convince some people of that, and some people would never be convinced.) But it has been a joy watching Wilson pull himself together over the last couple of decades. And oh the irony that he — who QUIT touring because it made him anxious, freeing him up to create masterworks in the studio — is now touring the country with a live version of his greatest masterwork? This is something we could not have predicted in 1976, when John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had to roust the overweight, depressed emotional cripple out of his four-poster bed and force him to go surfing. Ya know? As another famous all-American savant once said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.