My Good Neighbor, Mr. Wilson
review by Kevin Harvey
I was thinking about writing about Holland, an overlooked masterpiece by the Beach Boys, when the cold air of mortality blew by. Preparing for Holland, I was listening to Brian’s Songs in the Key of Disney. I’ve written a great deal about the barrier of expectations we build around an artist we think we know, we think we understand. It may be the power of the performer- or not- but every Dylan fan thinks he or she recognizes the real Dylan; every Elvis fan lives thinking he or she would have connected with him, would have saved him from his destructive excess. Any song by either singer, heard out of context, without warning, can stop a fan in the market aisle, slack-jawed at the perfection of the performance. Stuck on You is incredible! Does anyone hear the beauty in All the Wild Horses? What’s wrong with the world? Let me grab this guy staring at the popcorn by the throat! Do you hear that? They never do. Nor do I ever grab them Instead I shuffle on, muttering: Why isn’t Johnny Rivers in the goddamn Hall of Fame? Has anyone listened closely, if at all, to the two recordings Brian Wilson released on the Disney label? Brian Wilson! Is he still alive? Disney! Walt Disney made records? I know he’s dead. But I’m not having this conversation in the market: I’m safe at home. Besotted by the complexity of Holland, I’m listening to Songs in the Key of Disney, followed by Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. The news, the cold air of mortality, hits me: Mick Jagger, whose show always went on, is postponing a tour to have a heart valve replaced! I’m told the procedure is foolproof, as if hearts are ever foolproof. Brian is singing The Bare Necessities- better than Bill Murry did in the Jungle Book remake- but I’m overcome by a need to recap, to focus. First on Brian, frail now and close to retirement. Perhaps most of all I needed to focus on Brian. And in a few days, after Mick is cleared to go back to work, I’ll think hard about the Stones place in this cynical world, where Bob Dylan tells us everything is broken.
I’ve always operated under the weight of a self-imposed axiom: If you love an artist, musician, painter, writer, poet, newspaper columnist or actress, you support everything she or he produces- even if it takes decades to understand a given work, especially if you don’t get it the first time around. Dylan is the prime example of this. How many people now love Self-Portrait? It is also why I never read reviews of a movie I know I’m going to see until after I’ve seen it. How many times did I watch Revenge of the Sith before Camille Paglia convinced me it was worth the hours stolen from my allotted time on this Bardo level? (I’ve also said that there is no such thing as digression or an inanimate object. If digressions did exist surely this would count as one.)
Are you old enough to remember when SMILE, an album beyond the reach of mere mortals, collapsed in dusty, heartbroken, rubble? Compressed in the vice of Impossible Expectations, Smiley Smile- soundtrack for an unmade, feature-length cartoon- slipped out and was greeted for what it wasn’t: It wasn’t SMILE, the Wagnerian narrative that would follow Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains into the halls of Valhalla. Which is a pity because it may be the beginning of underestimating and/or ignoring almost everything that followed. What followed Smiley was Wild Honey, a stripped-down album of songs that returned to basics without sounding either desperate or condescending; which given the demands of the day was a minor miracle. If anything, it sounded relieved, happy to be free of artistic grandiosity. But for most of the hip tastemakers, the Beach Boys were irrelevant. Crawdaddy’s Paul Williams still wrote about them as if they made work that mattered, but Brian’ s mental/emotional state- his collapse into obese isolation- was more interesting. Perhaps if they’d changed the group’s name to the Beach Men?
1968 and 69 saw the release of Friends and 20/20. At one point- I no longer remember where, but no matter- Brian called Friends his favorite Beach Boy album. I’m not sure why he said it, but I am sure he was alone. No one I ever mentioned Friends to had even heard it. They may have thought it had something to do with the TV show, but years would pass before that mistake was even possible. And it’s too bad because Friends was pretty good: its overall sound falling midway between Smiley Smile and Wild Honey; which is to say it was, by turns, rock solid or animated goofy. And, oh my, it actually had a tune called Transcendental Meditation. Wasn’t that over? The critical reaction? Boo. Next.
20/20, an album of stronger songs and performances, somehow managed an even weaker reaction. (Was Bluebirds Over the Mountain a single? Did it chart? Look it up.) Mike Love was photographed for the cover without a hat and Al Jardine is sitting with his hands folded in prayer, as if asking for help from above. Al’s prayers went unanswered and Brian was nowhere to be found. 20/20 ended the calendar 60’s and not a moment too soon. (The actual 60’s, as the term is battered unthinkingly around, starting with the murder of John Kennedy would haunt and whisper until Nixon waved adios and Ford ushered in the leisure suit 70’s.) As for the Beach Boys, 1970 would open with Live in London, a snoozer that would win no arguments; but Mo Ostin over at Warner Brothers had been listening with brave and open ears: There was great music, even hits, yet to be found: Handled correctly and properly packaged, the Boys weren’t dead yet. Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker were willing to gamble. Sunflower, the perfectly packaged first Beach Boy’s studio album, was a jewel. You knew it the second you saw the cover, even the lettering was right. Looking at it today, my first thought is only Al Jardine and Bruce Johnson are looking directly into the camera: Hatless, bearded Mike looking like he wandered over prophet-like from a Flannery O’Connor story is looking down at his children; Dennis, ever solo, soulful here on Sunflower, is looking at Brian who, barely on the album, looks down at his daughter’s enormous bonnet; Carl, a baby on his shoulders, looks away to the right of the photographer. All of which is to say, none of the Wilson brothers or cousin Mike seem willing to look us in the eye. As good as Sunflower is, it isn’t quite a Beach Boy album. Indeed, if one were to come across it uncredited, Dennis and Bruce Johnston would lead the listener astray. It is often claimed that Sunflower was the last time the Boys worked together as a band. This nags at me, because it sounds, to my ear, like a different band, a band attempting to sound as if it fit perfectly with sound of the day. In some ways, it did, but those moments are the very reason it now sounds generic. Dennis’ Forever is still lovely; Carl’s sweet voice is underused; Bruce does more than Mike, but the abandoned Cool, Cool Water. dragged out of the SMILE closet and polished at last, is pure Wilson dream; shimmering, it haunts. It is also the most Beach Boy’s sounding track on the album. So how good is Sunflower? Not unlike Dylan, The Beach Boys were seldom received or reviewed accurately; excellent work was ignored or trashed; fair work was over-praised. It was maddening then, and still is.
Surf’s Up came next, a title that looked to have nothing to do with the album, which may have confused anyone looking for a collection of surf tunes. (Dick Dale, who just escaped from this Bardo level, used to perform Jimi Hendrix’s Third Stone from the Sun in his live sets. When Dale came to the part where Hendrix, sounding as if he’d already crossed over, intoned: I hope I never hear surf music again, Dale would replace the line with: I’m still here, Jimi. Which worked beautifully until he wasn’t.) In any event, the cover of the Surf’s Up album was a dark and tragic painting of a Native American slumped forward on his horse, both quite possibly dying. If not dying, it was clear they’d lost the war. The music inside was often wonderful. The stabs at relevancy, the over the top Student Demonstration Time, a re-worked Riot in Cell Block Nine, being the worst offender, feels desperate. Worse, it follows Bruce Johnson’s Disney Girls, making it even more jarring. Overlooking the one faux-protest, nearly every track works, even the head-scratching A Day in the Life of a Tree, which feels like a compressed suite written by a Joyce Kilmer-addled uncle- who lives alone. And yet, its part of a pattern: The Boy’s albums- including later ones that no one but obsessives listened to- would end with a trio of excellent tracks that would have been comfortable, and appreciated, on any album released since 1965. Til I Die, filled with odd metaphor, is offered with soul, a deep sense of mortality. And then, out of nowhere, the album, closes with a complex, magnificent slice of SMILE! To this day, playing it this morning, I’ve never understood the value or meaning of the title; what does surf have to do with what I’ve been listening to? I love Van Dyke Park’s lyrics, especially when I don’t quite understand them. Who cares? Some things are best left mysterious. (The finally finished SMILE, understandable at last, would have none of the weird beauty of the earlier, abandoned, fragments.) One thing more about the Surf’s Up album: It was obvious even then that it was no longer Mike Love’s band. Carl was moving to fill the void created when Brian went off to play an odd variation of Howard Hughes.
Carl’s instincts were dead on. Enlisting Blondie Chapin and Ricky Fataar from the South African band Flame, the Beach Boys became a new band, a much looser group who felt capable of extending the gospel-tinted music on So Tough on every track, every track save one. I say gospel because gospel is clearly present, but spirituality is a better term, an ecumenical spirituality to be precise. There is joy here, a joy that the decades have done nothing to diminish. Every member of the Beach Boy family is credited with production, especially Carl. The phrase “especially Carl” has always felt a bit grudging to me, as if some members were reluctant to admit that Carl was now the soul and center of the group. I say this, because from the day the record came out, the only song I ever heard mentioned was Marcella, a gorgeous, accessible slice of pure Brian. It is wonderful, contained and compressed like nothing else on the album, as if Brian, adrift in isolation, mailed in a reminder that if he felt like getting out of bed, shaking off his demons, he could still make the band his.
I’ve always had a weakness for ignored concept albums- for whatever reasons, the successful ones tend to lose me. It literally took me two years to play Tommy through; I was in love with WHO Sell Out and this overweight clunker of an opera just demanded too much work: all I liked was the single, the rest of the opera felt strained, overwrought. Over the years, I preferred the Electric Prunes’ Mass in F Minor; the Pretty Thing’s P.F. Sorrow, even the Bee Gee’s Odessa. To my ear, Holland was a concept album that worked. Oddly enough, the concept was not unlike the one that hovered over SMILE: American History itself, specifically that of California. Sail on Sailor, Steamboat, The Trader, Leaving This Town, all exceptional, surround the flawless California Saga; Mike Love comes through with a surprisingly nuanced Big Sur, sculpted and polished by Carl and Al Jardine. It is, finally, Jardine who pushes Holland over the masterpiece line. His recitation of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry is simply terrific, and I’ve never been what one would call a Jeffers Head; Brian is rumored to be involved, but it is all Jardine- and the gifted holy man Charles Lloyd on flute- that center the collection. Brian adds Funky Pretty but it feels like its on the wrong album. And Brian, dear Brian, takes everything over the top by adding a 45 single narrative called Mt. Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale). The liner notes tell us that it is narrated by Jack Rieley, who helped flesh out the tale, but it is undeniably Brian’s; demented, magical, innocent and spooky, no one else could have written it, let alone get it released. Only the last two Christmas records by the Beatles rival it for being unplayable, and they were released only to their Fan Club. I suspect on some level that Brian recognized Holland was a concept album and responded accordingly: You want a concept disc? I’ll give you a concept! How about a magic transistor radio? With music supplied by the Pied Piper? (Even Donovan would have come up with something more original than the Pied Piper.) Anyway, the radio plays Bach for the lonely young narrator, and then, supplied by the Piper, something else entirely: perhaps a cartoon soundtrack; I’m not sure. The radio stops playing for the kid; but, Holy Freud, it does play for his two brothers! I’ve listened to it a couple of times and I think the Transistor lives on as a magic kingdom possibility. Or not. Some feel the music, minus the Fairy Tale, fits with SMILE. I don’t. I think at its best, edited down, a changed narrator, and different music on the radio, it would have worked on Smiley Smile. Be that as it may, I offer it as further proof that Brian and Disney were made for each other.
A concert album that Brian reportedly hated and 15 Big Ones would soon follow. The live album, a superb but often sloppily played setlist, has grown more interesting over the years. It doesn’t sound any better- in fact it sounds worse- but the songs are brave picks and you can feel the band struggling mightily to develop, to move forward. But Brian, who woke up every morning by playing Be My Baby until his kid’s minds were close to snapping, would hear something that had nothing to do with The Beach Boys, with the music playing over and over in his mind. (This calls for another violation of the Non-Digression Principal: I caught the original line-up twice in 1964; once playing the Monster Mash set and a second truncated show, stopped because the cops thought the crowd was out of control. It wasn’t, but it was 1964. Brian was singing Surfer Girl when the curtain was lowered behind him, cutting him off from the band, forcing him to duck under it before it reached the stage. Move forward a couple of decades and add Blondie Chaplin to the mix. Blondie is an interesting guy, a much better musician/performer than he gets credit for. I first saw him with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel at the Lone Star in NYC; he’s been on the left side of the Rolling Stone’s stage for years. He is now backing Brian, but more on that later.) So, 15 Big Ones and Live in 69 would fill out the year: The inclusion of several covers made it easy for critics to miss the original material. I recall one review that said: 15, yup. Big, nope. Still, 1977 had a garish looking gem ready in the wings.
In the liner notes to the re-issued Beach Boys LOVE YOU album, Peter Buck writes: “I have a confession to make: LOVE YOU is my favorite Beach Boy’s album.” It isn’t mine, but I understand exactly why he feels that way. Odd to the point of bizarre, it has moments that verge on demented. There is nothing quite like it. I might play it three times a year- in the car or house- and every time my wife strolls in from elsewhere and asks: What is that? (Pause) What is that rhythm? It almost sounds cabaret. Really, I say, noticing that carnival thing that runs through several of the tracks. I wouldn’t call it cabaret, I say, but I know what you mean. It’s the Beach Boy’s LOVE YOU album and that was Mona (an original) followed by Johnny Carson, Honkin’ Down the Highway, Ding Dang, and Solar System, a classic, is next. Johnny Carson? Of course!! Who other than Brian Wilson could call Johnny Carson a real live wire? Or tell us that that the network breaks Johnny’s back? Only Brian could worry about Carson being over-worked. Ding Dang is a whole minute of Ding Dangin’ co-written with Roger McQuin. I don’t know. You’d have to ask Roger. Solar System brings us wisdom, Brian tells us. Followed by: If Mars had life on it/Maybe I’d find a wife on it. You can’t beat that couplet with a stick. There’s a heartbreaking duet with his wife, Marilyn, that is one of a kind. John and Yoko did nothing as good, as emotionally revealing. I’m not going to quote Mike’s weird, but charming song, Airplane. But for me, Honkin’ Down the Highway is the killer. Honkin’ down the gosh darn highway is Disney’s Goofy singing a driver’s instruction toon. It is so off the wall that it by passes Goofy and Tex Avery! Pure genius. Like the best Brian songs, one watches it as much as one listens to it. If you don’t like it, we can’t be friends anymore.
More albums are credited to the Beach Boys, excellent records by Carl and Dennis; but it’s time for Brian’s solo recordings, two in particular. There are, of course, several; but two were criminally overlooked. For weeks now I’ve been working my way through almost sixty years of Brian material, rubberizing my skull, shredding my sanity. Hell, I’ve played live bootlegs, the unreleased Dumb Angel, both versions of the “Landy” album: allow me to start with Imagination, released in 92, it has aged remarkably well. His voice- and I’m not joking- is nearly youthful. The songs are co-written by a small crowd of suspects, including the dubious Jimmy Buffet, beloved by children under six and seniors over seventy. Be that as it may, I think a line in the first track Your Imagination is killer: “I miss the day when I used to call the shots around here.” Its either funny or it isn’t; sometimes you can’t tell with Brian. Either way, he sounds fully present. It’s your call. South American. a song written with Buffet, improves if one mentally places it on Disney’s Saludos Amigos, rather than reminding oneself that Jimmy Buffet, the world’s luckiest entertainer since Gary Lewis, had anything to do with it. The remake of Let Him Run Wild is many times better than it has any right to be. In fact, defying all laws of probability. It’s very good. Lay Down Burden, the jewel at the center of the lotus, written for Carl and dedicated to him the one time I heard Brian perform it live, is heartbreaking. There is a lesson here: You can’t help but be overwhelmed by the tragedy that hovered around the Wilsons. Brian’s pain, understood and internalized, is extraordinary; his return from the abyss, kindness and decency intact, is nothing less than a miracle. Which leads me, finally, to the two discs I was talking to myself about when I felt the air from the other side: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin and Songs in the Key of DISNEY. Neither album is a step back or out of character. Brian quite naturally, heard correctly, has been playing Gershwin and Disney his whole life.
Gershwin opens with Rhapsody in Blue/ Intro: Listen the vocal harmonies and you will hear SMILE again, or at least what Brian attempted; in his words: Music is God’s voice. The Like in I Love You is now the kind of pop that might have found its way on to the Beach Boy’s TODAY album, the Beach Boy’s equivalent of Rubber Soul. Had it not already existed, couldn’t Brian and Van Dyke Parks have made Summertime? For that matter, Orange Crate Art and Song Cycle, both written by Van Dyke, argue the two, working together, might have made Porgy and Bess. Was there a moment in Caroline no when you thought: I think he could sing I loves You Porgy? I didn’t think so, but there is nothing to compare to Brian Wilson singing I loves You Porgy for stepping through the musical mirror. It Ain’t Necessarily So is nothing less than the tune that proves several of my arguments: the song is witty, once it lands in the mind, it never leaves; it is brilliant; it is also dumb, which is to say purely American, purely Brian Wilson. Without adding to the workload, I can think of six Beach Boy albums that S’Wonderful would have easily fit on. The hell with it. Brian did write it. There. So what if I spilled the beans?
They Can’t Take That Away from Me, which could have been the up-tempo B/side of I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, if nothing more than an imaginary single played on my magic transistor radio? Why not? It works. Love is Here to Stay might have gone either way; goofy lyrics that no one noticed were goofy, or whispered slowly in cracked misery. Brain, always the believer- regardless of the evidence- plays it in the middle, sounding reasonably certain that love is indeed here to stay. I’ve Got a Crush on You is given a retro-50’s spin, leading into a Palisades Park version of I’ve Got Rhythm that sounds a bit like Peter Boyle’s monster in Young Frankenstein, but there’s nothing wrong with that. One can dance to it wearing really heavy shoes, or even clogs. Someone to Watch Over Me is the one that puts the boots to the critics. Not only does the lyric sound lifted from Pet Sounds, the instrumental track, played alone, is Pet Sounds. There are moments when I forget that it isn’t Pet Sounds. Anyone who tells you that Pet Sounds was a masterpiece and doesn’t love this track is roughly the equivalent of the guy who says he was at Ted William’s last game. Right. Dressed as a shepherd? I say the park was nearly empty and you didn’t like Pet Sounds until enough people told you told you it was a masterpiece.
So much for pets, sheep, and delusion. Nothing But Love, listed as co-written by Gershwin-Wilson, has what was once called swing; followed by a vocal Rhapsody closer, we are left with what amounts to a self-produced Brian Wilson Primer. It’s all there. All of his influences, all his themes, all the glory that plays constantly in Brian Wilson’s mind. That and, of course, Be My Baby. And somehow, like the old Baltimore Colts, it slipped away under cover of darkness.
What first surprised me about Songs in the Key of DISNEY was how few of the songs I recognized; playing the Expectation Game, I’d made up the setlist, stopping long before Randy Neuman, Tim Rice or Elton John showed up. So with one large exception, I listen to the tracks not as soundtracks to a given film but as songs picked, produced, and performed by Brian Wilson. Which is more than enough. You’ve Got a Friend in Me starts it off. Can anyone following Brian’s trail not hear it on the Friends album? Really. Had it existed and had Brian broken free of his demons, he might have created a concept album about friendship. But such projections are but fodder for the WAY-BACK Machine. As usual Brian sings it as if he, not Randy Neuman, had written it. Its followed by The Bare Necessities, one of Disney’s most recognizable tunes. Listen to half of it. Try getting it out of your head. When Jungle Book was remade, Bill Murray sang it. If you’ve not seen the film, pretend you have. Bill Murray is singing it in your mind- because he was born to sing it. You know I’m right. So, too, was the guy who wrote In My Room.
The highpoint comes early for me. Baby of Mine- Disney’s obligatory Mother Separation scene- central to Dumbo, mugs me into weeping submission every time I hear the song or watch the film. Forget Ol’ Yeller, in which the lad becomes a man by murdering the family mutt. Put aside the moment when Bambi says: We made it, mom. Mom? Behind him, the shadows are moving along the wall, and Bambi is alone. It’s brutal. As is the soul-searing opening sequence that, decades later, opens the animated UP. The old fellow’s wife dies- dies, I tell you- and it matters not how old you are or your role in life- the scene is too much for a mere cartoon! How many American kiddos have been introduced to mortality by the wounded Walt? When my mystic granddaughter watched UP, too young for the experience, she whispered: “He’s lost his friend.” I can barely type the words; I can barely think of the brutalized Mrs. Dumbo. (And where the hell was Mr. Dumbo, who should have stepped on at least one Circus Sadist?) Clearly, Walt had issues as deep as Bruce Wayne’s; but I digress. (!) Brian Wilson, more scrambled then either man, stayed in bed until he worked them out; indeed, worked them out to the point that he could locate the joy behind the heartbreak in Baby of Mine. Leave it that every track on the album- Kiss the Girl; We Belong Together; Whistle While You Work; When You Wish Upon a Star- is pure Wilson. The marriage of singer to material is so perfect, so transformed, that one has to remind oneself that Brian Wilson didn’t write the songs. He did, however, make them his own. If Dylan’s reworking of Sinatra- to say nothing of Bob’s Christmas album- can be treated respectfully, why is Brian’s Gershwin/Disney work all but ignored? Is Bob forever hip, while Brian remains the dufus who faked surfing in his bathrobe with John Belushi? I refuse to answer, but I’m back where I started, pondering mortality. As predicted Mick came out of his surgery in fine form, but this wasn’t supposed to happen. Weren’t Mick and Keith and Charlie going to play forever? The last time I saw Brian- in a show that was saved by the bottomless energy of Blondie Chaplin- Brian looked frail, as if he were nearing the end of performing live. He left the stage first, while the band roared on without him, which is fine; but someone was holding his hand while, head down, he took tiny, tentative steps. When I put on MSNBC yesterday afternoon, the 800
year-old Notre Dame was in flames. That wasn’t supposed to happen either.