Home > Articles > M&M > When Brian Wilson Smiles Part 2



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Within two albums Wilson became the greatest pop helmsman of his time, composing, arranging, orchestrating and producing timeless hits and teen anthems, and the occasional song that hinted at some yearning deep within our shared human experience. His absolute certainty that love was like the tide and loneliness was unavoidable, and that the solitary confines of one’s own room was where one sorted things out—these truths came as relief to the sons of World War II veterans who knew the humbler abstracts of manhood needed to be articulated in contrast to the clearer, more noble codes of the warrior. Wilson’s off-road, off-surf, off-hit confessions were my confessions; his doubts were my doubts. His own falsetto—the most distinguishing feature and beauty of the Beach Boys unsurpassed harmonic power—was out of range for most singers, and was often a source of embarrassment for Wilson himself; but its sonority married power and self-doubt and made us all want to hit that high note because it was this note that reigned supreme and conjured in everlasting bittersweet epiphanies whatever cry was buried inside us. Ask John Lennon, ask Roy Orbison, ask Aimee Mann, ask Elvis Costello, ask k.d. lang—ask any singer that matters, and they all marvel at the aching purity of Wilson’s voice.

The more control Brian Wilson had over his creation, the more introspection he sought from himself and from the efforts of his band; the more complex the emotion of the tune, the more the lyric needed to reflect the arc of melancholy often suggested by the melody; the sadder and more sublime the songs became, the more distance was placed between Wilson and his band mates, his recording company, and the fans who did not want to shower off the salt and leave the beach. Like the 60’s, it was time to get serious. This never sits well with the brainless.

“I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me”

(from Roughing It by Mark Twain, 1872)

What good is the dawn that grows into day,
The sunset at night, or living this way?
For I have the warmth of the sun within me at night.

The love of my life, she left me one day,
I cried when she said, “I don’t feel the same way,”
Still, I have the warmth of the sun within me at night…
(“Warmth of the Sun” by Brian Wilson & Mike Love, 1963)

When Brian Wilson sighs
All the angels will fall hard from the clouds
And a dumbstruck love will hold court*
With an empty shroud.

“Get behind the chords. The further behind the chords you get, the more melodic you can be. Get behind meaning, concentrate more and put all your eggs into the melody.”

(Brian Wilson)

When Vince Gill sang “The Warmth of the Sun” at a Radio City Musical Hall gig celebrating the music of Brian Wilson, the majesty of his pure falsetto was a force of beauty once possessed by Wilson himself; but the song…it is the song that holds sway. Written in response to the events of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Brian breaking up with his girlfriend that day, the emotion is not masking the sublime with the ridiculous. The melody instructs us that loss of any kind is the loss of a thousand kinds, and no event, however minor to the larger context, is invisible to the heart. And the tears fall harder in “Don’t Worry, Baby,” a tune from the same period. That “everything will turn out all right,” was on the mind of every American while the caisson was carrying Camelot to Arlington. But for Wilson, it was the effort made by the man to be comforted by the woman. Whenever men yield to this, healing occurs; and despite the blood and rage of the 60’s, hope was possible. Racial and gender equality could be achieved, hate could take a back seat to love, and war could be ended—at least for a while.

Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?
Will I look back and say I wish I hadn’t done what I did?
Will I joke around and still take on the suckers,
When I grow up to be a man.
(“When I Grow Up” by Brian Wilson & Mike Love, 1964)

When I was a kid, no one bothered to ask me to draw a picture of what my adult years would look like. When Mike Love handed this lyric over to Brian, Wilson must have thought, ‘What am I to do with this?’ But Brian drew from his well of emotion and came up with a stunning tune that cannot be performed by any other group, that effortlessly shifts keys four times in the course of two minutes, that executes the famously full vocal nuances and call-and-answer counter pointing in startlingly complex ways, that uses a harpsichord which seems to almost genuflect to the idea of growing old. And somehow, this absurdly orchestrated tune turns into a top ten hit! It defies the very codes that defined a hit back then. Anchored in a major key, the march into adulthood is assured; shifting to a minor key, the swagger turns to doubt. This is a pop song whose reward is immediate, but to fathom it requires a sustained reading of its musicality. It is precisely at this point in his recording career when Wilson’s concerns were no longer buried in metaphor, but were revealed literally. Life’s inevitable movement from joy to sorrow can only be tempered by acceptance, reflection and renewal. Even at the height of Wilson’s considerable hit-making power, the Beach Boy who never surfed, preferred to remain alone in his room with his piano, “bugged by his old man,” and exhausted by the road. When Wilson retired from touring, what he merely hinted at in production pieces like “Kiss Me, Baby,” “California Girls,” “She’s Not the Little Girl I Once Knew,” and “In the Back of My Mind,” was about to become fully realized in Pet Sounds.

Pet Sounds’ opening track wasted no time. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” completed the near hallucinatory yearning for requited love previously explored in “Please Let Me Wonder,” which rendered the desire more through the ache of its melody than through the sentiment of its lyric. It was as if Wilson had shaped a thru-melody that made secondary the narrative dynamic of a love song. Like most of the Beach Boys early canon, bliss holds court over what we imagine happiness to be. The marriage sought in this first track would be nice, but Wilson and newly hired lyricist, Tony Asher, knew better. Pet Sounds ruptures the dream of bliss and nearly finishes off the Beach Boys as a dependable, but uniquely sophisticated hit making machine. Something of a higher lyrical and musical ordering would be thrust upon a fan base that suspected that there was more to this band than deuce coupes and thunder pipelines. When Jimi Hendrix shouted from a cloud of rainbow noise and feedback on the Fillmore stage that we would never have to hear surf music again, Brian was already on it. The rest of the Beach Boys were coming off their first world tour without Brian when they discovered that big brother was not only altering the blueprint of their respective roles in the band, but the very architecture of the way pop music would be produced. A few of the Boys (and Capital Records) resisted, and the slight fissure—barely perceptible in the finished Pet Sounds—eventually would tear apart the fabric of Wilson’s magnum opus to American—his Smile.

“It has always been the foremost concern of genius to add to the sum of mankind’s reverence for mankind”

(James Lord)

When Brian Wilson cries…
All the bass guitars will go out of tune—
Misfiring hot rod pistons fused in the pale high noon.*

“Each track has that lovely distinctive smothered Wilson sound as though they’re all singing through sugar cotton wool. The whole LP is far more romantic than the usual Beach Boy jollity. Sad little wistful songs about lost love and found love and all around love”

(Penny Valentine)

“No one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard Pet Sounds…”

(Paul McCartney)
“Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened”

(George Martin)

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 Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” by Brian Wilson & Tony Asher)


Pet Sounds is essentially about realms—the constructs of power and place. In isolating himself from the need to provide the Beach Boys and Capital Records with the formulaic fare of their usual “jollity,” Brian Wilson, the very viceroy of the under produced pop hit, ascends to the status of production king, lording over LA’s finest musicians to concoct a song cycle that to this day resonates deeply with fans that gave this work the listen it so deserves. It is almost alone among pop works that sounds better and means more than it did on the thousand yesterdays of its life. Pet Sounds separates out from infatuation the deeper tremors of love and heartache. In its tuneful and orchestral symmetry and unpredictable use of percussion, Pet Sounds allows the listener to engage in listening: “Listen…listen…listen…, Wilson pleads in the gorgeous “Don’t Cry (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”… and let me hear your heartbeat.”


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