Brian Wilson is arguably the most accomplished songwriter alive today. What is unarguable, though, is that Wilson is the most misunderstood songwriter working today. Certainly, among the reams of writing about him (and the Beach Boys are one of the most written-about bands in history, far out of proportion to their popularity, mostly due to their propensity for acting like characters in one of the more absurd Hollywood Babylon-type potboilers — as a band they’ve never been happier than when joining religious cults, marrying each other’s underage daughters, hanging around with mass murderers, and having very public bouts of mental illness) one is hard-pushed to find anything describing why his music is important, other than unsupported statements that he is “a genius.”
In part, this is down to Wilson’s own inarticulacy, coupled with the natural difficulty of writing about someone whose primary gift is for music rather than words. With the best of Wilson’s music, it’s easy to say it’s good, but hard to say why it’s good, and Wilson himself will do very little to help explain it. Notoriously difficult in interviews, a typical Wilson quote might be “ ‘God Only Knows’? Yeah, that was a real ... wow, that was a trip, huh? It knocked me out. Whew.”
But the main reason, I suspect, is because the story that is told about Wilson is the wrong one. The story goes: young man made a series of pretty, catchy, fluffy pop songs; somehow, out of nowhere writes and records one great album; goes mad and does nothing for thirty years. What a tragedy.
The problem here is mostly with the idea that Pet Sounds, Wilson’s one near-universally acknowledged masterpiece, is somehow above and apart from the remainder of his work, which is otherwise just cheerful pop nonsense or the sad ravings of a once-great mind reduced to a shell of its former self. This idea is one that has been promoted by lazy rock journalists and by elements within Wilson’s management team over the years. And it is totally incorrect.
Even the most cursory critical listen to Wilson’s body of work shows the same themes, both musical and lyrical, occurring time and again over the forty-five years he’s been writing. Far from being an aberration, Pet Sounds is just one more iteration by Wilson of the themes that have haunted him throughout his life and work.
Rather than the story of the collapse of a great talent, Pet Sounds and the unfinished Smile are better understood as Brian Wilson’s equivalent of Jack Kirby’s move away from Marvel Comics — the Fourth World saga is in many ways the comic world’s equivalent of Smile, except that Wilson has happily lived long enough to fully complete his work. Both men were non-verbal revolutionaries in their field who, initially, required someone else to put words to their art. Both worked with charismatic front men (Stan Lee and Mike Love) with a gift for fast-talking salesmanship, flashy alliteration and tapping into every trend the nanosecond it came along. Both Lee and Love also have a habit of taking credit where it’s not strictly due and seem blissfully unaware that everyone else knows they’re bald.
After they struck out on their own (to an extent — Wilson remained with the Beach Boys until 1996, but increasingly worked within the group as a de facto solo artist), both Wilson and Kirby made increasingly experimental, personal work while remaining within the same pop structures, but lacked the commercial success of their collaborations, while their collaborators’ few attempts at recapturing the success of their earlier work were horrific self-parody that captured the form but not the heart of their great past.
But the lyrics have never been of primary importance in Wilson’s songwriting. With the exception of Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics for Smile, they’re extremely literal, simplistic, almost moronic. They’re merely the key you use to unlock the incredibly complex music. Wilson’s music is almost a private language, made up of allusions to other music. A lot of this is the music of his childhood — he will appropriate wholesale the melody of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for a song like “And Your Dream Comes True”, or the structure of “Rhapsody in Blue” for Smile — but occasionally it will be more recent — Switched On Bach or Sail Away. More than anything else though, he comes back over and over to “Shortenin’ Bread” and “Be My Baby”; those two songs appear in mutated form throughout his career.
That stuff’s hard to explain in a short space, and I’m not really going to try here, but when you read the lyrics I quote as we go along, remember there’s a difference between a childish lyric over a nursery rhyme, a childish lyric over Phil Spector bombast, and a childish lyric over Bach. The resonance with the music is what matters, not the content of the lyric by itself.
Remember, also, that this is a composer for whom the epiphanic and the bathetic are often the same. On his first acid trip, Wilson heard music he’d never been able to conceive before — and wrote “California Girls.” And yet, bad as that song is (although the faults in it are almost all down to the smug, leering Mike Love lyric), listen to the harmonies under the line “I dig a French bikini on Hawaiian island dolls.” That backing vocal part, in isolation, is as close to perfect as anyone has ever come with the mere human voice. But it wouldn’t exist without the appalling, near-monotonous, lead part.
When you look over all of Wilson’s work, taking his various collaborators into account, you find that his songs, no matter who the lyricist is, all have the same protagonist. Almost without exception, Wilson’s songs are told from the point of view of someone in his teens, nostalgic for the childhood he’s leaving and anxious about the adulthood he’s entering. Even when this isn’t literally the case (and the number of songs Wilson has written which actually deal with being an adult is miniscule), it is still the emotional atmosphere of Wilson’s body of work.
But the real recurring theme in Wilson’s work is an attitude towards women that comes close to goddess-worship. Over and over again, throughout his career, his songs take the point of view of a weak, imperfect man who loves and is loved by a woman he knows is too good for him. Sometimes he thinks she doesn’t know this:
Don’t let her know she’s an angel
Don’t let her know that you see
Don’t let her know that she’s touching me
I’m scared that she’ll want to leave me
(“Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel,” originally recorded for 1989’s unreleased Sweet Insanity album, finally released on 2004’s Gettin’ In Over My Head)
He even believes that the only reason she’s with him in the first place is because he’s tricked her. But more often, he knows that she understands him and accepts him, even with his faults:
I treat her so mean, I don’t deserve what I have
And I think that she’ll forget just by making her laugh
But she knows me
Knows me so well
That she can tell
I really love her
(“She Knows Me Too Well” from 1964’s The Beach Boys Today!)
Were I a bad pop psychiatrist, I would note here how Wilson’s father was extremely abusive, while his mother was apparently loving but scared to express that those feelings. I would then note that this all loving goddess figure stands in stark contrast to the male god in such lyrics as:
I was praying to a God who just didn’t seem to hear
The things we need the most are what we most fear
(“Love & Mercy“, unreleased live performance bootleg, 1988)
When I was younger, my mother told me Jesus loves the world
But if that’s true then why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl
And find my world?
(“Still I Dream of It,” originally recorded for 1977’s unreleased Adult Child album, finally released on disc 4 of 1993’s Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys box set)
But I’m not a pop psychologist, so I’ll just say that while Wilson is a professed mainline Protestant (albeit one who has also practiced Transcendental Meditation), he appears temperamentally to be closer to pagan goddess-worship than conventional Christianity.
Perhaps the most famous example of the Goddess figure in Wilson’s writing is the unnamed woman in “Don’t Worry Baby.” While much of the lyric is the work of Wilson’s collaborator (DJ and car enthusiast Roger Christian, who came up with the car race scenario) the emotions behind it are Wilson’s:
She told me ’baby when you race today just take along my love for you
And if you knew how much I loved you baby, nothing could go wrong with you’
Oh what she does to me
When she makes love to me and she says
’Don’t worry baby
Everything will turn out all right
Don’t worry baby’
(“Don’t Worry Baby,” from 1964’s Shut Down Vol. 2)
The vulnerability evident in this song (and the possibly unintentional extra readings that can be found in the line ’when she makes love to me’, with the narrator taking the passive role) is particularly notable when you remember this is one of relatively few songs from this era that Wilson sang lead on in his falsetto voice — a voice that he always worried made him sound un-masculine and that he hid for many years for this reason (during his first “comeback” in 1976, he described his gruffer singing style as “low and manly”).
These themes persist throughout Wilson’s work, from his very first song, “Surfer Girl,” right through to his most recent album of new material, 2004’s Gettin’ In Over My Head. The crucial difference after 1966 is that Wilson stopped working with commercially-minded lyricists like Love, Christian and Gary Usher. The lyrics he wrote on his own are often literally the first thing to come into his head:
I wrote a number down, but I lost it
So I searched through my pocket book, I couldn’t find it
So I sat and concentrated on the number and
Slowly it came to me and so I dialled it and I
Let it ring a few times, there was no answer so I
Let it ring a little more, still no answer so I
Hung up the telephone, got some paper and
Sharpened up a pencil and wrote a letter
To my friend
Yet the song those lyrics are from is a fiendishly complex piece of music — chords like Db9 and G7(b5) over a bossa nova beat. This isn’t someone like Wesley Willis or Wild Man Fischer, although some of Wilson’s later lyrics bear some resemblance to outsider music; rather it’s someone with an incredible skill for communication, all of it non-verbal.
Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds career, like his pre-Pet Sounds career, is an extraordinary mix of the bizarre, the shockingly bad, the beautiful, and the awe-inspiring, often in the same song. Wilson appears to have no filters, and while this means his music at its best is the most emotionally truthful I’ve ever heard, it also means he has no quality control. His best work is as likely to be an allegorical fairytale about a prince with a magic transistor radio, written while listening to a Randy Newman album on repeat, or a two-minute as-yet-unreleased song about baseball, or a song about Johnny Carson done in mock-Weimar cabaret style backed by a Moog set on “fart sounds,” as it is to be an eight-minute psychedelic country epic about the Rio Grande.
But in that best work, be it full albums like Friends, The Beach Boys Love You or Smile, or odd tracks on otherwise terrible albums like “Happy Days” (on 1998’s Imagination) or “My Diane” (on 1978’s MIU Album), Brian Wilson’s work is the sound of a man opening his soul absolutely, with all the simplicity and complexity that entails.