Guilty Pleasures: The Beach Boys
Part 2 – The Warmth of the Sun
I could come to the neat conclusion that the Beach Boys are part wonderful, part terrible and some strange, and leave it at that. But there’s a deeper truth hiding in their contradictions. The Beach Boys are the quintessential American band. Not just because they sold more records than any native band, but because Brian Wilson from the start intended the band to express his vision of America. It was a big vision, extending beyond surf and girls on the beach to the hope that America would continue its long winning streak, would bask in Endless Summer. Brian made that vision so rich and real in the hope that he could escape there from his personal hell. And I hope he did, at least for moments, as he crafted his masterpieces in the studio.
Brian has decorated his vision with exquisite detail. Those strange jaunty grooves, as in “California Girls,” are calliopes. When we’re not on the beach on in our Little Deuce Coupe we’re at the amusement park, and Brian makes us smell the popcorn, feel the cotton candy sticking to the side of our face as we glance guiltily at those girls in bikinis.
What Brian may not have been aware of was that at the same time that his band sings of joy, hope, fun, with such outright reverence, the songs also manifest arrogance, entitlement, overreaching, excessive appetites, and plain old frat boy nastiness. This only deepens Brian’s vision, going beyond sweet dreams to uniquely express the contradictions woven deep in the American spirit.
Catch a Wave tends to cast Brian Wilson as the angel, and Mike Love the devil in the band and all its messy dealings. That’s too simple, yet listening to “I Get Around” I’m tempted to believe it, and go a step further.
Brian and Mike co-wrote the lyrics. Mike sings the verse and Brian the chorus, and in their voices I can hear the two sides to the American Dream.
Mike sings, “I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip, I want to find a new place where the kids are hip…” and you can hear in his voice the greed for more, his impatience, and bluster, that says he’s going to get it, because he deserves it, because he’s a red-blooded blond guy from the best place in the world, Southern California, USA. When Brian answers in that ecstatic falsetto, “I get arooooouuund,” stretching the words out like a long highway, he’s already there, relaxing into the bliss of the achievement, no longer striving, but being there.
America caught a big wave in history. Fifty years ago we elected a young president and for a brief moment it seemed we’d be riding high ‘till the end of time. No one captures the feeling of that moment like Brian’s voice hanging ten on those soaring melodies.
The night Kennedy was killed, Brian wrote “The Warmth of the Sun.” It captures the grief of that moment, which may have gone beyond a single death, to our recognition that our long ride might be coming to an end. Only the future will tell. But that song also tells a smaller historical truth, one we know is true. For its sadness is inextricably wound with beauty. The tragedy of Dallas would be followed by the joy of the Beatles, ushering in the greatest period in pop music history, including the Beach Boys in their prime.