One evening, about three years ago, I was listening to music, as I do so many nights, but this particular evening I was listening to a few classic old Beach Boys albums. I was so "high' on the music, and a little something extra, that I became fixated on one particular song of America's Fab Five, "The Girls On the Beach" that I played it over and over, repeatedly, for something approaching four hours. Now, for a song that only runs a little less than three minutes, that's a lot of girls on the beach. But, as I do, usually with what may be thought of as more complex sound, e.g., jazz or classical I was studying the complexities of Brian's classic beach tribute to all the wonderful, and beautiful girls on the beach of our yourth and an anthem to the girls of today, as well (not to mention, all the years in between). The melody is haunting. The arrangement is slow but rhythmic. The words are...well, haunting too.
"On the beach you'll find them there....in the sun and salty air....the Girls On the Beach are all with in reach and one waits there for you, girls on the beach," and on it goes. I studied the carefully layered harmonies of the Beach Boys and matched them with the eternally youthful words of the song, the tempo, the wistful, beautiful structure of this anthem to yourth and young love and I blurted out in a shout: "BRIAN GOT IT RIGHT!" My son was clear on the other side of the house but heard me over his own stereo and came dashing to see what had happened. I'm certain that some of the neighbors must have wondered as well. The truth is, I had hit on a fundamental truth of the music of Brian Wilson. He got it right.
What I meant by that was Brian did what song writers have done since the first popular song was written and are still doing somewhere even as I write this. They're trying to get it right. And, sometimes they do. During World War II, so many of the great songs of love and love lost got it right for that period of our history, songs such as: "I'll Be Seeing You," "The White Cliffs of Dover," "A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square," and many more. During the years of rock, so many writers tried to capture the feelings of being young in the fifties and sixties. Many times they did, "got it right." I think instantly of some of the ditties of the merry Mr. Chuck Berry and of Little Richard. Certainly, many of the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (think of most of Elvis' hits or any big one by the Coasters or anything in the Broadway hit, "Smokey Joe's Cafe") got it right too.
So, why is Brian Wilson so different or special. That's easy. Brian not only wrote his masterpieces, he arranged them. He produced them in the studio. He usually sang on them. (Liike the high voice on "Surfer Girl."? That was Brian.) Brian's story is well known. Heaven knows most of us grew up with him and they've made at least a couple of movies of the life of Brian, his brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, couisin Mike Love and friend Al Jardin. But as my son first pointed out to me, "If you only know the hits of the Beach Boys...you don't know the Beach Boys." This is a gross understatement if ever there was one. Sure the hits were great and we all know they were fun, fun, fun. But they were more. Brian was writing for a generation and trying to capture the feeling of being young in the late fifties and early sixties and later of just being...that would be the songs he's still writing today.
What Brian got right was this. He captured, in deceptively simple sounding songs the spirit of those times. Of taking off for the beach with your favorite girlfirend or, for the girls their boyfirend, of the warmth of the sun, the feel of the sand between our toes, the wonder of a beach under a surfer moon....that feeling of being a kid in Southern California in those wonderful, fantastic days of endless summer. Many tried.
But it was Brian Wilson who brought it all together and caught the feeling in songs and sound that told us and the world what we were doing and why we'd never forget it. That's the reason Brian Wilson may comfortably be called a genius. He is.
How many people know more of the Beach Boys than just the hits? "Surfin'," "Surfer Girl," "Surfin" U.S.A.," "Be True to Your School," "In My Room," the national anthem for any kid who ever had to get away from mom and dad or brother and sister and just hide away. Yeah, those are all great songs. But do you know some of the one's that weren't hits? How about "Surfer Moon." My son turned me on to that one many years ago and said, if you love "Surfer Girl" you're bound to love this. He was right on. "Surfer Moon" is a little known track from a Beach Boys album that most people heard once or twice and promptly forgot as the party roared on around them, 33 1/3 LP spinning on endlessly. It tells the story of...what else? A teenage boy in love with his surfer girl.
Then, on my own I found two gorgeous ballads Brian had written. I found them quite by accident and they're both among the most lovely songs written in the history of American popular music. "The Warmth of the Sun" and "Girls On the Beach."
"Warmth of the Sun" has a beartiful little story that goes with the writing of this classic piece of Americana. The night President Kennedy was murdered, Brian was sitting around feeling just like the rest of us. I was sitting in the IHOP on north Main St. in Santa Ana and Brian was sitting in a studio with couisin Mike Love mourning our loss. Feeling so low and melancholey, these two guys decided to write a song to reflect their feelings. But being artists of the first caliber, instead of writing a morbid, ode to death, they chose to write a beautiful ballad to life. The results are still there for any of us to enjoy, over and over again. "...for I'll have the Warmth of the Sun within me tonight..." Oh yeah. Brian got it right that night too. And, night after night after night, in a career than now spans forty years.
Brian has always hesitated to accept the adulation heaped upon him by even the greatest musicians in speaking of "The genius of Brian Wilson." But, if you doubt me and my opinion, do you doubt the musical feelings of Paul McCartney and the rest of the Beatles. Upon hearing the Beach Boys masterpiece album "Pet Sounds" one of the Beatles reportedly said: "That's it. They've got us. There's no way we can top that." It's to the credit of the Fab Four that they then went out and recorded "Sgt. Pepper" another of the greatest albums in rock or pop music history. But during the broadcast salute to Brian, last night, someone remarked: "Pet Sounds" may not only be the best rock and roll album of all time, it may be the best rock and roll of all time." And well it may be.
"Wouldn't It Be Nice?" "Sloop John B," "God Only Knows," "Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and one of my favorite, "unknown to most, Brian songs, "Caroline, No." The amazing thing about "Pet Sounds" which is now available as a three CD set with two versions, one in stereo and one in mono and out-takes, et al, is that Brian Wilson set out to "make the greatest rock album ever made,' and succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imagination. The Beatles pointed to it as their inspiration for their later work. So did virtually everyone else in rock and pop music. And Brian did the whole thing, almost alone. He wrote the words and music. He did the arrangements. He did the studio mixing and producing. He probably even got coffee for the sound men. Listen to it today and it's as fresh as it was the day they released it. Trust me on this one. I'm right and Paul McCartney backs me up.
Last night the two hour tribute was magic. Paul Simon gave "Surfer Girl" his own special sound but took nothing away from what I call, and quite seriously, "The National Anthem." Another highlight, and great surprise, was the teaming up of David Crosby, of you remember, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with songwriter par exellance Jim Webb ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "MacCarthur Park," "Didn't We," etc.) and the stunning upper register of Vince Gill, of country music fame. What a voice Vince has. The song Misters Crosby, Webb and Gill just broke up the party with was "Surf's Up" from the album of the same name. Bet you aren't familiar with it. If you're not, buy a copy immediately. Buy the CD. If you don't fall in love with "Surf's Up," "Disney Girls" and the rest, just send the CD to me for a complete refund. I can always use another copy.
The whole Brian Wilson special, "An All Star Salute to Brian Wilson" will no doubt be rebroadcast on TNT so watch for it in your local listings and DON'T MISS IT. Following a medley of some of the more popular hits, Brian closed with a heart wrenching version of his beautiful ballad, "Love and Mercy." I've asked several people today if they know some of these songs and I get the same blank stare and answer" "Weren't the Beach Boys like all about surfin' and hot rods?" The answer is, not by a long shot and to reiterate, "If you only know the hits, you don't know the Beach Boys."
You see, Brian wasn't, and isn't just about surfin' and hot rods and crusin'. The music of Brian Wilson is also about life. About growing up and having to live and do the things you don't want to always do. His music touchs all corners of our lives, from the teen years to middle age and beyond. Brian is a writer for the ages and his songs are for those of us of all ages.
A few years ago someone did a special called "Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made For These Times." Great title, but more than a little misleading. Brian Wilson IS these times. If you doubt me, just go buy "Surf's Up" and listen to yet another masterpiece and a classic piece of Americana. a member in good standing of The Great American Song Book, as I call the great songs of Sinatra and Ella and the others...the immortal (not too strong a word) "Til I Die." After hearing that one, if you're not saying where have these songs been all my life, I know you just ain't got no soul...or heart.
Because Brian Wilson can make you laugh, sing, shout, dance and he can break your heart for what's gone and what's ahead and what might have been.
Brian Wilson ranks with George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and all the other masters of our most precious songs. You just may not be aware of it yet.
Brian Wilson....genius. And, he was made for these times and we're all the better for his being here. God Only Knows Brian, you've gotten me through many a long, lonely night.
"...the girls on the beach, are all within reach, and one waits there for you....Girls On the Beach...."
Yeah, Brian Got It Right!
Joe M. Hayes
Del Mar, CA
July 5, 2001
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