Summary for the Busy Executive: Bitchin'.
Brian Wilson has suffered so many personal crises, I can't really think of a time he was made for. He was, of course, the guiding intelligence of the Beach Boys, probably the most interesting American rock group after Zappa's various bands and Van Dyke Parks's solo outings. Because these pages are devoted to classical music, does it make any sense at all to discuss odes to surfing, drag racing, and bunnies on the beach?
Obviously, I believe it does, for the following reasons. For one thing, I'm convinced most people would not consider Wilson a classical composer for reasons that have nothing to do with the nature of the music itself. First, Wilson never formally studied composition. Of course, many composers never formally studied and, of those who did, some at least didn't get much out of it. Instead, they made themselves through self-study. One thinks of Bach's arrangements of Corelli and Vivaldi and his examination of the composers of the north German school of organists like Buxtehude. Wagner learned by doing and by appropriating techniques from people like Liszt and Meyerbeer. Martinů flunked out of the Prague Conservatory, not once, but twice. Second, some people believe that no classical music can contain an electric guitar. Honest, I've heard this, and I pray it's a prejudice by no means general to the population. More insidious because less obvious is the fact that many people look down on the environment and hype in which rock or pop is produced. We have all heard the word "genius" applied all too easily as well as variations on "My three-year-old could do as well as that," as if someone like George Martin or Zappa were musical ignorami, letting the dots fall on the staff where they may. What, then, do we make of Brahms, Schubert, and Satie, who played in dives and brothels? We also distrust the amount of money made by any musician, not just those in pOp. People sneer at Strauss and Korngold, because they made more money than is seemly. I advise such folk to get over that as soon as possible. After all, one reason for the split between many contemporary composers and the larger public is that since the chances of earning a living from writing classical music – even Lovely Tonal Classical Music – hover a bit lower than winning the Powerball lottery. In the absence of earning a living, a composer should at least have fun. My favorite line comes from Dave Barry who wrote something along the lines of: "There are two kinds of music: classical and popular. Classical music is by definition not popular." Again, none of this really deals with the music itself – rather, more likely with social attitudes toward kinds of music and musical environments.
If you asked me to list musical differences between classical and popular music, I would point out the following. First, classical music ideally puts composer over performer; pop does the reverse. In classical, the score is primary. For example, many get their noses out of joint when Baroque music is performed on modern instruments (or Romantic on contemporary instruments). This reflects the belief that the composer always knows best, even when the composer can't know everything. I actually consider it a good rule of thumb, but, again, I want to consider the specific performance in itself, with as few a priori bromides as possible. On the other hand, we value pop performers for, among other things, how well they make a work their own. Billy Holiday's "Our Love is Here to Stay" differs significantly not only from the sheet music, but from Tony Bennett's, Bud Powell's, Sarah Vaughan's, and Ella Fitzgerald's as well. Devo's "Satisfaction" differs from The Rolling Stones'. Yet it's still "Our Love is Here to Stay" or "Satisfaction" in every case. The liberties allowed a classical performer are fewer. A pop songwriter – for that's what most pop composers are – gives an idea of a tune to a text, with a general outline of the harmony. A classical songwriter specifies every single note, and usually the instrumentation. "Our Love is Here to Stay" may be a great pop song, but "My Man's Gone Now" is a classical aria. Even so, we don't seem to mind if a singer slightly transposes a classical song to a more comfortable key. However, we do restrict classical performers' liberty to change rhythms and notes. The classical score functions more like an architect's blueprint – that level of detail – whereas the pop tune is a vaguer sort of gesture.
From the above, I think it should be clear that Wilson lies closer to classical music than to pop, even though the idiom is essentially Chuck Berry Meets the Lettermen. For one thing, there have been few "covers" of Beach Boy songs, mostly unsuccessful, and less successful the further away from the original arrangement. There seems very little "play" in a Brian Wilson song. The breaks – often the most interesting parts – are usually intricately wrought, rather than improvised, with off-beat, complex counterpoint among the voices and the instruments. Wilson doesn't really write the chameleon-like pop song, but a total composition. He scores with breathtaking imagination and a detailed knowledge of the instruments he uses. Tom Petty, a player himself, wondered for years how Wilson got a certain sound from the electric bass. He finally met one of Wilson's studio musicians who let him in on the secret: Wilson didn't use one bass. He used eight, specifying different brands and settings. This, of course, was before the days of the sampler-synthesizer keyboard, so if you hear an instrument on those early albums, it's the real instrument, not somebody pushing a bunch of patches and keys. Furthermore, Wilson's scoring varies from track to track. True surfer music, like Dick Dale, uses the same instruments over and over and in the same relation, usually rhythm track accompanying lead guitar which does all the variation. It wears on me to listen to a whole surfer album, and the Beach Boys without Wilson become more surferesque. With Wilson producing, the Beach Boys become an entirely different group, with an amazing variety of sound, emotion, and song structure from cut to cut.
Despite his breathtaking sonic imagination, Wilson does remain essentially a "naïve" artist, both in Schiller's and in the everyday sense. That is, he expresses his inner life directly into music, without filter, and he doesn't really know much about other composers' output. His toolkit is comparatively small and home-made. If he still smokes, he'd compose something about smoking a cigarette. Yet his unconscious bubbles up into daylight unlike just about any composer I know. On the album Love You, for example, he writes an ode to Johnny Carson. The lyrics aren't particularly deep:
He sits beside the microphone (John… ny Car… son). He speaks in such a manly tone (John… ny Car… son). Ed McMahon comes on and says, "Here's Johnny!" Every night at eleven-thirty he's so funny. He looks to me just like a natural guy. I caught his act in Vegas – outtasight!
There's no irony here. Wilson really means exactly what he says. The music, however, puts a whole 'nother spin on this. It seems to come from rest room of the most decadent dive in the Weimar Republic – languorous, seductive, and sour at the same time, like the Weill-Brecht "Alabama-Song." The lyrics tell one story, the music another. That Wilson has no idea of the conflict between the two in itself fascinates and attests to the absence of a psychic filter on his material.
The songs that comprise the program, as far as I know, appear on other albums: eg, "Do It Again," "Love and Mercy," "The Warmth of the Sun," and so on. The new settings differ in that they depend less on multi-track technology and snippets of tape. Just about every number can be managed by a small live group. The sound, in general, is cleaner than on the original versions, in large part because the scoring is thinner. Still, the miracle is that it's nevertheless the Brian Wilson sound. A couple of numbers approach the Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" aesthetic that Wilson so admired, but it's mainly a matter of increased bass, rather than more tracks.
Each song contains some surprise. "This Old World" slides through startling enharmonic modulations. In "Do It Again," off-the-wall vocal counterpoint flowers off cliches of boogie-woogie bass. His well-known "Caroline, No" opens with some nifty unsettled harmonic progressions and makes much of disjunctions between lyric and musical phrases. Perhaps the most interesting part of that song for me is where the lyric asks whether speaker and former beloved can ever get back together. Wilson inserts an extra measure or so of vamp, leaving the question hanging, so to speak, before he comes in with the phrase the listener has been waiting for – "Oh, Caroline, no." "Let the Wind Blow" continues the same lyrical theme, with highly unstable harmonies. Indeed, so many of Wilson's songs talk about love lost, fled, or withered. Lost love is, of course, a staple of the pop market. But it's the oddness of Wilson's observations that convince me of their authenticity. "Caroline" bobs her long hair and this turns into an emblem of her lost innocence. "Let the Wind Blow" sounds like "who cares?" but Wilson immediately follows this with a cry of pain. On an album of curiosities, the most curious has to be "Still I Dream of It." It's a beautiful song, quirky both lyrically and musically in ways that immediately brand it as a Brian Wilson work, but the track happens to be Wilson's home demo tape of 1976. So it's just Wilson and his piano, and we get a look at what he brings to the studio. To put it charitably, many play piano better than Wilson; his instrument is really the studio mixing board and multi-track tape machine. Nevertheless, the musical skeleton can support the efflorescence of lines Wilson makes it take on, as he moves from song to composition.
Wilson's voice is, as always, nothing to write home about but it's instantly recognizable. The arrangements show him at the top of his game, and the musicians are the cream of the Los Angeles studios. If nothing else, it shows not that pop can be raised to art, as if it needed to be de-loused and taught manners first, but that the best of pop is indeed art. Wonderful album.
Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz