We are driving alone at night in a Mustang convertible on Highway 1 on the day after Christmas.
It is so dark that I squint to see the rhythmic EKG readout of the high cliffs to our right where they meet the clouds and night sky. We speed along.
The road drops off to our left, into nothingness and ocean, but I cannot see that either.
In the night, the drop off is a late black and a hint of infinity. I close my eyes and listen to the shifting gears, the boom crash of the waves, and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
It is my first time to ride the long line that is Highway 1 from Los Angeles all the way to a small town tucked back from Santa Cruz in a single go. It is my first time to sit in one of the newer Mustang convertibles, a machine full of kick and power and purr. It is also my first time to hear Pet Sounds in its entirety.
I close my eyes and inhale salt air. I am 27 and newly married. The memory of this night unrolls unexpectedly across the long line of Highway 1, past my husband’s face in the glow from the dials of the dashboard, and right into Pet Sounds. All is well. All is safe.
I exhale and find myself in this room, approximately a decade later, telling you this story as a way of introducing one of the most important and life-changing albums in rock history.
Forgive my indulgences.
Some music retains the soul of the first time you heard it, and this album in particular brings up effulgent memories and the surprise of the new.
Strangely enough, my experience might be close to Brian Wilson’s original conception of music from the era when he wrote the music and the lyrics to this 1966 classic.
Pet Sounds was the last coherent album he managed to write and produce before hard tides and sharp cliffs pulled him in so many directions, he broke against the waves of his own desires.
Wilson, genius, recluse, man with illness, was once the toast of the town in Los Angeles. He pioneered the mass music concept of surf rock. He found a way to make the Electro-Theremin an instrument for something besides Vincent Price horror movies. And he created almost every piece of music The Beach Boys ever played.
For music aficionados, Pet Sounds is one of those albums you have to own. It contains so many elements that were new to music at the time. This was a concept album, for starters, though it wasn’t billed as such.
It was filled with odd little instrumentations and unusual sound effects, like bulb horns and dogs barking and trains whoooing in the distance. It had a reworked and rock-updated folk standard “Sloop John B.”
Equally as new for the times, the tone of this album is both hopeful and sad in a mature, yet innocent way, which is a trick all of Wilson’s own making (along with songwriter Tony Asher and others1), and one that Wilson would later find hard to repeat.
During his champagnin’ and campaignin’ years, Wilson kept close tabs on the musicians who were simultaneously his heroes and his villains.
The Beatles were lined in his telescopic sights when he was working on this album. They had just knocked out the first of their more experimental albums, Rubber Soul, which was poppy and beautiful and sad and very new-fashioned to the ears of 1965.
Wilson countered with Pet Sounds, a ripe, strange, vivid album.
The Beatles pricked up their ears and took notice. The Fab Four hustled back into the studio to create their answer to Pet Sounds— Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (How’s that for an encore, folks?)
When I picture all of The Beatles sitting around listening to Pet Sounds, I imagine the tonearm being lifted with two fingers and a thumb onto the lip of the album. The index and third finger of that same Beatle-y hand are simultaneously gripping a lit cigarette while setting the stylus gently down.
At first, there’s the ssss of the needle on fresh wax, then a toy piano melody begins, followed by the slap of two drumsticks, and finally the lyrics in a wistful, unornamented voice:
Wouldn’t it be nice
if we were older
then we wouldn’t have
to wait so long
The hand that carefully placed the needle on the record is still holding the cigarette. The ash drops to the floor with a plop.
Wouldn’t it be nice
to be together
in the kind of world
where we belong?
Bloody hell! says one of the Beatles.
Then, for the next hour, nothing is heard but the cadence of breathing next to the slap of the winning hand of Brian Wilson being laid down on the table of music history, note by note.
After this moment, The Beatles would go back into the studio and record Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Brian Wilson would begin work on SMiLE, his “teenage symphony to God.” Wilson also began to lose his mind.
You know that what happens next has become mostly a story of conjecture and conflicting interviews and revisionist history.
We know this much: Brian Wilson struggled to work on SMiLE, which was released in bits and parts in 1967 as Smiley Smile, but never in a complete form until 2011 (The SMiLE Sessions).
Something terrible did happen to Wilson, but the reasons may never be quite clear as to what exactly happened.
All we can do is listen to Wilson’s words flowing through the intensely sweet voices of Carl Wilson (lead vocals), with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston (backing vocals, harmony), on “God Only Knows” —
I may not always love you.
But long as there are stars above you,
you never need to doubt it.
I’ll make you so sure about it.
God only knows what I’d be
Wilson may have thought he’d been thwarted in his attempts to write his “teenage symphony to God,” but in fact he’d done it.
He just didn’t realize how much Pet Sounds was full of simplicity and sweetness and surprise, and not just a little more of a vein of darkness and desire.
What else could Pet Sounds be but a teenage symphony to God?
I inhale and close my eyes. The road slides out in front of the lights of the Mustang, illuminating a bit of cliff here, dotted yellow lines of Highway 1 there. I tip my head to the stereo, to listen to a chorus of young voices shouting at the universe, all of them singing Wilson’s songs.
It’s so sweet it nearly hurts.
Because Wilson dared to sing back to it, the Shadow of the Turning.
Because Wilson wanted something bigger to hear his fevered and earnest songs than those mere ears of ours.
Because he really meant every word of every song he wrote.
Because he imbued the melodies with the signature of his youthful innocence and his adult pain.
Because Wilson co-wrote lines like these:
Now, how could I tell them
that the way that they live
could be better?
I know there’s an answer.
I know now,
but I had to find it
Although Wilson was, during this period, the head songwriter for The Beach Boys, many songwriters contributed lyrics to this album, all while working with Wilson’s furtive and frantic directions.
Beach Boy Mike Love is purported to have contributed to three tracks from this album, but that is a hotly contested issue.
Al Jardine also purportedly contributed the idea of using Sloop John B, but the instrumentation is Wilson’s.
However, there are recordings of Wilson singing another version of Sloop John B as a teenager, long before “Pet Sounds.”
To be frank, the songwriting issues surrounding this album are complicated by issues not discussed here. (Songwriting credits were contested in court for years.)
At this writing, there are rumors of a 2012 reunion of the remaining Beach Boys. By the time I finish this sentence, Wilson may still back out.
On a happy note, Wilson has been creating some amazing music in the last five years. His discography is number four on The Beach Boys solo discography list.