Surf's up in the Empyrean.
It's appropriate that the '60s, easily the strangest decade in modern American history, would have its coda now, 37 years late and well into the new century. The generation that never grew up finally gets its legendary soundtrack just as it is preparing to fade away.
Brian Wilson's Smile, rumored for so long that it had become the Great Rock Album That Never Was, suddenly appeared in the stores last week, complete with a bouncy That Girl typeface and a yellow sun looking just like a day-glo daisy sticker. Few of us knew it was coming, and a quick surf (funny how that word has changed) of the Web and the comments section of Amazon.com suggests that thousands of middle-aged Americans are simultaneously undergoing a kind of aural whiplash.
Being a California suburban boy, I, of course, grew up on the Beach Boys. I remember an entire busload of us seventh-graders pounding on the seats and singing in unison to "Barbara Ann." Even after 40 years of listening to rock 'n' roll, and a stint as a rock record critic, I still consider "Don't Worry Baby", with its archetypal mix of cars, girls and teen angst, to be the perfect pop single.
But, as anyone who was there can tell you, the '60s ended hard and nasty, even in California — maybe especially in California. That Brian's little brother Dennis, the Beach Boys drummer, ran around for a while with Charlie Manson is not only surpassingly creepy, but oddly appropriate for the era. With assassinations, riots and drug overdoses, "Surfer Girl" and "Surfin' USA" seemed wildly inappropriate. We found our answers in the menace of the Door's The End and Love's Red Telephone. The boys of summer found new careers writing computer code.
And yet, the Beach Boys were still there, calling to us like our lost innocence. I remember in 1971, a summer I largely spent floating in a pool practicing my alienation, finally listening to Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's last masterpiece before, it was said at the time, he collapsed into drugs and madness while trying to come up with an answer to Sgt. Pepper's.
As the myth went, Wilson had created Pet Sounds in response to the Beatle's Revolver — only to be one-upped forever by Sgt. Pepper's. He had gone into the studio to come up with a counterstroke, but had only managed to produce one masterful single, "Good Vibrations," before cracking up and removing himself from the world.
The real story, as I learned many years later (some of it with the release of this album), is that, in truth,Pet Sounds came out before Revolver, and Smile was slated to appear before Sgt. Pepper's. Thus, if anyone was doing the stylistic chasing, it was George Martin and the Fab Four.
Moreover, Brian in fact did lay down many of the tracks of Smile — as many of us learned over the subsequent three decades as bits and pieces of many of them dribbled out — "Heroes and Villains," "Vegetables," "Wind Chimes," most of all "Good Vibrations" — on various lackluster Beach Boy albums or compilations. Each in its own way was extraordinary. They were the last glimpses of musical craftsmanship before pop music became lost in the wildnerness of disco.