Vulnerability, Judgement and The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds Turns 50!

Half a century is pretty “outta sight” if you ask me. To celebrate, here’s the […]

David Zahl / 5.16.16

Half a century is pretty “outta sight” if you ask me. To celebrate, here’s the two main Pet Sounds portions of The Beach Boys essay in Mess of Help. We’ve posted portions before but never all of it. Catch a wave: 

Photo 1Brian Wilson was the original heart-on-your-sleeve auteur. Young men had been vulnerable on record before, but usually in the service of garnering swoons rather than expressing actual warts-and-all weakness. Brian’s was not the attractive kind of vulnerability; it was the awkward kind. In the song, his girl’s devotion even makes him “want to cry”. The Beach Boys sang about teenage male tears more than anyone before or since, which may not have scored Brian many dates—but it certainly allowed him to connect with an audience. Rhonda needed to help him, not vice versa.

Yet we would be doing both Brian and ourselves a disservice to reduce his innovation merely to the realm of pop fashion and gender norms. The human aversion to vulnerability is not contextual—some would say it goes back to the Garden of Eden, where the shame of exposure caused Adam and Eve to don fig leaves to cover themselves. Their concealment would be the first act of independence from God via hiding weakness, the first in a long line of controlled obstacles to intimacy with our creator, a relationship originally characterized by dependence and receptivity. That Brian would refuse to veil his neediness or manage his appearance—out of ineptitude or because it simply didn’t occur to him to do so—runs counter to the self-justifying impulse that dominates human history, to say nothing of popular music.

His relative nakedness likely accounts for what would be his greatest theme: the longing for—and astonishment at—love in the midst of weakness that is so beautifully expressed in “Don’t Worry Baby”. This lack of bluster would certainly make him a hero for those who felt similarly but were afraid to admit it, many of whom would be more than willing to overlook whatever culpability Brian shared in the trials he and his band would face over the years. Underground comic artist and writer Peter Bagge described Brian’s appeal in somewhat cynical terms:

“It’s Brian’s story that so many poor, misunderstood, hyper-sensitive idealists can’t get enough of. Not only was Brian the main musical genius behind all those great records, but he’s also that most romantic type of Genius: the Idiot Savant, the Tortured Soul. He’s become the straight male nerd’s Judy Garland.”

Thanks to YouTube, performances of “Don’t Worry Baby” at the time of its release are readily available for viewing. Gangly and pudgy and balding and clearly nervous, none of the guys—with the possible exception of Dennis—looked remotely like drag racers. Yet from such strange vessels issued such sublime music!

…[In later performances of “Don’t Worry Baby” (like the one above)], as elsewhere, the song is uncomfortably out of proportion with its vessel, so much so that the presence of God seems like the only possible explanation. But not just any God—this God is one of grace who bestows his blessing not on the upright, but on the undeserving. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

Lest we romanticize the ‘wilderness period’ Brian experienced from 1967-1980 (give or take), the same glaring discrepancy between the man and his gifts was present during the recording of what many consider Brian’s crowning achievement, 1966’s Pet Sounds. In classic Beach Boys fashion, Brian hired a complete stranger to pen the lyrics for that record, having heard a jingle on the radio that caught his ear. Interviewed years later, the lyricist in question, Tony Asher, captured the simultaneous inanity and brilliance that makes Brian Wilson such a rare bird:

“For every four hours we spent writing songs, there would be 48 hours of these dopey conversations about the dumb book he’d just read. Or else he’d go on and on about girls. His feeling about this girl or that girl. It was just embarrassing that he was exhibiting this awful, awful taste. His choice of movies was invariably terrible. TV programs, everything. He had a parrot statue when you walked into his house, which was the ugliest thing I have ever seen. I do believe Brian is a musical genius. Absolutely. Whatever I thought about him personally was always overridden by my feelings of awe at what he was creating. I mean he was able to create such extraordinary melodies.”

Again, what impressed Asher is how much Brian’s art outsized his learning and taste. Some might say the distance represents something of an affront to natural presuppositions about hard work and earning. No doubt contemporary songwriters and producers, those who had sweated for their prowess and experience, harbored some resentment against the teenage autodidact. But such is the nature of grace. It is unfair. It defies the quid-pro-quo of effort and deservedness. Not surprisingly, Brian himself has never come close to explaining his talent (or creative process) without resorting to spiritual language.

Naturally, it is tempting to psychoanalyze Brian, and a great many writers have attempted to do so. What was it about him and his background that gave him the courage to be so vulnerable on record? Was it the abuse he suffered from his father? Was it the drugs he took? Was it simply a matter of mental illness? These are impossible questions to answer—all we can safely say is that from very early in his career, even before the drug use, his capacity for self-censorship was limited. He seemed to lack the inner editor that most of us possess, the voice that actively omits our failures, embarrassments, and flaws, insisting that we put our best foot forward whenever others are looking.

During this period, Brian was the opposite of ‘best foot forward’. Indeed, album after album testifies to a diminished mental filter. Brian left in the things most of us would leave out. Who else would have thought it a good idea to include “I’m Bugged at My Old Man” on the otherwise immaculate Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)? Who else would include detailed directions to his house like Brian did in “Busy Doin’ Nothin”? Who else would openly try to score drugs from a journalist while being recorded for interview? is isn’t to suggest there was anything strategic about his candor; Brian’s vulnerability never feels remotely self-conscious. Child-like is how it is o en described, and for good reason.

A more mystical writer might theorize that Brian’s mental unguardedness contributes directly to his musical inspiration. His internal resistance to the kind of shame and self-criticism that stunts much of our own creativity, for whatever reason, was minimal.

From a 2 Corinthians point of view (God’s “power made perfect in weakness”), Brian’s story and music place us in the realm of Martin Luther’s “theology of the cross”. In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1517, Luther maintained that the image of Jesus’ death on the cross did not merely reveal the mechanism of salvation but also a fundamental principle about God’s presence in the world. He came to believe that God works under the form of opposites, or sub contrario:

“God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead… He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace.”

A “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis) in this sense contradicts many of our assumptions about life. According to this scheme, God is not most reliably present in our strengths or successes or the things we like best about ourselves. Rather, God is at work in the world in the place where a person is falling apart, where they are discovering the limits of their power instead of exercising it.

Luther contrasted the theology of the cross with a “theology of glory”, which would seek to locate God chiefly in strength and victory. He wisely maintained that the theology of glory tends to be the default of a species bent on mastery, advancement, and the avoidance of suffering. In Beach Boys terms, we are talking about the difference between “Don’t Back Down” (on which Brian sounds exactly like the kind of guy who would back down) and “Til I Die” (on which con- fusion and despair serve as the conduits for otherworldly beauty). Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde phrased the distinction this way:

“The foolishness of God in the cross is wiser than the wisdom of the world… It is not like accomplishing something but like dying and coming to life. It is not like earning something but more like falling in love… The theologian of the cross knows that the love of God creates precisely out of nothing.”

The advantage of Brian Wilson’s willingness to be seen as weak (or his glaring inability to ‘front’ with any conviction) is that he could express gratitude and joy to a similar extent as pain. Some would claim that he penned the greatest song about gratitude that’s ever been written in the American pop idiom, “God Only Knows”—which also happened to be the first time that the word “God” was used in the title of a song that charted on top 40 radio. And Brian & co. were very nervous about that.

In 2012, BW elaborated on what was going on when he was writing and recording the song:

“Carl and I kept praying for the highest love to bring to people. We all in the band believe in Jesus and we believe in God and we believe that we were his messengers. So we followed through with our career as his messengers in the world. And that’s how we did it. Spirituality is love, right? Love and spirituality are kind of like the same. But spirituality is like ever-lasting love.”

The truism that vulnerability is the birthplace of connection echoes the theology of the cross. It contradicts the human intuition that our most impressive accomplishments and proudest attributes are what will win us the admiration of others (and of God). It affirms the reality that to love someone truly is to love them at their worst, not merely at their best. As columnist Tim Kreider once memorably observed in The New York Times, “if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known”. Meaning, we can know someone and not love them, but we cannot love someone if we do not know them: to know someone fully is to know them in their weakness and shame.

Perhaps it was Brian’s preternatural vulnerability that situated him, then, to appreciate the experience of grace in such transcendent and enduring terms, as songs like “She Knows Me Too Well” and, much later, “Love and Mercy” attest. Or take Pet Sounds’s stunning hymn to ‘love to the loveless shown’, “You Still Believe in Me”. The grace of Asher’s lyric is underlined by the abundant giftedness of its damaged producer: “I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be… And after all I’ve done to you, how can it be, You still believe in me”. The lover meeting the beloved at his point of (persistent) failure and weakness—his lack of deserving—is enough to remind the listener of another supremely cracked vessel named Peter, talking to his risen lord over breakfast on, you guessed it, the beach…

Just because Brian couldn’t help but allow himself to be seen as weak does not mean he did not struggle with the Law. In fact, the dynamic of Law and Gospel can be glimpsed behind both his greatest triumph, Pet Sounds, and his most scarring defeat, SMiLE.

Pet Sounds catalogs a number of the ways we defend against nakedness, the emotional fig leaves we all sport from time to time. If earlier releases had found Brian trying, unconvincingly, to appease the standards of Adolescent Cool with glory-rife displays of bravado (e.g., “I Get Around”, “Good to My Baby”, etc.), Pet Sounds adopts a more affecting but no less popular approach, namely, flight. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the instrumentals on the record is titled “Let’s Go Away For A While”, and the final cut, “Caroline No”, ends with the sound of a train leaving the station.

Of course, flight can be mental as well as physical. If our reality is deemed unacceptable according to whatever standards of ‘happiness’ we’ve embraced, we may seek to avoid it through fantasy and wishful thinking, à la “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. ‘If only _____’ is an alluring means of psychological evasion, often masking ongoing resentment, self-directed or otherwise.

An equally potent form of denial can be heard in the victimized self-pity of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”: “Every time I get the inspiration / to go change things around / no one wants to help me look for places / where new things might be found”. On that remarkable song Brian, via Asher, even attempts to renegotiate the terms of his ‘acceptance’—“these times” are the problem, not me. Anything but own up to a less than ideal here-and-now!

This is not to suggest that any of this material is one-dimensional, only that, in a certain light, it testifies to an internal agitation in regard to who Brian felt he ‘ought’ to be. The straight male nerd’s Judy Garland, indeed.

It may be easier to express gratitude without psychic protection, as “God Only Knows” attests, but rejection hits harder, as would be made painfully clear during the recording and eventual shelving of the follow-up to Pet Sounds, the legendary SMiLE record. Without the walls we build up to protect ourselves, the voice of the law is quicker to pulverize its hearer. In fact, the entire project would prove to be an object lesson in the fruits of the law, paralysis and retreat.

The setting in which Brian attempted to record his “teenage symphony to God”, as he referred to SMiLE, was rife with conflict and pressure. His group had been on the forefront of the American pop landscape for a full four years at that point. Despite the success of “Sloop John B”, Pet Sounds did not sell as well as the group anticipated. Perhaps the subject matter was too far afield from beaches and cars, the atmosphere too melancholy, the arrangements too baroque for burgeoning ‘hippie’ sensibilities, who knows. Critics may have hailed it as a masterpiece, but the charts have always been The Beach Boys’ priority, and by that measure, the record underperformed. The commercial verdict was fairly condemnatory, which understandably ratcheted up expectations for its successor.

You’ll have to pick up the book to read what happened next, but suffice it to say, pretty soon he felt so broke up, he didn’t just wanna go home, he did go home–and stayed there.

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4 responses to “Vulnerability, Judgement and The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds Turns 50!”

  1. Jon Parks says:

    I’ve almost finished “A Mess of Help” and it has been an incredibly enjoyable read. I recommend it enthusiastically to any of you music (and Gospel) lovers. Great work, David!

  2. John Zahl says:

    Yes, “A Mess of Help” is so good!

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