The only real way to create something beautiful is to experience its darkest opposite. This principle has held true too many times to be merely an assumption, in too many ways to be a coincidence. For the uninformed, the songs of the Beach Boys are endless ultralight beams of the singular pop sunlight that streaks California skies; it is a remarkable kind of light, it really does only exist there. This is what their name has always meant, to me. I never found it scandalous that they rarely went down to the sand or swam in the sea–the name is talking about a kind of light, not a landscape. I lived in Malibu for five years in my late teens and early twenties and I rarely went down to the sand, either. Perhaps I’d heard a Beach Boys song or two before that period–“Good Vibrations” in particular comes to mind, I’m a sucker for songs that compare love to a song–but I certainly didn’t know much about them, and I’d never heard Pet Sounds.
In California, I fell in love, in my backwards way, with a boy who still lived in Oregon, and with whom I’d gone to high school. Lonely on our respective sections of the west coast, we began exchanging long missives and deep feelings while I was in grad school and he was moorless in Portland. We knew each other already and had tried once before, briefly, to understand one another. Then, we couldn’t. Now, we did. He listened to Dylan for me, so I listened to Brian Wilson for him, and it was only then, relatively late in the game, that I understood how influential and phenomenal Wilson truly was. J loved Pet Sounds so dearly, with every bone in his body. He seemed to vibrate when he talked about the Beach Boys. He knew all the B-sides, rarities and backstories, and was particularly moved by the sad story of the shelved Smile. So, his favorite Beach Boys song was the relatively obscure “Heroes and Villains,” and, the son of a music and drama teacher, he’d sometimes hum the harmonies from the middle section to me when we were on the phone, way too late at night for my class schedule or his mind-numbing job at a fancy Portland grocery store. He’d rattle off rarities, but upon encountering Pet Sounds, I was hooked.
Like many lonely, precocious children, I tried to differentiate myself early on by adopting an identity rooted in my own special knowledge. I’ve always wanted to be the one that knew the rarities–like J did with the Beach Boys–finding my position by possessing knowledge others did not have. But here, I was too much of a novice. I wanted to let him be the expert. His passion was so endearing, I couldn’t risk coming to be seen as competition. Besides, Pet Sounds is not a hard album to fall in love with. It comes to you like a loving dog, eager to be caressed, willing to stay warm with you for hours. It absorbs both sadness and joy, offering no judgement about either, unafraid to mix them together. It was an ideal screen door to float our wispy longing through, porous enough to be a prop in our conversations about desire without fully disintegrating. Maybe you already guessed that when I returned to Oregon at Christmas, there was nothing there between us but smoke. Thankfully Pet Sounds stayed with me when he went silent, helped clean up the mess.
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is my favorite Beach Boys song. I’m sure I’m not alone in that choice, it doesn’t make me special or rare that I’m drawn to it. The song itself–technically, if you really think about it–shouldn’t be the special rare thing that it is. It’s about being young and full of desire, being so in love with someone that the idea of marriage, the simple chance to fall asleep and wake up with someone daily, seems like the pinnacle of life itself. My second favorite is “God Only Knows,” which is just the inverse; the love was got, and living it, daily, has become an act of cosmic significance so grand only God can really empathize. These are big emotions, brought to us from a very, very big heart. They are embellished with a wonderful collection of odd and end noises that delighted one man’s gorgeous brain–organ, harpsichords, Coke cans, flutes, dog whistles, Electro-Theremin, trains, and barking dogs, to name a few. The world had heard nothing like it, still, mostly, has not. It didn’t matter what Wilson used–the wall of sound was only a filter for his own personal light. But light alone is not always enough, and the brain that was wild and brave enough to give us this music helped break its own heart.
Those who know, know that it was right after Pet Sounds that Wilson reached a personal breaking point. I didn’t know any of this when I was first falling in love with the album, and of course, learning it later makes the agony and ecstasy of the record very bittersweet. So do the next few decades that constitute Wilson’s struggle, and subsequent recovery from his various battles with drugs and mental illness. When Smile was finally realized in session form in 2011, I sent J a text to check his reaction, which was, obviously, one of triumphant gladness. I was happy for him, but couldn’t listen to that album. Let the rarities remain his domain, I have Pet Sounds to live in my lap. Discussing our recent announcement that Brian Wilson will be playing the record in full for the Northside Festival this summer, I’ve discovered that this album has been a pet comfort to a very many people. It will bring some California sunlight to our humid Brooklyn existence.
My third favorite Beach Boys song is “I Can Hear Music.” It was not written by Brian Wilson, and it appears on 20/20, an album that Brian mostly did not contribute to because he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. His brother Carl lifted Phil Spector’s original melody from the soupy pace of the Ronettes’ version, sped it up enough that it might convince someone to press the gas pedal hard on a drive down Pacific Coast Highway. It sounds like someone trying to sound like Brian Wilson; a sibling’s affectation of a brother’s cadence, his tone. It can be interpreted as a hopeful spell, a casting toward the kind of love that evaporates silence, or lets it be still enough to recover a melody. I hear this song as his brother’s attempt to create something that was the opposite of Brian’s darkness. Love becomes the song. Love is the song. It was always the song. In June, I think, Brian will use many other Beach Boys songs to offer the same recovery to us.
The unexpected result of those decades of darkness is how sweet Wilson’s return feels, a redemption narrative to gild the annals of pop music history. I was fairly certain I’d never get to hear Pet Sounds performed live by the man with the brilliant, big heart who breathed it into being, yet I do. J thought Smile would never come out–perhaps Wilson did too, honestly–but it did. Maybe it assumed a different form than we originally thought it might, but it is here. This is how the best kind of music works, the best kind of light. One day you wake up and everything is bright, love is streaming in differently from the same old window. In 1966 Wilson sang “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” But half a decade later, whatever darkness fueled that thought has lost, and he is here with us to play his opus in the height of midsummer New York. Wilson is on the cusp of beginning his full Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour, and it feels like he was made for it. I can’t help but feel how lucky we are, the ones who get to bear witness to the defeat of this darkness. We get to experience an old light rekindled; Wilson is our star, again, at 73. God only knows where we’d be without him. His struggle makes mine seem okay. His recovery gives me immeasurable hope. I hear the music all the time now, baby.
Brian Wilson will be performing Pet Sounds in its entirety (plus top hits and fan favorites) at Northside Festival on June 12 in celebration of the landmark album’s 50th anniversary. The show, taking place at McCarren Park, is a benefit for the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn (OSA), a nonprofit dedicated to building a stronger North Brooklyn by improving 45 parks and playgrounds and getting neighbors involved in their parks.