Monday, October 16, 2006

Brian Wilson is not a genius

After penicillin, the iPod might be the greatest invention of the last 150 years. I mention penicillin only because I know many people who find it a useful, and, at times, live saving medication. Me, I'm allergic to penicillin, so my vote goes to the iPod.

But this post is not a testimonial to the iPod. I could go on and on about all its wonderful features, and how mind-blowing it is to have your entire record -- I mean, CD -- collection at your fingertips. And being able to watch episodes of The Office while waiting for your car to be fixed makes the inevitable trip from your "service advisor" ("Mr. Ivers, we could just change the oil and send you on your way, but what I think I'd do if I were you -- and I realize I'm not -- is just go ahead and replace the transmission." Me: "Really, at 15,000 miles, is that necessary?" Service advisor: "I notice you have a car seat in the back. Do you love your family? Personally, I wouldn't endanger them by driving a car with 15,000 miles on it with the same transmission, but that's just me . . .") much more bearable than it would be if were left with nothing more than four year-old copies of Field and Stream to browse through.

The playlist feature is great for my biking commute. Fifteen great Beatles songs in half an hour? Done. A couple of extended jams by the Allman Brothers? No problem. Listen to Miles Davis and Bill Evans work their magic on Kind of Blue in its entirety to match a cool, sunny morning? Push the button. But every so often I decide to relieve myself of control over my music and use the random feature. This is a real big deal for me. I love to try new things, and when it comes to playing music I love, as a drummer, to improvise with other musicians. But surprises make me nervous because, in my case, they're usually not very good. This could be because an experience I once had in college, where a girl I had actually been out with twice -- half my college dating experience -- told me before our third date that she had a surprise for me that weekend. And that surprise turned out to be the boyfriend from "back home" that she had just gotten back together with earlier that week. But she did, of course, want to remain good friends because I was just like a brother to her and the thought of kissing her brother made her sick and besides I was really smart and she didn't know what to say around me so it was best that we just not see each other anymore although she didn't want it to be like high school where we just didn't talk to each other and that I would really like her boyfriend . . .

But I'm over that now.

After summoning up the nerve to hit the shuffle feature as I began my bike ride into campus, I waited to see where my iPod would take me. First up: John Coltrane, "Out of this World," from his eponymous 1963 album on Impulse. Great tune, incredible Elvin Jones drumming and McCoy Tyner piano playing and, from Trane himself, an amazing solo over a set of chord changes that would send most other players back to the shed; next, Michael Brecker playing a solo version of "Naimia," a Coltrane tune, from the album, New Directions, that he did with Herbie Hancock a few years ago. Brecker is, to me, the greatest tenor player since Coltrane himself. The man can play anything . . . brilliantly and always from the heart; shifting gears, "Hungry for You," The Police, from Ghost in the Machine (1981). Ah, Sting, as staggeringly brilliant as he is annoying and self-important. He is, in my view, one of the five or six best pop songwriters of the modern era. Great ears, great feel for great musicians, and a fantastic bass player to boot; who's that next, yes, I guessed right, Chick Corea and his Akoustic Band, playing "Round Midnight." This was a great trio with John Pattitucci and Dave Weckl . . . lots of bounces and swing, and you can hear Chick, one of the most influential pianists in music since Bill Evans, pushing these two young musicians to feel and hear new things. Made in 1991, this recording still sounds great; next, Yes, with "Yours in No Disgrace," from a live 1971 recording . . . the brilliant jazz-influenced Steve Howe guitar lines, the genre-defying bass of Chris Squire, Bill Bruford's propulsive drumming and the angelic contratenor of Jon Anderson . . . wow! then the Beatles, "Love Me Do," their first single, and the recording that paved the way for everything else; next, Steve Khan, the most underrated great guitarist of the past twenty-five years, with "Casa Loco," (1982), featuring Steve Jordan, Anthony Jackson and Manolo Badrena. So far, so good, iPod.

And then, "Good Vibrations," by the Beach Boys.


I'm not sure how or why it happened, but sometime in the late 1960s and then again in the late 1990s a consensus seemed to emerge in the rock press that Brian Wilson, the brains behind the Beach Boys, was a true "genius" and tortured soul somewhere on the level of Charlie Parker. If I had to pick the person responsible for Brian Wilson's elevation to the genius level, it would be Paul McCartney. After the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966, McCartney praised it, calling it the "record of all-time," and publicly confessed that he wasn't sure that the Beatles could live up to Wilson's creation. Wilson had said earlier that Pet Sounds was inspired by Revolver, the record considered by many Beatleologists to be the band's best.

A few months later, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In retrospect, I think the Beatles did all right.

As a kid, I never took the Beach Boys seriously. To me, it was lightweight ear candy. And seeing their record covers just made things worse -- these smiling blond boys in matching striped shirts . . . could there have been anything more uncool? I was in my black light poster phase, with Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes posters decorating my room, and another poster featuring a peace sign in place of the stars on a faux American flag. Flowing rivers, mysticism, general all-around coolness to match the side length epics these bands were now writing and putting onto record. Listening to the Beach Boys was something I did ONLY if a girl I happened to like that minute thought they were good. I'd nod my head when she might say, "I just love all their songs . . . they just make me want to go the beach and dance." "Oh, great," I would think, "my two favorite activities -- dancing and the beach." So I would usually say something like, "I can see how you could like them, but have you ever listened to side 4 of Tale from Topographic Oceans by Yes. It's the whole story of the sun as a metaphor for what we see and what we don't, and the ritual of life. And the part when Chris Squire comes in behind Jon Anderson on the vocals is . . . "

Then I'd look up, and she'd be gone.

For a while, I tried to get on board the Brian Wilson bandwagon. I bought a Beach Boys collection of great songs, listened to them, and found about three or four palatable after repeated listenings. "We'll have fun, fun, fun/Till my daddy takes the T-bird away." Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane it's not. I suggested once to some bandmates that we should play a Beach Boys song or perhaps just sing it acapella. That almost got me fired -- on the spot -- from a band that I helped form.
I watched the TV tributes to Brian, a made-for-tv movie about the rise of the Beach Boys, their fall after Brian began having mental health problems and then a return to respectability, sans Brian, as an oldies act. Then, of course, came the rumors that Brian was about to release Smile, his masterpiece that gone into remission when he disappeared from music in the late 1960s and went into hiding. The word came that Brian had gotten himself together -- a good thing, of course -- and had given the green light to release his long-awaited recording.

The reception wasn't great. It wasn't horrible, but it certainly wasn't anything than made anyone stand up and take notice. And remember, this wasn't a new recording by someone seeking to prove he still had something left in him. This was a recording made at the height of creative powers. I listened to bits and pieces of it, and didn't come away terribly impressed. I just didn't hear the "there" there. Compare that with listening to the Beatles outtakes that made up the Anthology series released in 1995, or the Let It Be "naked" remix without the strings that was released last year. The difference between anything on Smile and "The Long and Winding Road" minus the cloying Phil Spector strings is stunning . . . not even in the same league.

The Beach Boys made some nice music, and there is no taking away the aural brilliance of the vocal harmonies and arrangements on some of their songs -- "God Only Knows," "California Girls," and "Good Vibrations" are the only Beach Boys songs I can make it through without turning them off. And some very good musicians and great bands have mentioned the Beach Boys as an influence in introducing vocal harmonies into their own music. But so many of their songs just sound like remakes of earlier songs. I just don't get it. Brian Wilson made a few interesting recordings, and definitely had some great ideas about soundscapes and record production. A genius, however, he is not.

"Good Vibrations" finishes up. Next: "In Walked Bud," by Thelonious Monk . . . a man who was and will remain forever, in every sense of the word, a true genius.


Chris M. said...

You seem to be confusing a few important points. The Beach Boys are not always the same as Brian Wilson, and Pet Sounds is not the same as tunes like "Fun, Fun, Fun."

Pet Sounds in many ways is a Brian Wilson album with the Beach Boys as the backup band.

I happen to love the album, and I enjoyed Smile to some extent. However, Smile was redone a million times by Wilson over the years.

I do not see Wilson as a genius per se, but I think that Pet Sounds is a genius album. It is by far Wilson's best work. Perhaps it's just a quality musician at the peak of his career.

Anonymous said...

Yes could and would never ever come close to touching a single song on pet sounds. the closest thing they even got to a masterpeice was close to the edge. Relayer, fine, heck, drama is a good LP on it's own. And sure chris squires FISH OUT OF WATER is the lost great YES lp.

coltrane? dude where intersteller space? why arn't you talking about sun ship? where the albert ayler refrences, or even the post freejazz LP coleman? WHERES SUN RA??!!

back to your whole point, the chords, the recording technics, and the way brian took that wall of sound and made it something less agressive and abrasive is interesting enough, but to make an album in the 60s the discribes a romance that dies slowly the record can best be looked at like this

if a pet sounds was done today it would be like if nsync made a record compareble to in the court of the crimson king. Thats how interesting pet sounds is in context. Granted Nsync dont write their own songs, but they are marketed the same way as pre pet sounds and even post pet sounds beach boys were.
sure the beatles were more consistant, but I'd take god only knows anyday over the cheesey and almost laughable 80% of sgt peppers.

and well everyone knows the white album is really where the beatles did everything right.

oh and i hope you arn't one of those people that thought UNION by yes was a good LP..

Rick said...

It sounds to me like you've just not been exposed to the right Beach Boys material. I, too, was skeptical about the "genius" thing, being one that believes that the word is tossed around far too often. There are very few musicians that I would consider genius; Thelonious Monk is one, as is Brian Wilson.

Listening to him direct "the Wrecking Crew," the all-star collection of seasoned LA session players (Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, et al) on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set is what really opened my eyes. It was then that I really gained a proper understanding of how complete a vision Pet Sounds was. None of it was left to chance, and it was all in his head before being committed to tape. You can hear him stop a take in mid-swing to correct the most minute of details, errors in timing, pitch or feel so minor that it would have escaped the detection of most ears. The level of thought and preparation that went into that recording is startling, and all of it came from his head with no outside collaboration save for the lyrical input of Tony Asher.

If you're interested enough to reconsider your opinion, do yourself a favor and beg, borrow, steal or buy the Pet Sounds Sessions box set and listen to the tracking sessions. I really believe that you'll soon be posting a retraction.