Off Piste - The myth of endless summer

Christoph Bode's love of the Beach Boys has only been deepened by Brian Wilson's late-career deconstruction of his own California dreaming

September 16, 2010

In late August 2008, when I was driving through the Rocky Mountains, I learned (was it through a note in The New York Times I picked up in Boulder, Colorado, or the September issue of Rolling Stone?) that Brian Wilson, former head of the Beach Boys, would release a new studio album on 2 September, called That Lucky Old Sun.

Rumours about that concept album had been circulating ever since London's Southbank Centre had commissioned Wilson to write a suite for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall the previous year. The song cycle premiered there on 10 September 2007 to enthusiastic reviews - and it seemed only a matter of time until a recording appeared.

So there I was in downtown Durango on 2 September the following year. I went to a record shop on Main Avenue and asked for Brian Wilson's latest - did they have it, on this, the very first day of its release? Not on CD, said the shop owner with a regretful smile, but he could offer me the vinyl long-playing record. Vinyl? In 2008?

This catapulted me right back to the 1960s, when my long-lasting love affair with the Beach Boys began. In my part of Germany at that time, there was only one radio station (apart from the American Forces Network at Frankfurt) broadcasting rock and pop music. And since, at first, I did not have the money for a record player and had to make do with my father's discarded tape recorder, I sat patiently in front of the radio and recorded all the songs that made music history: the early Beatles and Rolling Stones, the Searchers, the Animals, the Supremes - you name it. But one group outdistanced all others, I felt: the Beach Boys, from Hawthorne, California.

It was the sheer drive and impeccable four-part harmony of songs such as Fun, Fun, Fun, Help Me, Rhonda, California Girls, Dance, Dance, Dance and I Get Around that put them into a different category altogether, although I liked the slow, moody songs just as much - In My Room, The Warmth of the Sun and Surfer Girl.

So when I got my first record player, it was clear that the first LP I'd buy with my pocket money would be a Beach Boys record. It turned out to be Surf Beat Fun - a compilation of their greatest hits up until early 1966, probably a collector's item now in the US and the UK, since it was released only in West Germany. It was the first of many Beach Boys records that I would buy.

But back to That Lucky Old Sun. The album is a song cycle that follows the course of a day in Los Angeles, all the way from Morning Beat to Midnight's Another Day. The songs are connected by poetic prose sections, or "Narratives", written by Wilson and his collaborator from the Beach Boys' Smile period, Van Dyke Parks. It is impossible to miss the chronology that begins when "The sun burns a hole through the 6am haze" and ends in midnight's darkness. The connecting thread on this level is the quest to make out the musical "heartbeat of LA", the city that, says Wilson, "has my favourite soundtrack".

It may be easier to miss the second chronology laid upon the first. That Lucky Old Sun is also a critical reflection on a career, a life and a myth, because on this second level the album's trajectory follows the ups and downs of Wilson and the Beach Boys. And since it does so in an inconspicuous way, it has led some reviewers to believe that Wilson is merely indulging in blatant nostalgia here, trying to perpetuate a myth, celebrating the illusionary dream of an endless, carefree summer of surfing, girls and hot rods.

That Lucky Old Sun is anything but, it seems to me. As the second chronology undercuts the first, what we get is a first-rate, self-conscious, at times even self-ironic reflection and dismantling of a myth that Wilson helped to create. In That Lucky Old Sun, he puts Southern California in scare quotes.

Forever, She'll Be My Surfer Girl makes a reference to Wilson's first self-written song, Surfer Girl: "Summer '61/A goddess became my song." In that sense, it describes a mythical origin - but with a difference. For the song knows that such a moment cannot be repeated, even though it is forever captured in that melody: "First love is the moment/You can't repeat, but you'll always own it/The gift she gave to me/Her timeless harmony." If That Lucky Old Sun has the same time structure as John Keats' sonnet, After dark vapours have oppress'd our plains, it also celebrates, like Ode on a Grecian Urn, art's capacity to capture and freeze a moment, to seemingly escape but thereby acknowledge the basic inescapability of temporality. She'll be forever ... gone.

Venice Beach (Narrative) and Live Let Live take us to noon and the spiritual high point of the Beach Boys' career, the period of Pet Sounds, 1966 - the year that, according to a New Musical Express poll, the Beach Boys overtook the Beatles in popularity, even in Britain.

It wasn't until May 1997 that I first dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean, very near Santa Monica Pier, and later that same afternoon, I walked down to Venice. I remember that on the pier they played - not surprisingly and surely not to welcome me as a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles - a medley of Beach Boys hits, pretty much the ones that were compiled on Surf Beat Fun. But definitely not songs from the album that some call the greatest of all, Pet Sounds.

What inscribed Southern California into the history of popular music was the Beach Boys' surf music, not the heightened spirituality of what (until the completion of the aborted Smile project in 2004) was regarded as Wilson's masterwork. True, God Only Knows (Paul McCartney's all-time favourite song, or so he told Wilson) is a gem (those chords!); Good Vibrations (from the same period) with its sophisticated symphonic structure is a hallmark of late-1960s record-production achievements; and Here Today challenged producer George Martin to become ever more experimental on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

All the same, the Beach Boys' earlier music had greater mass appeal, and at the time not many were turned on by the complacent spiritual overtones of Pet Sounds, Friends, 20/20 and Sunflower, let alone by the eco-critical tracks on Surf's Up. Ironically, when Jimi Hendrix supposedly rang the death knell for the Beach Boys' myth by declaring "you'll never hear surf music again", the Beach Boys themselves had already abandoned the genre, although there were fabulous relapses (Do It Again and Break Away).

All this, it seems to me, is reflected in Wilson's upbeat track, Live Let Live. "I've got a notion/We come from the ocean" is as evolutionary correct as it is numbingly banal, and "Whale passing me by/Wondering why" takes us straight into the land of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. Yet some self-distancing irony can be heard in Parks' lyrics ("I am a diver/A long-line survivor"), suggesting a precariousness that not only threatens the ecosystem, but also the sanity of mankind. Whereas the final line reads, "Let's get the hell outta there" (meaning the ocean), I hear Wilson sing: "Let's get the hell outta here" - much like the Animals in We Gotta Get Out of This Place.

Mexican Girl and Cinco de Mayo mark the low point of That Lucky Old Sun, or so it seems. The first is so incredibly cliché-ridden, it simply takes your breath away. "Hey, Mexican girl ... Hey, bonita muchacha/Don't you know that I want ya?" This is about as Mexican as Pat Boone's Speedy Gonzales and should provoke the same outcry of indignation - were it not for the saving grace of self-reflexivity. With stereotype heaped upon stereotype, both tracks serve as a bridge to California Role, That Lucky Old Sun's critical deconstruction of the Californian myth.

In the 1970s, the Beach Boys were running on empty. It was clear they were off-piste, and as a fan I was, well, disenchanted. While the old songs still held a certain charm that stemmed from their seeming naivety, the Beach Boys failed to define a new role for themselves - or to examine role-playing itself (as David Bowie would, or Madonna in the 1980s). California Role is a retrospective attempt at questioning Southern California's power to exploit and reproduce longings and desires - "Every girl's the next Marilyn/Every guy, Errol Flynn" - so that failure to make it may not be so bad after all: "If you missed the premiere 'cause you never arrived/The best part of the LA trip just might be the ride."

Again, Parks' wordplay underlines the artificiality of this whole identity-through-role-playing complex. California roll is, of course, that artificial fusion-cuisine concoction that a real sushi aficionado wouldn't touch with a bargepole. At the same time, it is one of California's most successful inventions and exports - like the Beach Boys. They not only found their California role, but it was their success and their tragedy to be identified with it. That Lucky Old Sun is the self-conscious distancing from a near-fatal myth.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when the song cycle becomes openly autobiographical, as we move towards evening and night: "How could I have got so low/I'm embarrassed to tell you so/I lay around this old place/I hardly ever washed my face." For years, Wilson lay in bed - obese, drugged, a wreck. Unable to recognise his own daughters. Fired by the Beach Boys. Fired, the man who was the Beach Boys. Midnight's Another Day is the highlight of this section, since it captures that tipping point when, after the past was nothing but an enormous weight - "All these voices, all these memories, made me feel like stone/All these people make me feel so alone" - all of a sudden it is re-envisioned as a place that, although no longer "there", can be revisited, so that in utter darkness, which we have now reached, there is another break of day: "Lost in the dark, no shades of grey/Until I found midnight's another day."

If That Lucky Old Sun had ended here, it might be just possible, but not really compelling, to understand it as the ultimate postmodernist concept album that revisits a dream not to perpetuate it, but to deconstruct it in a joyfully wistful way - since a myth that admits to being a myth can no longer be charged with naivety.

But there are still two more tracks to come, Going Home and Southern California. These break the circle of the course of the day. The first takes off where Midnight's Another Day left off: "At 25, I turned out the light/Cause I couldn't handle the glare in my tired eyes" (and it takes a moment's reflection to consider that Wilson's place in the pantheon of great 20th-century composers was already secured when he decided to "turn out the light" in 1967).

This homesickness is a longing to be at peace with yourself ("So homesick, I'm even missing myself"), not necessarily a longing to be in a particular place - not even "Southern California", because that place never was. It was a dream from the beginning: "I had this dream/Singing with my brothers/In harmony, supporting each other." As Wilson assembles one last time all the set pieces of the myth of Southern California, it becomes crystal-clear that this is and was a region of mere wish-fulfilment: "In Southern California, dreams wake up for you/And when you wake up here, you wake up everywhere."

The final shot? "As we headed home, we drove into a movie/Love songs, pretty girls - didn't want it to end/Tried to slow down the motion, so it could move us again." As the creators merge with their artefact, they become indistinguishable from the product as which they were sold - but knowing that, and knowing that illusion ("Fell asleep in the band room/Woke up in history"), they gain an ironic self-consciousness of what drove them. That recognition is the day that awaits us at midnight.

In July 2009, I saw Brian Wilson live in concert. He had to be led on to the stage and after he sat down at the keyboard, he hardly touched the keys. His face was like a mask, but it lit up for seconds when the audience rocked and sang along with the old songs and called out: "We love you, Brian!"

Some years earlier, I had sat with an old friend in an open-air restaurant in Southern California as the evening fell.

"What is your favourite group?" he asked.

"The Beach Boys," I said.

"But they're all dead!" My friend roared with laughter.

No. No, they're not.

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