Joe Donnelly, the co-editor and publisher of Slake: Los Angeles, writes in a Las Vegas magazine about his epiphany with the Beach Boys, many years ago. "I think it was 'Sloop John B' that did it," he writes in Vegas Seven. "...a miniature pocket symphony, if you will, of ascending and descending harmonies, vocal bass lines, multi-tracking, odd-but-effective instrumentation."
This time I listened—and I heard. I heard the longing, the precognitive heartbreak, the dread that the monster in the other room will soon rise to break this reverie. I heard these things weighing down every soaring, sailing composition like gravity. But it wasn’t just these things, which were well known to me by then. I heard, too, the music’s butterfly wings flapping against all that gravity. It was as if Wilson was saying, of course we know how this will end, but until then we have “Sloop John B,” we have “In My Room,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” “Heroes and Villains.” Until then, we have life. And when I finally listened it was Brian Wilson’s insistent belief in that life that made me cry. He wasn’t just Dennis and Carl’s older brother, for a few minutes he was mine, too.
With songs about hot rods, endless summers, California girls and surfing, it wasn’t long before the Beach Boys were a metaphor for a metaphor, the sunny faces of California, which itself was the sunny face of a manifest destiny running out of room and steam. But in California, thank God, the future was still so bright we had to wear shades.
At first, the Beach Boys’ music was the canvas onto which we cast our last strokes of innocence, our final pleas for good vibrations. Of course, it was all a conceit and it was all too much to bear—for the Beach Boys, for California and most of all for Brian Wilson. When the sun went down, there was still an alcoholic mother, an abusive father and their pending divorce to reconcile. For every “Surfin’ USA,” there was an “In My Room”; for every “Little Deuce Coupe,” there was a “The Warmth of the Sun.”
Growing up isn’t easy. Choices grow exponentially in number and complexity. Mansons start bumming your trip. Brothers start fighting among themselves. Money happens. Lawsuits feel inevitable, and then happen. God dies, or maybe he doesn’t, but we sure will soon enough. Summer isn’t so endless anymore. What do you do?
Video: the making of "Sloop John B" in 1965 at the Western Recorders studio in Hollywood, with Billy Strange and other session players.