Brian's Supreme Moment(s)

by Rino Breebart

For number one on the list we turn to the Beach Boys. Specifically the oft-touted genius of artist-in-residence Brian Wilson. I wish there was more time to discuss this erratic genius whose prolific peculiarities beg greater speculation and suggestion. A man whose creativity spans Little Deuce Coupe, Pet Sounds and Dr Eugene Landy warrants a proper writerly portrait. For the purpose of this list I am steering way clear of Pet Sounds and the box-set reissue mania that surrounds it. I was tempted to delve into the hazy intensity of Smile-era creativity, but in the end I had to toss up between 'Till I Die and Surf's Up. And not all of Surf's Up, the final track on the album of the same name, but the last little vocal coda or refrain, 'The child is father of the man', which a little research has actually sourced, in part, from the Smile sessions. Both refrains feature pure group harmonisation, each part dovetailed into a complex score. The refrain of 'Till I Die is equally beautiful, proving Brian a supreme vocal orchestrator. Their beauty doesn't only stem from vocal purity, but from an intimation of timelessness and a perfectly cyclical duration in the sense of seeming to go on forever or because of their beauty, to want them to roll on forever.

On the outset, there are very few pop songs that impart such spiritual warmth and generosity; very few artists who can achieve such communication through simple writing. 'Till I Die is coloured by a fatalistic-spiritual melancholia, and apparently this song was a big downer for Mike Love. But what seems like a ballad of smallness in the magnitude of the universe is also an acceptance of death-inevitable through the harmonies of music, a consolation of the medium. Brian's genius is the ability to intimate spirituality through compound vocal structures an ability all the more god-given because these structures themselves are universally beautiful, an index to the sublime.

However, I choose the Surf's Up refrain as Brian's supremely justifying moment. After an impressionistic lyric-collage co-authored by Van Dyke Parks, come the lyrics 'I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children's song...' wandering into reverberated falsetto, then the intake of many breaths for the group refrain. A simple two-chord progression fleshed by vocal sustain of great depth, a full mix, and rhythmic jabs of the word 'child'. A sense of deep joy in recognition and sympathy all at once. A rising and contrapuntal repetition... 'A children's song, have you listened as they played...' again that almost angelic circularity of form whose ultimate analogy can only be religious or chanted music (chorals, fugues). Importantly, all the musical factors are fused: harmony, sustain, rhythm, empathic vibe (joy), dovetailed structure, and the grace of utter simplicity and flow. To fully feel what Brian has achieved, one has to sing along with it and place oneself in the mix, and thereby make the surrounding harmonies more apparent, more sublime. Listening only (and much less writing about it) isn't enough to impart its beauty. If there is any latent truth in the refrain besides the lyric, it is that Brian proves the artistic imperative of the Voice: ie, the only imperative of having a voice, and identity, is to sing. And to sing is to join the angelic chorus. It doesn't matter how much California grass inspired this refrain what does matter is that beauty and communication are achieved.

This absolute music is absolutely affecting. In partaking of this man's, this group's generosity, what further criterion for greatness do we need? One doesn't need rhetoric. People wouldn't have stopped at merely labelling Brian an 'artist' he's succeeded in affective communication, in beautiful and instinctive group orchestration, and spiritual intimations he's already qualified for geniality.

More should be said about the lyric too: 'A child is the father of the man'. A friend has correctly sourced the phrase to Wordsworth, but after rereading Intimations of Immortality I wasn't very satisfied with Wordsworth's intimation of the idea. What it boils down to is this: a child, being innocent, has a purity of perception that can intimate the beauty of all things, especially Nature. The adult, being conditioned by dull society, can only grasp this beauty fleetingly or by remembering the child in himself. The point of which is to reactivate the childish perspective so one can realign one's perception of Nature with maturity and intelligence. The fullness of perception in the child later gives birth to the complete man who reintegrates him again. I was tempted to go into the whole Innocence Bag in the Beach Boys music teenhood, mobility and cars, sexual beginnings, the falsetto harmonies and the distinct lack of ballsier music, the other side of loss and maturity but these wouldn't have justified the peculiarity of the Surf's Up refrain.

There's another literary hint in Joyce's Ulysses, where Stephen theorises a paternal inversion in Hamlet, where Shakespeare doesn't cast himself as the son but as the ghost of the father, directing his own, actually dead, son Hamnet. Shakespeare's creation is such that the father and son are consubstantial, as with certain readings of the Trinity, and as it is with Ulysses. This is a hint at a broader issue of creation (outside of maternal creation) namely, one always remains a son until one fathers a child or one is always subject to an unconscious paternity until the role of paternity thrusts one into manhood. That is, a child brings about the proper manhood of the father. One doesn't become defined or distinct as a being until one creates.

Irrespective of the legendary unfulfilment and paranoia of the Smile album, there is a subtle turning point located in it, or rather the closure of a phase. If one listens contrastingly to Pet Sounds and a later album like Sunflower, the innocence or pop-minded adolescence of Pet Sounds is thrown into relief. There is an air of pessimism or loss about it, even a kind of fatalism, but it is Sunflower that has the greater depth of finality and the tender fragility of love, if not a greater contiguity to death and loss. As though Brian not only realised the limits of his own brain and drug intake, but of how fatherhood shuts off the lingering teen elements that were so integral to the earlier music. After the promise of Smile as the greatest album of all time, a symphony of youth, came the more modest simplicity of Friends, Sunflower and Surf's Up. Or more Freudianly, the turning point or limitation here mirrors the artistic change after the declining influence of Papa Wilson (cf. Mama Presley). But in the Freudian vein the whole emergence of Brian as Artist-Genius does play out as a paternity play: from being the one who uncloaked Murray's magic mixing console, to the insecurity of leading a touring band in exchange for the warmth of growing studio enclosure, hiding, creating; to the fighting and eventual separation from Capitol, and the guilty, forewarned fall from grace (Murray: 'God only gave you one brain, Brian'). Brian's creativity is deeply rooted in youth, in the rebelling and guilty son.

Brian regards his singing on Surf's Up as naked and exposed, reiterating his reluctance to use or rework any Smile material but this is also a cover for its deeply personal experience, of truths too close to the bone, and not merely the paranoia and superstition of drug-induced abandonment. And whatever other factors may have bummed him out so much: Mike Love, The Beatles, the plan for the album, emotional instability, the firebug... I think that in (having) children, Brian saw his own closure, or the first distinction and closure of (reluctant) manhood.

A children's song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way.

These lyrics were added at the very last minute to a mix the band was making from the Smile session tape. Brian's (or Parks') remembered lyric not only fulfils the refrain, but seals the song as a whole, and fittingly caps the album. To stretch the analogy even further, it seals the whole innocent youth bag which Mike Love glowingly called 'the 'fucking formula'.

This generous, independently beautiful musical moment stands as a marker or junction point in the life of Brian. It's a reconciliation of sorts, of youth matured and defined, which observes as though for the first time the generosity of innocence in the child as a true love. I'm not sure if Brian was at ease with the self-definition and role that fatherhood brings, but this could be a point taken up again by 'Till I Die, where maturity in the spiritual sense implies readiness for death.


In the parlay of innocence, the father loses as the child gains innocence. Much like the tenets of Romantic literature: the ritual renewal (here, chanted, circular-repetitive) through regaining the innocent perspective, tinged by a hidden or undisclosed contiguity to death (here, to 'Till I Die). Shakespeare as the artist who was constantly creating his own image ('everything and nothing') for is this not next to godliness?

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