Heroes And Villains

by Paul Williams

This is from Paul Williams' book "Rock And Roll: The 100 Best Singles." (ISBN: 0-88184-966-9) Other Beach Boys singles in the book are "Fun, Fun, Fun" "I Get Around/Don't Worry Baby" and "Good Vibrations." Reprinted by permission of the author.

but first read this:

The Best Brian Interview Ever?

That's a bold heading for this post, because I'm talking about an interview with Brian Wilson I did myself, and I honestly think some of you may agree with me that this could be the most Brian-ish and pleasing interview with him you've ever read. It's the cover story of the 2nd issue (March '96) of a new audio magazine called FI, long interview including much detail of how he and Mike worked together as songwriters. And a long essay by me on the soundtrack album, which I call the best album by anyone in 1995. This will be on sale from Feb 20 or so at places like Tower Records and many bookstores with a large selection of magazines. If you can't find it, you can get it by subscribing (and I think it's the sort of deal where you can cancel the subscription and get the rest of your money back if you change your mind once you get a magazine or two). I think you'll like the mag, but they set up these deals so people will try it, why not try the Brian Wilson issue? Call 1-800-779-HIFI (4434) for subscription info ($20.95 for 10 issues). Or $5.95 if you can find it at a record store or audio store or newsstand.

I'm really proud of this interview, I think you'll find that reading it is like getting to spend personal time with Brian on a good day. Anyway, if you do read it I'd appreciate it if you let me know what you think. It's called, "There's A Lot of Love in It."

Thanks! --Paul Williams

This is it. This is the record I love better than and indeed am more awestruck at than "Good Vibrations" (less perfect, but it goes so much further). In fact, if I had arranged this book in the foolish (but popular) hierarchical format, this record is one of the few that could have been a legitimate contender for first position. Right up there with "Mona". That tells you something, but damn if I know what.

Oh, actually, I suppose I do know what. Both are totally individualistic and at the same time alarmingly close to some kind of truly universal, pure human essence. In "Mona" it's the rhythms and the singer's voice. In "Heroes and Villains" it's the rhythms of the voices, and of all the other sounds (voices of another sort). "Mona" is a single voice, speaking from deep in the under-conscious; "H & V" is a collective vocalization, speaking from the same deep place. Both have for me the unmistakable sizzle of a direct hook-up with higher awareness. Here is a taste of what reality really sounds like. Pipes of Pan. The voice of the avatar.

But don't let me spook you. It's a real pretty record, that's all. Astonishingly pretty. The words were written by a fellow named Van Dyke Parks, chosen by him for their sounds the way a mosaicist chooses stones for color and shape and relation to each other and magical resonance and then puts them together and they make a story, a picture. "I've been in this town so long that back in the city I've been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long long time..." This is not mediocre poetry. Even if it weren't surrounded by such wonderful music, it'd be exquisite.

"Heroes and Villains" sounds, among other things, like a running brook. It sounds like nature looks and sounds and smells when we are in it and are truly in touch with the wonder of the natural world. It flows and dances. And, as that last word suggests, there is also a strong element of fantasy here. I am talking not now of the story but of the images conjured up by the music and by the sounds of the performance. As in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" we are caught up in the easy shift from the rapturously natural to the supernatural—"heroes and villains" because this is storybook stuff, a dance to the feelings evoked in a child's heart by the world of make-believe.

This record is a famous failure, in terms of it's creators' impossible ambitions: it was to be the cornerstone of an evocative masterpiece that would have taken the sounds and feelings and wordplay explored herein, and extended them across a coherent album-length work, as complex and rich and perfect as anything ever attempted in composed or recorded music. Many additional fragments of "Heroes and Villains" exist on tape that may someday be released in their unfinished form. I'd love to hear them, and I love this legend of the album (called "Smile") that flew too close to the sun. But the brightness of the myth can obscure what was in fact accomplished. All great works of art are failures in the sense that they reach for something that is ultimately beyond expression. It is not enough simply to reflect back the world that's known. What we love in art is the way it articulates and glorifies our own secret struggles to know and possess the unknowable.

We are most human, most mortal, when we are reaching for something. And though we will never obtain what we reach for, our vulnerability at these moments of hyperextension is a gateway through which the most wondrous possessions can and do arrive. In "Heroes and Villains" the single Brian Wilson did have the courage and humility to complete and release in the form in which we know it, the one now playing on my phonograph, something comes to life that I have never heard on any other recording. Its presence is most obvious in the chorus ("Heroes and villains just see what you've done done") as it moves from vocalization of words to vocalization of sound to nonvocal sound and back again, and in the violent, breathtaking transitions in and out of this chorus and indeed between all the perfectly integrated and overlapping fragments of this record.

What is that something? Damn if I know. But I know where you can find it.

Return to my Beach Boys Essays Page

Return to my Beach Boys page.