"God Only Knows"
The Beach Boys
If you haven't seen the Brian Wilson bio-pic Love & Mercy, I beg of you, PLEASE don't miss it. I just saw it last night, and it's sending me into a weekend of Beach Boys nostalgia.
Two brilliant actors -- Paul Dano and John Cusack -- play Brian Wilson at different periods of his life, and both deliver performances of exquisite subtlety, intelligence, and heart-breaking empathy. But what's even more rare about this film is how it gets the magic of musical creation, with scene after scene of Brian in the studio creating Pet Sounds. It geeks out on the "how did they make that sound" details, and somehow even captures the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of Brian's artistic genius.
And in the throes of this Beach Boy weekend, I'm happy to see that post I wrote a couple years ago about these two landmark songs basically already says everything I want to say.
I won't lie, Beatlemania was the reigning passion of my adolescence, but there was an interlude -- think of it as my Lost Weekend -- in the summer of 1966, when my family took a train trip west to Southern California. Our West Coast sojourn was one golden blur of Disneyland, malls, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, and trips to the beach, preferably in the company of my one-year-older cousin Jeff, who had black hair and ice-blue eyes and a strong jaw -- possibly the dreamiest male I had ever met in the flesh. This SoCal infatuation lasted well into the fall -- as I recall, that was also the year the Monkees debuted on TV -- until who knows what Beatles song jarred it loose.
And right in the heart of that Golden Summer came this double-sided hit from the Beach Boys. These guys had always been the sound of summer for me -- even in the Midwest, with a turquoise cement-rimmed swimming pool standing in for the LaJolla cove. (Hey, in the Midwest we needed the Beach Boys even more, to create the illusion of summer.) The Beach Boys brand was a dependable sun-kissed commodity. But in the summer of '66, with these two songs, Brian Wilson leaped light-years into the future, leaving even the Beatles in his dust (presumably that was Brian's goal). Even as a kid, I could instantly tell this was something special and new. Really, listen to these two melodies -- was anything EVER this gorgeous?
"Wouldn't It Be Nice" was the ultimate Good Kids Waiting For Sex song, which hit me right in my adolescent sweet spot -- though I didn't yet have a boyfriend (my hunky cousin being off limits) I yearned and burned in principle. The Beatles were all about sex, but now here were the Beach Boys making chastity sound romantic and cool. Listen to how that plinky electric piano riff at the beginning gets suddenly smacked down with a treMENdous drum whack. This whole song is about trembling on the verge of intercourse, yet the rock-bottom assumption was abstinence. "Wouldn't it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn't have to wait so long" -- we all knew what they were waiting for.
Cynicism was never the Beach Boys' game, but this song is remarkably earnest even for them. Hand it to Brian Wilson, arrested adolescent par excellence, for dwelling whole-heartedly in this pre-lapsarian scenario. In verse two, he does get a little hungry as he projects into the future: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up / In the morning when the day is new / And after having spent the day together / Hold each other close the whole night through." And yet STILL so innocent -- just holding each other, that's all, really! (I love how it slows down, almost groaning with desire, as he sings, "You know it seems the more we talk about it / It only makes it worse to live without it..."). Naturally they will be married ("we could be married") which equals being happy ("then we'd be happy"), and OH, wouldn't it be nice? And then the whole thing dissolves into a masturbatory swirl of overlapping phrases and echoes and harmonies, as never-ending as that passionate long kiss.
Believe me, I spent hours agonizing over which was my favorite side of this single (bought, oh so eagerly, with my hard-earned babysitting money). The B side, though, eventually came up the winner, for one simple reason: The glorious lead vocal of the most underrated Wilson brother, Carl. I had no idea it was him singing -- if you'd asked me, the only Wilson I was interested in was the beautiful Dennis -- but something about Carl's voice dove straight into my heart.
This song has no dramatic tension at all. It's just a straight-shooting expression of devotion, and nobody could do sincere like Carl. But even more important was his exquisite ear -- who else could have steered that tune through its morphing key changes, vertiginous swoops up and down the scale, the surging swells of volume? The vocal had to be strong to stand up against the densely layered instrumentation of strings, woodwinds, synthesizers, and whatever else obsessive Brian had hauled into the studio. It expresses passion on an operatic scale, and for once pop music had musical tools worthy of that passion.
That opening is so damn noble, like an opera overture, with marching electric piano chords and a French horn fanfare. Enter our white knight, Sir Carl, singing humbly, "I may not always love you" -- hunh? but no, it's a rhetorical trick, as the next line resolves. "But long as there are stars above you / You never need to doubt it / I'll make you so sure about it." The way he throws his voice into that top note "sure" is equaled only by the poignance of the same line in verse two, as he imagines her leaving him and protests -- "So what good would livin' do me?" What good indeed, I ask myself.
That's about it as far as lyrics go -- from there on it's just repeats of "God only knows what I'd be without you," sung as a round, then as a madrigal, then amplified into full orchestral counterpoint, until you're lost in the dizzying tapestry of aural textures. I find myself singing along with one voice, then another; sometimes the wave breaks on "what," other times on "without," but it never resolves, never ends, a continuous spiral of sound. He's fighting through a wilderness, with only his steadfast love to guide him. It's amazing how ego-less this is -- he's not bragging about his passion, simply stating, over and over, with dogged humility, that he'd be nothing without her. Simple as that.
Raised on songs like this, is it any wonder that we who were girls in 1966 found real-world adult love baffling?