Arts

What Kind of Total Disregard For Humanity Do You Have?

• Warum ich so weise bin •

• Warum ich so klug bin •

• Warum ich so gute Bücher schreibe •

• Warum ich ein Schicksal bin •

Special Valentine’s Day Edition

Capitol Records released Rubber Soul in the U.S. without a single. Simply put, by rock standards, this was a distinct departure from the accepted role of the LP. While in the jazz world the long-play format was being worked to its full artistic potential by 1965 (A Love Supreme is a sublime contemporary example), rock still treated the album as a showcase for recent singles and tons of filler. Using The Beatles as an example, one need only look to their U.S. debut on Vee Jay, Introducing The Beatles. My mom owns this LP, I have heard it, and it is awful, containing a handful of super-well-known tracks mixed in with filler, filler, filler. I don’t understand how people could listen to LPs in the early ’60s without track skip remotes.

But Rubber Soul, the forgotten first son of The Beatles’ amazing period, broke from the norm. No filler, no singles. Just 12 tracks of varying quality, but without the wide disparity implicit in the previous model. The move was revolutionary to at least one person, and it is his, Brian Wilson’s, response to Rubber Soul that informs this Valentine’s Day edition of this column. His response? Pet Sounds.

Is there another album which resists so forcefully being turned down to quiet, background levels? Listening to Pet Sounds, even at high volume, over regular speakers already seems disrespectful — something this private and engrossing needs the intimacy of the complete sonic dominance provided by a good set of headphones. When the headphones clamp down around your ears, you are forced to respect the sensual oppression afforded by the music pouring through. Eyes closed, only the sound can penetrate and signify, and in the case of this album, that is possibly enough deference (and seems to be the prerequisite for loving the album). After a while, the listener begins to count time in repetitions of the album. Conversion to hours is complicated, since 37:17 does not fit into the preexisting chronological standards accepted worldwide…yet, like Parliament says, “they still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition.”

On CD, the album is repeated, first the 1966 mono mix, then the 1996 stereo mix “supervised” by Wilson. In between is the original version of “I Know There’s an Answer,” named “Hang on to Your Ego,” which Frank Black turned into an underground college rock dance staple in 1993. For some reason, initially I clung to the mono mix — out of some sort of historical purity hipster snobhood, I suppose. But let’s be realistic here: we’re used to stereo in the dawn of the Millennium of Capitalism, so there is no need to stay away from the “revisionist” stereo mix. It’s damn good, and it crawls into the brain with a much better force and urgency. When mono dominated recording, headphones were the size of heads. As asserted earlier, this album works best in headphones, and headphones love stereo, so listen to the second playing of the album when listening on CD.

A friend remarks that Pet Sounds lends itself to non-regular listening — be it fanatical listening or exasperated listening. The CD has become a requisite part of any hipster’s library, of course, as the album has enjoyed a resurgence among the indie crowd (if the popularity ever waned in the first place, I don’t know; I was listening to Neil Diamond and Kenny Rogers when the original lineup of The Clash disbanded, so I can’t hardly say if, say, the CBGB’s crowd was down with Pet Sounds), and it even has a famous fan in Gary Trudeau, who had his character Andy request the album’s being played as his mortal life floated to the sky like the heavenly opening of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

The casual, broad view of the album, however, distracts me from the point of this, and from explaining what any of this has to do with Valentine’s Day. In his letter to the listener of the album, written in 1990, Wilson explains that “I needed to directly express my feelings to people…I was in a loving mood for a few months and it found its way to recorded tape…I experimented with sounds that would make the listener feel loved.” But like the introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this letter from the author points the listener down the wrong path. If Pet Sounds is supposed to make the listener feel loved, why is it so crushingly sad? And by crushingly, I mean achingly and crushingly sad.

My Sony MDR-V400s are probably getting sick of blasting this album into my ears. I’ve listened to it a lot over the past six weeks (yes, it’s been that kind of winter), and each listen just reiterates the few basic tenets of the album: 1) There is almost no way a 23-year-old can create something this ridiculously complex (corroborated by the weird, almost childishly simplistic remarks by Wilson throughout the liner notes, especially where he goes on about angels protecting the recording sessions); 2) “I Know There’s an Answer” is stronger as “Hang on to Your Ego,” but it is also more angry, and, thus, contributes too forcefully to the undoing of the album, the undoing Wilson seems not to have anticipated yet which informs the rest of this article; 3) Wilson refers to the music as “pocket symphonies,” but without the lyrical content, the album would be empty , which makes one question the decision to provide both a capella and instrumental versions of the album on The Pet Sounds Sessions; 4) The David Leaf-written liner notes, and Wilson himself (elsewhere), unfairly try to distance “Sloop John B” from the rest of the album — it wasn’t recorded at the same time, Wilson did not write it, and it was included just because it was the Beach Boys’ hit single at the time, etc.

Yet for all the efforts at distancing, “Sloop John B” remains the literal midpoint of the album. It is the fulcrum on which the emotional content of the album bends, and, as such, also unlocks Wilson’s album with the simple lines, not even penned by Wilson: “Let me go home / Why don’t they let me go home / This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”1 In “Sloop John B.,” our hero can’t wait to escape from the John B to return. But he never clearly states why he wants to return. “Well I feel so broke up / I want to go home,” he repeats, but without qualification. The drinking does not seem to be the problem, as the narrator also complains about the cook’s throwing away all his food. And if it’s the drinking, what sorrow is he drowning? The song hides the reason, and though Wilson and Leaf try to place great space between “Sloop John B.” and the rest of the album, it still shares a creative link to the listener. And since the rest of the album is about amorous love, then so, too, can “Sloop John B.” be about a jilted lover who abandons his ties to the land to stumble around Nassau, tight as a drum, with his grandfather, getting into fights. But it’s in this new him — the he who gets all broke up — that he understands that a return home is necessary. Running from the problems solves nothing; the trip is the worst because it did not help him forget the loved one he left behind.

Imagining the singer of “Sloop John B.” as a man running away from the (presumptive) girl at home, a lot of the sweetness of Pet Sounds begins to do what sweetness often does: corrode and slowly eat away. Already the theme of regret arises — regretting running away from the problem — a theme that recurs in the more frankly apparent “That’s Not Me.” The Mike Love-sung track explains a similar dread at the decision made to run away. “I wanted to show how independent I’d grown now / But that’s not me,” we hear. He ran away to the city to “try to be big in the eyes of the world,” even though “what matters to me is what I could be to just one girl.” A mistake has been made, but “I’m a little bit scared / Cause I haven’t been home in a long time / You needed my love / And I know that I left at the wrong time.” The same agony and guarded desire to return home from “Sloop John B.” appears in this, the third cut on the album. “That’s Not Me” keeps a bit of optimism, though. The moving away from home becomes a dream: “I once had a dream / So I packed up and split for the city / I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty / I’m glad I went now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready.” He dreams about leaving home, realizes it would yield loneliness, and, as such, is ready to commit and be a better boyfriend.

But whether or not that seems reasonable is questioned elsewhere. Both “I’m Waiting for the Day” and “Here Today” investigate the role of the boyfriend in a series of relationships, indicating and underscoring both their temporary nature and the permanence of other sorts of attraction. “I came along when he broke your heart / That’s when you needed someone / To help forget about him, ” sings Wilson as a cor anglais follows the twists of his melody. Yet, at the same time, “I kissed your lips / And when your face looked sad / It made me think about him / And that you still loved him so.” The narrator is waiting for the day when she “can love again,” a time when the previous boy will have been gone. But in “Here Today,” where the boys’ roles are reversed, the narrator warns the new romantic interest that “I’m not saying you won’t have a good love with her / But I keep on remembering things like they were / She made me feel so bad / She made my heart feel sad / She made my days go wrong / And made my nights so long.”2 The boy here clearly isn’t ready, himself, to love again. He cannot let go of his ex-girlfriend, and circles around her like a vulture, still possessive and scaring away future suitors with warnings. Yet the next time he kisses another girl, he’ll justify it to himself by saying, at least it’s not her. He’s over her because he’s moved on, but eventually, as Pet Sounds indicates, he’ll want to return home.

Driving back from Detroit the other weekend, I put on a CD I’d made for a friend as a Christmas present. The opening track was the same as the opening track on Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” My friends in the car with me grooved to the track, and they found their spirits lifted. With the etheral opening plucks and accordion accompaniment, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is an upbeat winner. The round “oooh-bop-bop” harmonies recall the sugary simplicity of early Beach Boys hits. The song almost drifts out of any serious listening, and that’s a response I typically see. That is, and it’s hard not to say this without sounding like a snob, there’s a superficial appeal to the song. In one ear, out the other. Sing along with some “wooo”s, and let the song drift away as the next track on the disc comes on.

But there are problems here. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” seems like a wistful look ahead to the future, but why look ahead to the future? What is so wrong about the present? The entire song is framed in the possible (not even probable!) by the subjunctive mood. Elsewhere on the album, there was a desire to return home, to patch stuff back up with the girlfriend left behind. Here, we have the couple in place, and it’s still not right between them. The opening guitars lift the level of the emotion into the clouds, right before the drums break in, supported by the fat brass,3 but, then, the drums fall away after the end of the second verse, and Mike Love and Wilson sing, “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true / Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do / We could be married / And then we’d be happy.” What exists now cannot suffice. This can be read as a dream for acceptance of the love, or something similar, or it can simply signal that even when one is in love, it is not the simple paradise we’re taught to imagine it as. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a cute, cute song — but one with a demoralizing message. The present is not enough. What you have could be better, but only in the future — a direct contradiction of “Here Today”‘s chorus of “You’ve got to keep in mind love is here today / And it’s gone tomorrow / It’s here and gone so fast.” The former indicates eagerness to reach future potential. The latter crosses off the possibility of future.

“Here Today” is supported on wings of electric organs before finding feet in the form of bleating trombones, wheezing baritone saxes, and a ridiculously full-sounding tambourine (timed with the kick drum). The lyrics, split into two pieces (see footnote 2), are separated by the first appearance of the piano, itself just enough out of tune so that it sounds like a toy clanking around out of place. The piano, fractured like the broken heart of the narrator, returns during the sped-up instrumental break that forms the third part of the song. It pounds out bass notes while an organ plays the same line octaves above, bringing a unity between the ground and sky — the emotional promise of love can’t ever remain in the sky. The break furthermore races with a tightly-picked guitar part that seems ready to fall into surf-rock (typical Beach Boys territory) at a moment’s notice. The guitar is the racing, jealous heart of a person trying to warn his ex’s new suitor about her problems in order to keep her for himself. The heartbeat is tamed, however, as the piano crashes like a wave over the speeding tremolo and reduces the guitar to climbing with the chord changes before toppling over with the reprise of the chorus. Devastating stuff, I tell you.4

Other deceptions arise. In “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” Wilson tries to create a closeness by trying to remove the distance brought on by signification from his loved one. “I can hear so much in your sighs [signs] / And I can see so much in your eyes,” Wilson sings, and that interpretive distance is too great — it causes a distance he wants to avoid. “Come close, close your eyes and be still / Don’t talk, take my hand and let me hear your heart beat,” he begs his amorous object. Abandon signification and become a unit, driven solely by the empty sign of a heartbeat. Is this really what love is supposed to be? Love as a denial of language that refuses the very possibility of closeness with signification is what Wilson advocates on this track. Hearts not vanquished yet by the other songs can scarcely make it through the implications about the very possibility of love contained in “Don’t Talk.”

The attempt at escape from signification returns in “God Only Knows.” “If you should ever leave me,” sings Carl Wilson, “the world could show nothing to me / So what good would living do me.” He needs the loved one to mediate his understanding of the sense data of the world around him. And only the unknowable, God (who is outside / above reality), can know “what I’d be without you.” Being in love makes a person incomplete — unable to negotiate the surrounding reality, yet eager to abandon that reality in retreat into a separate place spared just for him and her. Then, in “I Know There’s an Answer,” the very desire to try and remain closed to oneself (that is, complete, self-sustained, not in love), and the people who live that way are criticized. “How can I come on / And tell them the way that they live could be better,” asks Love. But then solipsistic strength is the focus of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” where Wilson wonders about why he cannot find peace or happiness in love — he cannot “find nothin’ I can put my heart and soul into,” and, as such, yearns for the very impossible situation triangulated in the previous ten tracks on the album. The only comfort comes in the otherworldly mirroring of the melody provided by the always creepy Theremin.5 Music from the ether, manipulated electromagnetic waves (only?) provide a good pair for Wilson, or for anyone who wants the ideal from love.

Pet Sounds closes with “Caroline No,” Wilson’s allegedly (at least at one point) favorite track on the album. It recaptures most of the instability of the previous half-hour of music, as Wilson reflects on Caroline, a person from his past who has changed despite promising never to do so. He eagerly asks (and answers), “Could I ever find in you again / Things that made me love you so much then / Could we ever bring ‘em back once they have gone / Oh Caroline no.” The return home, the dream of “Sloop John B,” collapses as a fallacy, a dream that will never come true. Love, for its alleged permanence, its alleged ability to exist outside of the obstacles of reality, its alleged transcendental nature, and its being an alleged cure for what ails the lonely, still changes and fades. “Sic transit amor,” Max Fisher might be tempted to say, though he can’t possibly know — even with Margaret at his side and Heaven and Hell an unqualified success — he still closes his own story dancing with Miss Cross, a very Pet Soundsy gesture.

A friend refers to Valentine’s Day as a lose-lose situation. No matter what happens, at best you’re the same you were the day before. If you’re alone, then you feel awful for being alone (net loss). If you’re involved, then you have to act atypically to try and create a new intimacy, which can easily fall to pieces, yielding boxes of chocolate with a sheen of tears staining the “Russell Stover” legend (at best, no loss / no gain). I’m a bit more optimistic, but I clearly have to listen to Pet Sounds more.

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