In doing research for this post, I found a lot of impersonal rubbish about writing eulogies. But then I stumbled across this gem by Tom Chiarella. I highly recommend reading this moving and insightful essay in full. But here are two of the insights that hit home for me:
ALICE PUNG is a Melbourne writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning books Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter and editor of Growing up Asian in Australia, all of which are studied in high schools nationally. She also writes for The Age, the Good Weekend and the Monthly. She is currently the writer in residence at Janet Clarke Hall, the University of Melbourne, and an Ambassador for the 100 Story Building, which helps foster a love of literature in disadvantaged school children.
She made it possible for me to write about growing up Asian in Australia, and have my books classified in the ‘Australian Literature’ section of bookstores and school booklists. It was her books, filled with love and generosity towards her Italian family and Australian students, that made it possible for my first book, Unpolished Gem to be read as a bildungsroman and not a refugee story. I was born in Australia just like Marchetta’s characters. I grew up with a grandmother who told me stories, and learned to live with people assuming that a face like mine must have come from somewhere exotic. So I understood that Looking for Alibrandi is not so much a story about finding yourself, but more about finding out how you relate to other people, and learning to see from their perspectives. And of course, Josie eventually realises this:
The music of The Beach Boys can be many things depending on who you happen to be, your cultural upbringing, the year you were born. The music of The Beach Boys can be some cornball song about Surfing and nothing else. It can be an image in your mind of a greying, balding Mike Love fronting a live group that pass as no more / no less than an ageing, if professional, covers act. The music of The Beach Boys can be something else, it can mean the entire world, be unmatchable, unsurpassed art of the highest order. It can be a group who recorded a few hit songs in The Sixties that you don't really like to think about, because, you know, it's old, it's irrelevant. This box-set was released to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their first top ten hit single, 'Surfin USA'. For those that view The Beach Boys as art, that view Brian Wilson as a genius and the groups vocal capabilities as unsurpassed examples of harmony and arrangements - there is much to enjoy here. Unreleased or difficult to find songs, an entire disc devoted to the era 1967 through to 1971, an era in which they made frequently beautiful, if often overlooked, music. There is more than that, here, however. The box-set as a whole could work as an introduction to the groups music for someone who'd never heard them before, if such a thing is imaginable. Everyone it seems, fan or novice, Brian Wilson fan or 'I Get Around' fan has some kind of opinion about The Beach Boys.
Capitol Records endless re-issue program concentrating almost exclusively on the 1962 to 1965 era and hits albums whilst the groups seventies output remained deleted for years and years has distorted the view of this group for some time. Even at the time the likes of 'Sunflower' and 'Surfs Up' were being issued, the group were in an uneasy position of selling a fraction of the records they did in the mid-Sixties, and therefore were seen as irrelevant at a time each and every single ex-beatle had chart topping solo records, for example. When 'Good Vibrations' topped the charts worldwide in 1966 following the highly acclaimed 'Pet Sounds' it seemed as if The Beach Boys were ready to topple anybody, Beatles included. All they needed to do was to make the greatest album anyone had ever heard, or would ever hear, an indisputable masterpiece that would be as acclaimed as 'Pet Sounds' but also sell millions and millions into the bargain. There was a lot of pre-hype about the album to be titled 'Smile', so when it never appeared, crisis loomed. Almost overnight The Beach Boys had become irrelevant, washed-up, sent back to California to lay bloated on the beaches and the surf from which they first crawled. Only, it didn't quite happen that way. Brian was suffering from taking LSD, from paranoia, from having worked non-stop for four, five, six years. He'd had a breakdown back in 1964, in 1967 he had another break-down, one from which it's generally perceived he has never really recovered from to be quite the same hard-working genius he was before. So, The Beach Boys build a home studio in Brian Wilsons house, encouraging him to participate whenever they could. Carl and Dennis Wilson, even Mike, Bruce and Al all stepped up to contribute song-writing, they coaxed Brian to write songs, sometimes recorded his songs without his permission or knowledge. They created some beautiful music from 1967 to 1971, different music to 'Surfin USA' or 'I Get Around' for sure, and for sure, there wasn't the same sense of The Beach Boys progressing and progressing to a certain pinnacle, but each album offered something new and mysterious, each album offered something different, it was a period of discovery and sheer love of making music that drove them on, even though it appeared nobody was listening. Disc Three on this box set encapsulates that era, and that's the finest disc of all five for this unrepentant and passionate Beach Boys lover.
A demo of 'Surfin USA' contains none of the Brian Wilson production, no harmonies and lo-fi recording quality. Brian sings the song that would really send them on their way, sings in a raw voice whilst bashing away at a Chuck Berry riff on the Piano. Even here there is a moment of wonderful, unexplainable transcendence that thrills me. When Brian sings "Everybodies gone Suuuurfinn....." it just gets to me. You can't explain the reason or thought behind this. It's a human voice, the sound of a man full of passion and joy, audible and infectious passion and joy. 'Little Surfer Girl' is no more than a mere fragment. We progress through a series of songs that show progress in writing and production. '409' was an early Car song, a switch from the girls, sun and surf material. The Beach Boys would create a concept album entirely focused around their love of the motor car, a love shared by their teenage audience at the time. 'Punchline' is a Surf instrumental perfectly well done, but hardly the stuff of legend. 'Surfin USA', the single version, still represents to most the sound of The Beach Boys, and anything else doesn't really even enter their hearts or imaginations, and for those people I feel so sad and sorrowful, that they'll never get to hear 'Surfs Up' or 'Mona', 'The Night Was So Young' or 'God Only Knows', never really get 'to hear' those songs, even if they happen across them, because they won't be listening and their hearts will be closed and their minds full of striped shirts and the desperately uncool imagery and fashion of early Beach Boys. Personally speaking, if I never heard 'Surfin USA' ever again, it would be no great loss to me. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy the song, but it is so inferior to the songs that followed that it's position in Beach Boys history makes me uneasy. 'Shut Down' and 'Little Deuce Coupe' are Car songs, full of passion and good vocals, 'Surfer Girl' a heavenly hymn devoted unashamedly to an ideal of a California residing, Blonde haired and perfect angel of Brian's imagination. When Brian gets going with his "little one" falsetto, nothing else matters. There is a love and honesty coming through that just thrills me. 'In My Room' can be seen as comparable to The Beatles 'There's A Place'. Were they listening to each other as early as this? The difference is Johns place was his mind, Brians place was his heart - the singing and lyrics here perfectly evoking and representing the feeling of retreating to yourself and your own environment where you won't be afraid, where you'll be comforted and everything will be ok. 'Catch A Wave' is a perfect summer sensation, outtasight! A real early 'Wall Of Love' Brian Wilson song in response to Phil Spectors 'Wall Of Sound'. 'The Surfer Moon' is charming, if slightly cornball, 'Be True To Your School' is a Mike Love concept, and i've never enjoyed it's blatant commercialism.
Lesser known gems from The Beach Boys early era such as 'Spirit Of America' are gorgeous vocal exercises where Brian's falsetto shines through, they built a career around that falsetto. 'Don't Worry Baby' is an inspired response to Phil Spectors 'Be My Baby' which although is a classic in it's own right comes across more as a command, 'Be My Baby', where Brian is pleading, human and affecting, the love and emotion shining through in the falsetto and the beautiful vocal arrangement that just sounds so warm it could reduce your heating bills all through the winter. 'The Warmth Of The Sun' is beautiful, the 'Today' material beautiful and even more sophisticated production wise, Brian was growing and growing. One slight quibble, why isn't 'Kiss Me Baby' here? Generally speaking though, the song selection on this box includes everything important than any Beach Boys fan could ever hope for. There will always be certain omissions, but this Box does do a fantastic job of representing The Beach Boys entire career extremely well. Disc two is necessarily flawed, trying to excerpt 'Pet Sounds' selections away from their original context that just creates a longing within you to listen to all of 'Pet Sounds'. You find yourself missing the songs not here, the beautiful 'Don't Talk' being the most notable omission for me personally, although altogether eight of the thirteen 'Pet Sounds' songs ARE here. An out-take from 'Beach Boys Party' wouldn't be the place you'd possibly expect to find the first genuine thrilling and unmissable out-take on this box. But, there it is. 'Ruby Baby', sung by Brian with dumb/clever/thrilling harmonies, very homely complete with pig 'oinking' noises that still can't take away from the sheer thrill to be found in Brians vocal performance. Why wasn't this on 'Beach Boys Party' in the first place? Following 'Pet Sounds' we have 'Good Vibrations' with sunlight playing on hair, an expensive yet justified production, justified because it sold zillions of copies and broke new ground in production techniques. A multi-part song with sections seamlessly stitched together that were recorded not only at different times but in different studios. She goes with me to a blossom world. The extensive use of Theremin, a strange device that you not so much played as waved your hand in front of hoping for the best was inspired, but there is so much more here on display all through 'Good Vibrations' that it would take an essay in itself to go into them all. The switch into the long-lost 'Smile' material is striking to say the least. 'Our Prayer' is difficult for me to listen to without breaking into tears, just this one minute or so of truly heavenly sounding harmonies the like of which we probably will never see ever again for as long as music exists, and there is a world for it to exist in. The alternate version of 'Heroes And Villains' was recorded right in the throes of the creation of 'Smile' and thus is a far truer representation of what 'Smile' may have been over the 'Smiley Smile' hit 45 version.
The 'Smile' material occupies its own world, and once you've adjusted to this wildly different if unfinished and incomplete Beach Boys material offers many many rewards. It's truly a different place. 'Wonderful' as included here, the genuine 'Smile' version is just Brian and a harpsichord. How come it sounds so great? How come it pulls and tugs at my heart strings and how come it was released on 'Smiley Smile' in a different version that doesn't contain even a fraction of the beauty of this version? Questions that will probably never be answered. 'Wind Chimes' also differs hugely from it's 'Smiley Smile' version, this version is so much more powerful it's almost a completely different song altogether. This version has a friend in 'Cabinessence', although switches between heat-breaking quiet sections and noiser walls of production more effortlessly than the still fine 'Cabinessence'. 'I Love To Say DaDa' and 'Do You Like Worms' are fragments of repeating melodies and clearly nowhere near finished - they sound like they were hardly begun. The version of 'Surfs Up' contained here on Disc Two is a Brian Wilson solo version that almost matches the impossible glory and beauty of the completed and revived 1971 version. 'With Me Tonight' ends this disc, an absolute holy highlight from 'Smiley Smile' that shows Brian and the boys far from faded creatively. This is vocal heavy, light on music, but when you have four, five voices that sound this good in combination, music is hardly necessary. Moving onto disc three, which i've already stated is my favourite of this box, although doesn't overshadow anything else, contains the best out-takes. I'll concentrate on the out-takes, because I could talk all day about the brilliant 'Wake The World', the rocking 'Darlin', or the fabulous Dennis Wilson song 'Little Bird'. Buy the albums. Buy 'Wild Honey', buy 'Friends' - they are both worth hearing in their entirety, although the selections contained here are so very cleverly chosen and beautifully sequenced. Disc three can work as an album in its own right, as well as part of this box. It's truly a beautiful thing, and may shock and delightfully surprise those who aren't at all familiar with anything other than the early material. This is a different place. 'Breakaway' was the finest Beach Boys single to never have been a hit, Brian co-wrote it with his father Murry in a rare moment of reconciliation. 'San Miguel' is a hell of a great Dennis Wilson song with stupendous production and vocal sounds. A singer called Joe South had a single Brian dug, so he wrote a song about it, dashed it off, recorded it quickly and seemingly by himself, although the sound of The Beach Boys group is definitely heard in harmony. This dashed off quickly recorded and forgotten material is better than the material and melodies most groups at the time spent months and months producing. This one song has such great harmony singing, also a feature of the funny, grin inducing 'I Just Got My Pay', which sees the boys harmonizing like it was 1964 again, but married to much improved sound production. The 'Sunflower' material remains as great as it ever was, special mention for Dennis here. Somedays his 'Forever' is my favourite song of all time - one reason for this being the 'na na na' vocal harmonies to close, sung by Brian at a time he didn't sing all that often on Beach Boys records. Brian had great love and respect for his Brother Dennis and his artistic development. Dennis wrote or co-wrote nearly half of 'Sunflower' and it's clear it wouldn't have been the wonderful album it is without Dennis. Dennis contributed nothing at all to the follow-up to 'Sunflower' a victim of group politics, such politics that occasionally did get in the way of the best artistic decisions. Still, Carl stepped up to write his finest ever song, the sheer glory and adventure in vocal sound that is 'Long Promised Road'. Dennis isn't finished yet, though. An out-take of his '4th Of July' is truly lovely, heartbreaking beauty, and his voice wonderfully expressive. The 'finished' version of 'Surfs Up' is an incredible piece of writing, the finest writing that took place when 'Smile' was being planned. Carl was the driving force behind piecing together the fragments of 'Smile', and his time was more than worth it for giving us this. They had intended to put together and finish 'Smile' in this fashion, but it never happened, they needed Brian to conceptually piece it together and he simply wasn't interested in re-visiting the past, however artistically successful the results may have been.
Disc four is the wilderness years, even more so than disc three. The songs here are spread over a sixteen year time span in which Brian was ever less involved, although he did magnificently rally for one album in particular. Somebody bought me this box set for my birthday one year. I listened to 'Smile', then I found myself going through this fourth disc. I was instantly taken with the four songs from 'Love You'. There is nothing else like these songs, the production so strange, yet the songs so beautiful, especially 'The Night Was So Young' which should prove once and for all that Brian simply couldn't lose what he had in him, that fountain of creativity. You can't just 'lose' what you once had, sure it can be buried, but it never goes altogether, and here it is. The opening songs on this disc focus on 'Carl And The Passions' and 'Holland', the 'Holland' material bearing up particularly well within this context, Carl's 'Trader' and Al's 'California' being special notable moments of grin-inducing and affecting sound-bliss. 'Fairy Tale Music' is a strange thing, a little concept piece Brian produced on his own, with a little help from Carl, that originally was issued as a bonus on the 'Holland' album. Here, we lose the narration, and it's all the better for it. Brian couldn't concentrate too well, he had so many unfinished songs, and 'Fairy Tale Music' comes across and six or so songs all unfinished yet put together in the one suite. It's a beautiful, gorgeous thing. 'All This Is That' was a Carl vocal of glory from the 'Carl And The Passions' album, an album short on ideas but strong on performance. Mike comes in with a few vocal lines, and even Mike sounds warm and loving. The vocal arrangement here which Brian took no part in whatsoever, is evidence that The Beach Boys as an entity had a lot to offer at that time, Brian or no Brian. Four songs are featured from '15 Big Ones' a forced Brian production, and the worst four songs here. Compare them to 'It's Over Now' and 'Still I Dream Of It', two songs from a ballad and string Sinatra styled unreleased Brian Wilson solo album. But, what's this? His seventies nicotine fueled cracked voice is replaced by beautiful, deep voiced singing that breaks my heart. Brian reportedly wrote 'Still I Dream Of It' with the hope Frank Sinatra would cover the song. Then again, the lyrics kind of distance this from Frank Sinatra material, this one song will come to be seen as truly representative of Brian, his heart and soul, when he's no longer with us. Trust me on that, this is glorious, beautiful stuff, the lyrics are so full of pain, heartbreaking passion, regret yet infused with hope. I identify with this so hugely, and the lyrics are at once funny and romantic, lonely and lovely. Til then i'm just a dreamer, i'm convinced of it.
The later Beach Boys material includes brilliantly commercial moments in a good way from Al Jardine, a fun throwback in the out-take 'Our Team' which seemingly promises another 'Beach Boys Party' only in 1978. 'Baby Blue' is one of the most beautiful songs anyone has ever written, anywhere. 'Good Timin' has gorgeous vocal harmonies, a song co-written by Brian and Carl. The final three songs on disc four span a period of eight years, not the groups best era, but I dig 'Getcha Back' with Brian back on falsetto where he belongs. The fifth and final disc on this box is packaged like a bootleg and features a variety of session material, in the studio material, vocal or instrumental material and a mere smattering of live material. A disc for the already converted. The demo of 'In My Room' is lovely, the 'Good Vibrations' session material creates a longing for the promised 'Good Vibrations Sessions' album that has been rumoured. So very many ideas went into the final song, and these ideas which ended up being dismissed or lost are almost great 'songs' in themselves. One truly gorgeous moment, soft airy and holy vocal harmonies appear singing "hold me down, hold me down, woe uh!" - beautiful stuff. So, The Beach Boys? They make me laugh, smile and cry. Crying can be a good thing. Emotional stuff, difficult times when listening to 'Pet Sounds' or 'Love You' can seemingly rescue your life, take you away from the brink. There are other times of love and celebration, when 'All Summer Long' or 'Holland' is the perfect soundtrack. The sound of their vocals is unmistakable and truly not something I can even begin to explain. Just a little combination of four or five human voices, singing a sound, not even a word - can break my heart. I can't explain that.