Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Brian Wilson, "Rubber Soul," and the '60s

I listened to Rubber Soul, and I said how could they possibly make an album where the songs all sound like they come from the same place. I couldn't deal with it. It blew my mind. And I said, damn it, I've got to do that. I've got to try that with the boys. - Brian Wilson

This quote comes from The Beach Boys and the Satan, a weird, poorly-named, yet interesting documentary that I recently watched. The eye-catching title is meant to convey both the good and the bad of what California represented as a pop culture idea in the 1960s. It started on a positive note: the Beach Boys were avatars of California fun, exporting sunny, innocent West Coast pleasure to the world and becoming hugely popular in the process. But much of that innocence was gone by the end of the decade. The hippie movement, once a source of "good vibrations" (kind of... arguably... according to some), had devolved into drugged-out, violent disorder, with the Manson murders serving as the death knell.

It’s an intriguing premise, but the film doesn't flesh it out. With a running time of only 50-odd minutes, there isn’t enough space for a full, coherent narrative to emerge from the two strands. The part about Charles Manson feels shoehorned in. Yes, he was an acquaintance of Dennis Wilson’s, but that’s incidental.

More than anything, The Beach Boys and the Satan functions as a psychological profile of Brian Wilson. The interviews with him - to no surprise - are the real draw (along with other cool footage of the Beach Boys). He’s so sincere and forthcoming; memorable moments abound. He talks candidly about his abusive father and admits that writing songs was, in part, an attempt to compensate for the lack of love in his life. He also addresses his drug use, at one point saying that he sometimes didn’t know if he was in a dream, tripping on acid, or just listening to a Phil Spector record. Elsewhere, he confesses to having been painfully intimidated by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In general, Brian was (and likely remains) very insecure. Combined with his substance abuse, it led to crippling anxiety.

We should all be thankful that Brian’s anxiety didn’t overwhelm him before he could make Pet Sounds. As the quote above indicates, Brian was capable of using competition to push himself obsessively to greater heights. It's a critical part of the story with Pet Sounds.

Lastly, one other point about The Beatles and the Beach Boys. I can’t remember his name, but one musician interviewed in the documentary sets up an insightful contrast between the creative environments of the two bands. As he puts it, The Beatles had two pop geniuses who collaborated and fed off one another; a producer in George Martin who maximized their talent; and a record label that, more or less, gave them full support. In sharp distinction, Brian was the lone innovator in the Beach Boys; he doubled as their producer; and he was often discouraged by Capitol Records (and Mike Love) from writing the kind of personal and complex songs that ended up on Pet Sounds and Smile. How much more might Brian have accomplished had he enjoyed The Beatles’ advantages?


Matt Blick said...

Man this is getting weird. I've recently read "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times- The Making Of Pet Sounds" and I'm working on a post on why Brian Wilson/Beach Boys weren't more like the Paul McCartney/The Beatles. They had a massive amount in common and Brian was at least as talented as Paul if not more so. And you correctly point to some of the reasons in your post. It's heart breaking really.

Barry Lenser said...

Very cool. I've been on a major Beach Boys kick of late, and luckily there's plenty of overlap between the two bands, which means I can blog about it. It's a very interesting contrast. I'll be on the lookout for your post.