Sunday, July 26, 2015

Beach Boys and Dad Rock

A few things have been ringing my bells musically this summer.  This first came a few weeks ago, when I finally got to the theater to see Love and Mercy, which takes on Brian Wilson’s life at two important junctures: the making of Pet Sounds in the mid-60’s and shortly after his comeback in the late 80’s.

The movie left me with mixed emotions.  I appreciated the attention to detail with the Pet Sounds-era music and showing that creative process, which must have seemed insane at the time to all involved.  Paul Dano is a strange actor who has veered close to Crispin Glover territory for me in some past performances, but he did a great job of capturing that whimsical, damaged sense of Brian Wilson as a young man at the peak of his creativity, and simultaneously dealing with the neuroses brought on by how his deeply troubled father raised him.  Throw hallucinogenic drugs into the mix, at the worst possible time in his life, and it made for a shipwreck of a human being about decade down the road.

Aside from that, the movie felt bland and predictable.  Nothing wrong with John Cusack’s performance – if anything, he nailed it, too.  But seeing as how the movie was openly embraced by Wilson and his wife Melinda, it’s no surprise that she’s presented as the shining beacon of hope in his ravaged middle-aged life who saved him.

And I suspect that’s bullshit.  Not that she didn’t play a major role in changing his life at the time.  But the movie went to great lengths to underline all those Beach Boys clichés, like Mike Love and Dr. Eugene Landy being harmful presences in his life.

I don’t doubt Mike Love is a major league asshole in terms of band politics; he’s possibly the most-loathed member of any legendary rock band.  But … he’s also one of the greatest lead singers of the 60’s pop era, and just the sound of his voice was an integral part of the Beach Boys image.  Put yourself in his shoes in 1966.  The band has had one major success after another and has taken the genre of surf music into a new realm, from twangy instrumentals and goofy novelty songs to this great American myth involving beaches and surfing.  The three major components of that myth were Brian Wilson’s songwriting (with help from Mike Love on the lyrics), the band’s image as these perfect, All-American kids with talent and their vocal harmonies that lifted the songs to a higher level.

Pet Sounds is their best work?  Bullshit.  Well-meaning bullshit, bullshit I get, but just bullshit.  I’d have to go back and wade through their previous albums, but their best album?  Hands down, that would be the early hits collection released in the mid-70’s, Endless Summer.  I know, not an actual album of new material, but that collection underlined the collective power of their singles and the Beach Boys myth all those songs created when taken as a whole.  Much larger than any album of original material.  And the three best songs from Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows” fit right into that myth.

But the rest of it?  Its’ a strange hodgepodge of styles, possibly the worst recording of a harmonica I’ve ever heard, a lot of oddly-skewed ballads that, granted, were like nothing before, but to this day, I’m not convinced that the album is anywhere near as great as most critics deem it.  It just doesn’t feel that way to me: never has and never will.  Nor did Smile, which I’ve been hearing in various iterations since the early 90’s, when I first got to know a few Beach Boys fans who were so fanatical (as most of them are) that they created their own versions of Smile from dozens of bootlegs.  Most of them weren’t far off from what was eventually released and called Smile by Brian Wilson.  And that was a glorious mess of an album … far from the legendary brilliance we’ve been instructed to view the aborted album as over the decades.  Some beautiful pop moments surrounded by insanity.  Whoever compiled the album of scraps from those sessions, Smiley Smile, did a fantastic job of grasping most of what mattered (save for not including “Surf’s Up”), although that album stiffed in 1967.

Endless Summer presents a blueprint of American teenage life circa 1963 about 10 years after the fact.  An America most kids didn’t fully grasp, but wanted to: cars, chicks and surfing.  I know, because even though I was born when that music was being made, by the mid-70’s, when I first started hearing and appreciating those songs, I immediately sensed that myth, associated it with summer and the ocean, and it became a powerful connection that stays with me to this day.  That album went a long way towards cementing their legendary status and encouraging future generations to listen, which is how decades-long careers are made.

Songs like “Be True to Your School” and “Don’t Worry Baby” say a lot more to me about pop music and America than any of the album tracks on Pet Sounds or Smile ever will.  Much like Chuck Berry, CCR or The Ramones do, too.  There’s a purity of purpose there I can respect.  Not to belittle Brian Wilson experimenting and pushing boundaries.  But he was deviating from a formula that worked perfectly for all of their early career.

Which is surely why Mike Love freaked out when they veered from the path.  Of course, they had to do something.  That sort of innocent pop was on its way out (and would eventually morph into bubblegum), with all the major bands from that era starting to experiment.  I gather the rest of the band didn’t quite know how to handle it: two younger brothers who didn’t want to tangle with an older brother who they recognized as the band leader, and a guitarist who was more than likely just glad to be along for the ride and given the chance to sing lead every now and then.

Mike Love was the only band member with balls enough to challenge Brian, even though he didn’t have the creative power to back it up.  And he surely knew it, which was surely the real cause of all that intra-band friction.  In his mind, the “cars/chicks/surfing” axis was going to last forever, or at least as long as they would as a band, and when Pet Sounds under-performed on the charts, it didn’t help matters any.  At Beach Boys concerts in the 70’s (and thereafter), fans went to hear the hits, not album tracks from their trippy period.  Good Vibrations” was and is surely a touchstone of their set: a compromise single from that Pet Sounds era joining the best of what Love and Wilson held sacred about the band.

The strange thing was that after Pet Sounds and Smile, they settled right back into a very comfortable and acceptable pop sound on all their late 60’s and early 70’s albums.  Do It Again”?  I Can Hear Music”?  Darlin”?  Those are great pop songs in any era.  Albums like Sunflower and Holland fit nicely into the band’s history, finding that middle ground between the past and the experimentation put forth by Pet Sounds and Smile.

But Brian Wilson started losing his grip on reality in the 70’s.  This youtube clip from a Beach Boys TV special from 1976 underlines the weirdness.  Brian gained a truckload of weight, literally spent a few years in bed, rarely leaving his house.  How bad it got, I’m sure only a few people know, but he was clearly having a difficult time just functioning as a normal human being, forget about leading a successful rock band.

And that’s when Dr. Eugene Landy was called in by the band and management to shift him back into a productive life.  Love and Mercy in no way touches on the herculean task to bring Brian Wilson back from the near dead.  Years of therapy, exercise, hard work – it didn’t happen in a few weeks or months.  Years.

Let me take you to a record store in State College, Pennsylvania.  I think it was June of 1988.  I had graduated two years earlier, but had gone back for a weekend visit with some friends, probably for their big summer arts festival.  We all congregated one afternoon at the record store on College Avenue where we spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars.  (I remember this day well because I bought The Indestructible Beat of Soweto on vinyl!)  The owner said, listen to this.  He slips on a record that I recognize as Brian Wilson, but have never heard before.  It was the song “Love and Mercy” that he got a promotional copy of before the album release a month later.  It was a perfect summer day, and when the song got to that soaring vocal breakdown section, I nearly wept: it was like learning an old friend we all thought was dead hadn’t died.  We all stood there laughing when the song ended because our minds were completely blown.

What was more surprising were the magazine articles and TV interviews with Brian around that time: he looked incredible, had lost all that weight, was in solid physical condition, simply looked better than he ever had as an adult.

But, of course, none of that comes through in the movie Love and Mercy.  I don’t want to make anyone think Dr. Landy didn’t radically overstep his bounds and become a negative, dominating force in Brian Wilson’s life, but that movie did nothing to underline the massive role Landy played in reviving the creative and actual life of a musical legend.  The movie had a happy ending?  The evil Dr. Landy was vanquished?  From what I’ve gathered, Brian Wilson went on having mental issues after Landy left.  And I’m sure he got help along the way.  It’s childish to think that someone with severe mental issues would suddenly be healed by a woman’s love and an overbearing therapist being removed from the equation.

Movies, politics and the internet have a way of pasting real-life people as heroes or villains to suit the story when the reality of our lives are far more complex and impossible to label.  I see that same black/white tunnel vision in so many people now, seeped irreversibly into their moral fiber that they’ve become too stupid to grasp that the real world doesn’t work this way.

Speaking of being too stupid to grasp reality, let’s talk about Dad Rock.  I’ve been hearing the term a lot lately, even though I’ve been hearing it since the 90’s, when grunge and hiphop were taking over and saving us all from, uh, both hair metal and Dad Rock.  Grunge and hiphop didn’t save anyone from anything.  If anything, they created their own malaise that we still suffer from.  For some reason, the phrase Dad Rock has been bandied about quite a bit with critics talking about Wilco’s new album, Star Wars, and how they’ve somehow beaten the “Dad Rock” syndrome with this album.

After a few listens, I like the new Wilco album.  It’s nowhere near the level of their first five albums (thanks to Jay Bennett), and it feels incredibly slight.  But it’s receiving accolades for not being “Dad Rock” and taking real chances.  Despite the fact that a handful of songs on the album sound like half-assed, garage-band takes on glitter rock which is, er, um, Dad Rock by definition.

Let’s look at that alone.  Glitter rock classics:  “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie and “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex.  Phenomenal pop songs that resonate.  Compared with these new Wilco songs?  I love Wilco, but it’s like comparing a kid doing real well in Teener League baseball to a Cy Young pitcher in the major leagues.

But that’s not the problem with people who use Dad Rock as a catch-all phrase to insult older white music fans.  They’re not insulting the bands … if you ask them, they’ll say, “Oh, I really ‘get’ Bad Company and Journey.  On a certain level, I recognize their greatness.”  They can never just love something unequivocally … which is a large reason why I got out of the racket.  I realized how emotionally stunted so many people into indie music were.  As noted before, uncool people pretending they were cool.  It’s the same people a few decades on spouting the clichéd Dad Rock insult.  When you peel away the layers it’s white self-loathing and ageism.  (Ever hear anyone refer to Al Green and Bob Marley as Dad Rock?  Or maybe Dad Soul or Dad Reggae?  Of course, not.  They’re white people insulting other white people they consider buffoonish.)  All this coming from uncool white males growing older by the minute, desperate to establish their hip credentials with younger music fans who often don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.

Generally when you hear a critic spouting horseshit about Dad Rock, he’s trying to use that as a comparison to this new, great band who isn’t and will never be Dad Rock because it’s so innovative and risk taking.  He’s probably right on some very minor level.  The problem being when you take risks and innovate, very few people remember you or view your work as some easily identifiable cultural touchstone for future reference, positively or negatively.  Can?  Neu?  No one considers those bands Dad Rock, but they are.  I’d wager those guys are grand dads by now.  There are hundreds of influential bands from the 70’s and 80’s who, by definition, are Dad Rock, but have nowhere near the cultural clout that casual, and especially newer/younger fans will recognize.  And these asshole critics who love insults like Dad Rock will latch on to those bands to make it seem like those influential bands that barely scraped by were the creative giants of their time.  That’s never the case.  They were niche bands doing music that was often far too obtuse to ever make it commercially, but surely influenced more popular artists – like David Bowie, in particular.

And isn’t it a little odd that the insult Dad Rock, coined in the 90’s to insult classic rock fans of the 60’s and 70’s, is still used 20 years later in the exact same fashion, to insult the exact same bands and fans?  It underlines how powerful a genre classic rock is (which I don’t take any perverse pleasure in … it just is) that a lame insult, indicative of a mediocre mind drawn to music criticism, because the guy spouting it was terrible at sports and couldn’t be a mediocre sports writer, is using a decades-old cliché in the exact same fashion … that his god-damned mediocre father used to establish the same bogus sense of cool.  Dad Rock, meaning music white dads like, now includes bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices.  Those 90s alt. rock fans who originally coined the term have kids approaching or well into their “disparage everything that came before us” age.  The newer, larger problem being music has been so devalued for them that they don't care or know about it enough to insult anyone over their listening habits.

So, any time you see the phrase Dad Rock in print, ruminate on this.  Even the guys in Wilco seem to suffer from it!  They published a list of recent albums that they want fans to support … and it reads like a hipster checklist.  Surprisingly, I know and have tracks from most of those albums … and recognize a lot of it falls into that “sort of OK but nowhere near as good as its influences” indie music category.  A few of those bands/artists are much older, too, in the case of Ned Doheny going back to the 60’s.  But that’s just the hip sort of thing anti-Dad Rockers embrace, uncovering also-rans like Doheny to point out what we were all too stupid to miss the first time around.  Only problem being we weren’t that stupid, and there are many valid reasons most people have no clue who Ned Doheny is. Or Curt Boettcher.  Or Emitt Rhodes.  Or Kevin Coyne.

Would it have killed one of those guys in Wilco to say, “Man, not much new music is inspiring me, I’m going through this period of listening to Supertramp and Van Morrison on the iPod?”  Yes, it would have killed him, dead, in the parlance of the emotionally-stunted assholes they're foolishly trying to impress.  It’s a tired game I’ve seen people playing for nigh on four decades in one form or another.  How long will it go on?  Well, are you still hearing Eddie Money songs on the radio?  Only Speedy Ortiz can save us now!  At some point in my 30’s, I realized there was a parallel universe in my head that had nothing to do with reality.  The “Dad Rock” spouting aficionados may never come to that realization.