Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Love and Mercy

Every spring, there is a day when the clouds seem to lift; a single day, a specific moment, when the gray has given way to spring.

In Texas, this usually happens late-February, early-March. Here, in the God-forsaken yankee tundra of Michigan, it happened this past weekend—on Sunday, to be exact. Paula Jane and I cruised round Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti most of the day, reveling in the warmth of the sun. Listening to Brian Wilson, as we always do in the spring, especially on this day, when the world begins again.

As some of you know from other posts, I wasn't always a Brian Wilson fan (beholden as I was to the dumbass Idea Worm, til my friend John set me straight). It would be difficult to entirely express how much I love him now; his music symbolizes so much of what is positive about living, and what is best about human beings, a thing I am apt to lose sight of. And beyond that, Brian's music makes me happy. His simple, child-like optimism is entirely unaffected, and affecting.

Examples of this are represented by the two selections I have chosen, the first being the incredible ballad—the first ballad Brian ever wrote—Surfer Girl. The lyrics are remarkable enough—I'm giving you credit here, reader, for being sophisticated enough to realize that while a song about a surfer who is a girl can be beautiful—as this one is, even at that level—this song is larger than that, and more encompassing. It is written in the language of the person expressing it—perfectly so—and represents to me as perfect an artifact of longing, and for the desire for human intimacy, as I've ever heard.

These are the first lyrics:

Little surfer little one
Made my heart come all undone
Do you love me, do you surfer girl
Surfer girl my little surfer girl

I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the ocean's roar
Do you love me do you surfer girl
Surfer girl surfer girl

The language is simple, the idea sentimental—unapologetic, and straight-forward. The idea of one's heart coming "undone" is stirring, the recognition of feeling as being comprised by one's history, sort of an amalgam of unfiltered sensory perceptions surrounded—girded—by the pain of experience. A mechanism permitting us to feel and function simultaneously, protecting us from hurt—undone, on the instant, by longing.

If you feel this song is maudlin, or hokey, or crude, I pity you. Brian's great gift is to give poetry to the feelings of millions of awkward people, and their deepest, truest, most tender moments; and to do so without irony, or cynicism, or any negating conceits. It is deeply beautiful, I think, as is the crucial bridge:

We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow
In my Woody I would take you
everywhere I go

Brian delivers those first two verses in the breath-taking falsetto he made famous (at the end of the song, the refrain little one, little one is entirely Brian); the bridge, however, he switches to his "regular voice" (as in Wouldn't It Be Nice? or Help Me Rhonda); after the first 3 lines of the bridge, though—on the lyric everywhere I go—he changes back to falsetto, and the effect is glorious. It sounds like nothing less than desire, pent-up and segregated from possibility. Too sublime for anything better than approximation.

True story about this song: Paula Jane and I saw Brian in Seattle about 10 years ago, on one of his first tours after his comeback. If you know anything about him, you know of his battles with drugs and depression. I believe he suffered some kind of a stroke some time in the eighties; part of the result is that his falsetto is nearly gone. His regular voice is good as ever—maybe better—but one of the Wondermints (his touring band) handles the falsettos. Which is okay—the guy is very good—and Brian does most of the singing.

I knew this, and was resigned to it, when we saw him. It was a great show, and when Surfer Girl came up, I was prepared to hear the other guy sing it, so I was shocked when Brian appeared to sing the lead. Of course, with the harmonies, it was difficult to know exactly whose voices we were hearing. Then came the bridge, which he sang perfectly. I was sure he wouldn't sing the transition—everywhere I go—alone, in falsetto. How could he? Although I admit that as the lyric came near, I gripped the edge of my seat with anticipation. And when it happened, and when Brian did indeed sing it, alone, and fucking nailed it, it was probably the most beautiful moment I've ever experienced at any show, by any artist.

The next song is Love and Mercy, from his self-titled LP in 1988. Context is necessary to fully appreciate this song, I think. By that year, Brian had been departed from the national stage for a long time, lost in a maze of addiction and mental illness. Everyone thought he was gone for good. I'd been reading for months and months that he was back in the studio, working. There were lots of rumors, some true and some not, and a helluva lot of buzz. When the record finally came out, and Brian had our ear again, the first thing he chose to say to us is expressed in this lyrics of this extraordinarily beautiful, odd, frightened, humane, and deeply hopeful song. I listened to it over and over, weeping, and glad to be alive in any world with Brian in it.

Two versions. First, of my favorite recording of Brian singing the song, before his voice had really recovered. He sounds just a little wobbly, and damaged, and it breaks my heart.

Next, from the Kennedy Center honors a few years ago, the British group Libera's salute to Brian, which must be seen, and heard, to be believed.

If you can watch these, and still feel no love for Brian, you perplex me.


  1. Come back Mr. Nick! I miss you!

  2. Thank you, Cayla. Reckon I'll be back posting in a few days. Good to be missed...

    Hope you're having a good summer...