Forget Proust’s madeleines- its Pet Sounds for me every time. If I want to recapture how I felt in those early teenage years, to recall the sights,sounds,longings and yearnings all I need to do is to hear the first few bars of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice’.In reality I know that my 12 year old self is simply waiting for my true love, for that moment when she strokes my brow and says ‘ don’t worry baby, everything is going to be alright’. But before that moment arrived I was destined to spend many many years believing myself to be one of life’s eternally disappointed, with Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds providing the soundtrack.
The images to which it gives rise are sun, girls and chance stolen holiday encounters (admittedly in Margate and Eastbourne, not Venice Beach or Santa Barbara).Those early tentative liaisons during the summers of love that forever mark out the mid Sixties as a time of extraordinary adolescent ferment and the seeking out of new sexual and other freedoms that seemed to be all around in the music to which we listened incessantly and illicitly.Strangely, Pet Sounds can also bring to mind airfix models, scalextric and muddy footballs, which demonstrates just how Brian Wilson sang to those of us who were on the cusp of the most significant transition in our lives, with one tentative foot in adulthood and the other trying to keep us firmly tethered in the known, less turbulent world of childhood.
What he did in Pet Sounds was to capture , arguably uniqely, just what it was like to be a teenage boy at the time and maybe any other time. The deep insecurities, the potential for self hatred and the fear that that true love will never arrive. The longing to escape, but then the desire to retreat into the familiar so brilliantly summed up in ‘That’s not me’. And our hesitation in the face of real world encounters that threaten to overwhelm our fragile emerging masculinity with a feminine vocabulary of tenderness and yearning, when we should be toughening ourselves up with the speech of the football terrace and the street.
I would argue that Wilson was writing about and for the boys that girls always hoped to meet, but often never did- the thoughtful, emotionally reflective and confused ; but confused in a winsome, charming way that expressed itself through vulnerability not aggression or bravado. Tragically the girls themselves – no less prisoners in the confines of their own lives – acted out their own stereotypical roles in life’s teenage melodrama and pursued other more desirably tough boys who would never be up to anything but no good.
We must remember that at the time Wilson was not revered as he now is. The Beach Boys were seen by the music press and the cognoscenti as nothing more than a pop band, Pet Sounds being in every way inferior to Robber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, not to mention the now forgotten, but emerging Jefferson Airplane and the west coast pop of the Byrds. Their primarily clean cut , surfin’ image blinded critics to the content of the songs and the way in which the music expressed in its imagery and aping of classical phrasing the very emotions the words portrayed. If he was lionised at all it was on the much more acceptable basis of his ‘sound’, the production values, his studio genius and the Beach Boys admittedly exquisite harmonies.
But what he was doing was writing clear, uncluttered pop songs for the lonely teenage boy in his room who so wants to hear him say ‘I know there’s an answer’ and maybe still does to this very day! And to be consoled by Brian admitting that ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’ .Perhaps never since the days of Keats and Byron had anybody spoken to us so directly and with such insight, as pop lyrics became for all intents and purpose the poetry of the age. He shaped the words and music to appeal to the everyman inside the teenage boy, but without that sad recluse having had to have any contact with the great poets or the romantic composers to understand that appeal. He could sing ‘ They say I’ve got brains and they ain’t doing me no good’ and it became the richest type of poetic expression. Let’s be clear -this music was not for middle class chaps mooning over the sonnets of Keats or straining to the strings of Schubert, but us council estate boys in our shared bedrooms and our suburban vocabularies..
Male artists so rarely, if at all, write about wanting to be in love.And the dilemma’s to which that gives rise – the emotions that are uncovered and exposed as seemingly uncontrollable and unconquerable forces drive us towards our adult destiny. To be able to use the imagery of prosperous, far away California to achieve that connection is for me the greatest achievement of Wilson and Pet Sounds.
And finally there’s ‘Caroline No’! It sums up all that has gone before as that home grown, home loving, secure teenage world is traduced and trampled upon uncaringly as Caroline discovers the wider world and its promise of a life transformed. A harsher, less forgiving light seems to shine on her hair and it no longer glows ’Where is the girl I used to know?’ might well be taken as asking the question ‘where is the life I used to know?’ .I would argue that many of us as men lament along with Brian the breaking of a bond, the promise of never changing ‘but that’s not so’. For me I wanted the old Caroline, with the long hair and the glow, even though I knew then and know now that we can’t bring it back once it has gone. But we are doomed to spend our lives searching.
And , reader, as a postscript, a personal confession – I found my Caroline, grown up and fully formed and understood for the first time what Pet Sounds was all about!