Because it was to be personal...
I can’t drive a car and I’ve never been an American teenager. These might not be crucial experiences for the following reflection, after all biography is only one strand of criticism and occasionally a pretty tedious one at that (that’s sort of an apology in advance). However, when I listen to ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ by the Beach Boys I can’t help but wonder about the authenticity of the mental landscape it forces me into. That Spector-ish pizzicato guitar, the shuffling broken-legged drumming, the softer than down ooooooooohing harmony: this really all ought merely to herald the catalogue sound of a motorbike revving and the Ronette’s voices shifting into gear. Instead we get something quite different; the bright incipience of Brian Wilson’s falsetto sails into view and breezes off to a world neither of us ever inhabited.
The song was recorded in 1964, but sounds at least a decade younger, a tale of fast cars, and boys who are only brave when their girl is around to assure them that everything will be alright, (incidentally my three year old nephew has a habit of saying to me ‘Don’t worry, everything’s alright’ when he sees me, like he knows something is up). More than likely the racer’s car is black and beetlish, with some incandescent decal stuck on the side. I’m picturing Marty McFly and that faux fifties that only existed in a slick of pomade and an embarrassing hearkening for a time that might have been more innocent, but probably wasn’t and only seems that way because of the thickness of the curtains. From the Beach Boys to Back to the Future, and here’s where that important precognitive apology for being biographical comes into play. The first tape I ever bought with my own money, of my own volition, was ‘Summer Dreams’ a BB compilation, which I still listen to fourteen years later on the bus on the way to work because I only own a walkman. Part of my enormous affection for Brian Wilson and the rest of his family is born from this memory of youth: the slightly flat first bass note of ‘I Get Around’ is my Madeleine, the childish sensation of sheer happiness coming from a tune and a tone of voice my Combray. I remember being fascinated by cars, by surfing, by music that made you want to smile and dance around if only that kind of behaviour was permissible when you have four older brothers.
My admiration is different now, though it still contains a healthy amount of that same euphoric joy I felt when I was ten years old and had never known the kind of disappointment that haunts the other songs, the songs that now come to mind first when I think of the Beach Boys. There is something about the human voice in volume, interlacing and intricate, that moves on a level no other instrument can match - the Beach Boys are the choral music of Pop: ‘Til I Die, Surf’s Up, God Only Knows, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times; these are the Requiem Masses of popular music. Whether that makes them a good thing depends I suppose on your attitude to loss, to music, to life…
As I listen to ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ I keep asking myself, do I just identify with the song’s narrator? Is that why it still moves me even after fourteen years of listening? There are definitely works of art that have the capacity to retain their original hold on you, just as there are others that relinquish it slowly over time, even though at the outset you would have promised and protested that they would always have this same power over you. ‘Lolita’ wont allow me to move beyond it; the night I finished the book is still the most profound experience I have ever had of being influenced, changed by art. Not since reading about the death of a character in a comic (Transformers I think) when I was about five or six had the simple act of reading made me feel upset, and not just upset, devastated. An English teacher once tried to persuade me that ‘A Handful of Dust’ contained the saddest line ever written in English, but it does not, “Mrs. ‘Richard F. Schiller’ died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest” is to me the most moving sentence I have ever read, because the first time you read the book it is forgettable, forgotten by the last page, not recovered until you turn back to just flick through the book before turning off the light, and realise what has actually happened.
I read Lolita during that period of growth from adolescence to adulthood, which is I suppose the time of greatest emotional and intellectual instability. It was the backdrop to some formative experiences, and I suppose it’s a plausible explanation of why the book still means so much to me now. Someone who I used to know once tried to reason that they only meant something to me because they had completely occupied one of what they called my ‘Developmental Stages’; the brutal bloodlessness of this analysis shocked me then, and still angers me now. Books and people and songs have a value that is not derived from my relationship with them. I am getting dangerously close to suggesting that there is intrinsic worth in certain things, which I know is a cardinal sin which will get the Ratzingers of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Critical Faith on my arse, but is it such a dangerous proposition… Everyone is a critic, all relationships with art are personal, unknowable, and the act of public criticism is a showy exercise in trying to get people to feel the same way as you by virtue of exploration and explanation. Do novelists and poets write to describe universal truths, as is often lazily stated, or is it more cynical than that… do they wish to propagate their own truths, to make the world feel the way they do?
Back to the song.
It is of course another masterwork, demonstrating Brian Wilson’s Billy Liar-esque capacity to inhabit a lifestyle he rejected, or couldn’t access because he was shy and clumsy and preferred the piano to most people. The life of the surfing, racing, jock is a conjuring act, perhaps based on his brother Dennis, perhaps just on people who passed by the window on their way to the Mall. But there is more to truth than the bland conveyance of experience. If Wilson really was just a nervous hot-rodder who needed his girl to calm him before the race, the song would be nothing more than narrative, the story of a moment already experienced by half the slick haired teens in post-war America, and everyone else since who has seen Grease. The song is more than that – it is an evocation, a eulogy for a kind of life you might have enjoyed had you been given the opportunity to live it. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ might have caused Brian Wilson to mourn for the countless alternative lives he could have led to the one he chose. For me, I have to mourn the countless alternative lives that I can experience vicariously, but never fully recreate.