Written by: Chris Morley
As Christmas approaches–happy birthday to Jesus, lest we forget, as we swim the tide of commercialism–it’s time perhaps to reappraise the first man to put God into a, if not the, pop song.
This is the story of the Apostle Brian (Wilson), growing from hymning hot rods to looking inside himself. Sophisticated feeling-music as he called it in his liner notes to a Pet Sounds reissue, a step forward from the likes of Little Deuce Coupe, which in itself spawned Little Saint Nick just in time for the festive season of 1963. The technical details are laid out remarkably similarly–even if it isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel–much like many of our favourite carols, we might conclude?
Have a look:
Just a little deuce coupe with a flat head mill
But she’ll walk a Thunderbird like she’s standin’ still
She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored.
Shell do a hundred and forty with the top end floored
Just a little bobsled we call the old Saint Nick
But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four speed stick
She’s candy apple red with a ski for a wheel
And when Santa hits the gas man just watch her peel
Though within just three years the car songs were firmly parked, having created quite a volume of traffic during possibly the longest recorded jam in history–the period between 1961 & ’65 finding around fifteen hundred stuck on the sonic motorways. First to escape the factory floor was 409, (a reference to the exact measurement in cubic inches of Chevrolet’s V8 “Big Block” engine). Then Shut Down, another Chevy off the line as the narrator races in a Corvette Sting Ray. By Fun, Fun, Fun that’s been traded in for a Ford Thunderbird, lyrics inspired by a true such instance of auto theft.
Shirley Johnson was the daughter of a radio station owner who’d fobbed daddy off with the lie that she was going to the library to study…further listening tells us she didn’t so much as pick up a book. Instead she went to a drive in, the automobile’s transition from merely a faster means of getting from A to B complete–culture coming to rest as a ghost in the machine as it were–music, food (gastronomy with added gas, you might say) and cinema quick to catch on. Indeed you can see and hear the evidence of that in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, in a sense itself a hymn to a broken dream.
But it was George’s fellow Californian who took the hymn & made it about him and by extension us, in conjunction with Him. Lessons learned as a young choirboy and at the family piano proving the gateway prior to a teenage gift of a tape recorder. One listen tells you just how much of a part all three of those played in enabling Brian to eventually feel for what would become Pet Sounds after his drive towards sun, sea and girls was over.
While brother and band-mate Dennis would cite the moment he first heard début single Surfin’ on his car radio as pivotal for his elder sibling, for myself and other members of his congregation it was yet to come. At great personal cost, of course, faith in LSD as a creative foil tipping him over the edge and in the process quite possibly turning him into a sort of creative atheist, as Smile, his self described teenage symphony to God, would lie abandoned in the midst of crisis.
In light of which it seems slightly ironic that during that time he was quoted as saying, “God was with us the whole time we were doing this record … I could feel that feeling in my brain.”
Consider also the title given to the first part of Movement One of the Wilsonian New Testament, the wordless Our Prayer harking back to the arrangements of old as the instrument of their creation worked at an old faithful of his own. Wilson once said of this, “I was sitting at my piano thinkin’ about holy music. I poked around for some simple but moving chords.”
Arguably he’d already done that to profound effect while putting the finishing touches to his Old Testament, labouring intensely at the heart of his own sacred space of choice, the studio as much a part of the process as the church itself had been and continues to be in hymnody both long before and to this day.
But who was it really for?
Was it then-wife Marilyn, who has in several interviews over the years recalled that, “The first time I heard it, Brian played it for me at the piano. And I went, ‘Oh my God, he’s talking about God in a record.’ It was pretty daring to me. And it was another time I thought to myself, ‘Oh, boy, he’s really taking a chance.'”
She’s gone on to say: “I thought it was almost too religious. Too square. At that time. Yes, it was so great that he would say it and not be intimidated by what anybody else would think of the words or what he meant.”?
Was it the implied subject, the mention of whom led to shared fear from Brian and co-writer Tony Asher that it wouldn’t be played on the radio? Or was it acid, which rendered him a high-profile casualty?
Of the latter, its effects are still felt to this day in auditory hallucinations and a diagnosis of mild manic depression alongside schizoaffective disorder.
If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would livin’ do me
God only knows what I’d be without you
As we head into the season of goodwill to all men, we can give the last world to the youngest Wilson brother Carl, who was said by Brian to be the most religious person he knew. Surely whether or not you yourself believe (for the record, I myself am not sure where I stand), isn’t there something to be said for the contention that, “God is love. God is you. God is me. God is everything right here in this room,” given the universal nature of the sentiment and the season?
Merry Christmas to you and everyone and everything right there in your room wherever that may be–the world you go and tell your secrets to, where you do your dreaming and your scheming, your crying and your sighing.