August 16, 2017

Things That Make Life Worth Living — Smiling Through With the Beach Boys and the Rally Cat

I watched Carnie as she sang. I was looking at my daughter and thinking about when she was little; about her sister when she was little; about how I was young then, too; about the cover of Sunflower; about feeling my mom’s hands as she lowered me into the crib. People are beautiful. Life can be, too. —Brian Wilson

A week after the 72nd anniversary of Hiroshima, with people talking about fall-out shelters again thanks to the blustering president and his North Korean counterpart, i’ve been thinking about what makes life worth living, things like family, pets, comfort food, art and literature, baseball and rock and roll. 

Maybe you’re feeling good because your team has been on a winning streak. Or because you and your wife shared a path by the lake Saturday with a fawn and a doe and went home to a French film from 1951 about the Land of Lost Memories. Or maybe because you saw a video online of the late Glen Campbell’s daughter Ashley who played beside him onstage during his farewell tour, saying “I just smile at him” when she’s asked what she does to help him sing through the Alzheimer moments.

It’s a seductive word, smile. So is the tune “Smile,” from the music Chaplin wrote for the ending of Modern Times, when the gamin played by Paulette Goddard is feeling low and he coaxes a smile from her as they walk down the sunset road of life. In fact, smiling is what this column’s all about.

Fifty years ago, after releasing Pet Sounds, which is generally considered one of the greatest rock records ever made (with some help from Glen Campbell, who sang and played guitar on it), Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys produced a curiosity called Smiley Smile. The music on my mind right now, though, is from the 1970 album Sunflower with its cover photograph of the band with their kids, and I’m smiling remembering what it meant to the child who was born six years later. For the first thousand nights of his life, I’d stand in front of the record player with him drowsing in my arms to music that felt like family, as if the Wilson brothers were his California uncles singing lullabies. The same songs that guided him to dreamland almost 40 years ago still give him pleasure in dark times, as they do me when I feel once again the weary beauty of those hours watching him drift into sleep on the swelling motion, ebb and flow and sublime harmonies of “This Whole World,” “Add Some Music to Your Day,” “All I Wanna Do,” “Our Sweet Love,” and “Forever.”

The Rally Cat

Speaking of things that make life worth living, I’m thinking of a certain cat and its surprise appearance last Wednesday night during a ballgame between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals. I realize that baseball and the Beach Boys may seem an unlikely combination, but when Brian was 17 he thought he might be a major league ball player (“I could run the bases in seventeen seconds and I had a great arm”), and the grass-stained uniform he wore while playing center field for his high school team in Hawthorne, California is on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Back at Busch Stadium, there were smiles all around, 44,000 of them, when a cat appeared on the field in the sixth inning with the Cardinals trailing 5-4, two outs, the bases loaded, and the future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina at the plate. There’s a comic poetry in the unexpected sight of a small animal romping out of nowhere across a bright green floodlit field. Regardless of whose side you’re on, it’s a feel-good moment, makes you smile, maybe laugh, “Hey! Look at that!” It gets even better as a member of the ground crew sprints out and gathers up the cat, hardly more than a kitten, and attempts to carry it off the field. The video online, which went viral, shows a leaping, swerving, Chaplinesque spectacle because the feline is clawing and biting its captor, a sight that has play-by-play announcers going “Ouch!” and shouting futile advice: “Hold it by the scruff of the neck! Doesn’t the guy know how to carry a cat?”

What might have been little more than an amusing interlude becomes the stuff of baseball myth when on the first pitch after the coming of the kitty Molina hits a grandslam home run that puts the Cardinals ahead for good 8-5. Thus the Rally Cat legend is born, energizing Cardinal fans who still cherish life-worth-living memories of 2011’s unlikely championship season, launched when a squirrel dashed across home plate during a decisive playoff game with the Phillies.

“Smiley Smile”

In September 1967 as the Cardinals were nearing the end of another pennant run, I bought a copy of Smiley Smile in response to the Brian-Wilson-Troubled-Genius narrative being perpetuated by the rock press. Smiley Smile had reportedly been cobbled together using the surviving fragments of the doomed recording session for Smile. Overshadowed by the media hype about what was to have been the Beach Boys’ answer to the Beatles’ recently released Sgt. Pepper, Smiley Smile was mostly ignored or derided and sold poorly in the U.S. in spite of being a playful, quirky, intimate, comfortably listenable piece of work, with a storybook mood set by the cover image of a cottage buried in a Douanier-Rousseau-style jungle, smoke from its chimney spelling out the title, a preview of the cozy, homey spontaneity of the music within. As Brian recalls, “We recorded vocals in the swimming pool …. We got incredible effects with nothing fancy at all.” He also has fond memories of the “low tones” he produced with a white Baldwin organ that “did great things to ‘Heroes and Villains,’ kept it warm.”

Smiley Smile lent some warmth to our first year of marriage. Listening to it again, I’m thinking how nicely it lives up to its title. A smile is a smile but a smiley smile says “let’s not take things too seriously,” except maybe “Heroes and Villains,” a western tale with VanDyke Parks’s freeform lyrics (“I’m fit with the stuff/to ride in the rough/and sunnydown snuff I’m all right”) and “Good Vibrations,” a rock and roll epic we already knew because it had dominated Top 40 radio much of the year.

The cartoon-cute “Vegetables” that follows the Saturday matinee of “Heroes and Villains” is a natural sing-along with Paul McCartney playing bass (so it’s said) and chomping on a stalk of celery. The next piece, “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (The Woody Woodpecker Symphony),” a deviously inventive instrumental that plays on the cartoon theme, is where you begin to feel everything hanging together and making sense, as if a concept album were falling happily into place without the epic struggle for Significance that doomed Smile.

For all its playfulness, Smiley Smile can surprise you with art-song moments, as when the vocals bend, turn, shimmer, and tinkle in “Wind Chimes.” To hear “With Me Tonight” after the sonic splendor of “Good Vibrations” is like going from an opera to a love song, from Beethoven to Satie, from June’s Sgt. Pepper to the September song of Smiley Smile. The adolescent energy of “Gettin’ Hungry” almost breaks the spell but not before the pervasive strangeness of the record finds full expression in “Wonderful,” a song about love and life that seems to be holding an army of woe at bay.

Bunting for a Hit

So here’s this deceptively humble recording seemingly made with no desire to be anything greater than its hushed, whimsical self, and somehow it gently holds its own, sneaks through your
defenses, and scores. Brian’s brother Carl once called Smiley Smile “a bunt instead of a grandslam,” and if that metaphor sounds negative, think of it in literary terms: a grandslam would be Moby Dick, a bunt a poem by Emily Dickinson. In the dynamics of baseball, bunts are subtle epiphanies that can change the course of a game; a well executed bunt leaves fielders scrambling helplessly, as if the batter had caught them in an invisible net. Then there’s the suicide squeeze, one of the must exciting plays in baseball, where a surprise bunt brings home a runner from third.

Home

The wordsmiths who crafted the language of the National Pastime had to know that coming home is one of the things that makes life worth living. Reading Timothy White’s liner notes for the Sunflower CD, I find that Brian Wilson and his brothers Carl and Dennis have roots in the Kansas town where I was born. During his account of “Add Some Music to Your Day,” where music “pours from neighbors’ homes, dentists’ offices, the carts of ice-cream vendors, and the altars of wedding ceremonies,” White describes Wilson family rituals involving the brothers’ 19th-century ancestors in Hutchinson, Kansas. White even went there in 1983 to interview Brian’s 87-year-old great uncle Charlie and other surviving kin. It turns out that these Wilson ancestors played mandolins, fiddles, and pianos, and that during their regular Saturday evening home recitals, they would open the windows so that “passersby on the prairie streets could enjoy the music, too.”

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June 20 was Brian Wilson’s 75th birthday. The quotes are from his memoir I Am Brian Wilson (DaCapo 2016, with Ben Greenman), which notes that besides playing on the Pet Sounds sessions, Glenn Campbell saved the day by taking over for Brian when he bowed out of the 1964 tour. The St Louis Cardinals are observing Rally Cat Appreciation Day on Sunday, September 10. Proceeds from some ticket sales and Rally Cat t-shirts are going to former Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation and other local animal shelters.