June 20, 2012

Solo Flight: To Montreal and Back With Debussy, Joyce, and the Beach Boys

Tuning in the latest star 

From the dashboard of my car

The CD-equipped dashboard providing 800 miles of words and music during a recent drive to and from Montreal belongs to a 2000 Honda CRV named Moby, after Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The two lines at the top are from the title track of That’s Why God Made the Radio, the first Beach Boys album in 16 years, which just debuted at number 3 on the Billboard Chart. In the spirit of the same lyric, “Feel the music in the air/Find a song to take us there,” this stereo-driven solo flight began at 10:40 a.m. last Wednesday, taking me up U.S. Route 206 to I-287 to I-87 and Quebec 15 to Montreal, where I bought the new CD at the big HMV store on Rue St. Catherine. Two days later, with Brian Wilson’s music leading the way, I followed the same course in reverse.

Brian Wilson turns 70 today while the group he founded marks its 50th anniversary with a tour that played Central Park June 15 and will touch down tonight, June 20, at the Bell Center in, of all places, Montreal.

Over and Over

I saved my first listen to That’s Why God Made the Radio for the moment we crossed the border into the springtime splendor of upper New York state. Between the border and Saratoga Springs, I played the album five times in succession (the title track seven times). The way Moby’s CD player works, unless you reject the disc when it ends, it automatically begins again at the beginning. This hitherto unthinkable behavior on my part was made possible only because Moby and I were on our own, and the album had become, in effect, one long song. No way would my wife and son have indulged me in this madness, however much they might have enjoyed the music the first time around.

The Program

Although I hadn’t mapped out a definite program either going or coming, everything fell into place as we headed north, from Debussy’s Preludes to P.J. Harvey’s magnificent Let England Shake (reviewed here Jan. 11, 2012) to Chapter One of James Joyce’s Ulysses (brilliantly read by Donal Donnelly) to the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society and back to Chapters Two and Three of Ulysses. As we entered (and left) Montreal, jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa was on the stereo performing his own peculiar form of magic. On the way home, after those first 150 miles of Beach Boys, Debussy took us from Saratoga Springs to the Modena pit stop on the New York Thruway. In need of something with a bit more caffeine in it as we approached the New Jersey border, I found Camden native Patti Smith’s Trampin, with passionate, driving songs like “In My Blakean Year” providing all the sonic fuel Moby needed for the next to last lap. Finally, taking us from the dread Somerville Circle to the front door on Bloomsday eve was Chapter Four of Ulysses, in which we meet Leopold Bloom, his cat, and his Molly at No. 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, June 16, 1904.

Debussy in the Passenger Seat

While Dodo Marmarosa may be little known outside the jazz world, he was a classically trained virtuoso with a fertile musical imagination, and I have no doubt that if Debussy could hear him play his own compositions (“Tone Paintings,” “Escape,” “Raindrops,” and “Bopmatism,” to name a few), the great man would want to shake Dodo’s hand. Had the composer of “Clair de Lune” been sitting in the passenger seat while Polly Jean and Patti and the Kinks were rocking out, he might have had to recalibrate his receptors. But the Beach Boys? My guess is that as soon as the first track of That’s Why God Made the Radio began playing — the achingly lovely wordless “Think About the Days” — Debussy would have been as receptive to those incredible harmonies as I was. As for the lyrics, I doubt that the man who set Verlaine and Mallarmé to music would be troubled by blatantly simplistic English rhyme schemes like motion/devotion/emotion, air/there/prayer, or forgivable outrages like the rhyming of “when I and antenna” (when-eye/anten-eye) in the title track.

From “Surfin Safari” to “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” Beach Boys lyrics have been predictably and often justly scorned or patronized or laughed at (“cringeworthy” is the word that turned up in one of the more positive reviews of the new album), which is one of the obstacles disdainful or doubtful listeners have to overcome before submerging themselves in the wondrously sustaining element of the music. The first Beach Boy record I ever bought was Smiley Smile, the 1967 version containing the leavings of the infamous recording studio debacle at the heart of the Brian Wilson-as-mad-genius legend (with quirky, sometimes clever-to-a-fault lyrics by VanDyke Parks). Also on that LP was “Good Vibrations,” the three-and a-half-minute masterpiece that dominated car radios all over the land through the heart of the sixties. Though Pet Sounds (1966) is still generally considered to be Brian Wilson’s finest hour, Sunflower (1970) is the record I feel closest to, the pinnacle being the 1:58 minutes of “This Whole World” (the transition at 1:40 is still no less thrilling to hear all these years later, even with the om-da-did-its and lines like “When girls get mad at boys and go/Many times they’re just putting on a show”).

A Father’s Day Aside 

Sunflower also provided the most effective music to rock our child to sleep to until the arrival of the, for him, aptly titled, The Beach Boys Love You (1977), upon which his bedtime was so dependent that I had to rush out to the Walmart to buy an emergency duplicate copy when we were visiting my father in Key West.

Since this column is being written on Father’s Day, I should mention the man without whom there would be no Beach Boys, Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Dennis, and Carl, who was born in Hutchinson, Kansas (as was I, strange to say), before moving to California at age five. By most accounts, he was the stage parent from hell, a tyrant who bullied Capitol Records on behalf of the group and is said to have hammered Brian in the head with a 2×4, causing a loss of hearing in the right ear. As recently as a 2004 interview with The Independent, however, Brian says of Murry, “He was the one who got us going. He didn’t make us better artists or musicians, but he gave us ambition. I’m pleased he pushed us, because it was such a relief to know there was someone as strong as my dad to keep things going. He used to spank us, and it hurt too, but I loved him because he was a great musician.”

America, America

Reviewers in the U.K. were especially hard on That’s Why God Made the Radio. Here’s a sampling of British brickbats: “It’s good to have them back — but only just”; “all the warmth and personality of a motorway hotel’s car park”; “a cloudless orgy of nostalgia”; “pitifully thin stuff, with far too many nostalgic hankerings.”

So, I ask myself, if there’s the faintest glimmer of truth in those snide put-downs, how could I have done what I did? Even with favorite albums like the Beatles’ Revolver and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, two listens in a row was the limit. Five straight times I listened to a car park? I suppose I could blame my Honda alter ego, Moby, for whenever I looked in the direction of another CD, the speedometer would give a jump, as if to say, “Keep it going!”

Speed can be an influential accompanist. At 70 m.p.h., when the music’s moving, the weather’s perfect, you’re alone and feeling free, and the landscape’s head-staggeringly gorgeous, moderation is not on the menu. Days later, driving around Princeton, though the title track sounded as addictive as ever on Harrison Street, after that, I’m thinking, “How could I?”

Scenery and sentiment definitely had something to do with it. Imagine being back in your own country again after an hour of dull driving through the flat featureless landscape between Montreal and the border. Within a minute of crossing into New York state, rich, many-layered, almost unearthly stereo harmonies are sending chills up your spine amid all that Adirondack majesty, green, massive, brilliant, enfolding you and your car in its glory. Here’s where some deep-seated, unreal, inexplicable Beach Boy sentiment kicks in. If songs like “California Girls” and “Surfer Girl” can set your midwestern American boyhood heart pumping, what can you expect when you’re hearing nothing less than an anthemic creation against odds produced by a long-embattled, semi-dysfunctional group of 70-year-old teenagers 50 years down the line? Remember this is the group that doomed James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s most repellent cabinet member, the smug, sneering secretary of the Interior whose mission was to destroy it. When he mindlessly dissed the Beach Boys for “attracting the wrong element,” Watt was dead. Toast. Finito, though it took Reagan too long to dump him. The termination of Watt was not only one of the president’s finest hours, but Nancy’s. Like, “How dare you? My kids love the Beach Boys!”

Thus when we plunge at 70 m.p.h. into the lush heart of America, all this love of country is swelling in me until I’m about to explode while God’s stereo is filling my ears and God’s country is filling my eyes. Can scenery sing? Yes!

Up ahead traffic is slowing because just before you get to the New York Welcome Center on I-87, the U.S. Border Patrol has set up a surprise check point to ferret out “the wrong element.” Each driver is being asked the same question. Are you an American citizen? The Beach Boys are still singing as we approach. I start to turn down the music, but Moby won’t let me, the song that’s on is “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” sorry, can’t be done. The uniformed officer looks in, sees the CD propped on the passenger seat, hears those harmonies, starts to ask, ”Are you — ?” and before I can say a word, waves us through.