Just Like Brian Wilson Did


We’ve almost made it. We’re mere days away from the end of the first month of a new year, a new decade. The Christmas tree has been dragged to the curb. The Menorah has been carefully tucked away. The city streets have returned to normal. Or they have at least for now. Because beyond the stocking stuffers, what we’ve been gifted is a whole new cycle of days.

And I can’t help but think of The Beach Boys.

I’ve been listening to them a lot since October. My depression had tightened its grip after months of a sweet relief and I needed a place to land. Musically, I fell deep into an era I’ve always loved, and a neighborhood nestled between my home in the San Fernando Valley and the lights of Hollywood – Laurel Canyon.

Laurel Canyon of the 60s and 70s has left an indelible mark not only on me, but on the history of Los Angeles, music, and popular culture at large. Crosby, Stills, and Nash was born there. Jim Morrison of The Doors lived there. Jackson Browne lived there. Joni Mitchell lived there. Neil Young. Carole King. Linda Ronstadt. James Taylor. Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. The Eagles. The Mamas and The Papas.

And so on.

And nearby on Laurel Way lived Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys

It all began, the mecca of L.A. rock ’n roll and counterculture, when Frank Zappa moved in. Or so I’ve read. The discrepancies are likely due to the amount of drugs taken in those hills. But it began, and more than half a century later, I still feel the energy as I drive over the hill on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, passed the old Country Store and Lookout Mountain. Most of the musicians had moved on by the 80s, the decade I was born, but like a new year, the cycle of influence always comes back around.

Just as synonymous with California as The Beach Boys are The Mamas and The Papas, one of Laurel Canyon’s most noted bands. Their hit “California Dreamin’” has survived generations, and in my own humble opinion, the opening notes of the album it belongs to, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, is one of the greatest intros on any album ever recorded. Bah dah, bah dah dah dah. Bah dah, bah dah dah dah. Flash forward a few more bars and we’re hit with,

“Monday mornin’ couldn’t guarantee that Monday evenin’ you would still be here with me.”

The lyrics are fairly straight forward, especially given the rocky relationship between band members Michelle Phillips and husband and writer of “Monday, Monday” John Phillips. They’re not particularly charming, but the upbeat nature and bah dah, bah dah dah dahs made it a #1 hit anyway.

Each day treats us with the rising and setting of the sun, but not much else is guaranteed, not even our lover. A new day is always a new cycle, no matter what changes, no matter what stays the same.

Like The Mamas and The Papas, I’ve always enjoyed The Beach Boys. I love “Kokomo” and “Good Vibrations.” I remember their cameos on “Full House” and the old photographs taken when my mom saw them in concert. But what I had never done was listen to Pet Sounds in its entirety, from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Caroline, No.” I hadn’t taken the ride through the mind of Brian Wilson, the one he occupied while living on Laurel Way with his piano sitting in a pit of sand. Wilson has been largely regarded as a “musical genius,” and now I understand why.

While his neighbors over in Laurel Canyon were turning folk into rock ’n roll, Wilson was pushing the boundaries of what music could be. And like the majority, if not all, of the musicians who lived in those hills, I was stoned the first time I listened to Pet Sounds in nearby Sherman Oaks. My mind was blown as I sat at my dining table and texted my mom. I couldn’t believe what I had just listened to was real. How had I gone thirty years of my life without this album? I listened again the next day with a clear mind and it was just as blown.

But this wasn’t the first time I’d fallen in love with The Beach Boys. I was seven, maybe eight-years-old, the first go round. I’d take my mom’s 1973 yearbook to the wooden playground in the field behind our house, and imagine I’d been a part of it. I’d admire the photograph of the Homecoming Junior Attendant, Kathy something-or-other, who’d been escorted by my dad. I don’t know if I wanted to be her, or if I just wanted to look like her. Surely some deep psychoanalysis would render the situation full of longing for my dad who lived in Florida for much of my childhood. But all I knew was that I loved The Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher and felt wildly out of place in the mid 90s.

I also felt wildly out of place in Small Town, New York. My only familiarity of Laurel Canyon was the music, but I already knew I was meant for Los Angeles. Just over a decade later, I’d live there, and over two later, I’d be deep in another cycle of Beach Boy appreciation.

“I keep looking for a place to fit in,” Brian Wilson sings to open track 11 on Pet Sounds. Written by Wilson and Tony Asher, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” wades through the loneliness of Wilson’s musical genius. Yet on the surface the melancholy lyrics craft it into a song even the most musical incompetent can relate to. Therein lies Wilson’s genius. On the chorus he sings,

“Sometimes I feel very sad,
sometimes I feel very sad,
sometimes I feel very sad,
I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”

A painful admission that not a soul hasn’t felt. Sometimes I feel very sad. Sometimes I feel very sad. Sometimes I feel very sad. The Beach Boys’ universal appeal stems from their persona of guys who chase girls and surf* and just want to have fun. They’re The Beach Boys, not The Laurel Canyon Boys. But dig a little deeper and their appeal stems from their persona of guys with feelings who aren’t afraid to sing about them. Sometimes I feel very sad.

I don’t recall that song from my first venture into The Beach Boys discography, but I do recall the feeling. Sometimes I feel very sad; words even a seven-year-old can relate to.

“Each time things start to happen again,
I think I got something good going for myself,
but what goes wrong?”

Life is more than a cycle of days or music, it’s a cycle of questions, a cycle of comings and goings, of misunderstandings and reunions, of ups and downs and ups and downs and up up ups and down down downs.

Wilson’s had his share, dramatically swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other. After The Beach Boys smash hits in the mid 60s and the release of Pet Sounds, Wilson’s mental health rapidly declined, interrupting the band’s stream of success. When I sang along with the Barenaked Ladies “Brian Wilson,” as a Beach Boys loving seven-year-old, I didn’t understand the depths of who Brian Wilson actually was, or that I’d have my own fair share of ups and down down downs, just like Brian Wilson did.

Cycles are born within us, like perennials that re-grow every Spring. Who I was yesterday may not be who I am tomorrow. But who I was yesterday, I may be again next year.

Like Laurel Canyon’s The Byrds sang when they popularized folk legend Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose under heaven…”

*Dennis Wilson was the only surfer in The Beach Boys.

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