My favorite Beach Boys album

There is a rule–somewhere–that at some point, as a serious student of pop music, you have to discover that the Beach Boys actually sang about more than just surf, girls, and cars. It’s a dumb rule. I don’t like it. It implies that their music about surf, girls, and cars was superficial, insignificant, and bereft of the craftsmanship and genius that just somehow magically manifest itself on an album like–oh, I don’t know–Pet Sounds. Sure, there were some duds on those early albums, but there were so many more beautiful and meticulously crafted songs: “Ballad of Ole’ Betsy,” a song about an aging car, often makes me teary-eyed, “Surfer Girl” is a timeless song of love, and who doesn’t identify with the introspective “In My Room”? The skill and depth of this band was always present; the images their name and a few dozen songs conjured just often overshadowed it.

The Beach Boys were my almost favorite band (there’s just no getting over them dang Beatles) in 7th grade. I was so enraptured with them that when I received a Beatles poster for my birthday (a really sweet shot from the ‘Mad Day Out’ sessions, by the way) amidst a pile of Beach Boys CDs and videos, I was almost disappointed. Almost. I learned the “more than surf etc.” secret very quickly. I mean, all I had to do was buy an album (Surfer Girl/Shut Down, Volume II was my first)–and there are so many great Beach Boys albums (including the new one). Pet Sounds is an undisputed masterpiece, Sunflower is so freaking smooth, Friends is Paul Weller’s favorite so it’s obviously really cool, Love You is gritty and wonderful, and I could probably even argue quite effectively that Little Deuce Coupe is the greatest concept album ever (it’s all about cars, man, and it’s awesome). There are days when I wonder if it’s even possible to have a favorite Beach Boys album.

But I think I have one.

During a hedonistic, Beach Boys-obssessed summer, I bought three Beach Boys albums on vinyl off eBay. They were cheap (reeeeeal cheap), I didn’t have them on CD, and I couldn’t wait until my birthday or Christmas. I also didn’t have a working record player. Well, the record player actually worked, but the speakers didn’t, so you couldn’t really listen to records. But I had figured out a way to hook up the record player to the tape player so that I could play the vinyl, push record on the tape machine, and have a tape copy of the album that I could listen to on my Walkman. I don’t think it was really that hard. I also don’t think I had any friends.

Anyway.

I had bought The Beach Boys ConcertThe Beach Boys Christmas Album, and Today!. These three albums are all very dear to my heart, but only one of them is still in the shrink-wrap–and it’s my favorite.

The Beach Boys, Today! (1965)

Today! reminds me of my favorite Dylan album, Bringing It All Back Home. The first side is full of that blistering electric guitar that the Devil gave to Bob Dylan, alienating all those hardcore folkies, while the second side is just a really skinny guy with some major fuzzy hair and an acoustic guitar, just like the folkies like ‘im. It’s the perfect marriage of the two sides of Dylan for me. Today! similarly is the perfect representation of the two sides of the Beach Boys.

Side one is upbeat, carefree, fun. It has nothing but hit singles about dancing, growing up (to be a man), being good to your baby, and getting help from some girl named Rhonda. It’s pretty awesome. You can’t go wrong playing side one over and over and over. I speak from experience. But side two is where it really starts happening. It’s so beautiful, I don’t know if I can write coherently about it. It opens with “Please Let Me Wonder,” one of the most tender and beautiful songs the band ever recorded. It makes my heart beat just a little bit faster. Beware: after hearing this song, you will never want to listen to any other song again because none of them will ever be as beautiful as this one. Never ever.

“I’m So Young” is a fantastic cover of the doo wop classic originally by the Students. It laments young love and not being able to get married, a topic Brian Wilson explored earlier on All Summer Long‘s “We’ll Run Away” and would visit again on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” I love how they make it their own (I didn’t realize it was a cover until I bothered to read the songwriting credits more closely–oops), fitting perfectly into the lush and pensive mood of the album’s second side, and how Dennis’s voice sticks out like a Beach Boy who surfs the last thirty seconds or so.

Remember how no other song could ever be as beautiful as “Please Let Me Wonder”? Well, “Kiss Me, Baby” actually comes very, very, very, very, very close. The musical and vocal arrangements of this song are absolutely astounding. I know everyone’s all about hating Mike Love and everything, but the contrast between his deep bass and Brian’s soaring falsetto makes this song: “Kiss a little bit, fight a little bit…” That’s the Beach Boys story right there.

If you wanted to draw a line from Today! to Pet Sounds, it’d be pretty easy. It’s called “She Knows Me Too Well.” You might even forget to draw the line and mistake it for a Pet Sounds outtake. And most people would stop talking about Today! right here. But there’s another track (actually two but one of them is an “interview” track–a common “filler” on early Beach Boys albums) that I think is just as beautiful and significant as the others. Dennis opened the album with “Do You Wanna Dance?”, and he closes it with his best vocal to date, “In the Back of My Mind.” Dennis was still a few years off from coming into his own as a songwriter, but all the potential is evident on this track. The vocal is incredibly raw and breathtaking. You just don’t want it to end.

But it does end. So you have to get up and move the needle back to the start. Or you have to push rewind. Or you have to create an iPod playlist and just have it on constant replay. It sounds great any way. It’s the perfect mixture of the fun and the melancholy, the catchy pop singles and gorgeous ballads. It’s my favorite Beach Boys album.

Macca and Me

Sixteen (going-on-seventeen…yes, really) years of loving and breathing the Beatles and I never could pick a favorite Beatle. But it would have been easy–so, so easy–for me to pick Paul McCartney, who turns 70 today.

I wish that was me, clad in a light pastel pink Paul McCartney t-shirt, sitting on the tube with Paul McCartney. Just sayin’–in case that wasn’t obvious. 

For my ninth birthday, I received Paul McCartney’s tenth solo album, Flaming Pie. I’d been coveting it for months, but CDs actually existed back then and downloading wasn’t rampant, CDs were also pretty expensive, and I had no steady income. So I had to wait for my birthday and hope that my parents loved me enough to help me in my quest to keep the ten commandments. (“Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s copy of Flaming Pie.” Remember that one? I totally coveted every other nine-year old who owned this album. There were so many of them, although I was slowly plotting their demise, fueled by my envy.) Well, they did, and I was ecstatic. That album is probably my single favorite Macca solo album. Probably. There’s a lot of good ones.

My elementary music teacher had a system where if we earned so many “points” our class was allowed a “CD Day,” wherein we were each allowed to bring a CD to class and when your CD was selected, you picked which song we listened to as a class. I brought Flaming Pie, and I remember some kid was like, “Why did you bring that old guy’s CD?” And I was like, “Hey, did your parents drop you on your head as a baby or…?”

‘Cos Flaming Pie is an awesome album–so awesome I could even forgive “that old guy” for chopping the beloved salt-‘n’-peppah mullet (which he totally needs to bring back, by the way).

And of all the Beatles, Macca’s post-Beatles career is the most satisfying for me. Lennon was too hot and cold, Harrison was sparse and sporadic, and Ringo always needed a little help from his friends. McCartney was always quite fearless–unafraid of making an album with songs as diverse as “Heart of the Country” and “Monkberry Delight,” unafraid of forming a completely new band with unknowns–including his musically inexperienced wife, unafraid of letting said unknown musicians take turns in the spotlight on Wings at the Speed of Sound, unafraid of singing all those silly love songs, unafraid of disbanding his new (and pretty successful) band to make an experimental album full of synth-based compositions that was way ahead of its time. He was also unafraid of packing some pot in his suitcase, but let’s not talk about that right now.

For all his musical talent and success, though, I still sense an inferiority complex in McCartney that upsets me. To the world at large, Lennon was gritty and hard-edged, a political radical and lyrical adept; McCartney was all soft–ballads and babies were his main interests, not world peace, revolution, or anything “important.” When Lennon was murdered, this image spiraled–and continues to spiral–out of control. Lennon’s place in history as an indelible musical and cultural force is solid; McCartney often seems worried about how history will remember him. He likes to point out that he, too, was politically active in his songwriting (“Give Ireland Back to the Irish” is better forgotten, though, dear, sorry), he introduced the other Beatles to the avant-garde scene (which is true), and he could be just as hard-nosed as the best of ’em–just as Lennon could be incredibly tender in his songwriting (in fact, I might even argue that his half of Double Fantasy is softer than McCartney). Let me just say this: I don’t think Lennon ever wrote anything quite as funky or downright cool as, say, “C’Moon” or “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five.” He just didn’t.

McCartney would have been an easy choice for a favorite Beatle. He wasn’t just the cute one; he was the diplomatic one, hardworking, dedicated to perfecting his craft, constantly pushing the musicians around him, always generous to fans, the one with the best post-Beatles hairstyle, the perfect mix of business sense and artistic integrity, just as ardent in his crusades for animal rights as Lennon ever was in any of his causes, the one with the most imaginative and varied song catalogue, really just a nice guy who I used to imagine was my dad who was going to pick me up early from school. He would have been an easy choice for a favorite Beatle, but I loved them all just too darn much to pick just one.

A few years ago, Alan McGee made a controversial, moronic, and insensitive comment that musicians like McCartney should retire once they turn 40 because they become mediocre and complacent. A day does not go by that I do not wonder what Lennon would be doing, musically and otherwise, were he here, and I’m so glad McCartney is still here and still making music (and pretty good music, at that, Memory Almost Full is one of his best) at 70. And I’m hoping he’ll be here for a long while yet.

Photograph by George Harrison 

Happy birthday. Now let’s go to that party, party.

Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, 1969)

Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Robert Redford asks himself, “Am I really more beautiful today than I was yesterday?” That is the eternal question. 

File under: films I have watched to merely gaze longingly at Robert Redford for 90 minutes or more. ‘Cos this film was pretty much a dud otherwise. A major dud.

The back cover of the Criterion DVD boasts: “Astonishing Alpine location photography and a young Robert Redford in one of his earliest starring roles are just two of the visual splendors of Michael Ritchie’s debut feature, Downhill Racer.”

I’m pretty sure those are the film’s only two splendors, visual or otherwise.

Downhill Racer is the story of cocksure and ruthless skier David Chappellet in his pursuit of a gold medal. Chappellet cares little–er, nothing–about his teammates, coach, or anyone else. He cares about himself. And winning. During a brief visit home, his father asks him why he skis. It isn’t bringing him any wealth. “I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion,” Chappellet answers. His unimpressed father gruffly retorts, “World’s full of ’em.”

Redford’s character is unabashedly unlikable. He uses other people and when other people use him, he remains as callous as ever. There is no character growth. Downhill Racer is unsentimental and gritty, sparse and candid.

Downhill Racer

The film features handheld footage from the view of the skiers, a remarkable landmark in its time. 

The film adopts a documentary style, with minimal use of, well, everything. There is no swelling soundtrack to set the mood. One has to pay close attention to follow the threadbare plot. The characters say little–most of all Redford–and when they do begin to converse, the scene abruptly ends. As film critic Todd McCarthy writes in the DVD’s accompanying booklet: “Had Hemingway ever written about competitive skiing, this would have been the right style with which to handle the adaptation.”

Perhaps this minimalist, documentary approach makes the film an artistic gem to some, but it made for a frustrating, disappointing, and everso less entertaining than the three minutes and thirteen seconds the Beatles spent skiing in Help! viewing for me sadly. I probably won’t ever watch it again. Unless, y’know, I’m in the mood for a visual splendor named Robert Redford.

Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Such a great actor. And such a pretty face. Le sigh.