P.S., Happy Belated Birthday

No, dear faithful followers of The Hand of Count Petofi, The Count did not desert you, although The Count probably has had more desserts than necessary these past few months. And where have those past few (well…maybe more than few) months gone?  I’ve mourned the loss of Bowie and George Martin and Paul Dano’s first Oscar nomination and win (in a word: un·be·liev·a·ble) and fought to keep my head above water. There were so many times when I felt like I was drowning, but here I am — gasping — dying — but somehow still alive…

On Monday, Pet Sounds (aka the greatest rock album ever made, Mar!) turned 50. Instead of posting about it yesterday when the internet was inundated with (justifiably) laudatory and celebratory articles, I’m posting today because I believe it’s an album that should be celebrated (and by celebrated, I mean LISTENED TO) every single day, I’m still kind of drowning and trying to get my life together, and when have I ever been a timely person? I mean, one of my favorite actors has been dead for fifty–fifty–years this July. I’m not exactly hip or now, you know.

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Maybe the album’s only imperfection: its bizarre-o album cover. Thanks, The Suits at Capital. Branding! (Not to be confused with Brand-o.)

Pet Sounds is perhaps the only true perfect album. From boo buh bom pa to do da do do da do do da BOOM (2,3,4) buh DOOM to the howls of Banana and Louie, there is not a false note. Every song is beautiful, purposeful, and connected. There are no fillers. There are no clunkers. There is no “What Goes On” (the song that ruins Rubber Soul–an album I love dearly, dearly, dearly–for me every time). (Speaking of Rubber Soul, it’s interesting to think that the album that so inspired Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds wasn’t really Rubber Soul but instead Capital’s amalgamation of Rubber Soul and Help!, omitting the horrendous “What Goes On”, creating a distinctively folk feel. So maybe those Beatles weren’t so special after all. Yeah…maybe.) And every song is universal.

Pet Sounds is Brian Wilson’s creation, no doubt about it. He just had some other stuff inside of him besides surf and sun and surf and cars and surf and girls and surf that he just had to get out. The songs found on Pet Sounds are delicately beautiful and vulnerable, expressing the need for love and acceptance. Even the instrumental “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” evokes a wistfulness for escape into a haven of love and comfort–and not just because of the title but because of the meticulous arrangement of the instruments and their dynamics and interaction with each other. The group’s innovative cover of the folk song “Sloop John B” also recalls a similar desire with its plaintive refrain: “I feel so broke up, I wanna go home.” (And, perhaps, it nods to the counterculture: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.” Talk about destroying your brain.)

It’s hard for me to separate Pet Sounds from the scenes focusing on its creation in Love and Mercy. It’s not that Paul Dano is so-gosh-darn-cute (which he is), it’s just that the movie did such an extraordinary job of re-creating Brian Wilson’s meticulous, relentless work ethic and the joy he felt being in the studio recording this album. It makes me a little teary-eyed every time I watch the scene as Brian Wilson (played to perfection by Paul Dano) listens to the musicians play “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”–with two bass players playing in two different keys–and it sounds just like it does in his head! He is so incandescently happy because he is at home in the recording studio, producing these introspective, sophisticated, and loving songs. I don’t think Brian Wilson worked harder or was ever happier than he was when working on Pet Sounds. He put his heart and soul into the album–and so is it any wonder that he was crushed when the world at large (and maybe a band member or two…okay, maybe just one) reacted lukewarmly to his magnum opus (not that he would ever call it a magnum opus or a masterpiece or anything like that because he is actually the most humble man in the world)?

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This is what The Beach Boys actually look like in my head. Love-less, peaceful, and in complete, perfect harmony. Who needs a little place like Kokomo? Not I, said the Count…

Brian Wilson said that with Pet Sounds, the group was trying to “bring love to the world through our harmonies.” There is so much love in this album. The world needs Pet Sounds now more than ever — if only people would listen, listen…

Which is exactly what you have to do with Pet Sounds. I’ve listened to this album so many times, and it never gets old. I never want to skip a track. I never want to turn it off after listening to “just the hits.” I love every song; I don’t know if I could pick a favorite. (Although Paul McCartney can. But what can’t Paul McCartney do?) They’re all just so gosh-darn-beautiful, I wanna cry

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Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2015)

After The Beatles, The Beach Boys were the first band I really loved. I bought records that I couldn’t really play, committed an A&E Biography of Brian Wilson to memory (still looking for a way to put this skill on a resume), and I may have even fashioned some Beach Boys puppets out of popsicle sticks. Okay, so maybe I was a little obsessed–crazy, even (popsicle sticks?!)–but my love for this band, including their introverted, slightly off-center leader, was so indelible that fifteen or so years later I approached Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s biopic about Brian Wilson, with both excitement and trepidation–excitement because I love Brian Wilson and his story, trepidation because there is so much room for error.

Love and Mercy tells the story of Brian Wilson in two distinct periods of his life. His story is told by two different actors out of necessity. The Brian Wilson of the 1960s was a very different person from the Brian Wilson of the 1980s. It’s that simple. He was different, both physically and mentally. It would be impossible for a single actor to play both roles; it would be asking too much. It’s a miracle that Brian Wilson lived through the experiences. How can you ask one actor to do the same?

In the first narrative, Paul Dano plays Wilson in his mid-20s at the height of his musical powers creating Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and the ill-fated Smile album. The seeds of mental illness are evident, however, as Brian begins to suffer notably from auditory hallucinations and paranoia during this period. The later thread shows the progression and effects of this mental illness.

In the 1980s, Brian (now portrayed by John Cusack) has become a somnambulant and over-medicated prisoner of his controlling and manipulative doctor, Eugene Landy (played with terrifying ferocity by Paul Giamatti). When he meets his future wife, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), for the first time, he leaves her a note on the back of her business card: “Scared, Lonely, Frightened.” Each thread is equally compelling, even though I initially doubted that the 1980s story would be able to hold my attention the way the Pet Sounds sessions would. I was also uncertain that John Cusack could convincingly render Wilson.

My doubts were ill-placed. I was wrong. I feel like one of those freaks that booed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965–and not even one of the freaks booing because the sound quality was poor, but one of those folk purists irate at Dylan for plugging in an electric guitar. Oh my gosh. Don’t be one of those freaks. The quality of Cusack’s performance is not poor; it is subtle and sensitive and maybe different from anything else he’s ever done before–I wouldn’t know, though, because I never made a popsicle puppet out of his head.

Brian (John Cusack) and Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) outside the Griffith Observatory.

Cusack undoubtedly has the more difficult role for one simple reason: there is virtually no music in the 1980s storyline, and if you want to know Brian Wilson, you have to listen to the music. Cusack instead has to communicate Wilson’s thoughts and feelings through his walk, his mannerisms, nervous ticks, and wooden speech. There is a single scene where Cusack’s Wilson sits at the piano and plays a song for Melinda, and for a brief moment, you catch a glimpse of the creative, trusting, sweet man that Wilson is or was or could be.

As impressive as Cusack’s depiction is, Paul Dano is, quite simply, amazing. A·maz·ing. AMAZING! Oh my gosh. I am ready to make a popsicle puppet out of this guy’s head. (I’m kidding. I think.) Dano physically bears a stronger resemblance to Wilson, and he even sings like Wilson in the film–so much so that it is often difficult to discern whether it’s actually Dano or Wilson singing. Music helps Dano’s characterization significantly. When Dano’s Wilson is in the studio, headphones on, singing with his brothers and cousin and bandmates, he just looks so happy and at ease. I felt tears welling up in my eyes because I know that’s who Brian Wilson is.

Brian (Paul Dano) plays “God Only Knows” for his cruel and abusive father, who tells him it sounds more like a suicide note than a love song.  

Dano’s skill is part of what makes the 1960s story so satisfying to watch, but it’s also the recreation of the period. The attention to detail in the film is extraordinary: the filmmakers faithfully replicated Beach Boys concert footage, the studio where Brian created Pet Sounds, and every piece of clothing, right down to Mike Love’s dumb fur hat.

There is little humor in the 1980s (mostly it derives from whatever Paul Giamatti is wearing), but the humor is abundant in the 1960s. Remember, Brian Wilson is actually a very funny person. While the rest of the band has been on tour in Japan, Brian has been at home in the studio, working tirelessly on Pet Sounds. When the band returns to the studio to record vocals, Mike Love pats cousin Brian’s belly and tells him he’s put on some weight. “You need to go on a fast with me sometime,” he tells Brian. “I’m eating as fast as I can,” Brian responds. Amen!

Humor also comes in the form of Mike Love’s existence. Concerned about the lyrics of “Hang on to Your Ego” (turned into “I Know There’s An Answer” on the released album because Love refused to sing the lyrics of “Ego”), Love whispers to Brian “Is this a druggie song?” The rest of the guys roll their eyes. (I imagine this happened a lot because Mike Love is really embarrassing. It’s kind of a mystery how and why they let him in the band.) Humor comes from one liners from brother Dennis (who looks less like Dennis but acts like Dennis so it’s OK). “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian insists in response to Mike Love’s claim that they should keep making music about surfing and cars and girls because that’s what their fans love and understand, not the radically different music and lyrics of Pet Sounds. “They don’t,” shrugs Dennis, with perfect timing. And a lot of humor comes from Brian Wilson’s two dogs, Banana and Louie, who are featured on Pet Sounds. They steal every scene they’re in, including one of my favorites.

With Pet Sounds having been completed and received lukewarmly by fans, Brian and the band are moving onto their next project. Brian has an idea for a song about the vibrations dogs pick up from people, but, as always, he’s struggling with lyrics. He calls Mike over to help. Brian sits at his piano, placed in a sandbox in the middle of his living room, and pounds out the rhythm. Mike suggests some lyrics, and they begin to put the two together. Banana barks (and maybe does something else). “Well, piss on you, Banana, I like it!” Mike scolds.

To some, the narratives of Love and Mercy may seem disjointed and unrelated. I disagree. Even though Brian Wilson was different in the 1960s than he was in the 1980s, there are striking similarities and parallels. In 1985, Brian Wilson is starving. “I’m hungry, Gene,” Brian tells his doctor. “You’re not hungry! You only think you are! Can’t you tell the difference?” Landy screams in response. Brian is starved of food, his family, his free will, his music, and love. He is the victim of Dr. Landy’s control and cruelty. In the 1960s, Brian Wilson is starving, too, even though he is saturated with food, drink, and drugs. He craves the approval of his brutal father, and he ultimately abandons Smile not just because he is taking way too many drugs (which he is) but because he is starved of the musical support and love of his bandmates. Even though he always brought so much love and happiness to others through his music, Brian Wilson himself was always looking for love.

Love and Mercy is a sensitive, factual film. Of course it doesn’t tell you everything about Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys. (To the reviewer complaining that the film doesn’t explain the presence of Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks: well, piss on you! Read a record label and figure it out for yourself. Actually, it’s pretty clear who Van Dyke Parks is in the film, so I don’t know what your hang up is.) It can’t, and it doesn’t need to. It just needs to offer you a representation of who Brian Wilson was and why he–and his music–matter. It does just that, with the finest acting and the best soundtrack. I can’t wait to see it again.

My only complaint? The actor who plays Al Jardine (who has NO speaking lines) is actually taller than Carl Wilson…
Uh, yeah. Right. Baby needs a step ladder to get up on that car.