Monday, 31 October 2011

Between the Peaks

My daughter likes the Beach Boys. It might, actually, be more accurate to report that my daughter loves the Beach Boys. “They’re my favorite,” she tells me regularly. “Especially ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’.” It was a no-brainer, then, when I saw a relatively recent greatest hits package available for loan at our local library. I picked it up and brought it home. We’ve been listening to it ever since. I am listening to it right now, in fact, as I write.

The Warmth of the Sun is a 2007 sequel to the 2003 compilation Sounds of Summer. As the second in this series, Warmth does not contain many - any, truth be told - of the songs most people would consider Beach Boys classics. There’s no ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, for example. No ‘Help Me Rhonda’ or ‘Good Vibrations’. In their place one finds titles like ‘Cool, Cool Water’ - not exactly a tune that dances to mind when this group is mentioned.

From one perspective, this fact can be seen as evidence of a horse that has been finally flogged to death. Summer was successful, one might surmise, so they went back to the vault in order to cash in again; whatever was in there became Warmth. Certainly a quick glance at the track list seems to support this - ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’? Really? Listening to this disc again and again, however, I have developed a very different sense of the project.

Some history might be helpful. In broad terms, the Beach Boys’ career arranges itself around two main peaks. The first captures the band as we remember them: California kids who surfed onto the airwaves in the early Sixties and, within five years, had attained the status reserved only for acts like the Beatles. The second peak unexpectedly arose in 1974 with the release of Endless Summer. This two-album retrospective essentially created the Beach Boys as we have known them for the last thirty-plus years: An arena-filling nostalgia act willing to endlessly revisit the formative moments of a glorious past.

Between these peaks exists a valley as dark and tumultuous as any endured by a band of their stature. In 1966, while at work on the group’s rumored masterwork, Brian Wilson suffered a drug-fueled breakdown. Wilson was the band’s visionary, songwriter, and producer. It was by virtue of his delicate sensibilities that we received ‘I Get Around’ and ‘In My Room’. Stripped of their leader, the Beach Boys struggled. For eight years - from the classic Pet Sounds to the above mentioned Endless Summer - each of the other members did what there had formerly been no need for: They wrote songs in an effort to fill the void left by Wilson’s near-complete absence.

This span is amply represented on Warmth of the Sun. Not Brian’s immaculate ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, but Bruce Johnson’s teary-eyed ‘Disney Girls’, Dennis Wilson’s aching ‘Forever’, brother Carl’s wandering ‘Feel Flows’, and Al Jardine’s toe-tappin’ ‘California Saga’. To say this does not present the group that is conjured when we think ‘Beach Boys’ is really an understatement. What the collection does present is something far more shaky, desperate, funny, wounded, uncertain, vulnerable, erratic, bizarre, indulgent, challenging, and daring than anything we are going to hear programmed on feel-good radio stations.

Take, for instance, ‘Til I Die’, a track from 1971’s Surf’s Up. Brian did not completely retreat from the group during these wilderness years. From time to time he would emerge from the shadows with a song or two in hand. ‘Til I Die’ was the result of a night spent on the beach, looking out over the ocean. Feeling small before this vastness, Wilson began to consider “the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion, and the beautiful music I was able to make.” Why was this the case? he wondered. How long will this go on?

Beginning with the words, “I’m a cork on the ocean”, the song re-creates “the swell of emotions” Wilson felt that night. It gives answer to his questions only while winding toward a conclusion: “These things I’ll be until I die,” is repeated again and again. This is hardly the stuff of which ‘Be True to Your School’ was made. Brutally naked and revealing, it is far more difficult and, to me anyways, much more interesting.

Anyone who has meditated a little likely has some idea of what a ‘good’ practice session is like. Actually, experience is not a necessary prerequisite here. In many of the classes I teach, I often hear absolute beginners reveal deeply entrenched ideas about what ‘good’ practice is. “That didn’t go too well,” someone will confess after our first five minute meditation together. “What do you mean by ‘well’?” I inquire. “I didn’t,” the person answers, “feel very peaceful or anything. I just kept thinking about things.”

Even after years of dedicated engagement with the practice, this perception proves hard to shake. My knee-jerk remains that a ‘good’ meditation session is one in which the mind inexplicably settles and the body suddenly relaxes, and something warm and wonderful opens within. Just writing like this brings longing to my chest. ‘God that was great,’ I think, remembering an afternoon on retreat. ‘That really was great.’

And such moments are great, no doubt about it. Just like those old Beach Boys songs - ‘God Only Knows’, for instance - there is something irresistibly, undeniably wonderful about these times. This, however, does not necessarily mean such sessions are the most instructive or affecting we encounter. Much as I love them, they are certainly not the most instructive or affecting I encounter.

This honor, instead, goes to the weekend I spent gripped by a single thought; the string of days I endured certain the friend sitting to one side actually hated me; the morning of practice here at home through which I feared I would either go crazy or kill myself. These are moments of true discovery. I find a new ‘me’ in such instants - not one limited by what I want or am comfortable with, but one that is much more compulsive, paranoid, and uncertain than I’d like to admit.

It is hard to build any sort of impressive sense of self out of these experiences. Those so-called ‘good’ sessions? After one of these I am more than capable of putting myself above all the others around me. I begin to feel I’m standing atop some sort of peak. ‘Look at me,’ I think, chest puffing with pride, ‘enlightenment is so close at hand.’ Not so with valley sessions. Rather than high on a mountaintop, I feel brought right down to earth by those times in which the practice reveals what I would rather not see. From that place on the ground I can taste the soil beneath me, feel its warmth rising on all sides. Able, from this perspective, to see others in a relatively eye-to-eye way, I realize I am much more like everyone else than I might typically imagine. I struggle and I succeed. I laugh and I cry. I’m crazy and I’m sane. Just like everyone else.

Such meditation experiences challenge me, then, in extremely difficult ways. They yank me out of known terrain and, in doing so, incite change. This is what I hear in The Warmth of the Sun tracks dated 1968-1973, in the music that emerged from the dark span that followed Brian Wilson’s collapse and preceded the Beach Boy’s nostalgic resurgence. I hear a group - a group of men, I should add - that are having a hard time coming to terms with the landscape in which they now find themselves. These are men who, after climbing the dizzying heights of musical possibility, find themselves fallen, dirtied, and often lost.

The music on this disc is not as perfect as the dazzling hits from those heady early days, but in this very lack of perfection I hear so much beauty. Warmth shares with us the sound of people struggling with their humanity, being altered by their humanity, and the effect is moving. It is like looking into the face of someone who has just emerged from a long meditation retreat: The facade has been stripped away from their features and though they might look pale and worn, there is something irresistible in their appearance, something impossibly attractive.

So take a listen to Brian’s ‘Sail On, Sailor’ from 1973’s Holland LP - a wonderful follow-up to the fore mentioned ‘Til I Die’. Spend some time with Carl’s funky ‘It Takes a Mess of Help to Stand Alone’ - and yes, that is ‘the Captain’ on piano - from 1972’s Carl and the Passions - So Tough. And the next time you find yourselves meditating in that place between the peaks, value your stay in that valley and pay close attention. There’s likely a mess of humanity waiting there, ready to help you out in ways you cannot anticipate.


Special Fall Offer

Thirty Minute Intuitive Session
Regular Price - $60
Until Nov 30, 2011 - $50
(All taxes included)