06/20/01
Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

"Their hearts were full of spring." So begins chapter one of Back to the Beach, A Brian Wilson and Beach Boys Reader. It would be difficult to describe the appeal of the early Beach Boys recordings in simpler terms. Perhaps no American songwriter other than Brian Wilson has written so authentically of what it means - and how it feels - to be in the spring of adolescence in suburban America.

Wilson's hits of the early and mid sixties worked on two levels. There was the fantasy of a mythical southern California. Like the Goldrush of the 1840s and the Babylon of 1930s Hollywood, Wilson created a new myth for California. It was a realm where the sun could not be clouded over, where the surf was always up. This fanciful land was inhabited by a population of free, fun-loving, bushy blond youths, forever enjoying the wind, the surf, drive-in movies and long summer nights. It was the vision of an endless summer. Less obvious, and yet implicit to the lyrics, was a back to nature call that has never fully left the character of the West Coast.

On another level, however, Wilson was writing another song. A deeply sensitive teen, Wilson suffered an abusive homelife. Instead of crumbling before the pressure, however, he turned to music, and in his lyrics was able to articulate honestly and convincingly universal themes of youth. 1963's "In My Room," describes the need for personal space so coveted by adolescents. And in 1964s "When I Grow Up To Be a Man," the fantasy of endless summer is shattered with apprehensive wonderings about the future. The song ends ominously enough, as a background of years is counted off, with a repeating echo of "Won't last foreverŠ"

And so there is a double appeal to Brian Wilson's songs. On one level there is the fun loving, dance party songs, with melodies and lyrics so cheery they often turn up on children's music compilations. At the same time, the complexity of some of the music has been called great art by many critics, including Paul McCartney who said that The Beach Boys album] Pet Sounds was his inspiration for making Sargent Pepper."

Though Wilson did eventually withdraw from the pressures of the music business, he has periodically returned, always with a youthful voice, and forever a Beach Boy, in every meaning of that name.

Copyright © 2001 by Kevin Shortsleeve

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