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Friday, September 19, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Mike Love

Music can open up an abyss of longing. A hanging phrase can conjure any sweet moment you’ve experienced, and recall its absence, tantalize you with its seeming closeness and unbridgeable far-ness. And hearing that abyss open you up in the music doesn’t hurt -- it feels good. The abyss is usually -- some would say always; I’d say usually -- here with us, and the work of ignoring it is necessary for daily functioning, but tiring. When the music embraces us in our abysses, the labor of repression instantly eases. It feels good to feel bad -- far, far better than not feeling at all.

The Beach Boys at Safeco Field Tuesday night knew those abysses. One of the few moments where they departed significantly from the original records’ arrangements came near the close of their honeypot marriage fantasy, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” that sweet teen song where the singer serenades his beloved about how being older will be nice because then they won’t have to wait so long --

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night long

-- because, of course, this is 1960s pop culture teen representationalism, where spending the night together doesn’t happen until marriage.

They protracted the song’s close, slowing down the already-slow arrangement, and layering on even thicker Four Freshmen-style harmonies than on the original, singing slowly, thickly, syruply sweetly --

You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But let’s talk about it
Wouldn’t it be nice?

Yes yes yes, my beloved, embrace that abyss of longing. It’s the human condition.

Mike Love has visibly aged since I last saw him two years ago, and his voice is weaker, but his jokes are funnier, and he’s just as mincing and ridiculous, making a constant mockery of his advanced age and of rock presentation style in general. The Beach Boys touring band -- only Mike and Bruce Johnston from the golden age are still in the band -- is fine, and people like it when the lead guitarist makes rockface minstrel faces during his guitar solos, but Love is always there, making a mockery.

Good for him.

Nobody can really pull off Brian Wilson’s lead vocals -- or Dennis or Carl’s, for that matter; and not even Mike does his young self justice any more -- but that band sings those lush harmonies beautifully.

The songs are old. One of the “latter” classic songs -- by which Beach Boys students generally mean any song after 1966 -- one that looks back nostalgically at the earlier, more golden period, is now 40 years old. And hearing the old men singing a nostalgic song about their early adulthood, written in their slightly later but still young adulthood, the poignance riveted me.

Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout
all the places
we’ve surfed and danced and
all the faces
we’ve missed so let’s get
back together and Do It Again!

Mike was an avatar of the nonchalant doo-wop style of lead singing, giving the impression of tossing off his vocal, too cool to care much about your reaction; the complexity and truth of the nonchalant persona with the passionate accompaniment and undercurrent, the accompaniment raging with desire and the persona feigning indifference -- its a staple of rock and roll and subsequent styles without much vocal precedence, though it has some instrumental precedence in jazz. Love’s lead vocals were a key ingredient on a huge percentage of their early-period classic numbers , and he wrote or co-wrote lyrics on lots of them too.

His voice is thinner now, and sometimes he doesn’t even try to hit his rhythms right, making like an artist, in a weird ambivalence of love and devotion to the music and the listeners blended with the constant undercutting of making mock. The band was better when I saw them two years ago, but nothing then touched me as much as the abyss of longing that opened up in me when the falsetto man sang Brian’s vocalise part after the first verse of “Do It Again” -- a tear came to my eye as I realized that I do want to do it all again, I want the past to eternally recur, I embrace it all, even my failures and wincing cowardices, I embrace it all, as does Mike Love, as did Nietzsche. The paradox of memory, the past clinging to us as time flows swiftly forward; the past, with its sweetness and pain, its time-obliterating loves and its terrible absences. How I wish we could get back together and do it again! (The last time I played bridge with my grandpa’s cousins, one of whom died suddenly a couple of months later, the other of whom died a couple years after that . . . )

Love introduced “Be True to Your School” as “one of the most patriotic songs ever written and recorded.” My own “school” loyalty buzzed me, as I mused that it’s the only Beach Boys song I’ve covered, and only once, when my high school band had a reunion 8 years ago, at my brother’s house, and my brother sang lead; that was a time, that was a time.

Love is 67 now and still singing the poignant song of transition and insecurity, “When I Grow Up To Be a Man.” I know many grown men and women who still feel in transition, who still hope to accomplish something “when they grow up.”

We didn’t stay for much of the show, because we went on last-minute free tickets, and my son fell asleep hard in my lap very early in the concert and then squirmed uncomfortably about the time we would have left to get him to bed on a school night anyway; when he cried out with a bad dream it was time to go. Glad to have been there. Hope to do it again some day, but if it doesn’t come to pass, the memory shall linger pleasantly, until, perhaps, it becomes its own abyss of longing.

-- Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Hey, great post. Quibbly comment about this:

"...the complexity and truth of the nonchalant persona with the passionate accompaniment and undercurrent, the accompaniment raging with desire and the persona feigning indifference -- its a staple of rock and roll and subsequent styles without much vocal precedence..."

What about Bill Monroe as a vocal precedent of nonchalance over passion? He always looks to me like a man just making some minor bank transaction when he sings...and, I would, argue, not feigned in the least:

Interesting point!

I agree that a certain strain of classic country, folk, and bluegrass -- Carter Family, Monroe, Woody Guthrie, Lester Flatt -- has a similar dynamic between vocal and accompaniment; I've written about it a fair amount, and it's funny that it didn't occur to me. I've been calling the vocal tone of this school "stoic," with the urgent accompaniment underscoring the emotional intensity of the situation. I hear that stoicism as different than the rock-and-roll doo-wop cool, tossed-off quality of Mike Love and the Dell Vikings.

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