For novelist and Wall Street Journal writer Jim Fusilli, rock music in the modern era boils down to one singular, sensational album. It’s a work of wounded genius, a harmonious harbinger of hardships to come wrapped in a shimmery sonic blanket so beautiful that it initially overwhelms the listener. Yet once one comes out from under its aural spell, a whole new level of individual loss and human alienation is discovered. Though it was dismissed as “too experimental” by his band mates, his record label, and the 1965 pop culture crowd, something strange has happened to Brian Wilson’s wondrous Pet Sounds along the way. Over the decades, this Beach Boy album has taken on the luster of a landmark. And standing on the sidelines, cheering it on to classic status, is one deeply infatuated fan.
PopMatters had a chance to talk with Fusilli about his excellent examination of the Pet Sounds story for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, as well as where Wilson and his work fit in a modern determination of rock-and-roll eminence. Engaging and opinionated, the author makes a strong case for the Beach Boys over the Beatles, especially where pure musical majesty is concerned, and proves that time, if anything, has only made this album more magnificent. The following email exchange compliments and clarifies several subjects addressed in his book, as well as gives Fusilli a chance to put recent events (like the release of SMiLE!) in their proper Pet Sounds perspective.
In your Continuum Series book on Pet Sounds, you make a strong argument for both the music’s timelessness and the personal relevance of the lyrics. Which do you ultimately think defines the album’s success?
I’d have to say both. The quality of the compositions, Brian and Tony Asher’s lyrics, Brian’s wild yet appropriate arrangements, and the voices: It’s a wonderful pop album by an artist working at the top of his game. But on a more profound level, and why it rises to the level of art, is how thoroughly it fulfills Brian’s vision. It’s a complete statement of a young man moving from his teen years into adulthood and struggling to find his place in a changing world. It’s a universal theme, something we all go through. As I say in the book, it resonates with us because it’s our story.
You also argue that the music made by Brian Wilson transcends even the best efforts of The Beatles. Why do you think that is? And is there no balance between the two artistic camps (Wilson as a better composer v. McCartney/Lennon as ultimate song craftsmen)?
I think Pet Sounds is the best recording made in the rock era. The Beatles made brilliant pop recordings, and on balance I think their catalog is richer than the Beach Boys’. I wonder sometimes what people 100 years from now, or 200 year from now, will remember of the music of the past 60 years. I hope Pet Sounds is among what we’re known for because a work that simple yet emotionally complex will say a lot about who we were.
You’re right, though. People can’t seem to accept both bands as great or as part of a whole. Brian, Paul, and John each had their strengths, for example. Paul is probably the best composer if you think of the classic school of pop composition, that sort of Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Burt Bacharach, Tin Pan Alley-Brill Building school. Brian and John share the ability to get to the core of an emotional matter with their writing, which is so important to great rock. Brian is by far the best arranger of the three and his ability to arrange voices and instruments give his songs a dimension that goes beyond the original composition. Paul and John respected Brian; Paul loves Brian, and Brian respected the Beatles and he loves Paul. George Martin loves Brian. We’re talking about dimensions of greatness, not one was great and the other wasn’t. That’s the kind of shallow, judgmental thinking done by people who look at music through the prisms of hipness or fashion or by what they ought to like or whether one band made them seem cooler in high school than another band—all the stuff that doesn’t matter. That’s water down the drain. It’s the music, period. Brian’s greatness, and the Beatles’, is very well documented.
With the release of SMiLE! to almost universal acclaim, has Pet Sounds’ significance in the Wilson canon been diminished?
Probably. The new, completed SMiLE! was a musical and marketing success. In time, things will shake out and Pet Sounds will return to its rightful place as Brian’s best work.
Though you give it a brief mention in your book, how would you rate SMiLE!? In the overall career relevance of the Beach Boys?
For the Beach Boys, SMiLE! is the fork in the road. The failure to complete it symbolizes the end of the band as Brian’s vehicle. The remaining members followed Mike’s vision and continued along the path of an average sort of pop band—with a great back catalog. Brian’s SMiLE!—which actually should be Brian and Darian Sahanaja’s SMiLE!—is so different than the original attempt at SMiLE! that it shouldn’t really be considered a completion of something unfinished. It should be looked at as new. New and great.
What is the most underrated track on the Pet Sounds album? Why?
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” I think it’s a stunning statement, a brave one for a writer. It really summarizes the album. The arrangement is extraordinary: bass harmonica, wood blocks, arpeggiated guitars, great drum performance by Hal Blaine. Listen to the backing vocals. Remarkable. Clumsy yet logical and beautiful.
What is the most overrated track on the Pet Sounds album? Why?
That’s a tough one. I’m tempted to say “God Only Knows,” and not because it’s not great. The completed track is wonderful, but Carl’s beautiful vocal, the French horn and the exquisite outro cover up the structural problems. The arrangement is brilliant—Brian at his best, really. It may seem like an odd choice, but there are a couple of clinkers on Pet Sounds that no one rates highly. So it would have to be one of the songs people love that might be overrated. People really love “God Only Knows.” Man, I’m in trouble now ...
Has Pet Sounds been helped or hindered as a musical masterwork by the various reissues, such as the box set or the stereo mix version?
Probably helped. It’s good that it keeps appearing at regular intervals. Young people get to come to it as if it were new. I’m teaching fiction writing at a college now and my students like of Pet Sounds as relevant and modern. I’m not sure that would be the case if it hadn’t been reissued several times.
I like the boxed set. The disks with just the backing tracks prove how inventive the arrangements are. The vocals-only tracks—I could listen to those all day. Brian’s demos are fun to listen to also. An album of this enduring quality should be examined in depth. You do that and you learn how hard Brian worked and how broad his vision was.
Have we seen a modern equivalent of Pet Sounds? Brian Wilson? Anything/anyone come even close?
No. But no playwright has written a new Hamlet either. I mean, you don’t look at a painting and say, “Well, it’s not Le Bar aux Folies-Bergere.” You can’t write off new work because it falls short of the absolute standard. Today’s pop and rock musicians have their own gifts. We should listen and prize them for who they are, not who they aren’t. Whether has anyone comes close Mmm, what if Jeff Buckley had sung OK Computer? Probably not, huh?
Does Brian Wilson’s current touring hurt or help his legacy?
I think it’s good that Brian is back, to a degree. And people now know who he is versus what the Beach Boys became in the years after Pet Sounds. They know those great songs were written and arranged and, in many cases, sung by Brian Wilson. So, I’d say it’s helped. I’ve seen him several times. Some nights he’s on, others he’s not. But his band is terrific and people love the songs.
At forty-five years old, Pet Sounds is one of a very few albums that can still make this critic cry. Does it have the same significance/relevance to you today as when you first heard it? Is it more or less powerful now?
Well, when I was younger, it was the album that pulled back the curtain and showed me, at the same time, a new world and the truth of myself. But now I’m astonished by the wisdom of it, the depth, the quality. As a person, I guess it had its greatest impact back when I was young. Now that I’m a novelist who tries to work at a high level within a popular genre, I’m inspired by what he achieved.
That said, in the darkness of my room, when I listen to some of those songs, they break my heart. They really do.