The shadow of Pet Sounds loomed large on the Beach Boys after it was released in 1966. How do you follow-up one of the greatest, if not THE greatest album of all-time? Well, with Smile of course! But when that album failed to materialize, the record-buying public seemed to turn their backs on the Beach Boys in disappointment. Album sales dwindled and despite “topical” songs like “Student Demonstration Time” (and despite their beards) the Boys suddenly seemed out of step with the times. It’s in retrospect that people have begun to discover and appreciate their post-Pet Sounds albums and it’s about time. Although this period was famously a difficult time for Brian Wilson, it didn’t stop him from writing some fantastic songs.
In 1968 most of Brian Wilson’s days were spent locked away in his Bel-Air mansion. Friends, the album the Beach Boys released that year, included the song “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” written by Brian. It’s practically a diary entry, describing in detail a typical day in the life of its author. It is also a mess of contradictions. Starting with the title of the song itself, Brian seems to be trying to convince us (and himself) that he’s keeping busy when in fact he seems to be doing nothing much at all. It really reads like an answer to the question “What do you DO all day, Brian?”
“I had to fix a lot of things this morning / ‘Cause they were so scrambled / But now they’re okay / I tell you I’ve got enough to do”
Brian sounds like an unconvincing child in these first lines. Vaguely describing that he’s fixing things (what things exactly?) because they’re “so scrambled” and then for some reason hurriedly adding he has enough to do. It’s also interesting that the word scrambled is used as it conjures up the state of Brian’s mind at this time, which indeed could have used some fixing.
The next line starts with Brian telling us how busy his afternoon is but immediately he changes the subject to the weather. He seems to be trying to veer off from the question of what occupies his time.
“The afternoon was filled up with phone calls / What a hot sticky day / The air is cooling down.”
What follows next is truly one of the most bizarre moments in any Beach Boys song ever. It’s basically Brian giving you directions to his house. He leaves out street names but it’s still a weirdly detailed and candid description. According to the Friends liner notes, ”provided you knew where to start, you would’ve gotten to Brian’s Bel-Air house.”
“Drive for a couple miles / You’ll see a sign and turn left for a couple blocks / Next is mine / You’ll turn left on a little road / It’s a bumpy one / You’ll see a white fence / Move the gate and drive through on the left side / Come right in and you’ll find me in my house somewhere / Keeping busy while I wait.”
Later in the song Brian wants to make a phone call to a friend but can’t find the number, so what does he do?
“I sat and concentrated on the number / And slowly it came to me / So I dialed it.”
That’s right; he sits and concentrates on the phone number until he remembers it. The fact that the above line is an actual lyric in an actual song is exactly why I love Brian Wilson. And it gets better…
“And I let it ring a few times / There was no answer / So I let it ring a little more / Still no answer / So I hung up the telephone / Got some paper and sharpened up a pencil and wrote a letter to my friend.”
Such a great ending to such a bizarre and enjoyable song. On the surface the lyrics seem light and inconsequential and the music fits them perfectly; a bossa nova beat and soft flutes make the song so relaxed it’s almost lulling. But it all seems to hide an extreme loneliness; the unanswered phone call to a friend, going so far as to invite the listener over to his house, directions provided. It’s an amazing glimpse into Brian Wilson’s world in the late ‘60s and proof that the Beach Boys’ great songs didn’t end with Pet Sounds.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.