The Beach Boys, Love You (1977)

Beach Boys
Love You

When I was seven, I was really into the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer album, which my mother had gotten on 8-track from one of those RCA record club deals that used to be inserted into TV Guide — 10 albums for a penny, and you would tape the penny right on to the business reply card. I played the tape a lot, especially track four, which had “Help Me Rhonda.” So my parents, figuring I was a big Beach Boys fan, gave me for Christmas that year what was then the newest Beach Boys record, Love You. I quickly decided that the only song on the album worth playing was “Johnny Carson,” and not just because Carson was on late at night, when I wanted to be awake, and was in many ways a symbol of all the fruits of the adult world I bitterly longed for. It was more that I realized, even at age seven, that something very strange had to have happened in that adult world for “Johnny Carson” ever to make it on a record that someone could buy in a store.

It sounded like something I could have made up banging on the piano in the living room. The words weren’t lyrics so much as childish declarative statements of fact, utterly stripped of rhetorical figure. In fact, it sounded a lot like how I might have described Johnny Carson at the time:

He sits behind his microphone

Johnny Carson

He speaks in such a manly tone

Johnny Carson

Ed McMahon comes on and says Here’s Johnny

Every night at 11:30 he’s so funny

It’s nice to have you on the show tonight

I’ve seen your act in Vegas out of sight

When guests are boring he fills up the slack

Johnny Carson

The network makes him break his back

Johnny Carson …

Don’t you think he’s such a natural guy

The way he’s kept it up could make you cry.

Of course I wouldn’t have uttered that last line, and I didn’t understand its import at the time. Another “Brian’s Back” push was on, and Brian Wilson, for the first time in many years, wrote almost all of the material for this particular Beach Boys album, and he was evidently in the midst of a total public meltdown. He must have seen Carson as the emblem of everything he couldn’t manage to be himself — full of grace under pressure and stamina in the glare of public scrutiny and hero worship. But when I was seven, it just seemed silly to me. The whole song seemed like madness, and I would play it over and over again and laugh to myself the whole time. Nothing was sillier to me than the cheerleader refrain that closes the song:

Who’s a man that we admire?

Johnny Carson is a real live wire.

Who’s a man that we admire?

Johnny Carson is a real live wire.

It’s strange to think of the album now, because it seems sad and poignant and completely shadowed in melancholy, in part because of the artless pathos of the songs, their innocent hopefulness in the face of having cosmically fucked everything up, and in part because it reminds me of being seven again and having no idea that things could ever get like that. The suite on side two — “The Night Was So Young”, “I’ll Bet He’s Nice” and “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together” — is downright amazing, a pained, awkward testimonial to every kind of adult ambivalence a relationship can lead you into. In the first song, the singer is mulling over his missed opportunities with a woman, stunned into a kind of blank simplicity by his devastating awareness of his helplessness, of the futility of his obsessive thinking. He lays awake all night stuck in this lonely, dolorous rut (which the lulling, repetitive music nicely conveys), wondering what miracle could end the impasse, praying for the only thing he can come up with: “Wake up, call me, baby, call me, tell me what’s on your mind.”

That’s not going to happen. The next song picks up what seems to be the same relationship, with the woman having moved on to another man. The singer can’t muster up much bitterness or jealousy; he seems too defeated for that. What makes this song so amazing is that it suddenly opens into this incredible middle eight, with Carl Wilson (with typical chill-giving mellifluousness) singing, “Baby, don’t you ever tell me that you’re leaving, now that you got me to believe in, / You are the sunshine and the flower, come on and make my every hour.” It’s a totally unexpected explosion of hope that gets snuffed out just as soon its impact has crested. In retrospect you wonder if it’s giving voice to the new lover’s optimism rather than the despondent one voiced by Brian. In the last song of the suite, the singer’s ready to lay it on the line and propose to the woman, and just when you are prepared for more futile rejection and regret and stuporous recitation, a woman’s voice suddenly enters the scene with “I’ve never had someone, I need someone to live with and be good to.” Is it real? Probably not. The clue is the passivity in the first verse, where he hopes that by waiting and doing nothing, the woman will suddenly just adore him. This seems to reveal that the singer has withdrawn entirely into fantasy, where he can put his heart together with his beloved’s rather than being stuck alone with just his own, broken and beyond repair.

I just didn’t get it when I was seven; I’m not sure I completely appreciate it now, because every time I listen to it, it still makes me feel like I’m suddenly in over my head. I may never reach those emotional depths, but it’s good that albums like this one are around to let me get a sense of how deep it can be.