In the Night, Unafraid

What follows is the text of a sermon I gave at the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, May 22, 2016. Readings and links to the songs in question are included.  (Words in italics are not mine.)

Our opening words today come from Cameron Crowe, the writer-director who brought you Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. If you’ve seen any of Crowe’s films, you notice that he has a particularly keen ear for finding just the right song to fit his scenes, whether it’s Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” blaring from John Cusack’s boombox or Kate Hudson dancing to Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” in an empty auditorium, Crowe understands the way music moves us. That he should possess this particular skill is a direct result of his early career writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager. In 2007, that magazine convened a group of artists, writers, and music industry heavyweights to determine the 500 greatest albums of all time. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds finished second to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but Crowe wrote the following piece to explain why he thought Pet Sounds deserved the top spot:

My Number One – Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

I was thirteen, and I wanted to buy a Jackson 5 cassette. The knowing geek behind the counter shook his head and advised me to get Pet Sounds instead. Desperate for his cool-guy validation, I bought it. It sounded weird, introverted, not that melodic. And what about that cover? Odd-looking guys dressed like Elizabethan-period accountants feeding animals at the zoo? I thought the album sucked and I stashed it in a drawer. Within a year, Linda Alvarado (not her real name) savagely broke my heart. For some fateful reason, I gave Pet Sounds another chance. Suddenly, music was more than just confection. Those strange guys feeding animals at the zoo understood; even the music sounded like I felt. When you find songs so personal that they feel like someone’s been reading your diary, you tend to study the album credits to find out who the hell wrote this stuff. And that leads you to the heartbreaking genius of Brian Wilson. Pet Sounds is the high-water mark of songwriting and production so meticulously rendered that you ache hearing these songs; they’re filled with secret cries for help disguised in baroque and candy-coated harmonies, the sound of Brian Wilson’s universe coming together and falling apart. The album was a flop in its day, unappreciated in a world addicted to Wilson’s Beach Boys hits. Just three years ago, it finally went platinum. For me, Pet Sounds is a souvenir, a masterwork, an underdog story and a record that takes you gently by the lapels and says, “Here’s what it feels like to be alive.”

PRELUDE: “Good Vibrations

HYMN:  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice

MEDITATION:  “Cruising with the Beach Boys” by Dana Gioia

So strange to hear that song again tonight

Travelling on business in a rented car

Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.

And now a tune I haven’t heard for years

Probably not since it last left the charts

Back in L.A. in 1969.

I can’t believe I know the words by heart

And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.

Every lovesick summer has its song,

And this one I pretended to despise,

But if I was alone when it came on,

I turned it up full-blast to sing along –

A primal scream in croaky baritone,

The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.

No wonder I spent so much time alone

Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park

And walk along the railings of the pier.

The water down below was cold and dark,

The waves monotonous against the shore.

The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,

The flickering lights reflected from the city –

A perfect setting for a boy like me,

The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,

Lost like the girls that I could never get,

Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.

But one old song, a stretch of empty road,

Can open up a door and let them fall

Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,

Tightening my throat for no reason at all

Bringing on tears shed only for myself

MUSICAL INTERLUDE:  “Heroes and Villains

READING:  From Pitchfork’s review of The Smile Sessions by Mark Richardson

It’s a rite of passage for students of pop music history: At some point, you learn that the Beach Boys weren’t just a fun 1960s surf band with a run of singles that later came to be used in commercials; at their best, they were making capital-A Art. The record that convinces most is Pet Sounds, that understated 1966 masterpiece that articulates a specific kind of teenage longing and loneliness like nothing before or since. Once you’ve absorbed that record, you find yourself going back through songs like “Don’t Worry Baby”, “The Warmth of the Sun”, and “I Get Around”, finding a deeper brilliance where you once heard only pop craftsmanship. As you make these discoveries, you come to learn about the auteur at the center of it all, Brian Wilson, who shouldered the burden of being the creative force in one of the most successful and musically ambitious pop bands of the era. And then you find out about SMiLE.
Conceived, recorded, and ultimately abandoned in 1966 and 1967, SMiLE was to be something like Brian’s Sgt. Pepper’s, his attempt to make the great art-pop album of the era. He followed his muse to the ends of the earth, putting a grand piano in a massive living room sandbox, outfitting another room with an Arabian tent, making session musicians wear fireman’s hats for the recording of a song about the elements, freaking out when an actual fire broke out down the street from the studio around the time of recording of said track, and, no surprise, taking enough drugs to amplify the whole scene and turn it into something terrifying. But the record was not to be. The music recorded for SMiLE was too far-out for the rest of the band (lead singer Mike Love hated the lyrics penned by Wilson’s collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, an opinion he still holds) and Wilson had trouble finishing tracks. Eventually, he shelved the record for good and the band issued the low-key, weird, and supremely stoned Smiley Smile. By setting the record aside, Wilson became afraid to indulge his talent, and his contributions to the Beach Boys would never again be central to the band…

During this period, Wilson and Parks were working on an enormous canvas. They were using words and music to tell a story of America. If the early-60s Beach Boys were about California, that place where the continent ends and dreams are born, SMiLE is about how those dreams were first conceived. Moving west from Plymouth Rock, we view cornfields and farmland and the Chicago fire and jagged mountains, the Grand Cooley Dam, the California coast– and we don’t stop until we hit Hawaii. Cowboy songs, cartoon Native American chants, barroom rags, jazzy interludes, rock’n’roll, sweeping classical touches, street-corner doo-wop, and town square barbershop quartet are swirled together into an ever-shifting technicolor dream…

On the sessions material, you also get to hear Wilson running the show in the studio, and apart from a few asides where he talks about hash and LSD, he sounds excited, patient, and kind, offering encouragement about mood, timing, and tempo. He surely wasn’t an easy guy to work for, but hearing his voice on these tapes, it’s remarkable how together he seems and how willing he is to work with these musicians to make something great. Most of all, his studio patter provides a nice counterbalance to SMiLE’s prevailing narrative, of a crazed genius unraveling in the face of trying to create his masterpiece. We love crack-up stories. There’s something in the Western psyche that loves to romanticize the alleged connection between madness and genius. And someone like Wilson– fragile, paranoid, childlike, and dreamy– fits one template of the crazed genius to a T. Never mind that he was a student of music, put in twice as many hours of extremely hard work as anyone else in the band, and relied greatly on collaboration and outside inspiration. When thinking of SMiLE, the guy in the fireman’s hat thinking his music could burn down buildings is who we remember. But now we have the full picture. SMiLE was never finished, and it still isn’t, but we can safely say this is as close as it’ll ever come. What’s here is brilliant, beautiful, and, most importantly, finally able to stand tall on its own.
OFFERTORY:  “Our Prayer


Brian Wilson is uncool. He’s rich and famous, sure. He is respected, absolutely. He gets tagged as a genius in any article you read about him, true. But no one calls him cool. No one ever has.

When Brian Wilson formed the Beach Boys with his brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and family friend Al Jardine, he tapped into an early 60s innocence, summoning visions of endless summer days, perfect waves, and youthful good times. It was 1962. John Glenn orbited the Earth, JFK was president, and suddenly every kid in America was into surf music. 

The Beach Boys had a string of hits–”Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfer Girl,” “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But even though they were at the top of the charts, they weren’t cool. Real surfers didn’t like their music, and critics wrote it off as disposable junk. Of the original Beach Boys, only Dennis surfed. These kids were posers.

Brian was afraid of the water, but he was the group’s musical force, creating melodies and developing gorgeous multi-part harmonies with their roots in the music hall favorites of an earlier time, and he began to reach for more complex arrangements and weightier topics. If things had continued like this, he might have gained in social status, but in 1964 the Beatles showed up and stole the spotlight. The Fab Four, with their long-ish hair and quick wit, were cool. The Beach Boys, who performed in matching striped shirts and kept their hair short enough to be non-threatening to sour-faced midwestern parents, were not.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, and obviously being cool is not one of the seven principles Unitarian Universalists seek to uphold. In the rational light of maturity, being cool appears superficial and silly. We tell our children not to worry what others think of them. We encourage them to be themselves, to value their uniqueness. We say all of this with the sincerity of people who still need the same reminders.  Sure, we’ve probably all moved beyond chasing the latest fashion trends. Most of us would sound silly using the same slang as high school kids. We have given up on that sort of thing, but to give something up, you have to have tried it in the first place. Think of yourself in middle school. Try to remember the panicky, unsettled flow of daily life, when you openly sought the approval of your peers. Seen this way, the Beach Boys’ early music, with its hot-rod geek specificity and constant beach party ethos, reveal themselves as the fantasies of an uncool kid trying desperately to fit in with the popular crowd, hoping that if he strings enough buzzwords together, they’ll let him stay.

But that’s ancient history for us, isn’t it? We have all shed the desire for social acceptance and moved to a state of self-actualization, existing in a cocoon of emotional peace somewhere between the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and nirvana. Right?

Of course not. If that were so, you wouldn’t be here. Don’t misunderstand me. You did not come to this place to feel cool. Some of you have come for an hour of reflection, to settle your minds. Others have come for healing after a week where the world has battered you with the unthinking tenacity of waves pounding the sand. And some of you came because it’s Sunday, and church is what you do on Sunday. Any way you look at it, you are here seeking a connection, like an 18 year old shoving a surfboard into the family station wagon and heading off to the beach where the other kids from his school hang out.
I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I don’t mean to play on your insecurities. I just want to establish a shared context for the songs we’ve heard today, songs that came from the period now regarded as Brian Wilson’s peak. By 1966, the Beach Boys had been around for four years, and they were starting to marry and have children. Brian knew there were only so many times he could call on the band’s standard formula of sun and fun before falling into self-parody, and after hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, he decided to apply his undeniable gifts in an effort to one-up his British competition. He began working with the poet Tony Asher on a new batch of songs, pieces that eventually became Pet Sounds. That album, with its complex instrumentation and more reflective lyrics, was a commercial disappointment in the United States. The other Beach Boys, particularly Mike Love, began to push Brian for a return to the good-time music of the band’s early days. Record executives agreed with the band. Why turn your back on easy money for art?  

Brian responded by hiring Van Dyke Parks to help him write an ambitious song cycle called SMiLE, which he described as a “teenage symphony to God.” He was trying desperately to tap into the spiritual explorations of his generation, and he began using LSD and smoking hashish, but his grip on reality–tenuous even at the best of times–loosened. He could not finish SMiLE and left his masterpiece incomplete, returning to it only after four decades of turbulence, during which time he battled severe drug addiction, lost his brother Carl to cancer and Dennis in an accidental drowning, and he fell under the control of therapist Eugene Landy. Dr. Landy most certainly saved his life, curing his addiction and helping him lose over 140 pounds, but he also named himself Brian’s manager, became his songwriting partner, and cut off all contact between Wilson and his daughters.

Brian Wilson is better now, as far as we can know. Landy was removed from his life. He is married and has several more children. And he’s on tour right now, performing Pet Sounds in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary.  There have been many dark times in his seven decades of life, but like the woman described in “Heroes and Villains,” he’s still dancing, in the night, unafraid. Brian was never cool, and he spent years trying to prove himself to those who were, but one of the things I find most inspiring about him is that eventually he allowed being uncool to become a badge of honor.

And that’s a scary thing, isn’t it? Dancing while everyone else sits, singing while everyone else is silent, reaching for joy in a world of cynical detachment. We find ourselves overcome by inertia, embracing the status quo, letting our masterpiece collect dust for fear that it will disappoint someone Out There.

I understand. Heck, I’m nervous right now. I know I’m uncool, that I’m fifty years too late to be really hip discussing these albums, that maybe it’s all been said before. But I remind myself that this congregation is a place for those unafraid to dance, a place where each person’s unique spirituality mixes with other, different ways of thinking to form a gorgeously complex harmony. We may not be the world’s most popular faith, or the fastest growing, and we are definitely not the easiest to explain to a stranger in an elevator, but when our voices mingle, hitting notes of love and mercy, we make it easier for some other uncool kid who’s looking for something more than himself. That’s the beauty of this congregation. That’s what you’ve done for me, and what we will continue to do, together. We come to this place to remind each other, as this music does, “Here’s what it feels like to be alive.”  

CLOSING HYMN:  “God Only Knows

Further Listening:

Pet Sounds

The SMiLE Sessions


About semiblind

Bringing you stark existentialism since 1981.
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