When They Ask Me: "Are You Still Boxing?"
My memoir Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, the paperback, came out this summer (2020) from SUNY Press. For those who might...
BEAc H BOY GRIEF r
BEACH BOY GRIEF
I was fourteen and in high school in Newark, New Jersey, when my
sister’s male friends brought Beach Boys albums into our lives. They’d been bringing Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Mississippi John Hurt, Bob Dylan. These long, lanky boys with wild hair and radical politics and tight jeans were teaching me guitar, and I was transfixed by them. But why were they bringing The Beach Boys? We were the bridge between beatnik and hippie, and the Beach Boys’ wholesomeness was as conventional as the neat wave of their hair; nice, preppy boys holding a surf board, goofing around, singing about station wagons and girls.
“Listen to these harmonies – don’t worry about the words,” my mentors said. “The harmonies – they’re brilliant!”
I pretended to get it, because the boys also brought me the Tibetan Book of the Dead, On the Road, Siddhartha, and marijuana. I was just a kid, but they paid attention to my creative side, and they moved through the world with so much more confidence than any girls I knew then. I wanted to be them.
Maybe the little “Surfer Girl” who “made my heart come all undone” was a code for something deeper, and these boys were deciphering it. Maybe the Gidgets and the surfers had secret wisdom. Maybe Moondoggie (the Peter Pan cutie who lives on the beach) had life hacks to offer, and a special understanding of nature from riding the big waves (after all, Moondoggie had his own spiritual advisor, “The Kahuna,” played by Cliff Robertston). We were in land-locked Newark, and could use a little transcendence.
Then there was that… plea… in Brian Wilson’s voice. Was it sadness I heard? “There’s a world where I can go /and tell my secrets to /In my room /In my room.” What would he have to be sad about? Was it just teenage angst? Weren’t the Beach Boys a totem of the comforting postwar bounty and gosh-darn-it enjoyment of life?
Watching “Love and Mercy,” the dramatization of Brian Wilson’s life, genius, and unraveling, the faces of Paul Dano and John Cusack express more concentrated melancholy in two hours than I could have imagined. It turns out Brian had a lot to be sad about – an abusive bully of a show-biz father, atypical brain wiring that threw him auditory hallucinations, the wackiest in-house psychotherapist imaginable, and an irresistible internal pressure to create new musical sounds. He spends hours in the studio, waiting for the ‘vibes’ to be right. He assembles classical musicians for rock music (ahead of his time), uses barking dogs, whistles, theremins. And truth be told, the Beach Boys never surfed..except for cousin Dennis, who died in a drowning event!
When Brian Wilson was working on the groundbreaking “Pet Sounds,” Mike Love, the outsider cousin, said “Gee, even the happy songs sound sad.” And the brothers tried out Brian’s vision for a time, singing those high, bittersweet odes to a vision of America, of youth, of cars and surfboards and bikinis, but with these new weary, lost tones. “I’m a cork on the ocean” Brian sings over vibraphone and organ in “Till I Die” from “Surf’s Up” (1971) About the song, he wrote: “Lately, I'd been depressed and preoccupied with death…Looking out toward the ocean, my mind, as it did almost every hour of every day, worked to explain the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion and the beautiful music I was able to make. Was there an answer? Did I have no control? Had I ever? Feeling shipwrecked on an existential island, I lost myself in the balance of darkness that stretched beyond the breaking waves to the other side of the earth. The ocean was so incredibly vast, the universe was so large, and suddenly I saw myself in proportion to that, a little pebble of sand, a jellyfish floating on top of the water; traveling with the current I felt dwarfed, temporary…”
Why two actors, some have asked about “Love and Mercy.” Paul Dano plays Brian in his 20s, producing music, taking LSD, soft, puffy, and awkward, driven by the sounds in his head, both musical and otherwise. John Cusack is the non-productive, reclusive Brian of the 1980s, twitchy, fearful, under the thumb of an unscrupulous doctor. He’s ultimately rescued by love.
I think you need at least two actors to channel all the Beach Boy Grief – we were young once in a way that we’ll never be young again – innocent and silly, just riding the waves and taking a spill now and then, falling in love and wearing matching shirts and making music with our families like nothing bad would ever happen. So much went dark and confused in the 1960s and 1970s. Woodstock, the gentle peace festival becomes Altamont, the violent nightmare, and the swirl of psychedelic music and perception led me far from Newark, and a lot of us ran with the wolves for a time. Brian was saved by celebrity shrink Dr. Eugene Landy, from bed and crippling obesity, but then tormented by him, over-medicated into a child-like obedience and fear of the Daddy who wouldn’t just ground you for taking the Woody out for a drive – he could have you institutionalized.
Paul Dano shows the pre-Woodstock Brian, innocent, experimenting, full of wonder at the notes he saw when he tripped, hopeful that his brothers would come along for the ride and create something completely new and utopian. John Cusack is the post-Altamont wreck, damaged, and bloated by over-indulgence and isolation. No one can know where he’s been, and no one can go where he is.
Listen to their high plaintive voices. I can hear it underneath the beautiful, accomplished harmonies. Fun never sounded so eerie.