Part 5: Zatanna

This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats

This isn’t going to be about what you expect it to be.

Hands... touching hands... reaching out... touching me... touching you

Magic Theory

"Oh, and by the way, Terry, has anyone ever told you your continued refusal to believe in magic in a world full of superheroes and living gods is probably a sign of severe mental illness?"

Other than Mister Miracle, Zatanna is probably the most explicit statement of the basic themes of Seven Soldiers that Morrison could make, and yet people have been so confused by its form (a parody of another comic) that they really haven’t looked. It’s a great piece of sleight of hand by Morrison. While everyone is laughing at references to beards, the real information is getting slipped in under our noses.

The ‘m’ in M-theory very deliberately doesn’t stand for anything, at all. While the word comes from ‘membrane’ – as in the membrane universes it describes, Edward Witten, its creator, says “M can stand variously for ‘magic’, ‘mystery’, or ‘matrix’, according to one’s taste.” while Michio Kaku favours ‘mother’.

actually, it's not string. The world's held together by two staples in the middle

There’s an area of physics called ‘string theory’. As a matter of fact, this – and M-theory – are misnomers. A theory, in science, has predictive power – people have been able to come up with tests of the theory, and run those tests, and the result has been consistent with the theory. String ‘theory’ should really be called the string hypothesis – as it makes no predictions which are currently testable, let alone actually tested. Unlike quantum theory, or thermodynamics, it’s not made a single prediction which can be confirmed in the observable physical world. In fact, possibly even hypothesis is too strong a word – string philosophy, or string religion, might be better.

But despite this complete lack of testable predictions, physicists have been working on string theory for over forty years. This is because we currently have two separate theories of the universe – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – which are both, as far as we can see, absolutely accurate, with no exceptions to either ever having been found, but which are incompatible.

And the reason for this is gravity – General Relativity explains gravity perfectly, while Quantum Mechanics doesn’t. But QM *does* though show that all the other fundamental forces – the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism (which itself unifies such apparently-disparate phenomena as light, radio waves, magnetism and electricity) – are really all different aspects of the same thing. {FOOTNOTE: I am oversimplifying enormously here, but the gist of this is correct. If you want to understand all the details, read The Feynman Lectures On Physics, follow it with The Road To Reality by Roger Penrose (which is a much worse book but covers the decades of scientific progress since the Feynman lectures were released) and then read The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch to disabuse yourself of some of the wrong notions in The Road To Reality. At which point you’ll know about as much about this stuff as I do – which is to say you’ll *realise* you know nothing.} And physicists think that any successful ‘theory of everything’ will show that gravity is really the same thing as all the other forces, because it would be neater that way.

This isn’t as stupid a reason as it sounds, if you know about things like Kolmogrove Complexity, Solomonoff Induction and message entropy – and it’s how people like Einstein worked. Einstein didn’t get his theories of relativity by checking experimental results, but by trying to remove various bits of mathematical ugliness and come up with more universal equations.

Remember though what I said in the last essay – saying “everything is connected to everything else” is the same as saying “nothing is connected to anything” as far as information goes. Physicists look for symmetries, but it’s symmetries breaking that’s where the interesting stuff happens. A universe where everything was exactly the same as everything else would be a universe with nothing at all in it.

And so, whether gravity is in some sense ‘the same’ as electricity, as magnetism, as light, as the forces that hold atoms together – and we have every reason to think it is – in important ways *it is still different*. And without those differences – without those unique properties of gravity – apples wouldn’t fall to the ground and black holes wouldn’t exist. It’s in the differences, not the similarities, that the flavour of the world resides.

But nonetheless, we do think those similarities are there, and we want to find them, so we can better understand this universe in which we find ourselves.

There have been several attempts at Theories Of Everything that do this over the years – Einstein spent the last forty years of his life working on various dead-end attempts, and the physicist Frank Tipler has argued in a rather wonderful paper that Richard Feynman actually *did* discover the theory of everything, back in the 1960s, but hadn’t realised it because his theory unfortunately required an infinite number of terms in the equations.{FOOTNOTE Tipler has *also* argued at times that he’s proved the existence of God, that Barack Obama is evil because he doesn’t believe in aether, and that if we clone Jesus using genetic material from the Turin Shroud we’ll be able to figure out how to get free energy from baryon annihilation. He’s one of the more…original…thinkers in physics. But in this case he makes a reasonable argument.} But none of these have had much success among what for want of a better term we can call the physics ‘community’, in part because they’re not neat. They’re not nice.

String theory is nice. And it ties up gravity and electromagnetism in a neat little bow.

What string theory says is that rather than particles being 0-dimensional points, like conventional physics says, they’re actually the end of one-dimensional lines (‘strings’) that can vibrate in more dimensions than we can see. In the same way that a guitar string vibrating up and down can make different musical notes, a one-dimensional string vibrating in ten dimensions can give the appearance of a zero-dimensional particle moving in a four-dimensional spacetime.

In this model a photon (the particles that carry the electromagnetic force – ‘light particles’) is one of the things you get from a string whose ends are dangling loose, while a graviton (the hypothetical particle that would carry the gravitational force, that has never yet been observed) would be what you’d get from a string whose ends were joined, forming a loop.

The only slight problem with this – a beautiful piece of mathematics – was that people very quickly noticed that there’s more than one way of doing this, and by the early 1990s there were five different string theories. All of them had the same basic idea – that you have 1-d strings vibrating in N dimensions – but their models all had different numbers of dimensions, and made different predictions (without any of them making the kind of prediction *that can be tested*). If string theory was going to survive at all, something else had to come along.

That something was M-theory.

Matrix Theory

We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do

What M-theory says is that there are actually even more dimensions than that – that our 0-D particles in 4D spacetime that are really 1-D strings in 10D spacetime are *really* 1-D slices of 2-D sheets (membranes, or ‘branes’ for short) in an 11-D spacetime. All of the competing string theories were just selecting different sets of ten dimensions out of the eleven ‘real’ ones (think of the blind people and the elephant). The reason why gravity looks different from the other forces is that the strings that cause the ‘normal’ forces are open-ended, but the ends are stuck to p-dimensional ‘branes (or p-branes for short. This is physicist humour), while gravitons move freely between different ‘branes because their loop structure stops them sticking to anything.

M-theory also gives an explanation, of sorts, for the existence of the universe. It says that multi-dimensional ‘branes are rippled, and that two of them at some point banged together – and our universe is a four-dimensional interference pattern from the ripples on those two p-branes. The ‘lumpiness’ of the universe (the way matter clusters together into galaxies with vast tracts of space in between) comes from some of the ripples cancelling each other out and others reinforcing each other, while the expansion is caused by the two branes moving.

Now, this is pretty much exactly like the way holograms are created {FOOTNOTE: If you don’t know about how holograms are created, Wikipedia has a good explanation} and indeed it is {FOOTNOTE: I think. This is not my area of expertise – I’ve skim-read tons of papers on cosmology and particle physics, but my main scientific interests are rather more esoteric areas to do with the application of pure mathematics. Please don’t blame me for any epistemic failures caused by this essay.} a special case of a rather more general area of string theory, the ‘holographic universe’ principle.

This principle says that rather than being, as we appear, a three-dimensional {FOOTNOTE: Here I’m talking only of spacelike dimensions} universe, we’re actually only a two-dimensional pattern of information – like the panels of a comic book – ‘painted on’ the cosmological horizon (the part of the universe past which it’s impossible even in principle to see anything). But that information encodes a third dimension implicitly – the same way you can get a three-dimensional hologram on a two-dimensional image.

To explain why, we need to look at the connections between information, entropy, gravity and black holes {FOOTNOTE: For more on all these things, and on Seven Soldiers, and many other subjects that connect to this series of essays, see my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!}

The reason for this is something called the Black Hole Information Paradox, discovered by Stephen Hawking (more or less as a trivial lemma based on the more important work of Jakob Bekenstein). Black holes must have entropy, as Bekenstein showed, because otherwise we could violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (just get a piece of Highest Entropy Matter and throw it into the black hole – the entropy outside the black hole decreases, so the entropy inside the black hole must increase). Unfortunately, they also have something called Hawking Radiation – they let out energy. But that energy is – has to be – random. Which means that information that goes into the black hole has to stay there – it’s been destroyed as far as the outside universe is concerned. Which shouldn’t happen – conservation of information is actually the same thing as the Second Law. {FOOTNOTE: The best guess at the moment is that the energy coming out is not *quite* random, so information can eventually leak out of a black hole, given enough time. Hawking now claims that everything, yes everything, can escape the deadly gravitational pull of a black hole – it just takes a while.}

But the interesting thing is that black holes must have the highest possible information density, because of this – you cannot have something that contains more information in a given space than a black hole. And Bekenstein worked out how much information this is – it’s called the Bekenstein Bound – and discovered it was I<=2piRE/hcln2 {If I do turn this into a book, you can see this formula all nicely typeset}

Here I is the information, and the important thing to note is that it's proportional to R, rather than say to R squared or cubed. In other words, I increases with the derivative of the surface area of the sphere, not of the volume. In other other words, if you have a sphere of any size – even universe size – and it's got maximum information density, you can get all the information that's in it just from its surface, without having to look inside.

Which means from an information point of view, the whole visible universe might as well be inside a black hole – and when the universe expands, that's other stuff falling into the black hole from outside.

And another way of saying that is that the whole three-dimensional spatial universe is just a mathematical artefact, and we're 'really' a two-dimensional pattern of information, spread infinitely thinly on the outside of a three-dimensional bubble. It just feels to us like we're inside.

Note that while the holographic principle – the idea that we are a hologram – depends on string theory, the rest of this doesn't. That *is* the maximum amount of information that can be contained in a sphere, and it *is* the amount that is contained in a black hole. Whether we're holograms or not, we *can* be described – 100% accurately – by just the information on the surface of the smallest possible sphere we could fit in. What's on the inside doesn't count – surfaces matter.

Mystery Theory

phall if you will, but rise you must

But just what *is* information?

As defined by Claude Shannon, information is the same thing as unpredictability – if you’re given a sequence, the information in the next item in the sequence is the inverse of the probability you could have predicted it given the previous items.

For example, if I give you a sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…, telling you the next number is seven gives you very little new information, because you could have predicted it with very high probability from the previous numbers.

If I say “my love is like a red, red”, you can guess that the next word is ‘rose’ – saying ‘rose’ won’t give you any new information. But if it turns out that my love is, in fact, like a red, red baboon’s bottom, then you’ve got some new information.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that information and entropy are the same thing. I’m not going to show you a formal proof of that here, but I can sketch it informally:

You can think of the information content of something as being the length of the shortest message you could write giving a precise description of it. Imagine you have a perfectly cubic crystal, made of just one type of atom, with no impurities, and it’s precisely one centimeter on each side. To describe that, you just say “a 1 cm cubic crystal of atom X”, and that contains *all* the information about it.

Now suppose you drop the crystal on the floor and it shatters into a thousand pieces, all of them irregular. To describe that perfectly, you need to describe the shape of all the different pieces and where they are in relation to each other. You’d need a rather large book to give all that information. A loss of order has become a gain in information (a gain in the information in the object, that is. You’ve lost the information you had about the object).

This is a rather more important thing than you might realise – this is the reason why entropy always increases. Because there is only *one* way for the atoms in that cube to be arranged in a perfect crystalline cube, but a functionally-infinite number of ways for the atoms to be arranged in ways that *aren’t* a perfect crystalline cube. Any deviation at all from an ordered state is far, far more likely to go to a disordered state (a state that takes more information to describe) than to an ordered one. But a disordered state is still more likely to go to another disordered state than back to the ordered one.

Information is the same as entropy, and so processing information produces waste heat – this is why your laptop gets hot.

And increase in entropy is the same thing as time.

This may not seem intuitively obvious, but it’s a fact. In general, the laws of physics are time-invariant – they don’t have an arrow of time built in. Newton’s laws of motion, for example, look exactly the same going forwards and backwards in time – if you took a film of the solar system, with all the planets going round the sun, and ran it backwards, there would be nothing there that looked wrong. There are very good mathematical reasons for thinking that time does not, in any real sense, exist at all.

What do exist, though, are different states of entropy, different configurations of matter. And each of those configuration spaces (let’s call them ‘universes’ for now) contains information about other configuration states. And that information always seems to describe another, slightly more ordered, configuration space (it couldn’t describe a less ordered one, because that would take more space than there is in the universe, obviously). We call that described configuration space ‘the past’. We call those configuration states that are more disordered than this one, that can be predicted from this one (but not perfectly, otherwise the description would take up more space than there is in the universe) ‘the future’.

This is why we can know the past but not know the future – why, indeed, there are always many possible futures but only one past. Because the number of more disordered states is always greater than the number of more ordered states. {FOOTNOTE: For more on this see Julian Barbour’s excellent book The End Of Time. In fairness, I should point out that Barbour’s timeless, Machian, formulation of physics is just as speculative as string theory. The difference is that while string theory is messy and postulates many extra dimensions we can’t see, Barbour’s formulation is beautiful and does away with one. I should be very surprised to see string theory or M-theory lead to a successful, testable theory except via the sort of simplifying process by which phlogiston led to oxygen or the Lorenz contraction to relativity, but I should be even more surprised if something like Barbour’s formulation doesn’t eventually become the basis of our standard understanding of physics.}

In fact, information is so crucial – information, entropy and time are so tied up – that several physicists have suggested that information, rather than matter or energy, is what the universe is made of. Perhaps most famously, John Wheeler {FOOTNOTE: A contender for greatest American physicist of the twentieth century, possibly only topped by his student Richard Feynman, it would take more space than I have here to explain why Wheeler’s opinion matters. Just trust me – he knew what he was talking about.} wrote:

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.

Now, my own opinion is that It’s More Complicated Than That, and that Wheeler was in a sense being confused by the Copenhagen interpretation which he never abandoned (even though he put his name to his grad. student Hugh Everett’s explanation of the more reasonable Many Worlds theory), but in another, deeper sense he was right. E.T. Jaynes showed that we can derive probability theory from pure logic. Time, entropy and many conservation laws in physics can be derived from probability theory. So it’s entirely possible that when we get the final Theory Of Everything, it will be derivable entirely from pure logic and computation on a small amount of initial information.

Mother Theory
Women and skeptics first!

So if all that is right, then what are we? Rather than a three-dimensional universe existing in time, we’re a whole series of still, two-dimensional patterns of information – two dimensional patterns on a three-dimensional surface – and we don’t have any existence in time at all. There’s just a lot of two dimensional patterns, next to each other in some sense, which you can put in order and perceive as a story.

When Morrison wants us to have empathy for comic characters – when he gets us to reach out our hand and touch Zatanna’s, to help her save herself (and is there *any* reader, no matter how sceptical and materialist, who *didn’t* touch Zee’s hand when they got to that part? Who *didn’t* reach out to help her? I hope I never meet someone so lacking in feelings…), he really wants us to save *ourselves*. One of the big, big themes of Seven Soldiers, one that Morrison practically bludgeons us over the head with, is that we should be careful what we create, and be kind to our creations. Be they robots, golems, amorphous beings taking the shape of our perfect lover, or be they our children – or the comic characters we create – we should help them up when they fall. {FOOTNOTE: And if physicist Max Tegmark is to be believed, many of the things we ‘create’ have their own objective existence as separate universes. According to Tegmark’s Ultimate Ensemble Theory, not only is the universe made of information, but it’s specifically a mathematical formula – and every other mathematical formula is just as real. If so, as far as I can see, that means that every equation, every poem, every piece of music, every computer program – in short every *thought* – is a universe to itself, as real as this one.}

Because if we’re made of information, then we’re made of *words*. We can’t avoid eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge – everything we do, everything we are, is information processing. Berkeley was right when he said esse is percipi (and right when he attacked Newton on the basis that nothing is absolute, though as wrong as you can get about the infinitessimals in calculus) – nothing can exist without being perceived. But at the same time the mere act of perception is a destructive one – we increase the order in our brains by destroying the order outside. There is no such thing as a non-destructive act, or a harmless thought.

Life – and intelligence – is a constant, permanent struggle against entropy, but entropy has loaded the dice against us. We can’t possibly win, but nor can we possibly give up and admit defeat. The best thing – the only thing – we can do is to keep fighting anyway, and offer a hand up to anyone who falls in the struggle, as we ourselves have already fallen.

“We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origins. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.”

Sir Arthur Eddington, Space, Time, and Gravitation, 1920

Comic issues Zatanna #1-4

Artists Ryan Sook (pencils), Mick Gray (inks), Nathan Eyring (colours)

Other credits Jared K Fletcher (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)

Connected Morrison works Animal Man deals with many of the same themes slightly more explicitly, as does The Invisibles, but probably the most thematically-similar work, though different in flavour, is The Filth

Look Out For
2D projections of 3D spaces, dice, form and in-form-ation, top hats, “if you can’t keep it down, don’t bring it up”, hands, ‘mortal clay’ and parent problems.

Still to come in Seven Soldiers
Who breaks a butterfly on the wing? How to keep young and beautiful! And a cat in a Morrison story that doesn’t die!

This image seems to be persuading people #yes2av

This image, sadly, seems to be far more successful at persuading people of the case for AV than anything the official Yes campaign have come up with. Reposting to boost the signal. coffee or beer, the FPTP way
(Not sure of the source of this, but @zombywuf on Twitter is the earliest person I can find to have posted this.)

Zatanna post in an hour or two. Klarion post (hopefully) some time tonight.


Before reading this, sign up for Yes In May Get Out The Vote campaigning on the fifth of May. You can come back and read why later.

I’ve not been online much for a couple of days, but even so I’ve seen quite a few people, in the lead-up to the referendum in May, complaining about the Yes campaign having not been hard-hitting enough.
I have my problems with the campaign, too, but I have a few things to say:
Firstly, the polls have us neck and neck – and that’s with polls currently biasing against people who say they’re Lib Dem supporters, to correct for over-weighting us in the last election. As Lib Dems are most likely to be in favour of electoral reform, it’s not looking bad at all.

But here’s the crucial thing – the No campaign just aren’t motivated. On the Yes side, we started organising street stalls nearly a year ago, and I’ve given up at least one weekend a month (two a month since January, and every weekend for the month leading up to the event) to stand outside accosting strangers with bits of paper, whatever the weather. By contrast, the No campaign have organised one street stall – at the same time as ours two weeks ago. Two members of the local Tory party turned up for half an hour, giving out leaflets about how Nick Clegg wanted us to spend fifty grazillion jillion quadrillion pounds on keeping him in power forever, and then left. They had a joke with us before they left about how they didn’t believe the rubbish they were spouting themselves.

The No campaign have had more money and more PR experience, but we’ve got people who actually care.

And that’s going to be the key – the No campaign’s whole thing has been about sowing FUD, and getting people confused and bored. Bored people don’t vote.

But people on the Yes side are going to be far more likely to be enthused enough to get up and vote than the No side – when was the last time you made an effort to enthusiastically endorse keeping things exactly the same as always? When have you marched, delivered leaflets, knocked on doors, or made phone calls for “don’t change everything, we’re fine as we are”?

We can win if, *ON THE DAY*, we get everyone we can out and voting. Get Out The Vote campaigns can win elections – I helped out in Northenden at the council elections in 2008 where the Lib Dems won by *two* votes, and I persuaded at least three people who weren’t planning on voting to vote that day (probably more, but those are the ones who actually said “I’m not going to vote” and who later said “OK, you’ve persuaded me” and went to the polling station). I made that difference.

And you can make a difference too. I don’t know exactly what the Yes campaign’s plans are for Thursday of next week, but from my experience at elections I can tell you that polling day is crucial. You need people to go door-knocking, people to make ‘phone calls, street stalls, people to tally at polling stations (so that the campaign knows who’s already voted and doesn’t knock on their doors and phone them up), people to deliver leaflets, people to offer lifts to the polling station. people to attend the polling station to supervise the counting. These are the MOST important jobs you can do on polling day.

I’m still working out exactly how much time I’ll be spending on specifically AV Get Out The Vote work and how much on Lib Dem (but Lib Dem voters will all be Yes voters anyway, so Lib Dem GOTV work works for both).

But understand this, if you’re a British voter, this may well be the single most important day of your life – the decision made on Thursday the Fifth of May will decide how elections are run for the forseeable future. Which means it’ll decide who gets to form every government for the rest of your life. Which means it’ll decide how much you pay in tax, whether we go to war and who with, whether the NHS stays public or gets privatised… this is the biggest decision you can ever make.

So if you can give *any* time at all – a couple of hours on the phones after work, a round of leafletting in the morning, the whole day door-knocking, volunteer here. If you’ve done nothing else for the campaign, do this. If you can persuade one other person who wasn’t going to vote to vote yes, you’ve doubled the power of your own vote. If you can get three other people to vote yes, you’ve effectively got four times the power of the No voter who can’t be bothered getting out of their chair and persuading people. I’ve already convinced dozens of people to vote Yes, and I plan on convincing many more on polling day. Will you be making that difference too?

Minor Announcement

I was keeping this a secret, but now the announcement’s been made on a mailing list, I think I’m free to talk about it publicly – I made my first professional fiction sale a few months ago, to an anthology being put together by Simon Bucher-Jones, based around his Obituaria concept. What was particularly nice about this is that Simon asked me for the story, rather than me submitting it to him – given that I’ve enjoyed his writing so much, that made me feel very, very happy.
I’m not at liberty to state the names of the other authors who will be playing in this world with me – because some of the contracts haven’t been firmed up, some stories haven’t been finished, and so on – but at least three of the people SBJ has told me are involved are people who’ve written novels that are among my favourites, so it should be a good one. Some of the people involved also occasionally read my blog, so if they want to name themselves in the comments that’s fine by me.
My story is called Twenty Voices, and consists of eighteen monologues and a dialogue. It features Presidents, Popes, rock stars, time travellers and a saint, and you’ll like it.

(For those of you who enjoy my fiction, I’m going to try to get some more short stories written over the next few weeks, once I’ve finished the Seven Soldiers stuff. I’m also working on a novel proposal, which I started more than a month and a half ago but is still *NOT QUITE RIGHT*).

Running Into Walls

On a recent blog post of mine, a friend said she was no longer going to visit the blog of a minor public figure because he kept making sleazy, objectifying comments. I won’t name that figure or the friend here because it’s not really the point of the post, but it’s not hard to find out who it is.

I agree with her – the person in question does, quite often, say things that make me feel angry or exasperated. I quite understand and agree with my friend not wanting to visit his blog. I want to make that very clear before I go any further – this is *NOT* me saying my friend is overreacting – I think the reaction entirely justified given the comments in question. But unlike with many, many other people who make comments like that, I don’t, myself, get a feeling from that person’s posts that he is ultimately a bad person. In order to explain why, I have to talk a bit about Asperger’s Syndrome.

Which I have.

I really, really, *REALLY* dislike talking about having Asperger’s on the internet – or even at all. Partly because there is such a huge stigma attached to it that by writing this I am severely damaging my employment prospects, but also because of what my friend Jane terms ‘Arse-Purger’s Syndrome’ – the tendency of people on the internet to say, whenever they have caused offence, “I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so I can’t help being insensitive, and it’s just your problem so deal with it!”

That is not the way someone who *actually* has Asperger’s will generally deal with things (it *is* the way a misdiagnosed sociopath might behave, but it’s not the way someone with Asperger’s behaves). Once they realise they’ve caused offence, and why, someone with Asperger’s will be absolutely mortified.

The problem is, they’ll often not realise they’ve caused offence at all.

Before we go any further, please go to the TV Tropes page about Asperger’s and read that. Despite a couple of problems, it is *FAR AND AWAY* the most accurate thing I’ve ever read on what having Asperger’s is really like.

Now, having Asperger’s is not, I repeat *NOT*, *N-O-T NOT* an excuse for bad behaviour, for racism, for sexism, for sexual harassment, for any of those things. I know this because I don’t do those things myself, and I have Asperger’s. If I can manage to be a more-or-less reasonable human being for the most part (I have more than my share of faults, but not those ones), then so can anyone else.

BUT (and you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) there is a difference between not being an arsehole and not acting like an arsehole, and the latter is somewhat more difficult.

Because when you have Asperger’s, you *can’t tell* when you’re saying something wrong, or something upsetting, or something offensive. You can often tell afterwards that someone’s been upset, because they’ll punch you, or stop talking to you, or something along those lines, but you won’t know *why* – unless they explain to you in a calm, detailed manner, exactly what it was you did wrong.

I don’t like to think of having Asperger’s as a disability as such – it’s a cognitive difference, and it has definite positive sides as well as negative ones. In my case I have a great ability to see rather abstract patterns, which gives me a good mathematical intuition and enables me to understand music on a deeper level than most (but not all) people I know.

But it has a downside, too, and that downside *is* best modelled as a disability. Not so much because of the problem itself, but because of the way the rest of society is structured.

Imagine you’re blind, but you appear perfectly normal to the outside. You’ve been blind from birth, and while you know there’s a sense other people have, you can’t ever really understand it. But you have a few other advantages – you have good hearing, and maybe a good sense of touch – and so you can cope. In a controlled environment – in your own home, or at work – you can seem exactly like a sighted person, and many of your friends have never even guessed you are blind.

But every so often you run into a brick wall when you’re somewhere unfamilliar.

And all the people around you, rather than offering sympathy or even just ignoring it, start attacking you. Asking why you couldn’t see the brick wall. They could see the brick wall – it was right there in front of their eyes. The only other people who ever run into the brick wall are bastards who are doing it deliberately to get attention, so you must be one of them too. If you tell them you couldn’t see the brick wall you’re either asking for attention or just a liar – everyone can see the brick wall. It’s right there.

And then psychologists start making up stuff about you. They say you ‘lack theory of wall’, that you don’t believe walls exist. Nobody bothers to check what you think before doing this – if they did you’d be likely to say that you have rather more belief in walls than most people, because you get very personal proof that they exist on a regular basis, you just *CAN’T SEE THEM*. But your opinion doesn’t matter, because you’re one of those people with wallrunner syndrome, and everyone knows they’re a bunch of arseholes – you just have to look at all the people on the internet saying they’ve got it. This ‘blindness’ thing is probably not real anyway.

Except it’s even worse than that, because the majority of the time when you run into a wall, while you’re lying there on the floor with blood running out of your nose, one of your friends will say “what did you do that for, you bastard?” Even the ones who believe you on a conscious level when you say you can’t see walls will think you really must be able to – after all, you don’t bump into walls in your own house (where you know where you are) so if you bump into walls in *their* houses it must be because you’re insensitive. Because you just don’t *care* about the damage your nose is doing to their plasterwork.

And you *are* damaging their plasterwork – and you don’t want to upset your friends, and you know your friends just *don’t understand*, they really don’t *GET* that you can’t see the walls. So it’s not their fault when they get angry, and when they stop inviting you round, and when they tell other people to avoid you. It’s your fault, for not being able to do this *simple, obvious, easy thing that even babies can do*.

And I get the impression that the public figure in question (who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and who doesn’t seem to me like a bad person), is feeling like that when he’s making tasteless, offensive jokes. I see someone banging into the wall far more often than he should be – or at least banging into a wall that I can always avoid myself – but I *don’t* see him doing so deliberately. That doesn’t make a difference if it’s your plasterwork he’s ruining, and if it’s you who’s got to pay for it – you still want him out of the house before he also knocks over the table and breaks all your china – but I can’t help but sympathise with him as well, and to put him running head-first into a brick wall into a different category than the people who are trying to smash the wall down with sledgehammers…

Linkblogging For 25/04/11

Am not sure if I’m going to be able to get the next Seven Soldiers post up tonight (I’m now working to Sunday as the deadline for getting the whole thing finished – I hadn’t banked on having several days of killer migraine in a row last week). So I’ve posted the last excerpt from the first Beach Boys book below (if you want my opinion on the live albums you’ll have to buy the book), and here are some links.

Wesley doesn’t like the novel The Daughter Of Time

Dave Ex Machina doesn’t like geeks (that post, and the utter cluelessness of some of the comments, sum up neatly why I don’t ever refer to myself as a geek or a nerd).

Sexonomics (the former Belle du Jour) on the effects on disabled people of laws attacking clients of sex workers

Gavin B on Source Code and Saturday’s Doctor Who

David Howe on the death of Lis Sladen

James Ward doesn’t like rape jokes, especially ones that aren’t even funny.

Mike Taylor on Saturday’s Doctor Who

Simon Bucher-Jones has a poem about Sarah Jane

Evidence based medicine would be a good idea, if there was some evidence involved

Van Dyke Parks lists albums that marked major milestones in his life. Have I mentioned how ridiculously excited I am about seeing him live in a few weeks?

Lawrence Miles really, really doesn’t like Steven Moffat – I disagree with some of Miles’ views, but he writes so very, very entertainingly…

Adrian Bott on the modern myth of the Easter Bunny
. Adrian used to run an occult bookshop, so has less tolerance than most for the more extreme stupidities of Pagans. Just don’t read the comments.

And an interesting look at how automated pricing algorithms accidentally priced a book at $23 million

The Beach Boys On CD: Friends/20/20

This essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats


By 1968 the band were in the doldrums, commercially if not creatively. Experimenting with various gurus (some more dangerous than others) and allowing each member to write more of the material, the band were in such a state that on one tour they were playing to fewer than two hundred people per venue. At the same time, they were being treated as conquering heroes in Europe, where they were wildly popular – their tour of Czechoslovakia was so important in that country’s culture that Tom Stoppard used it as a key point in his 2006 play about the Czech counterculture from the 1960s through to the Velvet Revolution, Rock & Roll.
The two albums on this release see them trying, in very different ways, to find a new place for themselves in a music world they’d helped revolutionise but which was already looking on them as past it.

One of the two albums Brian Wilson regularly cites as his favourite Beach Boys album (the other being The Beach Boys Love You) , this, rather than Wild Honey, is the logical next step after Smiley Smile. A set of more coherent, more tightly-produced songs, that still has the same gentleness, fragility and whimsy of that album. With more than half the songs lasting under two minutes, and many of them influenced by Transcendental Meditation, which a few of the band, especially Love, had taken up, this is one of the most highly-regarded of all the Beach Boys’ albums (although Bruce Johnston loathes it).
This is also the first Beach Boys album to be released only in stereo (A ’fold-down’ mono mix of this was made, as was one for the next album, but these weren’t separate mono mixes, just both stereo channels played through one channel.)- another sign of Brian’s waning influence in the group.

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston

Meant For You
At only thirty-nine seconds long, this is the shortest song in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, but one of the loveliest – a Wilson/Love song with only organ and piano backing, as Mike sings “As I sit and close my eyes, there’s peace in my mind, and I’m hoping that you’ll find it too/and these feelings in my heart I know are meant for you”.
Probably the first Love lyric inspired by Transcendental Meditation, this has little of the hectoring obviousness of some of his later TM songs, and is all the better for it. A genuinely welcoming, genuinely peaceful opener.

A lovely little waltz – one of many on this album – based around bass harmonica, vibraphone and acoustic guitar, with a fuller sound than almost anything on the previous album, the credits for this – it’s written by Brian, Carl, Mike and Al – show the first sign of a trend that would become apparent by the next album. More and more often Brian was coming up with fragmentary ideas – sometimes even finished songs, but often just partial songs – and leaving the rest of the band to flesh these out into full songs, as he became less and less inclined to be involved in the band.
Lyrically, this is a step back to the adolescent view – and language – of All Summer Long – “you told me when my girl was untrue/I loaned you money when the funds weren’t too cool/I talked your folks out of making you cut off your hair” – but the sentiments, about the lasting power of friendship, were probably welcome for a band that had been on the brink of splitting recently.
Carl takes lead, and the most interesting thing musically is the semitone key-change between the first and second line of the verses. The whole thing is calming, but with just enough of interest in the arrangement to keep it from tipping over into the soporific.

Wake The World
A co-write by Brian and Al, this is Brian’s first lead vocal on the album (with Mike and Carl assisting on the choruses), and is an unutterably beautiful one minute and twenty eight seconds. Just listen to the way the minor chords and strings in the descending bridge after “the light of the day is no longer here” turn into the relative major and the joyous horn part (my wife and I have been debating as to whether it’s a euphonium or a tuba – definitely a saxhorn-type brass instrument, anyway) of the chorus. It’s also one of several songs on this album to have as a strong component the I-IV-V standard progression – the songs on this album, more than on any other, are a strange mix of the sophisticated and the simplistic, in ways that can’t obviously be put down to factors like the various collaborators on the songs.
This song was released as the B-side to the Do It Again single, and remained in the band’s set in an even-more-abbreviated version for a year or two. A minor classic.

Be Here In The Mornin’
Another multi-author (Wilson/Wilson/Wilson/Love/Jardine) waltz, this consists of four distinct sections.
We start with a short, Hawaiian-sounding two-chord strum, with Brian singing wordlessly over it, before entering the verse. Contrary to David Leaf’s CD liner notes, the verse isn’t Brian singing – rather it’s Al, singing a higher falsetto than Brian ever managed, over a very prominent bass, strummed acoustic guitar and very simple drums. The verse is easily the most harmonically interesting section, feinting at Friends’ semitone key change after the first line, but going somewhere slightly different.
The chorus, with Carl singing lead and Al answering, both hugely phased, is much simpler harmonically, with no real surprises other than the Dsus4 chord (“make my life whole”). The almost-inaudible organ from the verse is much louder here, and a countermelody on tubular bells is introduced.
We then have a second verse (the Korthoff, Parks and Grillo mentioned are members of the band’s management team – and see the credits for the next song) and chorus, before an eight-bar break consisting of single organ notes.
We then go back into the intro, but with Dennis rather than Brian singing the wordless vocal. We then have a final chorus, and an outro which is the same musical material as the intro, with Dennis again taking lead and the band harmonising, ending on a snare drum roll.
One of the less impressive songs on the album, this is still pleasant enough, and continues the mood set by the previous songs.

When A Man Needs A Woman
Written from the point-of-view of someone waiting for a son to be born (Brian and Marilyn were expecting what turned out to be their first daughter, Carnie), this is a charmingly simple (if mildly sexist – Brian doesn’t seem to have considered that his first child could be anything other than a boy) country-flavoured song whose only deviation from the standard two-guitars-bass-drums line-up is a heavily reverbed ’ice-rink’ Hammond organ that comes in on the instrumental break.
Harmonically simplistic in the verse, the chorus has a nice little chromatic run from G# up to D, and most of the variation in the song comes from repeating the same material in different keys (the song starts in C# for the verses, moves to D for the choruses, goes to C in the “a man needs a woman like a woman needs a man” section before going into a verse which leads to a final chorus in F# and a fade in C#).
A song this lyrically and musically simple, about something in Brian’s personal life, with Brian the only Beach Boy heard vocally, might be expected to be a solo composition. Instead there are five credited writers here – Brian, Dennis, Al, Steve Korthoff and Jon Parks, the latter two part of the band’s management.

Passing By
A short organ-led semi-instrumental, with Brian’s wordless vocal singing a melody very similar in feel to many of the Jack Nitzsche inspired instrumentals he’d earlier done, but with an arrangement very like the instrumental break of When A Man Needs A Woman.
This song originally had lyrics – “While walking down the avenue / I stopped to have a look at you / And then I saw / You’re just passing by” – which more-or-less fit the verse vocal.

Anna Lee, The Healer
Mostly written by Love, though credited to Wilson/Love, this was written about a masseuse Love met while on a retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh (the same retreat where the Beatles wrote much of the White Album.) Much of Love’s contribution to this album – and future albums – is inspired by his embracing of the Maharishi’s teachings of Transcendental Meditation.
The verses are very simple, being based around the standard “Louie, Louie” I-IV-V-IV progression, with just Love singing over a piano and a bass (not, as David Leaf says in his liner notes, ’a piano bass line’ – there are clearly two instruments on all but the first verse) with the band providing rudimentary harmonies. The chorus meanwhile starts with iii-IV-V-vi twice over, with the band singing block harmonies (with Brian singing a clearly strained falsetto on top, if it’s not Al again). The only unusual points in the chord sequence are the I9 in the bridge and the iv on the lines going into and out of the chorus.

Little Bird
If you don’t count Denny’s Drums, this is Dennis Wilson’s first songwriting credit without any of the rest of the band. Written with lyricist Steve Kalinich, this is by far the best song on the album to this point.
Clearly very influenced by Brian’s Smile music, this is harmonically simple, and based around a small number of sections, all of which are in turn based on two-chord repetitive phrases. The biggest influence is Child Is Father Of The Man, a then-unreleased Smile song whose arrangement and chord sequence is taken wholesale for the end of the song.
But this is still clearly a Dennis Wilson song. The meditative mood, the way it’s built up out of independent sections that never quite repeat – this points the way to much of Dennis’ later work. The arrangement (all muted trumpet, ’cello and banjo) might be his big brother’s, but with this song Dennis was showing that he was soon going to be his brother’s equal.
Dennis takes the lead, apart from the ’what a day’ line, which Carl sings.

Be Still
The second Dennis Wilson/Kalinich song on the album, this is possibly the simplest thing the Beach Boys ever recorded. Each verse is just a I-IV phrase, repeated, then the whole thing repeated a tone up. The only instrument is an organ, holding chords down. And the only voice is Dennis, singing right at the top of his range, croaking rather than singing the higher notes.
A beautiful, delicate ballad, this would work well as a children’s lullaby, sweet and innocent with no hint of darkness.
A word, though, on Steve Kalinich’s lyrics. Kalinich will appear several times in volumes two and three of this series of books, and is far from my favourite lyricist – I may be very critical of him there. However, he’s a friend of many of my friends, and they all say that once you know him as a person his lyrics seem much better. This is one of the few cases where I can see that. These lyrics (inspired by a line from Psalm 46 – “Be still and know that I am God”) are simple and to the point, as many of Kalinich’s lyrics are, without falling into cliché.
Between this and the previous song, Friends shows that even without Brian Wilson, Dennis’ songwriting talent would be enough to make most bands jealous.

Busy Doin’ Nothin’
With its bars of 5/4 half-way through otherwise 4/4 verses, and the odd bars of 7 we hear in the instrumental fade, this bossa nova piece is the most metrically irregular thing Brian Wilson has ever released.
One of only two Brian solo compositions on the album (the other being Passing By, this is musically the most complex piece on the album, full of VII9 and VI♭7(♭5) chords. Lyrically, however, it’s another matter.
This is another of Brian’s ’slice of life’ songs, written about whatever he’s thinking at the time, so we have lines like “I get a lot of thoughts in the morning, I write them all down/If it wasn’t for that, I’d forget ’em in a while” in the verses, and the first chorus gives directions to drive to his house:

Take all the time you need, it’s a lovely night
If you decide to come, you’re gonna do it right
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

Brian’s songs over the next few years would increasingly be of this nature. While unusual, this is still a stand-out track on the album, and one that could only have been written by Brian Wilson. Brian is the only vocalist on this track.

Diamond Head
A Hawaiian-flavoured instrumental, played on steel guitar, hand percussion and ukulele, this was apparently worked up in the studio, as the credit is split between Brian and session musicians Al Vescovo, Lyle Ritz and Jim Ackley.
A very simple collection of ’exotica’-sounding phrases, this sounds like a much bigger production than it in fact is, thanks to judicious use of reverb and sound effects.
The Hawaiian theme of this piece – plus the fact that it was briefly considered for a place in the 2004 Smile concerts, have led some to suggest that it was part of that album. But the recording dates, and the credits for the musicians, suggest otherwise.

Transcendental Meditation

A loud, rather dissonant, uptempo horn-driven song over a moronic riff, credited to Love, Jardine and Brian Wilson but mostly by the former, many fans of Friends think this song out of place. I disagree. While it’s definitely a bit of a shock coming after so many gentle tracks, it still sounds of a piece with them, thanks to its short length, its repetitive, mantra-like nature, and its lyrical content. Far from the band’s best album closer, it still fits nicely enough here, closing one of the band’s best albums.

The Beach Boys’ last studio album of the 1960s, and their last studio album of new material for Capitol, was a mixed bag of singles, cover versions and outtakes. So titled because it was their twentieth album (counting three ’best of’ compilations) it’s the last album they made under the intense deadline pressure they’d been under for the previous seven years – from now on, one album a year, at most, would be the norm.
It’s notable as the major turning point for the band though. There are only five Brian Wilson songs on here, and four of those were either leftovers from earlier projects or intended for other people. Brian doesn’t even appear on the cover. The band were going to have to learn how to cope without their leader…

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston

Do It Again
For the Lei’d In Hawaii project in 1967, Brian had come up with a new arrangement of the band’s first single, Surfin’, featuring an organ riff based loosely on Underwater by The Frogmen, a surf instrumental that had been released on Candix records (the same label on which Surfin’ had originally been released) in 1961.
Taking this riff and turning it into a vocal melody, Brian and Mike kept the surfing theme for this, their first surf record in four years (since Don’t Back Down on the All Summer Long album). Produced by Brian and Carl, this has a curiously deadened sound, probably the result of one bounce-down too many, but the drum sound at the beginning is like nothing the band had ever recorded before.
One of the band’s simplest hits (all on three chords apart from the middle eight, which adds in a few minor sevenths) the combination of the nostalgic lyrics (“let’s get back together and do it again”), the opening drum part and the gorgeous middle eight melody brought this to number one in the UK – the band’s second and final number one over here. In the US, it made number twenty – the band’s last top twenty hit in the US for eight years.
The album version includes, on the fade, some ’woodshop’ sound effects – these are from a recording done as part of the Smile sessions.
Mike sings lead, with Brian singing the wordless high falsetto.

I Can Hear Music

Carl Wilson’s first solo production for the Beach Boys, this track was for a long time believed not to even feature Brian at all, though in fact he is in the harmony stack. Carl does an admirable job of replicating his production style, though on this cover of an obscure Ronettes track (the last song the Ronettes had released on Philles records, Phil Spector’s record label).
Instrumentally, the track is simple, being mostly a bed of acoustic guitars and sleighbells, plus bass and drums (an electric piano was recorded, but I’ve seen people have huge arguments as to whether it’s audible on the finished track at all. I come down on the ’audible’ side, but it’s so faint that even I have my doubts).
Vocally, however, it’s extraordinary. The verses and choruses are just carried by Carl Wilson’s lead vocal (one of the strongest he’d done thus far) with ’ooh’ and ’aah’ block backing vocals, but then there’s an a capella section that’s far and away the best Brian Wilson imitation arrangement the band ever did. While Carl keeps singing a standard lead vocal, the rest of the band chant the word ’music’ over and over, while Mike sings “doh re mi fah so la ti do/I hear the music all the time now baby” in the bass register. The last great bit of harmony vocals the Beach Boys did in the 1960s.
Released as a single, this went to number 24 in the USA, and number 10 in the UK.

Bluebirds Over The Mountain

Written by Ersel Hickey (no relation to the current author), this is a nondescript 50s country song with frankly appaling lyrics (“A boy and girl they once fell in love/To each it seemed like heaven above/He looked into her eyes and said/Ooh-ee baby you’re so good for my head”) that Bruce Johnston liked for some reason. (The Beach Boys’ version is actually slightly different lyrically to Hickey’s original, but both are equally poor).
Johnston had recorded a rough backing track as a potential solo single, but when the band were desperate for material it was dusted off by Carl Wilson and turned into a group performance.
The result is a clash of four completely incompatible types of music. The song itself is a bad 50s number, but then the basic track is done in generic-Beach-Boys, with tuned percussion doubling the bass-line. But then, in an ill-advised nod to modernity, the band try to imitate Jimi Hendrix and the other heavier rockers who were popular at the time, by getting touring band member Ed Carter to perform a squealing guitar solo all over it. And then we get a tag in which Johnston’s lounge music tendencies come to the fore (Johnston would, a few years later, perpetrate I Write The Songs ). Any two of these styles might – might – have worked together. Four of them on one single sounds like a game of Consequences gone seriously wrong.
Mike sings lead on the verses, Carl on the choruses and Bruce on the tag. Carl and Bruce produced, and the strings were arranged by Van McCoy (of The Hustle fame), who also arranged the strings on Be With Me and The Nearest Faraway Place on this album.

Be With Me
After the unimpressive previous track comes this, its polar opposite. Written and produced by Dennis, with as far as I can tell no participation by any of the other band members, here Dennis sings several vocal parts himself, over a moody, intense production unlike anything the band had done before, though still clearly indebted to his elder brother’s work.
Harmonically very simple, mostly moving around i, iv and III in Gm with a brief key change to B♭ in the middle eight, everything here is geared around the production, all low throbbing bass and booming drums. This is the sound of desperation and frustration made audible.
The only minor flaw – if it is a flaw, and not intentional – is the double tracking error on the last verse, where Dennis simultaneously sings “set you free” and “set us free”. Otherwise, this track shows again that Dennis was fast becoming the Wilson brother to watch out for, as a songwriter and producer.

All I Want To Do
Not to be confused with the similarly-named All I Wanna Do from the band’s next album, Sunflower, this is an altogether more raucous affair, quite the loudest, rowdiest thing the band ever did, a four-chord rocker (apart from the orgasmic climax of ascending major chords before the last chorus and fade) by Dennis, driven by piano, saxophone and guitar. This is a much, much more convincing attempt at assimilating heavy rock than Bluebirds, and Mike Love turns in a performance unlike anything he’d done before or since, gruff and at times screaming.
I will never, ever forgive lyricist Steve Kalinich though, because Mike Love repeatedly sings the line “I just want to do it to you”, and that’s not an image I ever wanted in my head.
The very faint sounds at the end are apparently a recording of Dennis actually having sex with two groupies in the recording studio. According to engineer Steve Desper, this didn’t record properly the first time and Dennis insisted on a second take…

The Nearest Faraway Place

An instrumental for electric piano and string section by Bruce Johnston, this is the kind of thing that gives elevator music a bad name. Saccharine, over-orchestrated, and pointless, this is tuneful enough in its way, but has no real reason for existing.

Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song)

An old Leadbelly song suggested by Al Jardine, who wrote the additional verses about ’a nice old man, he had a hat on’ and sings lead, this is a Brian Wilson production but shares the curiously flat sound of much of this album, although there’s some nice banjo work. The band would re-record this the next year, with Al producing and a more dynamic arrangement, and it would be a hit in most countries outside the US (that version is on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set, which I deal with in volume two).

I Went To Sleep

This Brian and Carl Wilson composition was recorded for Friends but unaccountably left off. Another slice-of-life song, this time about walking to the park on a sunny day and falling asleep in the grass, this is a lovely little waltz, with a flute-let instrumental track and lush ninth chords, and with beautiful harmonies by the band (and listen out for the snoring sounds during the instrumental break). It also shares a few melodic ideas with the next song.

Time To Get Alone

Another Brian Wilson song, another leftover from a previous project. This was originally recorded in 1967 by Redwood, the band that became Three Dog Night, but according to Chuck Negron of that band, Brian was bullied by the rest of the Beach Boys into giving the song to them.
Recorded over the same backing track as that version (Steve Desper apparently disputes this, but my ears say otherwise), Carl Wilson produced the vocals, in an expansion of Brian’s original three-vocalist arrangement.
Despite whatever acrimony may have been involved, the result is lovely. One of Brian’s simplest songs, this is very much in the mould of other ’escape’ songs like In My Room, and one’s heart breaks on hearing the lines “just away, away from the people, and safe from the people”. But unlike many of Brian’s other ’scared’ songs, this time he’s going away with someone, and that comfort and security comes through in every note of this gorgeous harpsichord-based waltz.
Because of its origins, this is the ’arty’ mid-60s Brian Wilson sound, with harpsichord, strings and vibraphone, but with the lusher vocals of the late-60s albums. Carl and Brian sing lead. A minor masterpiece.

Never Learn Not To Love
And here we get to a song it’s almost impossible now to review dispassionately, and to hear as it must have sounded when it first came out.
While this is credited to Dennis Wilson, it was actually largely written by a friend of Dennis’, who asked that his name not be put on the record’s credits. That friend, Charles Manson, was leader of a hippie commune who within a few months of this record’s release were responsible for a series of horrific murders that became one of the most well-known crimes of the twentieth century. (Dennis had cut off all ties with Manson some time earlier, and was as horrified as anyone, and more so than most, at his crimes).
While it’s not the business of this book to judge the band’s private lives, in this case the behind-the-scenes story is so awful it’s simply impossible to objectively assess the song. I would be doing my readers a disservice to treat this as just another Beach Boys song and look at the chord changes without taking into account that it’s by a murderer, even if I could, but my perception of this song is tied up with my perception of Manson. Would I find lines like “submission is a gift, give it to your lover” as creepy had they actually been written by Wilson? I don’t know.
It’s long been rumoured that Manson helped with some of Dennis’ other songs from this period too, but this is the only one for which there’s definite proof.
For that reason, I’ll have to recuse myself from discussing this track – I want neither to damn a performance and production that had a lot of work put into it, nor to be seen to be praising something whose major creator was a mass murderer.

Our Prayer
And as if to provide a spiritual cleansing after the unpleasantness of Manson, comes this beautiful piece.
A pastiche of Bach’s choral work, this wordless a capella hymn was written by Brian Wilson as the introduction to Smile, and is every bit as beautiful as one would imagine a Brian Wilson pastiche of Bach to be.
Recorded in 1966, the band thickened the sound with additional overdubs and reverb in 1968, but either version is among the most beautiful vocal music ever recorded.

And the last song on the album is by far the best, a track originally intended for Smile. Written by Brian and Van Dyke Parks, this had been completely recorded for Smile except for the lead vocal, which was added by Carl in 1968.
The result is astonishing, one of the best things the band ever did – which is to say it is one of the best musical recordings of the twentieth century. Parks’ punning, Joycean lyrics contrast an idyllic ’home on the range’ in the verses with the ’iron horse’, the railway that made the West possible, in the choruses, before at the end focussing on the immigrant labour that had built that railway. In the context of Smile these lyrics are much more powerful, referring back to other songs which in turn refer to this one, but even taken as a song on its own, divorced from its intended context, and placed near the end of a patchy collection like this, it still retains its power.
The verse, in 4/4 time, starts with just a banjo, evoking the old west, and Brian singing an ascending scalar phrase, singing ’doing doing’ over and over in imitation of the banjo, while Carl sings in his gentlest, purest tones, as bass and piano come in, before everything drops out except a harmonica and a harmonium, playing variations of the trumpet part from Heroes & Villains, but in counter-movement to each other, for two bars.
This musical material then repeats, before entering into a two chord waltz-time chorus with an utterly different feel. Over clanking percussion, representing the spikes being driven into the ground to hold the rails together, the band chant ’who ran the iron horse? ’ over and over, while a wailing falsetto Brian, fuzz bass and ’cellos race each other up and down ascending and descending scales, in much the same manner as in the similar-sounding Smile track Mrs O’Leary’s Cow, but much more frenzied, before collapsing back, exhausted, into the comfort of the verse.
After the second verse, we get another chorus, but this time with an additional element. Dennis is now singing a totally different, unconnected set of lyrics. These are buried in the mix, but I’ve reproduced them below:

Truck driving man do what you can
High-tail your load off the road
Out of night-life-it’s a gas man
I don’t believe I gotta grieve
In and out of luck
With a buck and a booth
Catching on to the truth
In the vast past, the last gasp
In the land in the dust
Trust that you must
Catch as catch can

We then enter a little, gentle, round as the band sing “Have you seen the grand coolie working on the railroad? ” (the use of ’coolie’ here an unfortunate oversight on the part of Parks, who is usually far more sensitive to the connotations of his words, but presumably was too enamoured of the pun on the Grand Coulee Dam and its resonances with the other themes of Smile) over a tinkling waltz, before the ’cellos come back in, in one of the most beautiful, and complex, pieces of contrapuntal vocals the band ever recorded.
And then over ’cello, banjo and harmonica, while the tinkling percussion continues, Love starts singing “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield”. This line apparently caused one of the biggest arguments in the recording of Smile, when the literal-minded Love kept questioning Parks as to the literal meaning of the line, and Parks was unable or unwilling to provide him with one. Nonetheless, Love eventually did sing it, and sing it beautifully. Then the band start singing those up-and-down fast scales again, as a fuzz bass comes in, and the banjo gets steadily more distorted til at the end the banjo sounds exactly like a sitar.
As the Beach Boys’ last Capitol studio album ends, there’s almost a sense of “This is what you’re giving up”, as a song from two years in the past points the way to the next two albums in the future.

CD Bonus Tracks

Break Away
The Beach Boys’ last single for Capitol for nearly twenty years was this, other than Good Vibrations possibly their finest 60s single.
Co-written by Brian and his father Murry Wilson (under the pseudonym Reggie Dunbar), on first listening this is a cheerful, upbeat song about escaping from all one’s worries – many have interpreted it as being at least in part about the band being released from their onerous contract with Capitol. It’s only on closer examination that it becomes clear that it is, at least in part, about trying to escape from mental illness:

When I lay down on my bed
I hear voices in my head
Telling me now, hey, it’s only a dream
The more I thought of it
I have been out of it
And here’s the answer I found instead
It’s in my head…

Coming from someone who would spend much of the next few decades being tortured by those ’voices in [his] head’, this is no longer quite so cheerful – and the historical knowledge that Brian wouldn’t ’break away’ from his problems makes this all the more heartbreaking; doubly so when you consider that the song was co-written by the father who was the cause of so many of those problems.
Nonetheless, the song itself is upbeat, cheerful and exhilirating. Never a favourite of the band (Johnston believes the vocals, which are slowed down from the original recording, make them sound like old men, while Jardine considers it underproduced) their views may be tainted by the fact that the single did nothing at all on the US chart – though in the UK it made number 6 and was one of their biggest hits.
Carl sings lead on the verses, Brian on the first bridge, and Al on the choruses (another example of these three sounding spookily similar), while Mike sings the prominent bass vocal on the tag and the second bridge. A simplistic song, this is all in the vocal arrangement and performance, which are some of the best the band would ever do.

Celebrate The News

The B-side to Breakaway, by Dennis and his friend and frequent collaborator Gregg Jakobson, is on such a similar theme it’s almost like the two brothers had deliberately decided to write complementary songs. While harmonically simple – it’s based around repeating two-chord shuffles between chords a fifth apart, with the patterns themselves moving up and down in whole-tone steps much like his brother’s 1965 and 1966 work – this manages to throw off expectations by keeping a constant pulse but varying the stresses in such a way that without changing tempo at all he manages to switch between 6/4 and 4/4 time signatures, confusing one’s time sense.
A very ’Dennis’ song, with its throbbing bass and pounding kettle drums, this is a far more visceral record than Brian’s more cerebral A-side, but it’s hard to say that one approach is better than another. As Brian was becoming less and less involved with the band, Dennis was rapidly taking his place as a songwriter and producer worth paying attention to.

We’re Together Again

A Friends era outtake, co-credited to Brian and Ron Wilson (no known relation to Brian, this is not the more famous Surfaris drummer of the same name, but someone for whom Brian produced an unsuccessful single around this time. One presumes he is also not the even more famous Ronald Wilson Reagan, of whom more, sadly, in volume two). Some versions credit just R. Wilson, and it is actually hard to see how this song could have taken two people to write, but it does have enough of Brian’s fingerprints on it that I find it hard to imagine that he had no part in its writing.
A very simple song that sounds unfinished, this is another song built around I-IV chords in the chorus, with a slight variation of the doo-wop sequence for the verse, and a middle eight built around IV and ii. The most ’Brian’ section comes towards the end, when the two-chord chorus phrase is repeated, each time a semitone up, before dropping back to its original key for the fade.
Carl and Brian appear to be the only Beach Boys on this track, but one suspects it inspired Bruce Johnston to write the very similar Deirdre, which would appear on the Sunflower album.

Walk On By
A fragment, barely forty seconds long, of the Bacharach/David song, with Brian singing the lead up to ’foolish pride’, where Dennis takes over and immediately forgets the words, and busks through with just ’aah’s, til the band come in with a full vocal part for “I break down and cry”, at which point the track ends. It’s interesting to hear this sophisticated piece done in the laid-back, stripped-down style the Beach Boys were using at the time, but this isn’t even an attempt at a proper recording.

Old Folks At Home/Ol’Man River
This, on the other hand, is a fully-fledged-out arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place on Smile. Starting with a simple statement of the “Swanee River” melody on the piano (another appearance for a song – and a songwriter – that had influenced much of Brian’s work already) the song goes into an uptempo version of Ol’ Man River, with a Smile-esque run up and down a chromatic scale on a ’cello to bridge the two. The Ol’ Man River arrangement goes between just acoustic guitar and bass, and a fuller band with drums and tack piano, and with a harmonica and trombone playing off each other.
And the harmonica and trombone are echoed in the vocals, by Brian and Mike respectively – oddly the only two band members who appear vocally. These were clearly guide vocals however – there are multiple Brians sketching out hesitant vocal lines, and points where Mike forgets his words – but there’s the essence of a great arrangement there. One of the best unreleased bonus tracks out of all the ’twofer’ CDs. (It’s worth noting that there are two slightly different mixes of this track available, depending on if you buy the 1990 release of this CD or the 2001 re-release. Anything you purchase from an MP3 store or listen to on an internet streaming site will be the latter.)