[NB, I’ll be looking at the Good Vibrations box in an essay in the book version]
An interesting thing happened in the early 1990s. The image of the Beach Boys began to split into two — and this split would determine much of the rest of the band’s career.
On the one hand, there was the image in the general media, of America’s band having fun, fun, fun and bringing good vibrations to Kokomo. Rightly or wrongly, this image was associated primarily with Mike Love, and was the focus of many of the band’s TV appearances at the time.
But there was another image that was being created, one that was appearing in the music magazines and was increasingly becoming the received wisdom about the band. In this version of history, largely promoted by Brian Wilson’s biographer and friend David Leaf, the Beach Boys were at best a decent vehicle for Brian Wilson’s unique genius, and at worst active saboteurs. Brian Wilson was a unique genius (although in this version of history his genius was only really expressed to its fullest in Pet Sounds and Smile before being destroyed by the evil Mike Love) and the band’s story was a variant on the Orson Welles one of a great genius never living up to his full potential after an early masterwork, because of the petty minds of petty people.
Both these stories have a certain amount of truth to them, of course, but in the 1990s more than at any other time, there wasn’t a nuanced view of the band’s career in the public eye. Those who bought the CD reissues of the band’s sixties albums, with liner notes by Leaf, felt like they were getting the real truth about a romantic genius who was just too good for this world.
But while the legend of Brian Wilson was growing enormously, Wilson himself had been almost absent from the public eye for several years, except for stories about his problems. His proposed second solo album, Sweet Insanity, was rejected by the label and never released (bootlegs show that while it wasn’t a great album, it was very solid, and certainly better than many things that did get released). Wilson was also the subject of a prolonged court battle, with his family attempting to save him from Landy, who had by this point thoroughly taken control of Wilson’s life.
That court battle, and the other litigation around that time, put a permanent strain on Wilson’s relationship with the Beach Boys, especially his brother Carl (who had been the biggest force trying to extricate him from Landy, and who had therefore become a source of stress in Brian Wilson’s eyes). But by the mid-1990s, everything had settled down. Wilson had married Melinda Ledbetter, who had become a stabilising force in his life, and bridges were starting to be built with the other Beach Boys.
But while attempts were being made to record a new Beach Boys album, led by Wilson, it was also very clear that his relationship with the band was still fragile, and so a second attempt was being made to build a solo career for him, to give him a public identity outside the Beach Boys.
The first fruits of this were two projects that came out in 1995. The first, Orange Crate Art, was an album by Van Dyke Parks which was jointly credited to Parks and Wilson, and on which Wilson sang all the lead vocals and much of the backing, though he had no other creative input. That album is outside the scope of these essays, as it is far more of a Van Dyke Parks album, but it’s a beautiful, astonishing record (as so much of Parks’ work is), and should be listened to by anyone who loves music.
The second project was I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, a film and accompanying soundtrack CD, produced and directed by Don Was, which attempted to show the wider public why Wilson was a genius.
The film was a documentary about Wilson’s life and music, featuring interviews with him, his family, and many of his peer group (although Carl Wilson was the only other Beach Boy interviewed in the film). The highlights, though, were the musical performances.
Unfortunately, the three best of these (performances of “God Only Knows” and “In My Room” by the two Wilson brothers and their mother, Audree, around a piano, and a piano/vocals performance of “Orange Crate Art” by Wilson and Parks) were left off the soundtrack CD, and what is left is a very 1990s take on Wilson’s music.
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is, essentially, an “Unplugged” album. It’s a collection of remakes of many of Wilson’s best songs, from 1963 (“The Warmth of the Sun”) through to 1988 (“Love and Mercy” and “Melt Away”), all recorded in very polite, slick arrangements by some of the leading session players of the day, with top session vocalists replacing the Beach Boys’ parts (although on “Do It Again” Wilson’s daughters, Carnie and Wendy, add backing vocals as well). Everything’s very tasteful, but the album is somewhat lacking in the sheer oddness of much of Wilson’s best work. This is an album with all the rough edges carefully sanded off (except for Wilson’s vocals, which were still as idiosyncratic as on his first solo album) — an album designed to be listened to in the car along with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album, or Crowded House’s Woodface, or Paul Simon’s Graceland.
The image it presents is definitely part of why Wilson is a great artist, but to me at least it’s not the most interesting part. This is just a collection of Wilson’s most obviously good songs, rerecorded without anything (other than his voice) that might be distracting or indigestible. It’s Wilson being fit neatly into a mould, and with anything that doesn’t fit being cut off.
With one exception.
Still I Dream of It had originally been released on the Good Vibrations box set in a fully-orchestrated version, recorded during the sessions for the unreleased Adult Child album. It had been a quiet highlight of that box’s fourth disc, but had been overshadowed by the half hour of Smile material on the set.
Here, the original mid-70s demo is released, and it’s heartbreaking. A simple piano and vocal demo, recorded on what sounds like a fourth- or fifth-generation cassette copy (bootleg copies of the demo exist in much better, though far from perfect, quality, without the break in the tape close to the end, so it must have been an aesthetic decision to use this version), the track has Brian’s voice at its 1977 croakiest, hammering out piano chords while singing those glorious but broken stream-of-consciousness lyrics about hearing the maid whistling and how “the hypnosis of our minds can take us far away”. Hearing that shattered voice, coming from a shattered man, singing “young and beautiful, like a tree that’s just been planted I’ve found life today”, is indescribably moving, and when he gets to the middle eight, and sings “a little while ago, my mother told me Jesus loved the world/And if that’s true then why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl/And find my world?” I would defy anyone not to cry.
Where the rest of the album smooths the rough edges down to something that could almost be used in a car commercial, “Still I Dream of It” is nothing but rough edges, and all the better for it, and merely by being on the album it manages to validate the whole thing, artistically. This, it says, is the same man — the craftsman who wrote “Meant For You” or “Warmth of the Sun”, and the mentally ill man croaking about how it’s time for supper are both the same person, and both deserving of recognition as great art.
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times will never be my own favourite Brian Wilson album — even with the addition of “Still I Dream of It”, many of these tracks are simply too polite for my own tastes — but as we’ll see with the next few albums, as an album of remakes it could have been much, much worse.
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