The Beach Boys: Both Timeless and Not

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In September of 1964, the Beach Boys appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. In their matching striped shirts, they looked as innocent as their music sounded, and their faces reflected awe at a future full of possibility. Smiling and bobbing along to the beat, they played “I Get Around.” It was the height of Beatlemania, but it was that song—their song—that was number one. The band exported their trademark sunshine pop around the world: in the mid-Sixties, they toured Australia, Europe, and Japan. Despite the endless adolescence they sang about onstage—cars! girls! surfing!—backstage, the veneer of innocence had cracked. They did drugs and fought with each other. They slept with prostitutes and left boyhood behind.

In 1965, Brian Wilson, the band’s musical mastermind, took a break from touring with the goal of producing the greatest rock and roll album of all time: Pet Sounds. This was an inflection point, when the music of the Beach Boys began to mature under Wilson’s genius direction. Last month, almost exactly 52 years after that first Ed Sullivan appearance, Brian Wilson shuffled onto the stage of Charlotte’s Belk Theater to perform Pet Sounds in its entirety. Wilson’s current tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of the record’s release and features fellow Beach Boys, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, as well as Jardine’s son, Matt, and a band. In an interview with NPR, band member Probyn Gregory described his initial reaction to Pet Sounds: “It was like he made manifest in an audio fashion what it was like to go from a teenage boy into a man. That’s part of what Pet Sounds is really about.”

Much of the beauty of the band’s early music is that the nostalgia doesn’t rely on real memory: You’ll be transported to a more innocent time anyway, whether it’s your first or fiftieth time listening to it. That’s what was so appealing about the Beach Boys in the Sixties—a decade of unrest and uncertainty—and that’s what remains so appealing, so fundamentally American, about the Beach Boys today.

Time is insidious, though, and Brian Wilson’s voice is no longer what it was. As he walked offstage for breaks during the performance, a crew member stepped out of the wings to support him as he stepped over the cords lining the stage. The crowd was not all, but mostly Baby Boomers. As Wilson played the opening chords to “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the crowd seemed palpably aware of being in the presence of a legend, a giant in the landscape of American music. But the Pet Sounds lyrics juxtaposed with his singing them was jarring: Brian Wilson was 17 going on 75. Here was a man who had seen the deaths of both of his younger brothers, had suffered crisis after crisis, singing the songs of a time when all of that was unknowable. Life seemed suddenly so short, the workings of time suddenly laid bare.

But then, after the Pet Sounds part of the concert ended with the haunting and wistful closing notes of “Caroline, No,” the band finished the performance by playing some of their earliest hits. “We’re both 74,” Al Jardine quipped near the beginning of the show. “But we’re still the Beach Boys.” And they were. “Barbara Ann” and “Help Me, Rhonda” filled the room, and all of the sudden, we were no longer in the staid and elegant Belk Theater. We were together in some beautiful elsewhere, full of hope and innocence. We were right there with Brian Wilson on the Ed Sullivan stage, basking in a future as bright as the California sun.

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The Tsar of Love and Techno, Reviewed

This past Christmas, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time in a few years. In college, ambition hung almost palpably in the air, and the idea of success looking any different than I imagined it at twenty made the annual tradition unbearable. But with a year abroad (and pounds of sweets) under my belt, I found it a little less sad. I’ve been thinking in the aftermath about the decency of characters like George Bailey or Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke, whose successes lie primarily in the subtly transformative effects they have on others:

[T]he effect of [Brooke’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

9780770436438_custom-68ff8b27dac7a947fb1f4839cdccd4e258487ed4-s400-c85Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno explores both this theme and its antithesis: that things can be made much more ill with you and me than they might have been, owing to the decisions of those who lived faithfully a hidden life, in fear of ending up in unmarked, unvisited tombs. Set against the bleak backdrop of a Russia I didn’t know much about, the stories criss-cross like a loop of string between a pair of deft hands, creating in the end, an unforgettable picture of the way our lives bump against each other’s in tragic and beautiful ways, the ways that the choices we make and don’t make linger with us, and the way that memories of lives unlived can be as vivid as the rest. The landscape of despair against which the protagonists build their lives–a toxic lake, a disintegrating metal forest, a setting devoid of color except yellows and grays–is alleviated by Marra’s poetic descriptions and subtle humor.

Over the following weeks, I designed a brochure. The central question was how to trick tourists into coming to Grozny voluntarily. For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston.

While the stories can stand alone, their resonance is amplified by their connections to each other. The structure echoes the way the characters’ lives converge and paints a picture that is much, much more than the sum of its parts. That said, the first story, “The Leopard,” was so beautifully written and constructed that I think it will remain one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time, full of resilient optimism and faith in the transcendent power of the “unhistoric acts” of individuals. One of the best things about “The Leopard” is that once it’s over, there are eight more stories left to read.