Now an excerpt from A Mess of Help (which takes its name from one of BW’s songs):

tumblr_mdw5uuQeRs1qdmmhbo1_500There is so much about The Beach Boys that is hard to believe. Toward the bottom of the list (but still on it) is the fact that “Don’t Worry Baby” was originally released as the B-side of “I Get Around”. Some of us consider “Don’t Worry Baby” to be the definition of a perfect record, as beautiful as anything “America’s band”, or any other, ever released, and to think of it playing second fiddle boggles the mind. What accounts for its greatness? First, and most obviously, “Don’t Worry Baby” boasts one of the most memorable opening couplets of all time, the immortal “Well it’s been building up inside of me for, oh, I don’t know how long/ I don’t know why but I keep thinking something’s bound to go wrong.” Given their Mad Men-like context, one would have presumed that the song was written from the perspective of a confident man comforting a hysterical woman. But Brian and his lyricist Roger Christian flipped that convention on its head (I’m sure they didn’t give it a second thought), producing a tune about an insecure, anxious man recalling all the times his uncommonly demonstrative girlfriend had reassured him. In what feels like a transparent nod to the powers that be, they frame the next two verses in drag-racing terms (“I guess I should’ve kept my mouth shut when I started to brag about my car”), but it’s a testament to the enduring beauty of the opening line and chorus that almost no one remembers it as such. Needless to say, most cover versions use an alternate set of words.

In his inimitably unselfconscious way, Brian Wilson was subverting the tough-guy rock n roll archetypes of the time, and thereby opening an emotional floodgate that has stayed open ever since. Young men had been vulnerable on record before, of course, but usually in the service of garnering swoons rather than expressing actual weakness. This was not the attractive kind of vulnerability, it was the awkward kind. Brian sang about teenage male tears more than anyone before or since, which was a strange way to score dates (and if reports are to be believed, it didn’t). But it certainly allowed him to connect with an audience. Peter Bagge described the appeal in somewhat cynical terms:

It’s Brian’s story that so many poor, misunderstood, hyper-sensitive idealists can’t get enough of. Not only was Brian the main musical genius behind all those great records, but he’s also that most romantic type of Genius: the Idiot Savant, the Tortured Soul. He’s become the straight male nerd’s Judy Garland.

Look at the guys perform the tune in 1964 (above) and how can you not love them? Gangly and pudgy and balding and so clearly nervous, it’s one of the deep ironies of the early 60s that they came to represent fun-in-the-sun American athleticism, when, with the exception of Dennis, not only could none of them surf, none of them looked even remotely beach-ready, to say nothing of drag racing. Such sublime music coming from such strange vessels. The melody is pure prettiness and the arrangement so full of warmth and ingenuity. Not even the economical echo-heavy “guitar solo” has dated. Along with those of the A-Side, these were the back-up vocals that would launch a thousand pop groups. And for a guy that didn’t like to use drums in his productions, Brian created one of the most iconic opening phrases of all time on that instrument (by aping, to glorious effect, his beloved “Be My Baby”).

Strange vessels would become, in a few short years, broken ones. When Brian quit touring in 1964, bandmate Al Jardine took over lead vocal duties on “Don’t Worry Baby”. It wasn’t until Brian hesitantly rejoined the touring group fifteen years (and several nervous breakdowns) later that he sang the tune in front of people again. Here he is in 1981, and you almost have to look away, it’s too much:

The juxtaposition of such an immaculate musical creation with Brian’s ravaged voice/soul–at the risk of proving Bagge right, I have a hard time thinking of an equally moving performance of, well, anything. The gift is so out of proportion with its recipient/vessel, you can’t help but hear G-O-D all over it. And if we had been taken in by the lyrics back in ’64, the 1981 performance reveals them to be what they really are: a heartfelt fantasy bordering on prayer. Words of reassurance and unconditional encouragement (absolution?) that Brian is dying to hear but can’t convey to himself. Of course, as any amateur theologian will tell you, there is a big difference between reassurance and assurance. “Reassurance never reassures”, as they say, while assurance doesn’t have to. But I digress. The longing for–and astonishment at–love in the midst of weakness would be one of Brian’s main themes over the years. Indeed, the upside of his willingness to be seen as weak (or his glaring inability to “front” with any conviction) is that he could express gratitude and joy on a level that most of us only dream of. Not even the considerable corniness of Mike Love could sully Brian’s work in this regard. The greatest example, of course, being:

Amen.

BONUS TRACK: One of Brian’s more obscure compositions about the coming season. You will know it’s his work by the piano chords and the lyric about “Eddie wants to drive a hearse” (what?!). Let it never be said that these guys didn’t take arrested development as far as it goes: