Some summer so long ago all I remember about it now was that I was in high school, Richard Nixon was the president and the Vietnam war still raged, I got a copy of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and for months lost myself in a song, "Caroline No," that I now know is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking recordings in the history of pop music.
Just the repeated shake of a maraca -- is it a maraca? -- and the beat of -- what -- a tom? Some kind of treated wood block?
Nevermind, for it is band leader/ music genius Brian Wilson's bittersweet delivery of the song's first line that for over 25 years has never failed to bring back what I felt the very first time I heard it. A feeling of hopelessness, a sadness so deep, the knowledge that a love so pure can never be...
These are the words Brian Wilson sings:
"Where did your long hair go/ Where is the girl I used to know/ How could you lose that happy glow/ Oh Caroline no."
Maybe it helped that the second girl I ever had a crush on was named Caroline, and that all I saw was her face when I played that song, over and over, that summer.
Pet Sounds was first released in May, 1966. But it wasn't until nearly five years later that I got my first copy. By then Brian Wilson had been lost to drugs and the voices inside his head. The Beach Boys heyday as one of the world's most successful and creative pop bands was past. And Pet Sounds, a commercial failure that, in fact, marked the end of the group as a force of any kind, had already been stamped as one of the greatest recordings of all time by the rock critic establishment of the day.
None of which matters one iota.
Like "Caroline No," most of the other songs on Pet Sounds -- "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "You Still Believe In Me," "That's Not Me," "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulders)," "I'm Waiting For The Day," "Let's Go Away For Awhile," "God Only Knows," "I Know There's An Answer," "Here Today," "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times," and "Pet Sounds" (only the seeming throw-away radio hit "Sloop John B" is "b" material) -- make all the mundane details of both what went into the making of the recordings, what anyone thought about them or just about anything else irrelevant.
Pet Sounds is a world unto itself. The songs come from a place of such emotional vulnerability and sensitivity. They so accurately capture romantic love and the trauma of being a teenager and attempting to be in love. Wait, it's not that they capture so much as they are it. Those feelings are in the music.
Like "Caroline No" -- which could be about a girl who has lost her innocence, but I think is really about the guy, who in watching the girl he loved change, has lost his innocence -- the other songs make you feel.
"It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die," sings Wilson later in "Caroline No."
If you don't feel a pain in your heart listening to him deliver that line, then you should just stop reading this column right now. Go read the phone book or play with your pocket protector or something.
These thoughts about an old album were prompted by the release of a box set, The Pet Sounds Sessions. The release of this expensive set, which in addition to the original mono recording of Pet Sounds, includes a new stereo mix, and two additional CDs full of alternate takes, song snippets, the usual, was highly anticipated by the Brian Wilson cult, of which I sometimes feel I'm a member.
I have to say that when I first heard about the box -- think of it, four compact disks devoted to a single 36 minute, 26 second album -- I too got excited.
But after I got the box, it just sat next to my CD player. Looking at the back cover, which lists all the pieces of music contained inside -- the 13 song "stereo mix," 64 session snippets, vocal only versions and alternate takes along with the original version -- didn't make me want to listen to any of it. At one point, I finally put on the "stereo mix," but then found myself wandering out of the room. I took it off. I didn't want to look behind the scenes. I didn't want to see how the magician pulled off the sleight of hand.
This morning, I realized that I just wanted to hear Pet Sounds, without any of the other bullshit. So I put on the original mono version, you know, the one that came out in 1966, the one that contains the version of "Caroline No" that still devastates me from the moment Brian begins to sing.
"Where did your long hair go/ Where is the girl I used to know/ How could you lose that happy glow/ Oh Caroline no." [Sun., Nov. 23, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]