God Only Knows

December 20, 2011

God Only Knows (The Beach Boys, 1966).
God Only Knows (Andy Williams, 1967).
God Only Knows (Ava Cherry and the Astronettes, 1973).
God Only Knows (Bowie, 1984).

When you listen to “Smile” now, what words come to mind?

Childhood. Freedom. A rejection of adult rules and adult conformity. Our message was, “Adults keep out. This is about the spirit of youth.”

Brian Wilson, Wall Street Journal interview, October 2011.

Brian Wilson, who is nearly 70 years old, talked recently about the latest salvage of his would-have-been masterwork Smile. He has been asked about this “lost” record for much of his life, and he’s long run out of stories to tell. Never the most articulate of people, Wilson typically recalls half-remembered things that others have said about him. So here Wilson repeated, yet again, the statement that Smile was meant to be “a teenage symphony to God.” But then Wilson kept on that thought. “It’s a teen’s expression of joy and amazement. It’s unrestrained. We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our 20s….Van Dyke [Parks] and I wanted “Smile” to be a musical tour of America through the eyes of kids—from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head.

We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our twenties. A simple statement that has a world in it: the Sixties ideal of the teen, with adulthood now an afterthought, a curse, something to be put off as long as possible. In Wilson’s case, he has permanently put it off—he is a senior citizen who still sings about being a teenager, and his life is a teenager’s idea of an adult’s. He is Bowie’s Uncle Arthur made flesh.

Odd Victorians—butterfly collectors, mathematicians, table rappers, quietly heretical parsons—had idealized children. Somewhere in the Sixties, in California, that cult was overturned, the child was supplanted by the teen, by the beautiful, corrupted child, one pure with appetites. It was a happy usurpation. Adolescence—a brilliant dream-version of it, at least—was now the peak of life. Catalogs of songs were made in its honor.

Wilson’s Smile, intended as a hymnal for the new religion, was never released, although fragments of it have been around since 1967. The record collapsed for a host of reasons—too many drugs; the exhaustion of its composer; the resistance of the Beach Boys’ reactionary wing, led by Mike Love; the fact that some of its songs weren’t that good. And maybe because it was just unnecessary. Wilson had already written a teenage symphony to God in miniature: his and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows,” his most perfect song.

Recorded in March 1966, when Wilson was only 23, “God Only Knows” is a prayer in a love song. This wasn’t anything new. What was soul music but singers using expressions and phrasings crafted to praise God and pressing them into service for baser ends, to pronounce lust and love? It was a heresy far older than soul: in 1939, The Ink Spots offered “My Prayer,” which wasn’t to commune with God but simply to “linger with you, at the end of each day.”

So “God Only Knows” falls in this line, but what makes it special is its awkwardness, its honesty. Asher’s lyric captures the tumult of an adolescent’s thoughts: the sudden revisions, the stumbling, the defensiveness. I may not always love you, the song begins. What a start! The kid has to back his way into a vow of eternal commitment, but the bluntness of the opening line (Wilson initially hated it, and had wanted Asher to rewrite it) defines the song’s core ambiguity. It’s an eternal pledge made by a kid with a weak grasp on eternity. The second verse even opens with bluster: If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me! And again, the singer has to work his way back into pledging his love. The lyric, intentionally or no, is bled through with a teenager’s manic narcissism: every line in the second verse ends with “me” (it’s the only rhyme).

Wilson’s music and arranging for “God Only Knows” deepens the sense of love-as-confusion. The song is tonally vague (it’s a sway between E major, the key of the verse, and A major, the apparent key of the refrain), while its instrumentation is a series of blends, of instruments whose tones bleed into each other in the mono mix. The opening melody is carried on a fusion of accordion, French horn and strings; the staccato quarter notes that undergird the track are a motley of sleigh bells, pizzicato strings, organ, harpsichord and slap-echoed piano and bass (the latter sometimes played so high it sounds like an electric guitar).

Then there are the moments of grace. The little instrumental bridge that briefly sends the song off into a new world. The sweet sighing of Brian Wilson’s voice. The extended coda, with its gorgeous, humble polyphony (just the Wilson brothers, with Bruce Johnston as the top voice): it’s a sense of awe inspired by a suddenly imaginable bliss.

Bowie, like many British musicians of his generation, had loved Pet Sounds—Paul McCartney’s infatuation with the record is one of the more shopworn facts in Beatles lore. The sweetness, the teenage grandeur of the Beach Boys’ records, their sense of a paradise effortlessly achieved by young people somewhere on the West Coast, were something alien to the UK. To no surprise, a cult soon formed around Wilson.

I believe you, Mr. Wilson, John Cale sang, I believe you anyway. Because by 1975, when Cale wrote the song, Wilson had become a zombified figure padding about in a bathrobe, writing songs about Johnny Carson, while the California mythland he had authored had gone to seed (already, in the promo film for “God Only Knows,” Dennis Wilson looks dissolute, Manson-like). When I listen to your music, you’re still thousands of miles away, Cale sang. The line was a play on Cale’s memory of being a nobody in Wales hearing Wilson’s Californian exotica for the first time, and on Wilson’s distance from the promises that his own music made.

The distance that McCartney, Cale and Bowie felt from (and in) Wilson—a dreamer who could never fall asleep, so he doled out his dreams to others—gave them a better vantage to appraise his work. They saw that the Beach Boys at their finest made a modern holy music; religious music for a generation that never thought it would die, one that would never grow old.

Bowie recognized that “God Only Knows,” one of his favorite Wilson tracks, was at heart a soul song. His first attempt to cover the song, with Ava Cherry and the Astronettes in 1973, got it half-right. Cherry was a marvelous singer who never got the chance to really prove it, and here she gives a fervor to the lyric yet doesn’t lose the sense of happy bewilderment and humility. But Bowie’s arrangement, with an odd mandolin accompaniment in the verse and a garrulous saxophone solo that nearly flat-out kills the song, was an ill omen.

A decade later, making Tonight, Bowie seemed to have lost everything that had once made him—his tactical intelligence as a singer, his innate good taste, the precision of his performances, his easy way of reconciling styles within himself. For whatever reason, he decided at last to cover “God Only Knows” himself. He sounds like a man lost in a cathedral who begins to deface the walls in panic.

Bowie’s inspiration seems to be Andy Williams’ version of the song, from 1967 (Bowie’s schmaltzy version of “Imagine” from 1983 seems an initial run-through). But Williams was respectful, cool: he lets himself sink into the song, letting the melody occasionally slip away from him, and whenever he moves to the grandiose, he quickly checks himself with his awed, quiet phrasings of the title refrain. Williams and Ava Cherry had known that the song was bigger than them, and wandered happily within its confines.

At first, Bowie’s version on Tonight seems adequate. He sounds somber and restrained in the opening verses, if seemingly doing a parody of Scott Walker, though the croaking begins to irritate after a time—the lyric is meant to be sung by someone bewildered by love; Bowie seems to be serenading a corpse. A few warning signs come: the grotesque way Bowie sings “stahhhrs,” like he’s gargling, or how he gets snagged on “sure,” rolling the word around on his tongue.

Then Bowie decided that the performance needed to build, that some act of professional grandiosity was required on the record, a contractual obligation that EMI had slipped in. So he and Hugh Padgham (and maybe Derek Bramble—no one’s claimed ownership, unsurprisingly) start to trowel things on. Strings, which had been part of the communal sound world on the Beach Boys’ version, just playing sustained chords and mixed with organ, are used on Bowie’s cover as offensive weapons, soon followed by the horns. One saxophone gets a little solo phrase that’s utterly hateful in its insipidness. Then the singers come in, up to no good. The thing is, everyone sounds so damned pleased with themselves. They’re vandals with delusions of artistry.

But the worst crimes are left to Bowie. Too much of an egoist here to share the vocals, he has to carry the coda by himself. He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.

The story goes that Bowie was too young for the Sixties, he was always outside of it. But maybe, as this terrible record shows, he was just always too old.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Steve Kagan: Anthony Michael Hall, John Hughes and Molly Ringwald on the set of The Breakfast Club, filmed 1984; Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984); Eric Fischl, The Brat II, 1984.