In contrast to the horror my mother and I experience daily as we pore through news and tweets related to the accession of King Donald to the throne of the most powerful and dangerous nation on the planet, my flaming liberal father is rather philosophical about the whole thing. “Been there, done that,” he shrugs.
The “been there” period he refers to is that dark period in American history characterized by the Vietnam war, race riots and the emergence of white backlash. Americans were divided on issues of patriotism, long hair/short hair, liberation movements, the “drug epidemic,” race and the “creeping socialism” of The Great Society. I asked him to reproduce his rant while I captured it on my keyboard.
“You think the 2016 campaign was ugly? Go back to 1968. Two major assassinations. Riots at the Democratic Convention, cops beating the shit out of kids. After the tear gas had cleared, the Gallup Poll put the Democratic establishment nominee in third place—behind George Wallace, a mean-spirited, lifelong segregationist. After losing Bobby Kennedy, we were down to a choice between Wallace, Hubert Humphrey—who spent his time as vice-president licking Lyndon Johnson’s ass and supporting the war—and Richard Nixon, who had been left for dead as a loser years before. A whole generation of young voters who had become engaged through Gene McCarthy and Bobby decided to check out—just like a lot of Bernie voters did. People voted for Nixon and Wallace for the same reason they voted for Trump—it was all about white people feeling threatened by what they saw as an erosion in the white version of the American Dream. Things were tense—families were falling apart over the war, the generation gap was huge, and if you had long hair or black skin, you stood a pretty good chance of having some redneck kick the shit out of you, just for the hell of it. The people who voted for Nixon and Wallace were just as dumb, uneducated and uninformed as the typical Trump voter. Wallace was constantly sneering about the “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and Nixon resented anyone who went to a more prestigious college than he did. Wallace and Nixon were bitter, fearful men who tapped into the bitter fear of the majority of voters who wanted law and order no matter what. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, and you’ve seen one of them on TV reruns—Archie Bunker. People thought we’d made all this progress by electing a black president and they forgot that all those Archie Bunkers were still hanging around, nursing their resentment. We all laughed at Archie Bunker, just like liberals laughed at the deplorables. Back then, that attitude gave us Richard Nixon. Now it’s Trump.
“People are calling Trump fascist, anti-democratic, corrupt, dishonest—all the labels we applied to Nixon. Just like Trump, Nixon was a dishonest prick who fixed an election, too, and it eventually caught up with him, just like it will for Trump. So to me, this is ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'”
To support his argument, he introduced Exhibit A, Phil Ochs’ post-Chicago release, Rehearsals for Retirement, ghoulish cover and all. “Listen to this and then write your review. It’s all there.”
As is true with everything Phil Ochs ever did, Rehearsals for Retirement is an uncomfortably captivating piece of music. Never one to pull punches or fail to call bullshit on the complacent, unthinking dogma we know as American Exceptionalism, Phil Ochs was a perceptive satirist and usually a compassionate human being. But as I’ve learned through my difficulty in ridding myself of my abiding disgust for anyone who voted for The Orange Nightmare, compassion has its limits. What’s the fucking point trying to dialogue with people who choose to remain uneducated and cling to their fears and prejudices like security blankets? Rehearsals for Retirement is the moment when Phil Ochs realized that the fix was in and that the repressive forces in American society had marshaled their ample resources to put an end to all that socialist hippie nonsense. For Phil Ochs, the shining vision of a compassionate society where everyone could get a fair shake died on the mean streets of Chicago in August 1968.
Hence the tombstone.
Many people in the 60’s believed in “the dream” because they saw parts of the dream come true. The folk revival of the 1960’s coincided with a higher level of economic security in the States, which helped foster a greater degree of openness and self-reflection in the American populace. The consciousness-raising that took place in the early part of the decade was facilitated by leaders like JFK and MLK and encouraged by the work of the great folk artists of the day. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 60’s, protest marches and songs actually changed minds and led to real social progress, particularly in the area of civil rights. Americans by and large wanted to create a truly fair and inclusive society where everyone had an equal shot at the American Dream. The anti-progress conservative movement had been largely discredited by LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, and LBJ cashed in his political capital on the cornerstone legislation of The Great Society and The War on Poverty: Medicare, The Voting Rights Act, The National Endowment for the Arts, stronger anti-pollution laws, aid to education, low-income housing—a cornucopia of laws validating the new self-image of Americans as a kind and generous people.
Then something changed. When I researched the two years associated with the pivot point, one statistic leapt out at me above all else: the sudden shift in American attitudes concerning the death penalty. In the early 60’s, Americans had begun to question the value and morality of state-sponsored murder, as reflected in annual Gallup polls showing decreasing support for the barbaric practice. In May 1966, for the first time in the history of the poll, a plurality of Americans favored abolishing the death penalty: 42% wanting to keep it, but 47% opting for abolition.
But the June 1967 survey revealed a sudden and significant reversal: 54% wanted to keep the death penalty, while only 38% wanted to get rid of it. This began a long, sickening trend that peaked in 1994, when 80% of the American people favored executions. While support for the death penalty drifted down to 60% in the 2016 poll, a solid majority of Americans remain enamored with legalized murder.
So what happened between May 1966 and June 1967 that made such a difference?
I can answer that in two words: Ronald Reagan.
Far more likable and telegenic than the grumpy Goldwater, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in a campaign that demonized protesters, hippies, minorities and welfare queens, capitalizing on deep-seeded white fear of economic and social displacement. Elected Governor of California in a landslide fueled by white disgust with the previous year’s Watts riots, Reagan gave voice to nostalgia for days gone by, the virtues of the Protestant work ethic, patriotism, law-and-order and un-politically correct racism. Reagan voters wanted to slam the door on civil rights that threatened property rights, hair styles that threatened gender identity, and any and all behaviors lumped under the label “un-American,” especially disagreement with American foreign policy.
We meet one of the flock who happily voted The Gipper into office in the opening number, “Pretty Smart on My Part.” Musically, the song takes you by surprise, with Phil channeling fellow Texan Buddy Holly in an intense acoustic strum reminiscent of the pattern in “Not Fade Away.” Phil enters in fine voice and seemingly good spirits as the voice of the man of the Silent Majority, who knows there are people out there who want to get him, hurt him and bring him down. These nefarious enemies include hitchhiking hippies, women with big tits, imaginary rapists and disease-ridden Chinese (or any Asian ethnic group; the bastard probably can’t tell the difference and calls them all “Chinese”). He responds to each of these “outsiders” with typically violent responses, some direct, some indirect. With the hitchhiker, he decides to run him over with his car; with the woman, he decides to tie her up and whip her (obviously Phil only had a superficial understanding of BDSM dynamics). The most curious incident involves the alleged rapist, for instead of doing the manly thing and protecting his wife, he does the manly thing and heads off to kill innocent birds:
I can see him coming
He’s walking through bedroom
With a switchblade knife
He’s looking at my wife
He wants to get me
He wants to hurt me
He wants to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little braver
I’ll go hunting with my rifle
Where the wild geese are flying
Then I’m gonna bag one
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
Yeah, I bet it makes you feel like such a man to kill a defenseless animal. Ooh, baby, fuck me with your long stiff rod!
Far more frightening is this dumb shit’s take on foreign policy, a completely ignorant, ethnocentric, racist stance that values extermination over negotiation:
I can see them coming
They’re training in the mountains
And they talk Chinese
And they spread disease
They want to get me
They want to hurt me
They want to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little safer
We’ll assassinate the president
And take over the government
And then we’re going to fry them
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
The key line in the song is “find my way home in the dark,” for it captures both the “man’s home is his castle” ethic of sacred property rights and the self-engendered belief that anyone who is “not me” is a tool of the Prince of Darkness. As I reconnected with this song, I thought of all those Trump voters, who—with a huge assist from their equally moronic candidate—wanted to blame China for everything: their unemployment, their loss of status in the world, the myth of America the Disrespected. Of course, it never dawned on these dummies that the Chinese were simply engaged in the same cutthroat competition for markets that Americans have practiced with abandon for over a century, or that they could have responded to globalization by GETTING A FUCKING EDUCATION and learning a new trade. No, just as was true in the 60’s, they want to thrill in their misery, blame everyone but themselves and turn to their cherished guns as their ultimate backup plan. Phil Ochs was not describing a phenomenon unique to the 1960’s; he was describing a central character flaw in the American male.
Doing a 180, Phil gives us “The Doll House,” a lovely waltz highlighted by Lincoln Mayorga’s deft celeste-like piano. The lyrics tend to the obscure, generally describing a fantastical and mythical world reminiscent of dreamland. Some have translated the opening line as, “Lost in the valley of dolls,” suggesting a drug-induced fantasy; what I hear is “Valley of Oz,” which fits better with the cultural references strewn throughout the song. This alternative world is a mélange of surreal imagery and mythical personages drawn from a variety of cultures (Cinderella, Tom Sawyer, The Lady of the Lake and Pirate Jenny—and perhaps Oz) with no apparent connection to one another. The only solid clue to interpretation is Phil’s shift to Dylan imitator in the second chorus, which could indicate the song was a send-up of Dylan’s more symbolist work . . . but that’s pure speculation. In any case, “The Doll House” is a lovely rainy afternoon song that flows beautifully.
There’s no mistaking the meaning of “I Kill Therefore I Am,” a no-holds barred attack on the American police. The cops of the era were labeled “pigs” by the New Left due to their well-documented, televised preference for beating heads with nightsticks, blasting little kids with firehoses and the disgusting frenzy of physical force displayed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The tendency of many young people in that generation to indulge in illegal substances added to the general tension between police and populace. What makes the song relevant today are two aspects of American policing that haven’t changed in fifty years: racial profiling and the conspiracy of the system to protect police from blatantly illegal actions:
I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place
Take the back of my hand or I’ll spray you with my mace
I’m as brave as any man can be
I find my courage through chemistry
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am . . .
Farewell to the gangsters we don’t need them anymore
We’ve got the police force, they’re the ones who break the law
He’s got a gun and he’s a hater
He shoots first, he shoots later
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.
As in “Pretty Smart on My Part” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” the upbeat, light rock music provides ironic counterpoint to the penetrating lyrics. This proved to be one of Phil’s most courageous songs, for as paranoid as he might have seemed to friends and family during his later decline, the FBI was busy building a file of over 500 pages related to his “subversive” activity.
Next, Phil’s attention turns inward in a trio of songs most would classify as “difficult.” I can’t argue with that characterization, but I deeply appreciate the emotional honesty of all three songs.
It all begins at Lincoln Park on the night of August 28, 1968, with his presence at an earth-shattering event that would add new pages to his FBI file. Phil Mershon described the scene in a piece on furious.com:
Humphrey accepted his party’s nomination on August 28, as the day ended and the scent of tear gas wafted up Michigan Avenue to the nominee’s suite at the Conrad Hilton. The worst violence was about to begin. And the New York folk singer would be right in the thick of things. The protestors had gathered in Grant Park to hear a series of speeches before marching to the Convention Center. The Chicago Police attempted to contain the group by surrounding the Park. One after another speaker addressed the crowd. In between speeches of men like activist Dave Dellinger, poet Allen Ginsberg, and comedian Dick Gregory, Phil would stand in the back of a pick-up truck and sing for the crowd. Shortly after he sang a rousing version of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” he saw a young boy climb the park’s flag pole and pull down Old Glory. The was all the provocation the police required. They grabbed the kid, beat him with their nightsticks, and tossed him into the back of a squad car while the more agitated onlookers threw rocks at the arresting officers. Press cameras filmed all this for posterity and even broadcast one cop commanding “Make sure you show them throwing rocks!” While Dave Dellinger attempted to lead a nonviolent march to the Convention Center (and was blocked from doing so), others took advantage of an opening in the quarantine and thousands of young people marched toward the Hilton. Enraged at being distracted, the police charged up Michigan Avenue, firing tear gas canisters and clubbing everything in sight. When clubs failed to subdue, they stomped. And when that proved ineffective, they kicked, shoved, punched and beat. The crowd shouted “The whole world is watching!”
That scene provided the bulk of the material for “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a melancholy depiction of the riot and, to some degree, its consequences. Given Phil’s politics, one might approach this song expecting a classic poor-me leftist rant that pins the blame squarely on the cops, but Phil Ochs was a much more perceptive human being capable of connecting the hidden dots. After describing the scene where young people peacefully assembled in the gloaming before the mayhem began, Phil comments on those who organized the protest:
They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe
And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes
Through Lincoln Park the dark was turning
Robespierre is the ultimate symbol of the extreme zealot, a purist leader who responded to any suspected deviation from the party line by sending the heretics to the guillotine. The reference clearly indicates that Phil considered the movement’s organizers equally culpable for the violence that night by stoking an “us-against them mentality” that would prove to be completely self-defeating. Phil Mershon put it this way:
As Phil Ochs and the others would soon come to realize, most of the whole world didn’t care and among those who did, many felt the cops hadn’t gone far enough.
Back in Los Angeles, Phil began to question his own approach to politics in America. While the Yippies and other radicals had been creating and recreating their own counterculture, they had alienated the American working class along with Middle America. People who were already involved, Ochs reasoned, didn’t need to be converted. Nixon–who would ride to victory above the shattered remains of a splintered Democratic Party–called these frightened Americans ‘the Silent Majority.’ Ochs knew that if this majority rejected the members of the New Left, they would in turn embrace the solutions of men like Nixon and George Wallace. Frightened by those prospects, the songwriter began to detach himself by degrees from the journalistic approach to his craft. The resulting music spoke with broader, more universal tones.
The reference to Yeats in the song’s title is therefore not a validation of candidate Eugene McCarthy’s favorite poet, but a realization that truths discovered through poetry have greater depth and duration than polemical positioning. The arrangement is itself poetic, combining piano with accordion and viola, creating that slow-motion atmosphere one experiences in the midst of a catastrophic event, where every visual, sound and smell is amplified a thousandfold. The curious addition of a barrelhouse segment after a brief silence underscored the competition for activist purity common on the left—if you weren’t in Chicago, you were nowhere, even if you happened to be helping the citizens of Detroit rebuild a city torn by riots.
“My Life” is the complementary twin of “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a statement of rebirth following the symbolic death of Chicago: “My life is now a death to me/So I’ll mold it and I’ll hold it till I’m born.” But as is true with nearly everything associated with Phil Ochs, the truth is much more complicated. He follows the statement of rebirth with the sad acknowledgment that no matter how much of his past he leaves behind and no matter where he chooses to take his art, he will always be a stranger in a strange land, deprived of peace and privacy:
So I turned to the land
Where I’m so out of place
Throw a curse on the plan
In return for the grace
To know where I stand
Take everything I own
Take your tap from my phone
And leave my life alone
My life alone.
The expression of alienation and the desire to retreat is the antithesis of American Optimism, so insipidly expressed in Paul Anka’s “My Way.”
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
Americans love a fighter—someone who can take the punch and get up from the canvas. In real life, things don’t work that way. People lose their jobs and slip into depression, and all the optimism in the world isn’t going to make a difference to someone who feels utterly worthless. You can fight until you turn black and blue but when you’re trying to work an employment system where your chances of getting a job depend largely on favoritism or dumb luck, fighting isn’t going to get you anywhere. Although this final verse is heartbreaking and full of anguish, it has the undying virtue of emotional honesty. This was a man frightened and astonished by what was happening in the world, feelings that many of us living in the present can easily relate to.
The final song in the trilogy, “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns,” superficially relates the story of the USS Scorpion, a US Navy submarine that was lost due to an “unexplained catastrophic event” that caused the ship to be crushed by the sheer pressure of the ocean’s depths, killing all 99 crewmen. In the liner notes for Rehearsals for Retirement/Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, Richie Unterberger noted that, “it could just be taken as a tale of a ship lost at sea, it also reflects directionlessness Ochs saw in both the course of America and within his own life.” The depiction of the captain as an unresponsive, uncommunicative leader captures the aimlessness one feels when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, but it also points out the problematic nature of depending on leaders to protect us from harm. In the last two verses, Phil gamely attempts to balance hope and despair, but in the end, comes firmly down on the side of anguish and self-doubt:
The radio is begging them to come back to the shore
All will be forgiven, it’ll be just like before
All you’ve ever wanted will be waiting by your door
We will forgive you, we will forgive you
Tell me we will forgive you
But no one gives an answer not even one goodbye
Oh, the silence of their sinking is all that they reply
Some have chosen to decay and others chose to die
But I’m not dying, no I’m not dying
Tell me I’m not dying
The arrangement here echoes the more complex arrangements of Pleasures of the Harbor, featuring a French horn counterpoint that somehow manages to express a mournful urgency.
Having plumbed the depths of his soul, Phil gives himself and the listener a break with the light-and-bouncy “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” Some have remarked that the cheesy horns were a dig at Herb Alpert, but I don’t think The Tijuana Brass was that bad. It’s followed by “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” another waltz featuring one of Phil’s most lovely melodies, one that flows so beautifully with the lyrics that it’s difficult to reconcile the beauty with the subject matter—the relentless progression of depression. This song has been mistakenly identified as some kind of tribute to Lenny Bruce, a perception that fits neither with the lyrics nor the timing (Lenny Bruce had died over two years before). My take is Lenny is the narrator of his own story, the depressed soul separating himself from his decaying self by shifting to the third-person perspective. Our Lenny’s journey into darkness ends in a dingy room in nowheresville, a “long-time loser” grieving for an ex-lover but still suffering from her definitive judgment of his worth:
The fat official smiles at the pass on the border
And the hungry broom makes sure that the room is in order
You pull the shade
All the beds are made
As your lips caress the razor of the blade
Of the blade
And the haggard ex-lover of a long-time loser
Stands rejectedly by the door
Doesn’t Lenny live here anymore?
Are you sure?
A difficult piece of work, indeed.
Phil returns to the political in “Another Age,” a fairly straightforward condemnation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and the lasting damage to American society that went far beyond the sickening body count. “We were born in a revolution and we died in a wasted war” expresses both the pointlessness of that terrible war and the complete destruction of America’s standing as the world’s moral guardian. Once again, a snappy tempo contrasts with the bitter lyrics, though the way the rhythmic structure allows Phil’s voice to soar on “So I pledge allegiance against the flag” confirms the wisdom of the counterintuitive choice.
The title track ends the album, one of the most remarkable duets of voice and piano you will ever hear. Phil and Lincoln Mayorga perform like perfectly-synced dancers following a rhythm of spontaneous creation. Both introduce subtle delays in the song’s progress to highlight the emotional content, with Phil in particular extending syllables beyond expected length, particularly on the second lines of the verses. The couplet that serves as the song’s bridge is one I find endlessly intriguing, due to the ambiguity concerning the kind of laughter he’s describing: joyful, contemptuous or absurd? The message of comfort to his daughter in the second line might indicate any of the three, with the implication that the end is not as important as the journey:
Had I known the end would end in laughter
Still I’d tell my daughter that it doesn’t matter
Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a commercial disaster, Phil Ochs’ worst-selling album, one that was removed from the A&M catalog rather speedily after its release. While the relentless sense of despair at the loss of one’s country and one’s soul may have accounted for poor sales, I think the more likely culprit was its rejection of American Optimism. Phil Ochs saw the writing on the wall and put it into song but no one wanted to hear that America was finished or that the tried-and-true tactics of the early Civil Rights Movement would fail to stop the war. Identities were locked into place, the battle lines were drawn and any chance of dialogue obliterated be the “me”/”not me” paradigm.
Once again, America finds itself thoroughly divided and in a much more precarious position than it was in the 1960’s. Nixon never came close to experiencing Republican control of Congress, so he had no choice but to compromise on issues of human rights and the environment. For all practical purposes, America is now a one-party state led by a mean-spirited sociopath. While Democrats can vote against this insult to intelligence or that abuse of human rights, the right wing controls the votes. Things seem beyond hopeless, but the worst thing Americans can do is go into denial about it or—even worse—normalize the situation.
In Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs spoke the emotional and political truth of a country shattered by repeated acts of self-destruction—a country very much like the United States of January 2017. Despite its dark and brooding tone, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a cathartic and comforting experience for me. Phil Ochs expressed all the feelings I have experienced since the election: angst, depression, anguish anger, frustration and confusion about what to do next. Being reminded that we have gone through similar dark periods in recent history helped me appreciate the fundamental truth that the struggle against prejudice, greed and violence is a never-ending battle against human fear and ignorance.
When I reviewed London Calling a few months ago, I had no answer to Joe Strummer’s essential question: “What are we gonna do now?” Somehow, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement clarified things for me. We need to accept the fundamental truth that the emerging fascist leaders of the day (Trump, Le Pen, Duterte, etc.) capitalize solely on human fear and insecurity. They do that because they are frightened human beings themselves. They project a strong, tough image to protect their essential vulnerability, and in the process gather many frightened followers. While human beings in fear can be terribly dangerous, they are also inherently fragile. On my part, I will do everything I can to expose these frauds as the deeply insecure people they are and persistently fight them with the truth. I also intend to respect, engage and try to understand the frightened people who follow these corrupt leaders (and I have lots of opportunity to do that, since I live in a part of France where LePen is relatively popular). Finally, I will do whatever I can to work with others to eliminate the two primary sources of fear in our world today: economic inequality and prejudice.
With luck, I may be able to influence half a dozen people to face their fears and move on. But if enough of us fight the fascists with the weapons of truth and human respect—no matter how ugly things get—we can put these motherfuckers where they belong—on the ash heap of history.
Fuck “Let’s win one for The Gipper.” Let’s win this one for Phil Ochs!
I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 1998 and my parents and I were standing in line at Euston Station to buy tickets for the train to Liverpool. My father had promised me a pilgrimage to Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and The Cavern Club for a straight-A academic performance, and I had achieved that goal by overcoming the astonishing power of a Chemistry textbook to lull me into a sound sleep. We had spent a few days in London seeing other relevant historical sites like Carnaby Street, Abbey Road and Denmark Street, and our next step in the plan was to head north for an excursion that would include Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester (I was still in love with Liam Gallagher at the time).
Anyway, we’d finally made it to the head of the queue when two figures in rumpled suits carrying briefcases in their hands and fags in their mouths approached the line with harried, frantic looks on their faces. They looked towards the end of the queue, which was about ten transactions deep, looked at their watches and expelled a few expletives.
“You seem in a hurry,” I remarked. “Would you like to go ahead of us? We’ve got the time.”
“Oh, thank YOU!” said the taller, good-looking one. As luck would have it, a window became available immediately and the good-looking one rushed towards it, leaving me with his companion, who resembled a red-haired version of Marty Feldman.
“Train leaves in five minutes,” he explained, his eyes rolling every which way.
Our chat was interrupted by a sudden outburst of frustration from his companion. Apparently he’d run into a snag, but he used a phrase I had never heard before, one of such obvious power and expressive impact that it shook me to the core of my soul.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
From that moment forward, I adopted that phrase as my own, saving it only for very special occasions when I needed something to express complete and utter disbelief at the stupidity of the human species.
Fast forward to the end of 1999. Amidst the predictions of Y2K doom and gloom, every media outlet was publishing their “best of the century” lists, covering best books, best movies, best set of tits . . . and of course, best albums. I was in one of the libraries scattered around the Claremont Colleges, finishing research on one of my first college papers (I think it was an analysis of how Byron’s club foot affected the meter of Don Juan). Because the stability of the Internet connection in the dorms was a jump ball proposition at best, I decided to hang around and use a more reliable access point to find out what was going on in the music world. As was my habit at the time, I began with the New Musical Express, or NME. Right there on the front page was the news: NME had named Pet Sounds the best album of the 20th century.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I exclaimed, with great intensity and volume, crashing silence and library taboos as if a two-ton bomb had ripped through the roof. Everyone looked at me in surprise, some glaring, some smiling, but I had given them a moment they would remember all their lives, just as the harried traveler in Euston Station had given me.
There’s no question that Pet Sounds would definitely find a spot on my top albums list—the list of the most overrated albums of all time. The praise and attention that has been heaped on this record has elevated it to near-sacred status, a development I find completely unfathomable. I’ve listened to the album in mono and stereo, I’ve read all the reviews, I’ve read essays justifying its lofty position as the best rock album ever made, I’ve looked at the sheet music . . . and I can only conclude that this is a textbook example of what Hitler called “The Big Lie.” If you tell the masses a lie that is so extravagant that no one could possibly believe that anyone could make it up, they will believe the lie.
Christ, even Brian Wilson said it wasn’t as good as Rubber Soul, and Rubber Soul isn’t even The Beatles’ best. In my opinion, it’s not even The Beach Boys’ best. Pet Sounds was an album that took a few liberties with sound and instrumentation that other musicians claimed influenced their efforts. Influential? Yes, I suppose. Listenable? Barely. Enjoyable? That depends on personal taste, but when my dad and I talked about the inflation of Pet Sounds to iconic status, he made a very interesting comment. “Now that you mention it, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me how great it is and how influential it is, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they actually liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my friends play it, and I can’t remember the last time I played it.”
If anything, Pet Sounds reveals inherent deficiencies in The Beach Boys that they were never able to overcome. They never had to pay their dues, having lived a comfortable white middle class existence in a typically dysfunctional family in the Southern California Dream World of the 1960’s. Their earliest musical influences were clean white male trios and quartets like The Four Freshmen, and though much is made about how Carl turned Brian on to Johnny Otis’ radio program, The Beach Boys never immersed themselves in the blues, soul or R&B to the extent that The Beatles, Stones and Kinks did. As such, their attempts at finding the groove may have been mathematically correct but lacked feel. Beach Boys songs may make you tap your toes but they were completely devoid of the sexual tension present in truly great rock and roll. They produced clean, white bread rock and roll with emphasis on the harmonies, not the groove.
Another fundamental flaw in the band that comes through loud and clear on Pet Sounds is that they never developed a social consciousness (their later attempts like “Student Demonstration Time,” are simply pathetic). The lyrics on Pet Sounds forever trapped in the amber of Wally and Beaver’s room: songs that nice, clean, white high school kids can play at their weekend swim parties. Eight of the eleven vocal songs on Pet Sounds are adolescent love songs with lyrics dripping with teenage naiveté, traditional middle class values and blatant sexism. They describe a world where girls are things that guys pass around; that the worst thing a girl can do is change and grow; and where young couples never engage in pre-marital sex. The two attempts to deal with personal growth or the meaning of life, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” contain awkwardly expressed, unfinished thoughts that add up to little more than mental stammering. An outsider named Tony Asher may have written most of the lyrics, but Brian Wilson thought they were wonderful and The Beach Boys recorded them. In 1966, Ray Davies did Face to Face, John Lennon wrote “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and even McCartney got into the act with “Eleanor Rigby.” Ignoring a world where change was exploding all around them, The Beach Boys were still singing lyrics suitable for The Ozzie & Harriet Show.
And because of Pet Sounds, they call Brian Wilson a genius? Before I deal with this topic, let me explain that I don’t think any human being who has ever lived qualifies as a genius: not DaVinci, not Steve Jobs, not Einstein, not Mozart. It’s much more accurate to say that people have moments of genius; no one is a genius 24/7, 365 for an entire life. Every so-called genius has produced mountains of crap, theories that didn’t pan out or ideas that were flat-out bizarre. There have also been millions of genius moments of which we will never be aware, because the person who had the insight didn’t have the combination of connections and luck that could have rescued the genius moment from obscurity. Brian Wilson certainly had genius moments, but your won’t find them on this album—you’ll hear them on “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations.” Some of the songs on Pet Sounds, like “Caroline No” and “God Only Knows” have lovely melodies and fascinating chord patterns, but the lyrics are so childish that the songs cannot possibly qualify as genius moments.
I can understand the influential aspect of Pet Sounds. In addition to the complex chord structures in some of the songs (although the minor sixths and sevenths do begin to get tiresome), the sudden shifts in key and tempo, the out-of-sync drum attacks, the use of alternative instruments and the harmonic complexity point the way to new possibilities. I don’t know if the animal sounds led to the ending of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” but they were another message that boundaries were there for the breaking. But in one sense, Pet Sounds marks a regression rather than a progression, for despite the complexity of the arrangements, Brian Wilson’s production style was still grounded in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” approach. This is a major flaw in Pet Sounds, for there are many times when the mix fails to adequately distinguish the instruments. In contrast to Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds has an astonishingly small sound field, making many of the arrangements come across as terribly crowded. While part of this may have to do with Brian Wilson’s deafness in one ear that led him to do his final mixes in mono, the end result is less than satisfactory.
I don’t know how an album with a muddled mix and piss-poor lyrics can be called the greatest rock album ever, but then again, what do I know? I have similarly low opinions of other allegedly great albums, from Astral Weeks to Exile on Main Street to Abbey Road. The one thing that I will say in defense of my position is that it is my creation and has not been influenced by music industry propaganda . . . and those guys are better than Goebbels at making people believe in things that have no basis in reality—like the belief that Coldplay or Lana del Rey actually have talent.
Pet Sounds is Phil Spector on acid, nothing more, nothing less.