The quintessential signs of fall are everywhere.
Some of the rituals we undertake to prepare us for the periodic shift into autumn are warranted. One in particular, though — putting away our Beach Boys records for lack of seasonal applicability — is unnecessary and even contradictory. To peg their music to summer is an arbitrary insult to their multidimensionality, especially when it comes to yearly fluctuations in temperature, weather and, as a byproduct of both, mood. These songs are tied to ambiguous frames of mind.
Last week, exactly 50 years ago, the debut Beach Boys album Surfin’ Safari dropped on Capitol Records. It was fall then, too. Its lasting legacy is less a classic start-to-finish release and more a statement of what was to come. “Cuckoo Clock” was raw Brian Wilson with its gorgeous harmonies slathered in extra froth and left to air-dry on a California beach. “Chug-A-Lug” dropped hints at Mike Love’s budding ego, with nutty references to his bandmates’ quirky doings (“Carl says hurry up and order it quick/ Dave gets out to chase that chick”). What probably holds up best is the title track, their seminal, 4/4 ode to rollicking summers of the past, present and future.
But what makes the Beach Boys legacy — which began with Surfin’ Safari — unique isn’t tied to their distinct Americana or the vivid images conjured when we listen to them. Brian Wilson and his bandmates were true auteurs because their songs lingered in a deeper, even metaphysical realm. Even lighter Safari tracks like “County Fair” are laced with such genuine sadness because we buy into the concept that behind the references to beaches, surfboards and cars, there lurks an obsession with the ideal. On a canvas splattered with bright colors and sparkling, euphoric overtones, there is a disdain for what life really is.
I firmly believe that there are two fundamental ways to digest music. The first is by way of intellect, where we make associations and connections to other things that remind us of what we are listening to. The second is about letting the music bypass your brain and go straight to your heart. The Beach Boys have tapped into both of these experiences. We can view their music as the struggle between the drabness of the real and the wonders of the surreal. But it’s also candy for the soul. We ache while listening to songs like “God Only Knows” and “Surf’s Up” for deep, personal reasons that vary for each individual. We’re all similar in listening to the same sounds but unique in why they mean something true to us.
So before you think about stowing away your Beach Boys LPs to mark the end of summer, think again. The history of affection that began with Surfin’ Safari may ring truer than expected, despite the fact that we’ve now entered fall.