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Brian Wilson behind the mixing board of Brother Studios, circa 1976.

I was a Beach Boys fan from the start when they and I both loved surf culture more than we loved surfing. (Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the band.)  I loved the harmonies. But it was all about Brian.

Brian had lots of issues – drugs, bogus psychiatry, bad management and fears about touring. 1964 – 1977 is a sad but fascinating period in Brian and the band’s history. I wrote earlier about my own brush against Brian’s problems, but the music has always helped me, and I think it saved Brian.

Brian had a panic attack on a flight from L.A. to Houston in late 1964 and stopped performing live with the group. Like The Beatles in later years, he wanted to concentrate on songwriting  and studio production.

The band continued touring with Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston as Brian’s substitute for live performances. Back in L.A., Brian was introduced to marijuana by a friend who thought it would de-stress him and aid his creativity. It worked, and in a month he completed the Beach Boys’ Today! album and started on the next one, Summer Days.

The next spring, Brian tried LSD for the first time and that acid trip also inspired him. You might think it would inspire some “acid-rock” but what came from that experience was the music for “California Girls.” That Top-10 pop single was great for the band, but the acid trip also led to auditory hallucinations which have plagued him throughout his life.

In late 1965, he started working on material for what would become Pet Sounds. It ended up being pretty much a Brian Wilson solo album.

Brian wrote, produced, and sang on it and the album’s instrumentation was done by the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Brian used them throughout the mid-1960s, on “Help Me, Rhonda”, “California Girls”, “Good Vibrations” as well as Pet Sounds and the original sessions for Smile.

When the band returned from a tour in Japan, all that was left to do was record their vocal overdubs. That didn’t go over well with the band, especially Mike Love. Despite their feelings that this was not a Beach Boys album in its creation and sound, it was released in May 1966. It had modest sales figures at the time, but since then it has become critically acclaimed, even arguably (no argument from me) being cited among the all-time greatest albums.

“Good Vibrations” hit number one and Brian started on Smile, which he once described as a “teenage symphony to God.” Like “Good Vibrations,” the album would be recorded in separately written modular sections that would be divided into tracks and spliced together. The standard live-to-tape linear performances that The Beach Boys and most bands were using fell away. Brian wrote with Van Dyke Parks.

The album was scheduled to be released in January 1967 but that was bumped so many times that by May the whole project was cancelled.

Beach Boys recording relocated to a studio situated in Brian’s mansion living room where he had installed his grand piano in a giant sandbox and built a tent. Things were strange.

The rest of the year they produced a few heavily orchestrated tracks (“Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone”). Brian asked his brother Carl to take on the recording sessions. It was all too much.

After the collapse of Smile, financial issues and more drug use (cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and psychedelics) and the birth of his first child (Carnie  in 1968), Brian ended up in psychiatric hospital. he received a whirlwind of treatments (talk therapy, Lithium and electroconvulsive therapy).

The Wilson boys’ father had been managing the band since the start but had many issues with Brian over music and contracts. Murry Wilson sold their Sea of Tunes publishing company to A&M Records’ publishing division for only $700,000. Brian lost most of his music and this renewed the feuding between him and his father.

But Brian gained some stability and even toured briefly in 1970 when Mike Love was ill. e went back to writing and recording with the Beach Boys. He wrote or co-wrote 7 of the 12 tracks on Sunflower. A decent album, it was a commercial flop. The Beach Boys were viewed as a nostalgia act.

It was a period when their albums had terrible titles (15 Big Ones, an album of covers) and weak sales. Brain managed to write most of Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968) but his studio participation was far less than in the past.

Carl and the band cobbled together tracks for an album called 20/20. I bought that in 1969 and had no idea that it was Smile outtakes (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”) along with older songs like “Time to Get Alone.” Those tracks sit a bit oddly next to the more surf-sounding single “Do It Again.” But that classic single-sound made it a hit on the US charts in 1968 (plus number 1 in the UK and Australia). “Break Away” became the band’s final single for Capitol Records.

In 1971, Surf’s Up became their 17th studio album and got good reviews and reached number 29 on US record charts and #15 in the UK. It was their best performing album in years. The title echoes the band’s past, but the music was not surf rock at all. The title track was from the Wilson/Van Dyke Parks sessions for Smile. Like Pet Sounds, the album had legs and was voted to several “Best Of” album lists later.

Carl and the Passions  (the name of the Wilson boys high school band) “So Tough” was the next album (1972), a moderate commercial success upon release, but one in which Brian had minimal involvement. reaching number 25 in the UK and number 50 in the US.

The band was still releasing an album each year and in 1973 it was Holland. It was produced by the band and mostly recorded in Baambrugge, Netherlands. Two Brian Wilson tracks were recorded in Los Angeles and added to the album at the last minute. The two singles were “Sail On, Sailor” and “California Saga.”

The end, or turning point, of this troubled period is the album Love You  in 1977.

This 21st studio album, Love You, is not a great album, but  it marked the return of Brian Wilson at the helm of Beach Boys ship.

He gets credited with writing and arranging all the songs. He also plays every instrument. But there are some Beach Boys vocals.

Brian says he was more concerned with lyrics on this project.Some of the song topics are odd –  Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – and stories about his writing at this time have him sitting down and improvising a new song in 20 minutes.

Some tracks, like “The Night Was So Young” and “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” have the old construction and harmonies, but the album heavily uses synthesizers. “Good Time” was a 7-year-old Sunflower outtake.

Brian had planned this as a solo record and the working title was Brian Loves You. It peaked at number 53 on US record charts and was received very mixed reviews from both fans and critics. There was one single – “Honkin’ Down the Highway”/”Solar System.”

Carl Wilson remixed the “finished” album in January 1977 and added guitar and percussion tracks and is credited as the album’s mixdown producer.

The album was done while Brian was in mental and drug rehabilitation. It was the last album written and produced by Wilson for the next 11 years. The week after he finished, he began Adult/Child, but it was never released.

Brother Dennis Wilson died in 1983. Brian’s first true solo album, the eponymous Brian Wilson in 1988, was his return to recording and performing. Carl Wilson died in 1998.

Brian would finally get to release Smile in 2004.

There are 385 versions of albums by The Beach Boys currently on Amazon.

You can understand it when people are ill and with few options for relief or a cure turning to alternative therapies and cures. But there is an enormous market for alternatives with people who are not seriously ill and perhaps not ill at all. The biggest market segment is with people who want to prevent illness.

Just about every publication runs articles on self-help through non-medical alternatives.

At the top of that list of alternatives for several decades has been meditation and yoga. But some of the others are not as well known or popular yet.

Would you consider the Japanese tea ceremony (chado) to be a kind of therapy? It certainly causes its participants to slow down and become mindful of their actions. The mostly silent ceremony embodies harmony, respect, purity and tranquility through the rituals such as sharing a communal bowl and wiping where you’ve sipped before passing it on.

Aromatherapy might strike you as New Age hocus pocus, but I think about the comfort I have long received from using Vicks VapoRub when I have a cold or aromatic muscle rubs when I pull a muscle. I have heard that the mild stimulant effect those products have on skin and nerves is short-lived and ineffective, but the aromas have some effect on me.

lavender

Aromatherapists will tell you that essential oils mix affect us psychologically but also physiologically, specifically they affect the limbic system and the central nervous system. The limbic system of the brain that has amongst its functions how we experience emotions.

A friend who is an aromatherapist had given me a small pillow filled with lavender and other herbs and oils that I keep in the freezer and use for headaches. It does help, though I can’t say if its effect is psychological, physiological or a combination.

Sensory-deprivation tanks are another alternative.  Shutting down our senses and eliminating distractions supposedly can relieve sore muscles and joints, help detoxify your body and quiet the mind.

There are also sound therapies, drum therapies, and even pet therapies that don’t relax your pet, but use others pets to relax you.

Some alternatives have gained much wider acceptance and credibility over the past five decades. Acupuncture and acupressure fall into that group.

Acupuncture uses fine needles inserted at specific points to stimulate, disperse, and regulate the flow of “vital energies” to restore a healthy energy balance.

Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but uses finger pressure on points along the body to treat ailments such as tension and stress, aches and pains, menstrual cramps, arthritis.

Whether you call these alternative approaches therapies or medicines, these systems are in practice all over the world. Every country has its alternative approaches: Chinese acupuncture, for the French, magnetic healing; in England, Herbalism; in India, Ayurveda and in Japan, Shiatsu.

In December 1970 I was in my senior year of high school. I was thinking about college. I was thinking about the Vietnam War and that the following year while at college I would be part of the draft lottery. Someone would pull a ball with my birthday (October 20) on it and then another ball with a number (from 1-365) that would decide if I was going to be drafted into the Army.

On Thanksgiving break, I had bought Laura Nyro’s new album,  Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. I knew of her two earlier albums but I didn’t own them.

I bought it because of the title and because her sad eyes were staring at me.

People knew her music because there were pop covers of her songs on the radio by other artists. (The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save the Country”, and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Comin'”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love” and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man).” )

Laura didn’t have hits, but I heard her on WNEW-FM regularly. Ironically, Laura’s own rare cover version of a song, the Carole King-Gerry Goffin oldie “Up on the Roof,” was probably her only Billboard “hit.” I saw that Laura Nyro was playing at the Fillmore East in New York City on the 22nd.

Though we celebrated Christmas in my family, the holiday has lost all its childhood magic seven years before when my father got really sick. When he died, after five years of crippling illness, Christmas had become a depressing time of year.

For some reason, during this period of my life, when I was depressed, I would do things to drag myself deeper into that depression. Smoke, drink, stay away from people, take long walks alone and listen to depressing music.

In three days, it would be Christmas. Laura Nyro’s seemed to me to be a tortured artist who fit right in with my mood.

Also on the bill was Jackson Browne, a songwriter whose songs were recorded by others. He wouldn’t release the eponymous Jackson Browne until 1972, but he played songs from that album that would launch his career: “Doctor My Eyes”, “Rock Me on the Water”,”Jamaica Say You Will” and “Song for Adam” which he wrote about the death of a friend. He often was paired on bills with artists like Nyro, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell.

I went to the concert. Alone.

Poco had been at the Fillmore a few night before on one of those oddball multi-artist bills along with Savoy Brown, Gypsy and Jo Mama. The day after Christmas, Mountain would roll into the Fillmore and “Mississippi Queen” their way on a hard rock “Nantucket Sleighride.”

But at the Fillmore East on December 22, 1970, it was a much quiter night with a woman and her piano and a man with his guitar. My Christmas gift to myself.

I stumbled on an audio recording of Laura Nyro on that night on YouTube. I don’t know the copyright/wrong-ness of the posting, but I hope it stays there so that other people can listen.

 

Did Laura’s music make me more depressed? She programmed her set nicely for me. It started out soft and sad. “And When I Die” sounds like a downer and it can be, but it can also be seen as a positive outlook about death. “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born and a world/to carry on/to carry on.”

“Christmas in My Soul” (which is actually more political than you might expect) was done as a poem.

But there was no way to stay depressed through her closer of “Time and Love” and “Save the Country.”

Nyro was inspired to write “Save the Country” after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. That doesn’t sound very upbeat, but again the outlook is positive. Listening to it this week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of our country right now.

Come on, people come on, children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down
Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down

Come on people! Sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
We could build the dream with love, I know…

Everyone around me was singing, gospel style, that last line “We could build the dream with love” over and over. It felt like we could.

 

 

In late 1996, Laura Nyro, like her mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died the following year. I had to look up some things this morning to write this post and saw that she died on this day April 8, in 1997. Synchronicity. She was only 49, the same age at which the disease had taken her mother.

After her illness was diagnosed, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc retrospective of her music which was Laura’s final musical project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. She was reportedly pleased with the outcome.

I started reading The Goldfinchthe third novel by Donna Tartt, when it was released. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Secret History (1992), but at almost 800 pages The Goldfinch didn’t grab me.

I’m tough on books lately. I tend to get library books most of the time nowadays – too many books in the house and it is getting harder to get rid of them. That means, especially for new, popular books, that I have two weeks to read them probably without renewal. I read slower than ever before and I only made it about 100 pages into the novel and didn’t renew it.

Tartt only produces a book about every decade, so there is plenty of time to read her work. And then The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Amazon selected the novel as the 2013 Best Book of the Year, and it was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review

I am not the only reader who misses something in a book that is critically acclaimed later. One review of The Goldfinch reminded us that “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” was part of a review in The New York Times at the release of Nabokov’s Lolita. I liked that novel a lot when I read it in college.

The NYT (well, their critic) also declared that  Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was “Kind of monotonous… He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crummy school.” And I loved that book when I read it at 13 and every time I reread it.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in my top ten novels list and many others, but it was called “An absurd story” by The Saturday Review while the New York Herald Tribune said it was “a book of the season only.”

My local library now offers me ebooks and audiobooks online via Overdrive and I saw that The Goldfinch was available as an audiobook. I downloaded it and once again had two weeks to finish. I started at the beginning again and this time I made it through the 32 hours and 29 minutes.

The novel can be called a Bildungsroman, which is the fancier German word for a novel of formation or education, and is sometimes called a coming-of-age story. The  first-person narrator is Theodore Decker who we meet at age 13. He survives a terrorist bombing at a NYC art museum. His much beloved mother dies in the blast. As he escapes the museum he meets two other victims and half-consciously takes a small, Dutch painting, The Goldfinch. 

Those two people will change his life path, as will having that stolen work of art.

The painting (shown above) is one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. I doubt that it is coincidence that almost all of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in an explosion in 1654 which also killed the artist.

The goldfinch in that painting is chained to its feeder perch. In the painter’s time,  goldfinches were popular pets. They could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this training and translates literally as “little weller.”

I see goldfinches at the feeder outside my window. they are American goldfinches and more beautiful than the one in that painting.

goldfinches

American Goldfinches at a feeder – male on the left

I don’t find the painting that extraordinary but, as the novel makes clear, my review doesn’t match that of most critics.  With the painting, like the novel, maybe I am missing something.

The painting is nice. The novel was okay this second time around. But I can’t give either one a rave review. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book or watch a film. But I did read reviews for the novel in between my first and second attempts. Some people loved it. Some did not.

But those goldfinches outside get five stars. They are perfect.

I may have started out as a voracious reader, moved on to be an English major and then a teacher, but now that all that life has pretty much passed, I find myself more fascinated by what is actually outside my window. Real birds. Real stories. Real people.

I haven’t abandoned the arts. I even make some attempts at them myself.  And I’ll still recommend Tartt’s The Secret History, and Gatsby, Lolita, and Catcher. But I strongly recommend looking out the window and then stepping out to encounter the world more often.

 

 

Science and atheism usually sit at the same table. They are friendly. Sometimes they sit at the agnostics table, and it’s not that they are never friendly to the believers, but they have their usual place.

One time, over drinks, one of the believers said to science, “Well, I know you believe in one miracle.”

“Oh, what’s that?” said science, laughing.

“The Big Bang. Everything from nothing. That’s a pretty big miracle.”

Which brings us to infinity. It’s a topic so vast and unimaginable for most of us to wrap our brains around.

Infinity? Forever? Wait, what came before that big bang?

Physicists have a hard enough time figuring what happened at the very first moment of the big bang. But what about before that? Did time or anything exist before it?

Theories are out there. Maybe there was a series of bangs and they keep happening.  What about that whole string theory thing?

Maybe the universe isn’t infinite. Maybe it is just really big. Sounds like a joke, but cosmologist Janna Levin uses that kind of questioning in one of her books. And she is looking at a group of Big Questions –  black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, and dark energy – questions so big we have to sometimes laugh.

That hit me hard in the funny part of the brain in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The idea that the universe is expanding is scary.

In Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space we can follow her through the the paradoxes of finitude. Those hot and cold spots left over from the Big Bang have a pattern that may eventually reveal the true size and shape of the cosmos.

“For a long time I believed the universe was infinite. Which is to say, I just never questioned this assumption that the universe was infinite. But if I had given the question more attention, maybe I would have realized sooner. The universe is the three-dimensional space we live in and the time we watch pass on our clocks. It is our north and south, our east and west, our up and down. Our past and future. As far as the eye can see there appears to be no bound to our three spatial dimensions and we have no expectation for an end to time. The universe is inhabited by giant clusters of galaxies, each galaxy a conglomerate of a billion or a trillion stars. The Milky Way, our galaxy, has an unfathomably dense core of millions of stars with beautiful arms, a skeleton of stars, spiraling out from this core. The earth lives out in the sparsely populated arms orbiting the sun, an ordinary star, with our planetary companions. Our humble solar system. Here we are. A small planet, an ordinary star, a huge cosmos. But we’re alive and we’re sentient. Pooling our efforts and passing our secrets from generation to generation, we’ve lifted ourselves off this blue and green water-soaked rock to throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.”

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” — W. H. Auden

I was thinking today about spring fever. It is spring, but today was a cold, rainy day and didn’t feel like the spring I have been waiting for since last December. It was November in my soul and I was craving an ocean view.

We pay extra for an ocean view. Why?

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. ”    – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I was feeling that pull to the sea today. I wanted to spend some time staring at the sea. Staring at the sea is more than a song collection by The Cure, and staring at those waves is more than doing nothing.

Our brains really do love the ocean. Scientists have studied this. This  human-ocean connection is sometimes referred to as  BLUEMIND.

But I don’t need ocean science to tell me that watching the ocean reduces stress.

Those new to meditation are often perplexed by the idea that mindfulness means emptying your mind. The perpetual rolling of the waves is an excellent mantra.

A satori is an instant awakening, a brief moment of enlightenment when things become clear, or you have a deep realisation. Monks can achieve satori by staring at a blank wall or a circle, so it seems entirely possible that it can happen while staring at the sea.

In case you don’t have a nearby ocean, you can listen to the entire album Staring at the Sea free while you stare at a nearby wall, or a photo or video of the ocean.  But before you start knocking people’s hats off, get thee to the ocean.

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