Love and Mercy, Not Blood and Bullets

Love and Mercy, Not Blood and Bullets

For almost four years now, as I’ve completed a second book, 1966 has weighed heavily on my mind. Maybe you were born that year, or one of your siblings was. Maybe you got married then, or your parents did. Perhaps you graduated, or got drafted. Maybe you lost someone—to distance, disease, or drinking; to random violence or Vietnam. In May that year, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, an album that received some critical acclaim despite mostly popular failure. Love and Mercy, a stunning biopic about Brian Wilson released last weekend (starring John Cusack and Paul Dano), devotes an amazing amount of detail to the creation of songs for that album. It wasn’t an easy process. In one telling moment during the drafting stage, Wilson tests out “God Only Knows” on the piano and sings for his father in the living room. “It’s a love song,” Wilson says, only to hear his father spit back, “It’s a suicide note.” How wrong his father was. Pet Sounds was certainly a far cry from the sugary surfer tunes of earlier Beach Boys records, but that’s what made (and makes) it so compelling. There is a counterpoint of notes in major and minor keys, an unpredictable instrumentality, the interplay of mournful phrasing and affirmative refrain—shadow and brightness—as if attuned to the year, and perhaps the decade, itself: “Each time things start to happen/I think I got something good goin’ for myself/But what goes wrong/Sometimes I feel very sad/Sometimes I feel very sad…/I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” Three months after Pet Sounds was released, Charles Whitman wrote actual suicide letters that...

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