Thursday, January 24, 2008
Father Burner grimaced, the flesh rising in sweet, concentric tiers around his mouth, and said in a tone both entrusting and ennobling Keefe with his confidence, "The syrup, if you please, Father." Keefe passed the silver pitcher which was running at the mouth. Father Burner reimmersed the doughy remains on his plate until the butter began to float around the edges as in a moat. He felt them both watching the butter. Regretting that he had not foreseen this attraction, he cast about in his mind for something to divert them and found the morning sun coming in too strongly. He got up and pulled down the shade. He returned to his place and settled himself in such as way that a new chapter was indicated.There will be no new chapter for Father Burner. Meanwhile, I was reading the new Charles Baxter novel, The Soul Thief, and came across this little riff about "God Only Knows," which the protagonist hears on his car radio:
The unearthly beauty of the music fills the car. Nathaniel listens: muted horns, strings, tapped blocks, sleigh bells, a linear vocal line lightly harmonized in thirds until, three-quarters of the way through, the music becomes vertical rather than horizontal, as the voices pile up in a series of increasingly complicated harmonies in a refrain--God only knows what I'd be without you--repeated and repeated and repeated, with a frightening emphasis on the word "what," until the voices fade out, having absolutely nowhere to go. This is the song, Nathaniel knows, in which Brian Wilson handed over his heart to God and simultaneously lost his mind. The song is Brian Wilson's favorite, the one he sold his soul for. After "God Only Knows" there were other songs, certainly, "Good Vibrations" and the rest of them, but the spirit had abandoned him: addressed not to a California girl, a sun-bleached surfer chick, the refrain had been spoken to his own spirit, his genius, which, in one of those ironies of which life is so fond, left him there and then.Baxter's novel takes place in the glorious Seventies, so his protagonist couldn't have known that in the long run, Wilson fared slightly better than Father Burner. After decades of disarray and drug-induced sloth (Wilson has admitted that he didn't even bathe for years at a time), there was a new chapter: Smile. The angelic falsetto was gone, but somehow his "teenage symphony," with its zany bursts of Americana, now hung together. Will there be another chapter to come? God only knows.
Coincidentally, I was reading up on "God Only Knows" just yesterday, and according to Philip Lambert's terrific Inside the Music of Brian Wilson, that "angelic" voice belonged to Carl Wilson, enjoying his sole solo vocal on Pet Sounds. Tony Asher wrote the beautiful/creepy lyrics.