“God Only Knows (Stack-O-Vocals)”


The nice thing about all these deluxe reissues and box sets coming out is that fans get new music from their favorite acts, or at least new versions of old classics.  These re-releases also give us fascinating insight into how the music got recorded in the first place.  I like hearing alternate versions–at least as long as they sound significantly different from the originals–or demos.  It’s the creative process in action.

In 2006, Capitol Records released a 40th Anniversary edition of the Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Brian Wilson was at his absolute peak as a songwriter and artist, and the rest of the band never sounded better.  It is still a stunningly good album.  It also contains my favorite Beach Boys song: “God Only Knows.”  It’s a lovely, ethereal, almost elegiac song.  A love that seems both eternal and fleeting, a vow to stay true even if the love dies.  It’s a virtually perfect song, from the organ-bass line and Carl Wilson’s angelic voice to the sleigh bells jingling in the background and the sweet harmony of the backing vocals.  There didn’t seem to be any way to improve on this little 2 minute and 51 second slice of heaven.  But the anniversary set featured this wonderous revelation.

The track is listed as the “Stack-O-Vocals” version, and that’s a pretty apt description.  You can hear how the lead and backing vocals build and climb over each other, how entwined the voices sound.  The fact that it’s virtually a capella only adds to the power of the words (you can hear the music track faintly, but not enough to make much difference).  This album was Brian Wilson’s last creative gasp before he began descending into a decades long mental and emotional breakdown; his sanity is hanging on by a thread throughout Pet Sounds, and you can hear it unraveling.  This plea to a lover, this one simple declaration, “God only knows what I’d be without you,” seems to be uttered with perfect awareness.  He knows where he’d be without his love; he’s already heading there.  Sure, Carl was the singer, but he was probably well aware of what was happening with his brother.  It’s one of the sweetest, most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever heard.

Sad Songs


Phyllis Diller’s death today at age 95 got me thinking a little bit about sad songs (please don’t ask exactly how I got from point A to point B; I’m not sure myself).  Diller was an outstanding comedian and pioneer (I always loved the jokes about her husband, Fang), and while her death made me a little sad, it wasn’t like my gramma had died or something.

I love sad songs myself.  My own theory is that I get to experience the emotion without going through the bad thing that caused it (I like to live vicariously, like Andy Warhol).  It’s not just the catharsis found in sad songs, though.  There’s something incredibly intimate about getting inside a songwriter’s head like that, because even if the song isn’t literally true, the emotion usually is.  If it’s not true, then the song is mawkish and sappy and not sad in the least.  There’s a very thin line between sad and sop, and it can be difficult for artists to navigate it.

There are a lot of truly great sad songs.  The more I think about it, the longer the list becomes: “Good Day,” “Monopoly,” Pancho and Lefty,” “Morning Song for Sally,” “Raining in Baltimore,”  and “Storms” are just the first few that come to mind (I’m gonna be mean and make you look up the artists).  Some artists, like Counting Crows and the Cure and the brilliant Townes Van Zandt, have built careers on sad songs.  The Cure recorded what I once regarded as the number one, all-time, so-sad-you-might-want-to-throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-bus song with “Pictures of You.” I could not get past that song on my old cassette of Disintegration.  I think it started side two; I would listen to it, and have to stop the tape and go do something happy (seriously, it was like reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which you must think very carefully about before reading, and possibly get a note from a psychiatrist first).

But some of the best sad songs are inexplicably sad.  On the surface, they seem innocuous enough, happy even.  The Faces “Ooh La La” is like that, but it’s kind of a nostalgic sadness, something you almost see coming from the beginning.  The most inexplicably sad song I’ve ever heard is also quite possibly the saddest song I’ve ever heard, period.  It’s by the Beach Boys, of all people.

“Sloop John B” is actually based on an old folk tune, reworked a little bit by Brian Wilson for Pet Sounds.  I’d known the title for many years, knew it was a cover, but I’d never heard it or thought much about it.  It is legendary among rock historians, though as one of the greatest Beach Boys songs ever.  So when I finally got myself a copy of Pet Sounds, I was very much looking forward to this track.  I have to go a little into the background of Pet Sounds for a minute here, because it sets the context a little better.  Pet Sounds is the Beach Boys equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Released in 1966, it shows the level of studio and songwriting mastery that Brian Wilson had reached.  It is his masterpiece, and the last truly great work of art Brian ever completed.  Two of the tracks, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice? and “God Only Knows,” could easily stand by themselves as great; but listened to within the album, they become even more poignant.  Because the other thing Pet Sounds does is chronicle the way Brian Wilson was beginning to lose his mind.  (In the couple of years after completing the album, Brian went on to have a complete mental breakdown.  He was non-functional for a very long time.)  You can hear it on every single track.  Brian is desperately trying to hold on to his sanity, but with every passing hour sees it slipping away.  This is tremendous stuff, which makes for amazing art but breaks my heart every time I hear it.  That’s the album “Sloop John B” was born into.  Warning: I recommend just listening to this first.  Close your eyes if you have to.  The silliness of the film offsets the sadness of the song to a degree.

I cried the first time I heard this, and I still have no idea why.  It comes more than midway through the album, so maybe it’s the cumulative effect of the whole album.  I know that not everyone is going to have the same experience listening to this I did.  And this kind of thing is so subjective anyway.  Of course, now I feel like I have to ask the inevitable question:

What’s the saddest song you’ve ever heard?