Greatest Songs At This Moment -- The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows"

Greatest Songs At This Moment--The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows"

Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," The White Stripes' "We're Going To Be Friends," and Rufus Wainwright's "Foolish Love."

First, an apology, which is always a great way to start these articles: time has slipped away from me completely. I am only a month away from becoming a father, and to say it occupies my mind more than a musical obsession would be an understatement. The realization that I not only have to deal with another person's sock drawer from scratch, but have to manage that sock drawer for close to a decade is one of the many small mind explosions which have crossed my path since last Christmas. So I haven't been able to play, think about, or otherwise obsess over a single piece of music like a normal adult without a hint of epic responsibility. So that means this week's entry lacks the subtle nuances I have treated "Smell Yo' Dick" and the like. Nevertheless, I still have some thoughts on the song that has been rumbling around my soul for the last week, and I'll treat you all to those now between laundry loads (you have to wash all the baby clothes before they can put them on because their skin is so sensitive, and you have to use a special detergent. How did children survive in the past?).

1. "God Only Knows" is one of the songs Paul McCartney lists as among his favorite, just as he names Pet Sounds his favorite album. This marks the semicolon of one of my favorite musical history lessons. The story goes that the Beatles wanted to make music that was more folksy than their usual rock 'n' roll, and they took a cue from the Beach Boys. The resulting album was "Rubber Soul." Brian Wilson heard this album and felt the ante sufficiently upped in the musical texture department and pushed his group to create "Pet Sounds." And THAT album showed such unity of artistic vision that the Beatles eventually retaliated with Sgt. Pepper's. When this sort of incredible and enormous coincidence happens in movies (I'm looking at you, "Walk the Line"), it feels like the script is moving faster than reality. When it actually happens in reality, it feels like magic.

2. "God Only Knows" was our first dance at our wedding. It made my father-in-law tear up and it was agreed by all in attendance that it was a sweet, non-sappy, beautiful choice. However, when I think of the response to the song choice, I often think of a friend of mine criticizing us for picking a song that starts with the line "I may not always love you." Yeah, because the song stops right there and doesn't change a single thing. Some people need every line to be 110% positive on their own with no surrounding context at all, and others are willing to listen for more than 10 seconds to a single song. The lesson is: never criticize someone's first dance song. At least not to their face. It's just as bad an idea as asking if someone's pregnant: it can only end poorly. These are lessons I will pass on to my child.

3. I haven't been replaying the song in the traditional sense (as traditional as a guy with a 1-year-old iPod Shuffle can be). My wife and I have recently become infatuated with the show "Big Love," and "God Only Knows" is used for their title sequence.

3.a Don't have a title sequence that goes for ninety seconds. It's a bad idea. One of the only special features on the Season One DVD set is a making-of featurette for this title sequence, and they talk about how HBO apparently asks a lot of their shows in the world of title sequences. But for the rest of the DVD-watching human race, you see it once, enjoy the song, get the point and then you always, always, always skip past it to get to the story.
The power of the song, however, carries through and lingers with me for a couple reasons (not the least of which is the sentimental reason listed in #2). They only play 90 seconds of the song, cutting out the instrumental bridge and the repeated last verse. This sticks the song even further into my conscious brain. If you're gonna go for 90 seconds already, it feels like you might as well play the whole damn song. Maybe it speaks to the quality of the entertainment I watch, but many times when songs I enjoy appear on movies and TV shows, many times I just wish the story would stop and we'd all listen to the music. And while the lyrics of "God Only Knows" are certainly one of its top qualities, you cannot discount the Beach-Boys-y-ness of the production, which is that wonderful mix of Christmas carol and melancholy. I imagine every band after 1965 being created in the "Bump-a-bump-a-bum-bum..." section, and it's all lost in the actual opening for "Big Love.

4. I don't know if "God Only Knows" is my favorite Beach Boys song, or even a song I've ever turned up to hear better, but I always listen to it top to bottom. Enjoy.

—Phillip Mottaz

Greatest Songs At This Moment -- The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows"