Monday, July 3, 2000

The Third Greatest Song of All Time

For trivia buffs it was the first pop song that contained "God" in its title. Included on the Beach Boys' 1966 masterpiece (and probably the greatest LP ever made), Pet Sounds, "God Only Knows" isn't specifically about spirituality but there are few songs as sublimely convincing in communicating proof of a higher power.

Now 34 years later there is a new version of the song recorded for the first time with vocals by its composer, Brian Wilson. It is far and away the best CD track I've heard in 2000. The song is included on an Internet available only CD, Live at the Roxy, which is available on Wilson's own web site (

Indeed the entire CD is wonderful, and we are truly blessed to get to hear Brian deliver heartfelt versions of some of his most heartbreaking songs ("Don't Worry Baby," "In My Room," "Surfer Girl," and a devastating version of "Love and Mercy" with Brian accompanied only by his piano). Yet his "God Only Knows" stands apart and is spine tingling- goose bump raising stuff.

It is apparent on the CD that while Brian's voice retains much of the sweetness from his Beach Boys days, it doesn't have nearly the range it used to. He strains to hit the higher notes and his voice cracks every now and again. Yet it is this imperfection in singing such a perfect song that makes things work so well. The original version had Carl Wilson on vocals and here Brian's surviving voice pays tribute to Carl through the words once made so potent by his dutiful brother.

Like the rest of the Pet Sounds songs, "God Only Know" is about loss and singing to console one's broken heart. But somehow in its inherent simplicity it's about much more than that. The song opens with a gorgeous french horn intro, lightly backed by the clickety clack of a high hat that is joined shortly by Brian's wistful voice.

"I may not always love you. But long as there are stars above you. You'll never need to doubt it. I'll make you so sure about it. God only knows what I'd be without you."

When he wrote the song at the ripe old age of 24, nobody knew the depth of Brian's emotional anguish. Given the many lurid details of his nervous breakdown(s) since, the poignancy of "God Only Knows" is even more touching. This was a writer masterfully and quite inspirationally exorcising his demons in public song, but no matter the troubles the size of his heart and his talent can never be denied. The melody itself is unforgivingly haunting, added with the lyrics and performance make it an absolute must hear.

"If you should ever leave me. Though life would still go on believe me. The world could show nothing to me. So what good would living do me?"

The song is seemingly about loving someone, needing someone so much that the thought of their absence makes the purpose of continued existence questionable in itself. That the song more than effectively ponders this rather complex human dynamic in a deserving way says what a masterful song "God Only Knows" is. The soothing harmonies of the bridge effectively serve as a reminder that this is a communal experience, being alone doesn't mean that the others in our life aren't there.

To be fortunate enough to finally hear Brian sing this song for himself is akin to getting a chance to hear Chopin bang out one of his etudes solo on his piano. There are incomprehensible revelations all of us choose to share that go far beyond this world. The moment that Brian's voice crackles in revealing that his love for another is based on a whole other place, an entirely different plane and time is stunning. The secrets of our hearts may eventually end up with us at our graves but this single solitary performance indicates that may not be so wrong after all.

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