“Any minute playing ‘Good Vibrations’ is a minute that I feel spiritually whole. I hope that any minute hearing it is the same.” – Brian Wilson
“I sing and play the guitar, and I’m a walking, talking bacterial infection.” – Kurt Cobain
The history of rock in the West is bookended by the careers of two tormented geniuses, one the creator of a vision of life in the West as near perpetual sun-kissed idyll (though punctuated by songs of achingly beautiful sadness), the other the provider of a voice for many struggling with disaffected, alienated self-loathing (and whose own self-loathing evinced itself tragically).
The West may have produced two of rock’s most iconic figures, but rock’s history in the West is rich and varied and discussing all its significant figures would make for a long essay indeed. Still, such a fertile region in American rock geography cannot be confined to discussing two figures, even two figures as epochal as Brian Wilson and Kurt Cobain.
Rock in the West has been dominated by three meccas: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Other cities in the West have given us great music (one must needs mention of Portland, for instance, if only because of The Kingsmen and their controversial and enigmatic anthem “Louie, Louie“), but these three cities deserve special mention as homes of rock movements that became national phenomena.
San Francisco’s moment began in 1965 and has never really ended, though its apex occurred perhaps during the Summer of Love. Beginning from those (albeit excellent) Beatle imitators The Beau Brummels, San Francisco quickly evolved a sound reflecting the rise of the hippie revolt and its related psychedelic movement. An abbreviated list of the bands that emerged during that period reads like a who’s who of American rock: Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Here’s a textbook example – Jefferson Airplane asking for “Volunteers” for a revolution that never quite came off:
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Los Angeles, with its car culture and surfers, produced a very different kind of music from the psychedelic hippie rock revolution of San Francisco (not discounting bands such as The Doors, Love, and Spirit who represented that scene quite successfully). On one hand, L.A. rock was represented at first by those like Jan and Dean who sang as many songs about cars and surfing as their far superior contemporaries The Beach Boys. (The great Dick Dale. who for all intents and purposes invented surf rock, is a story to himself.) After the brief, rather brilliant, detour into San Francisco rock “me too-ism” by the bands mentioned just above, SoCal rock evolved into two schools: folk/country rock beginning with The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and eventually evolving into the behemoth known as The Eagles, and the Beach Boys’ (in truth, Brian Wilson’s) evolution of California lifestyle rock (as the surfing and car songs genre is sometimes called) into something infinitely more: a distinctive canon of rock composed of gorgeous melodies and lyrical meditations on the meaning of life in California as a microcosm of life in America. One of his first explorations of these themes comes in what is called perhaps the finest evocation of teenage life in mid-century America, “In My Room”:
These sort of melodic and lyrical explorations would culminate in the triumphant concept album Pet Sounds where Wilson would explore the transition from youth to adulthood and which contains one of his most brilliant compositions, a meditation on the meaning of love (that predates the Summer of Love by more than a full year). Here is one of Wilson’s most brilliant and unusual melody constructions, “Caroline, No”:
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And that brings us to Seattle. Despite its distance from the “center of things” in the far northwestern US, Seattle produced pop rock favorites such as Paul Revere and the Raiders. Though he rose to stardom in England, Jimi Hendrix was a Seattle native (and Seattle’s contribution to the psychedelic rock era). Heart (led by two talented sisters, a culturally significant challenge to rock’s male dominated power structure) carried the Seattle banner through the seventies and eighties.
Then came grunge, personified by its most iconic figure, Kurt Cobain.
Nirvana was Cobain’s vehicle as The Beach Boys were Brian Wilson’s. Yet they could not have been more different in their musical and thematic approaches. Wilson’s lush melodies complemented by poignant lyrics written under his guiding vision seek to capture the quiet desperation – and possibility – of mid-twentieth century century American life. Cobain’s vision, composed near the end of that same century, is a much darker one reflecting the already accelerating declines in employment prospects and life opportunities for Gen Xers in an economy rapidly being stripped of the sorts of job in manufacturing that had given their parents’ lives stability (if not satisfaction) coupled with a growing sense that the obsessive pursuit of consumer comforts touted as necessary for happiness was worthless.
That instability and the tension it engendered are reflected in the music and lyrics Cobain composed. His fascination with both The Beatles and Led Zeppelin is reflected in song after song oscillating between quiet, even soft melodic verses juxtaposed against thunderous power chord choruses. This compositional pattern is evident in Nirvana’s most famous song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from their masterful major label debut, Nevermind:
Nirvana’s second album, In Utero, saw Cobain growing rapidly as a composer, incorporating elements of folk into songs such as “All Apologies.” One is left to wonder how he would have evolved had the darkness he wrote about so eloquently not caught up to him.
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It would be simple – actually simplistic – to say that Brian Wilson is light to Kurt Cobain’s dark. Both of these surpassing talents took up the Nietzchean challenge of Aphorism 146. Both men gazed into the voids of the worlds they grew in – the voids of the worlds of the American West in the middle and at the end of the 20th century – so closely that the voids of those worlds gazed into them. Wilson survived; Cobain did not. Asking why is, again, too simple and allows for facile explanations that let rock, the West, and America off the hook.
Remember, we look into the West when we watch the sun set. Looking backward at the old day, looking forward to the coming day, or embracing the darkness for what it is are all choices. Wilson chose; Cobain chose. Our agreement with, disappointment in, or emotional response to their choices is irrelevant. Their greatness is tied up in the fact that they chose. Those choices made them what they are: the representation of the promise and danger of the West – and of America.
Is the West “Good Vibrations”?
Or is the West a “Heart-Shaped Box”?
The West – good vibrations in a heart-shaped box sums it up nicely.