Beach Time

Every spring, as pollen descends across the United States, I begin to have panic attacks about the nature of time. At this point, it seems as regular as the flowers blooming. Though it happened through high school as well, having to travel between Providence and Atlanta has made it worse. This isn’t because of the trip itself, but rather the different weather cycles of the two towns. In Providence, you never have any doubt about what season it is; this certainly is not the case in Atlanta. Sure, it’s often colder in January than July, and there’s enough pollen in April to choke out the metro area, but in the grand scheme, the differentiation is minor. Especially when paired with the nature of our memories, this makes it difficult to discern when during the year a particular event happened. We don’t retain the physical memory of bugs attacking our calves or the simmering heat, only the less poignant intellectual imprint of it. In places with massive seasonal swings, this matters less, because there are more obvious signifiers of what season it is, i.e. “is it snowing?” In Atlanta, however, it creates a situation where memories blend together across visits. When did we bike to Stone Mountain? Was it in January or June? Which month did I bike more? When did that restaurant open? November or April? Who knows.

Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys seminal album, turned fifty two weeks ago. It’s the same age as Revolver, a year older than Sgt. Pepper’s, and precedes Hunky Dory by a solid six years. Having been alive for none of that time period, this absolutely shocks me. For all the faults that labeling music as timeless brings,[1] Pet Sounds is certainly timeless. But it’s timeless in a different way than that of Bowie I talked about a couple months ago. Pet Sounds sounds fifty only in that it sounds like it could have been released anytime in the past half a century (or more). Close your eyes and you can imagine the album playing from the jukebox in a 1950’s diner, the tinny speakers of a 1970’s van, or drifting out of the top of a contemporary convertible. More importantly, in any of those scenarios, the album sounds brand new.

Do a quick experiment for me. Go on Apple Music, or Spotify, or Pandora radio, or anything else. Find the artist Best Coast, in particular their album Crazy for You. Listen to it. Or even better, start a Crazy for You station. Tell me what the songs sound like. Maybe weave in some songs from Pet Sounds—see how nicely they blend? It’s like they’re all one generation. The guitar riffs that meld lo-fi grain with beach color and mingle with the soft “aahhs” of backing vocals reminiscent of doo-wop. The lyrics that infuse unrequited love with dreams of domestic bliss, crooned in an affectedly unaffected voice that conveys an airy reality that would be almost dreamlike if not for the intrusion of brutal emotional pain. This isn’t to call Best Coast or their ilk derivative (I really like them), but to highlight how fresh Pet Sounds was and is. Their complex surf rock neither burned out nor faded away, remaining contemporaneous with each year. That the pastiche still feels fresh is a testament to the original.

Bowie also existed out of time; but for all his greatness, his music never truly transcended the era in which it was made, even when he did. Hunky Dory is probably my favorite Bowie album; it’s beautiful and complicated, with Bowie taking on the personas of heroes and villains as a way to express his inner struggles. Worries about his ability to be a father are wrapped inside an adaptation of an Arthur C. Clarke story; meditations on knowledge and death are (possibly) explored from the point of view of Hitler in his suicide bunker. The B-side of the album consists of homages to Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed. It’s closed out by the cuttingly personal “Bewlay Brothers,” unmasking the pain that pretending to be someone else failed to ease. It’s sonically stunning, with each song staggeringly unique and yet closely tied to what precedes and follows it. It’s near impossible to believe that a 24 year-old made this album. But it’s easy to date it. It couldn’t have been made anytime other than between 1966 and 1974. In a way, this contributes to Bowie’s timelessness. There’s a disconnect between the maturity of the music and the age of the artist. Bowie was simultaneously old with the wisdom that brings yet bubbling with youthful creativity. No 24 year old could make this album, yet it could have only been made when Bowie was 24.

This is the case with most Bowie albums. Low is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It’s meditative quality, born out of intense writer’s block and Bowie’s urge to cleanse, allows the listener to either immerse himself in a fugue state, using the transcendental album to bring them to an empty space or to craft a world to fit the soundtrack nature of the album. But such an album wouldn’t be made today—not because it couldn’t be, but because the sound of the album was intimately tied to the ambient music movement of the late 1970’s. There are too many signifiers of its time. There’s snow in the treetops.[2]

Though filled with complex, challenging arrangements, a lot of the utopian feel of Pet Sounds comes from its simplicity. Fredric Jameson famously said that his concept of a utopia was a world where no one went to bed hungry. For Brian Wilson, it’s that two people can live together. Even in the darker songs, there’s always a sense of hope that this will one day be the case. No matter how bad the world may be, there’s always the possibility of it getting better. The utopian simplicity adds to its timelessness. Who amongst us, wanting and alone, hasn’t dreamed of loving co-habitation with the object of their affection? Bowie, for all his greatness, was never simple and utopian.[3] Even the seemingly upbeat parental metaphor that is “Oh, You Pretty Things” replaces humanity with a new species and shruggingly accepts the apocalypse.[4] Diamond dogs die; sloops sail on.

Though The Beach Boys may have splintered due to death and mental illness, they are eternally “the band on the radio singing ‘this is my generation again and again,’” to borrow from Meilyr Jones.[5] Their sound is as fresh as it ever was—they’re the ever-present heat to Bowie’s signifying snows. I put on Apple Radio’s Pet Sounds station; the second song is by Best Coast. I’m going biking—the restaurant nearby is supposedly new. Or maybe it’s fifty?


I want to offer a special thanks to Jenson Lowry, who pushed me to really listen critically to Pet Sounds and also introduced me to Best Coast, and Luc Bokor-Smith and Rex Patton, who have really changed how I approach listening to music over the past year or so. This piece, like almost everything I write about music, is indebted to the long, meandering conversations I have with the first two and the brief but content filled ones I have with Rex.


[1] Something Steve Hyden very eloquently talks about in his new book.

[2] The only Bowie albums that may avoid this fate (though it’s too early to tell) are his last two. Maybe a growing awareness of his own mortality pushed him into making albums more timeless in the traditional sense. Perhaps he feared that if the totality of his out of timenesss existed in him, it would cease to exist when he did, and history would forget him more quickly. Whatever it was, both The Next Day and Blackstar mostly abandon the signifiers of their eras. Think about how jarring it is when Bowie mentions his cellphone on Lazarus; for all the album’s focus on mortality, it’s the only concrete connection to a time.

[3] The only song that is that I can think of is “Kooks”

[4] As Chris O’Leary notes in his ever-useful Rebel Rebel, “all the nightmares came today/and it looks as though they’re hear to stay” is sung with a “rolling purr” that dismisses the idea of struggling against the apocalypse.

[5] Another musician, who though his solo debut was released this year, already sounds timeless.

Rock n Roll Suicide

Last night I was in a light sleep, one easily disrupted, a sleep I’m often in. What disturbed this particular sleep, however, was relatively unique. My phone was ringing off the hook, something that occurs with ever lessening frequency. I ignored it, knowing it could wait until morning. When I awoke, the first message I saw read, “You’re going to wake up to bad news. I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to scroll through the rest of the texts and notifications; lying back in bed seemed like a much better idea. But the day had to start at some point, so I read on. A missed call from my sister. A follow-up text from her. Two texts from a friend who adores rock. “CNN just sent me an update.” “I just got a BBC notification.” A news update of my own. David Bowie is dead. It seems like a hoax. Three days after he releases a new album, one centered on his mortality. After months of cancer so completely hidden that it seemed not a soul knew. But that’s why we immediately felt that it was true. Bowie seemed to aspire for his life to exist outside of reality. Why would his death be any different?


I always struggle when people ask me who my favorite musician is. I respond with a question of my own, a common evasion for a common query. How do you define favorite? One I listen to most? One I respect most? Something else? When I ask myself that question, however, my response is much quicker: David Bowie. I don’t know why I pause when others ask me this. Maybe it’s because a lot of people my age associate Bowie (wrongly), with the past, and I fear they’ll see me as one of those young people who overly valorize the old rather than embrace the new. Maybe it seems like, if you’re going to pick a “past” musician, you should say the Stones or the Beatles or Bob Dylan, not a pop artist. Whatever it is, it has stopped me from admitting that one of the weirdest, most creative artists working during my lifetime was also my favorite. Bowie was a beautiful genius in ways that writers much smarter than I either have or will cover. No matter the style of pop, you can find a Bowie song that does it well. The man existed at all times, which meant he seemed to exist out of time. His death is a reminder that, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Eventually, the clock came for Bowie. He was timeless; now he is timeless.


Imagine David Bowie dying slowly. Imagine him in a hospital gown, a white one with red and black polka dots, one that isn’t form fitting at all. Imagine him talking to his doctor. “Well David, you really shouldn’t have smoked those Reds for so long.”[1] Imagine his final day. His family gathered around his deathbed, staring into his eyes for the final time.[2] It seems inconceivable. It feels right that his death occurred in the middle of the night (for people in the U.S. at least). For all the talk about his personas, that for him everything was a performance and his every action performative, he often moved without commotion. He announced he’d stop touring as Ziggy mid-concert, as if he had just made up his mind; he released The Next Day and Blackstar with little of the pageantry associated with an aging star making a comeback. I can’t imagine him dying, but I can imagine him slipping out one night, without fanfare, just him returning from whence he came. An alien who blessed us with his presence, and, upon giving us enough, went home.


I’m in Key West again—it’s been a little under a year since I was here last. As I walk into the house, almost everything is as it was, just slightly rearranged. I hope that Bowie, whether on Mars or some similarly far out place, finds the same.

[1] Yes, this is riffing on Alex Pappademas’s inability to picture Bowie doing everyday, normal things.

[2] Bowie has a family. I don’t know why, but even that seems odd. Can aliens marry humans?