'TIL I DIE by The Beach Boys.
In 1970, Brian Wilson had been told that his best years had passed him. Brian's best years were, in fact, passed him. But whereas a song like Tomorrow and Me, another song written amidst the wreckage of '60s stardom, is the product of a fundamentally well-adjusted soul, 'Til I Die is patently the work of a man in a losing struggle to cope with his mental illness.
In the end, I can't help quoting liberally from Brian Wilson's autobiography (via Wikipedia), describing one night on a deserted beach that summer of 1970:
Lately I'd been depressed, preoccupied with death. I'd ordered the gardener to dig a grave in the backyard and threatened to drive my Rolls off the Santa Monica pier. Looking out toward the ocean, my mind, as it did almost every hour of every day, worked to explain the inconsistencies that dominated my life: the pain, torment, and confusion and the beautiful music I was able to make. Was there an answer? Did I have no control? Had I ever? The reaction of his fellow Beach Boys was sadly predictable. After the song had finished playing, Mike Love "laughed out of disgust," claiming how much of a "downer" it was. Also predictable was that eventually the song would find its way on a Beach Boys album, "mostly because they needed material."
…I was feeling shipwrecked on an existential island, I lost myself in the blanket of darkness that stretched beyond the breaking waves to the other side of the Earth. The ocean was so incredibly vast, the universe so large, and suddenly I saw myself in proportion to that, a little pebble of sand, a jellyfish floating on top of the water, traveling with the current. I felt dwarfed, temporary…
The next day I began writing 'Til I Die, perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for the Beach Boys. In doing so I wanted to re-create the swell of emotions I'd felt at the beach the previous night. For several weeks, I struggled at the piano, experimenting with rhythms and chord changes, trying to emulate in sound the ocean's shifting tides and moods as well as its sheer enormity. I wanted the music to reflect the loneliness of floating a raft in the middle of the Pacific. I wanted each note to sound as if it was disappearing into the hugeness of the universe.
That version of the song appeared on "Surf's Up," which is arguably the last great Beach Boys album, just as 'Til I Die is arguably Brian's last great song. But the version here isn't that version. Here we've given you a mix done by the Beach Boys' sound engineer, Stephen Desper. Desper had made it strictly for his own personal enjoyment, which explains why the mix is rough in spots, especially once the vocals come in. (Also typical Beach Boys is that when this version was finally released, on Endless Harmony, Desper "received no compensation from Brother Records although they made money on my version.")
The opening minute of this mix, dominated by the bass and the vibes, is without question one of my favorite minutes of music in the world. The rest of the song is nearly as gorgeous, even more remarkable for its almost ridiculously pathetic genesis.
Just yesterday, I heard Ave Maria at a coffee shop, and I remembered how at Christmastime I used to rewind that tape over and over to listen to the opening notes and then the main melody and the whole thing and then rewind it back again. 'Til I Die is that kind of song.
Photo: Plaza de Mayo, 2006.