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Dennis Wilson Was a Good Editor

March 6, 2014 | by

Charles Manson’s Lie: The Love and Terror Cult was released forty-four years ago today.

Charles Manson 

Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who surfed. Accordingly, he embraced a more, let’s say, briny side of the beach-bum lifestyle—he’s the only Beach Boy you can picture actually sleeping on the beach, living out of the rusted trunk of some boat of a car, feeding the gulls, rolling spliffs, letting himself go. His excellent solo record, Pacific Ocean Blue, proves how undervalued he was in the band. But his work on “Never Learn Not to Love,” the B-side to 1968’s “Blue Birds Over the Mountain,” proves that he knew how to wield a red pen.

First, some obligatory exposition. It was Charles Manson—yes, the—who first wrote “Never Learn”; he called it “Cease to Exist,” and when his friend Dennis Wilson, that Beachiest of Beach Boys, asked to record it, he was thrilled. Or rather, he would be thrilled, he said, if Wilson agreed to one condition: he was not to emend Manson’s lyrics in any way.

He did, of course; he retitled the song, rejiggered the verses, tossed in a bridge, and quietly published the song as his own. Manson, as you can imagine, was pissed, and threatened to kill Wilson, but when the former turned up on the latter’s doorstep, it was apparently Wilson who beat the piss out of Manson, not the other way around.

As befits a story starring a cult leader, this is a tale full of apocrypha and lurid curlicues—hitchhikers, bullets, group sex culminating in group gonorrhea—but the lyrics, not the diseases, are our interest here. To compare, here are the lyrics to Manson’s “Cease to Exist”:

Pretty girl, pretty pretty girl
Cease to exist
Just, come an’ say you love me
Give up, your world
Come on you can be

I’m your kind, oh your kind an’ I can see
You walk on walk on
I love you, pretty girl
My life is yours
Ah you can have my world

Never had a lesson, I ever learned
But I know, we all get our turn
An’ I love you
Never learn not to love you

Submission is a gift
Go on give it to your brother
Love and understandin’
Is for one another

I'm your kind, I’m your kind
I'm your brother

I never had a lesson, I ever learned
But I know we all, get our turn
An’ I love you
Never learn not to love you
Never learn not to love you
Never learn not to love you

And here’s how Wilson punched them up in “Never Learn Not to Love”:

Cease to resist, come on say you love me
Give up your world, come on and be with me
I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see

Come on come on, ooh I love you pretty girl
My life is yours, and you can have my world
I’m your kind, I'm your kind, and I see

Never had a lesson I ever learned
I know I could never learn not to love you
Come in now closer
Come in closer closer closer

Submission is a gift given to another
Love and understanding is for one another
I’m your kind, I'm your kind, and I see

Never had a lesson I ever learned
I know I could never learn not to love you
Come in now closer
Come in closer come in closer

The elisions and changes are all sensible—most obviously in the turn from exist to resist, which retains all the chilling coercion but leaves all that existential engulfment stuff behind. In one word, it captures the difference between saying “I know it’s scary, but please be mine” and “Hi, I would like to subsume the whole of your being.” (Likewise, changing brother to another instantly absolves the song of any incestuous undertones.)

But what really impresses me about Wilson’s edit is how much he kept: this is no carve-up. Many are understandably baffled when they hear that the Beach Boys covered a song by Charles Manson, but when you look at how many of Manson’s lyrics remain untouched, you get a good sense of what Wilson saw in the source material: a song whose helpless, scary yearning makes it at once repulsive and affecting.

It can be hard to forgive the menacing intensity of the song, especially when you know who’s responsible for it. But pop music is teeming with overzealous lovers, and the deranged, over-the-top candor of such lyrics is part of their appeal. If you think you’re immune to such things, just look at these unvarnished, abject, terrifying lines of Mariah Carey’s, and try to pretend you haven’t sung along: “You’ll always be a part of me / I’m part of you indefinitely / Boy don’t you know you can’t escape me / Ooh darling ‘cause you’ll always be my baby.”

 

1 COMMENT

1 Comments

  1. sakara | March 18, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    dennis Wilson was a real sleaze, even without his shacking up with the manson girls back in the 1960s.

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