I could try to be big in the eyes of the world,
what matters to me is what I could be to just one girl…
Ah…the calming beauty of Pet Sounds, where to my ears, the undercurrent of melancholy is more than compensated for by the main pull of gentle encouragement, even if it does end on the sadness of “Caroline, No” and the famous sound of that train fading into the distance…
When John Presnall looked at “That’s Not Me” from the album a couple weeks back, he made two particularly interesting suggestions:
The “me” of the song cannot be Brian Wilson, because he remains committed to his Beach Boys career, one linked irrevocably to the city and to trying to be big in the eyes of the world. Brian is expressing whatever longing he has to drop out of the glory and bustle of the pop music career through the character of the song who actually is going to go home. The key lyrics:
I’m a little bit scared
‘cause I haven’t been home in a long time;
you needed my love
and I know that I left at the wrong time.
John is willing to further entertain the idea that the song’s narrator won’t go home. I don’t see any evidence for that. However, the song can stand as evidence, when we stand outside of it, of Wilsonlonging to return to home and the simple life but never doing so.
John also suggested, as a postmodern conservative should, that the sentiment for home, linked to the conviction that its simpler and family-oriented life (the narrator’s “folks” and “pet” are there, and he is apparently returning with an intention to marry his old sweetheart) is a better one, is not a sentiment/conviction that most powerfully occurs to those who never leave the Home Place. That is, one might have to go to the City for a spell to get that sentiment/conviction, and one might have to try on another self to know that “That’s Not Me”:
I once had a dream
so I packed up and split for the city.
I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty.
I’m glad I went now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready.
The way I’d like to analyze the song is in terms of two types of song that it seems to straddle. On the one hand, it seems we have here another mid-60s sociology song that like Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence” and “I Am a Rock,” or the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” or “Eleanor Rigby,” tries to address the “issue” of individualism and loneliness:
I had to prove that I could make it alone,
but that’s not me.
I wanted to show how independent I’d grown now
but that’s not me.
On the other, it belongs to the longer tradition of American “going home” songs—you know, those songs where the narrator leaves city life to go back home, probably to stay. Here’s just a few that pop into the noggin’, and let me know if you can think of others:
1) “Old Home Place” Tony Rice
2) “Fare Thee Well, Harlem, Fare Thee Well” Jack Teagarden
3) “Ticket Home” The Paladins
4) “Country Road” John Denver
5) “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel Dickens
6) “I’m Coming Home” Clifton Chenier
Songs like “Jet Airliner,” by the Steve Miller Band, and “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkle almost but do not quite cut it, since they are “road songs” where the homesickness is caused by a touring life often as much celebrated as regretted. The return to home will thus occur on a seasonal basis, and will not mark a shift in life-direction.
It’s interesting that the British do not have as many of these songs. They seem to go more for straight nostalgia for places assumed to be lost for good, such as in the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park.” It’s even more telling that I cannot think of too many songs by American blacks that fit the bill, even though they have plenty of songs about the shortcomings of city life, with “Bright Lights, Big City” perhaps being the most iconic. Some black gospel songs do use a “road” theme to describe “How Far from God” the now-repentant sinner finds herself, but there never seems to be the assumption of returning down that same road, of rewinding one’s life. One returns more to mother’s down home religion than to mother herself or to “down home” itself. Home is in heaven. And the road to it might well be a tough one. A flash of such gritty wisdom–in the ghetto, the road to glory… –is present even one of the most apparently chirpy gospel songs, “Christian’s Automobile.”
The thing about the Beach Boys is that they were so suburban in feel. We thus know the narrator of “That’s Not Me” is not returning to some farming town or some way-in-the-sticks bayou or holler, but rather, to a small town like Kalamazoo, or, a regular ‘ol suburb. To Mom and Dad, and to his pet. And that’s why it makes perfect sense for the song’s lyrics to be simultaneously modern sociological and traditional American “goin’ home.” It feels so much more real for being both.
I went through all kinds of changes
Took a look at myself and said that’s not me.
I miss my pet and the places I’ve known…
Unlike the narrator of the “Old Home Place” the City is not where the plow in the field is left behind for a steady job and a pretty face, and unlike that of “Bright Lights, Big City,” nor is it where all its vulgar temptations might go to one’s head. For middle class man, the pull of paying work and the exposure of the sheltered to vice are not the main issues. Rather, for him, the City is more the place of going through “all kinds of changes,” “making it” on one’s own, and pursuing “dreams” of fame in the “eyes of the world.” As The Jam would put it in 1977, : In the city there’s a thousand things I want to say to you… …about the young ideas, and yet, according to “That’s Not Me,” the City (or by the lights of my “rock geography,” the Downtown Bohemia) turns out most of all to be the place of the unhealthy “lonely life,” of our creeping and creepy individualism.
But unlike the songwriters we are going to consider next, Brian Wilson did not look at this from the outside, as if he was a sociologist worried about where all this loneliness/individualism will take us. He sang about it from the perspective of one who had himself succumbed to this individualist temptation, and was now repenting of it, at least in song. In some way, I think, it was the older tradition of the American “going home” song that allowed him to adopt this more honest stance.