Finding Kokomo


It’s a miracle the Beach Boys are cool. They’re a glee club with a pitch somewhere between soprano and alto.  Not one of them is notably handsome or edgy, and in album covers they wear dorky shirts and sweaters.  Shouldn’t a band named “The Beach Boys” be tanned with sun-lightened hair? Shouldn’t they be comfortable without shirts?

But somehow they’re legends at being cool.

Twangy and electric, their tone is closer to that of an 80s pop band than to their 60s contemporaries.

As are their lyrics.

Bob Dylan’s songs – such as “Hurricane,” in which he describes the injustices done to an African American boxer – became anthems of the Civil Rights movement.  The Beatles’ music promotes peace over war[1] and open-mindedness towards drug use and other social phenomena.[2]

By contrast, in their 1963 hit “Catch a Wave,” the Beach Boys weigh in on the “is surfing just a fad?” debate, arguing that it’s not just a fad because “it’s been going on so long.”

Beach Boys 1

Dylan and The Beatles look like high school dropouts, then they shock you with the poignancy of their commentary on relevant issues.  The Beach Boys look like prep school class officers and shock you by choosing inane subjects rather than projecting their intellects.

After the success of Surfin’ Safari (1962), there was still so much to say about surfing that they were compelled to follow with not only Surfin’ U.S.A (1963) but also Surf’s Up (1971).  Together, these albums have 11 songs with some form of the word “surf” in the title and more, such as “Catch a Wave,” which extol surfing.

This association with surfing is critical to the band’s coolness. As is their association with California during a period when the state was less accessible to the East Coast and still a mysterious, sun-drenched dream.

But the Beach Boys transcend because of the maturity with which they focus on the positive experiences of youth. They’re light, smooth, and digestible. A typical song of their’s lasts fewer than 3 minutes. They avoid sex, money, and politics, and nothing about them tries too hard.  Where even is Kokomo? Is it real? Do you know anyone who’s been?  All I know is that I want to go when they sing about it.

Many other bands that sing almost exclusively about being young connect to adolescents through passion but lose adults with their lyrics that lack perspective.  As a sophomore in high school, I listened Bon Jovi’s Crossroads every night before going to bed. Now, his superlatives make me cringe.  I have a soft-spot for him the same way I have one for Saved by the Bell – as entertainment I once enjoyed but with which I no longer connect.

The Beach Boys, by contrast, focus on “girls” instead of “love.” “Surfing” and “cars” instead of “life.”  Their romantic songs focus on dancing and skipping school rather than hyperbolizing sentiments. They focus on activity rather than wisdom; their songs project wanting and doing things, not knowing them. Their sophistication when conveying youth stems from the simplicity with which they evoke verbs whose actions adolescents are better than adults at performing.Beach Boys 5

As a result, even when the Beach Boys were gaining fame, their fan base comprised as many adults as adolescents.  Adults – old enough to “say good night and stay together,” and old enough to know that being married doesn’t necessarily mean being happy – reminiscing about the painful constraints of high school love while rocking out to “Wouldn’t it Be Nice.”

Between the ages of 5 and 15, my family would drive 11 hours from DC to Wild Dunes, a South Carolina beach town near Charleston, for our annual week of summer vacation.  The kids didn’t enjoy talk radio.  The adults didn’t enjoy pop music.  And the only old music all the kids liked was the Beach Boys.  So for about 150 hours of family car time, the 20 Good Vibrations album played on repeat.

More so than any other entertainment I consumed as a child, my connection to the Beach Boys has yet to fray.  I once admired them as a group of older kids who sang about things I wanted to do when I was older.  Now I see them as a quirky misfit among their contemporaries; with a unique sound, brilliant brand, contagious positive energy, and sophisticated simplicity, they veered from the formula of the times and still managed to become superstars.

I’m lucky to have built a connection when I was young with a band that both sings about youth and that I haven’t outgrown.

When I close my eyes to the Beach Boys, I retreat to the little place I know that’s like Kokomo.  I see Carolina’s beaches and swamps and the silhouettes of mosquitoes under street-lamps while I taste that fresh-grilled Atlantic shrimp.  Red after playing tennis in the afternoon heat, I press a cold can of Mellow Yellow to my cheek.  I shiver in the over-air-conditioned Piggly Wiggly as I scan the boogie boards, excited as only a child can be.

And sometimes I even go to a dance lookin’ for romance, see Barbara Ann, and think about takin’ a chance.


[1] Ex. “Revolution,” and “Give Peace a Chance”

[2] Ex. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”

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