“This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.” — Sloop John B., The Beach Boys, 1966
“This is the best trip I’ve ever been on.” — Sloop John B., The Beach Boys, 2016
After singing “Sloop John B for over fifty years, Brian Wilson, the founder of “The Beach Boys,” added some new lyrics that change the entire tenor and meaning of the song. This shift in perspective is no small matter. It offers us a clue to the secret of transforming life’s adversities into joyful wisdom. Let’s, then, enter the depths of this enigma…
The Beach Boys hit, “Sloop John B,” (Capitol Records), first appeared in 1966, as a track from their “Pet Sounds” album. It’s actually a folk-rock rendition of a Bahamian folk song, about a young man who takes a miserable, misadventurous sailboat trip with his feisty, hard-drinking grandfather around the Caribbean island of Nassau.
The grandson’s various shipmates turn out to be drunken, thieving rogues. Indeed, the first mate steals from the captain’s trunk and is arrested by the local sheriff, John Stone. It’s not clear whether the grandson, the narrator, is also under suspicion for the theft, for he begs the sheriff not to arrest him. And the grandson gets into a drunken fight with his grandfather. The grandson’s refrain “I feel so broke up. Please let me go home,” makes it clear that he’s had it with being on this wretched boat ride. We can sympathize with the grandson’s plight. After all, there have undoubtedly been times when we found ourselves “out to sea,” feeling trapped in an intolerable situation, and longing to return home, to the comfortable and familiar. And, of course, feeling “broke up,” is the antithesis of feeling together, or whole. The next line — “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” — reinforces the grandson’s woebegone feelings. (Please listen to a 1966 rendition: https://youtu.be/Bc9yPqHfOU0)
Let’s fast-forward fifty years to 2016. Some of the Beach Boys have since died, and then there was a major schism, caused by years of intra-group contention, with Mike Love and some of the other band members continuing as the Beach Boys, only without Brian Wilson. Then Mr. Wilson, who was the founder and songwriter of the original group, and another original member, Al Jardine, got together, in 2016, to produce a studio version of “Sloop John B,” accompanied by various studio musicians, including Mr. Jardine’s young son, Matt, singing the falsetto notes. Mr. Wilson sings the concluding line, “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.” (Emphasis mine) And so the listener figures that the song is now over. But then — mirabile dictu!— he adds an additional lyric, “This is the best trip I’ve ever been on.” (Emphasis mine) (Please see and listen to this 2016 rendition: https://youtu.be/eDZgl7H-coQ)
Brian Wilson is too accomplished of an artist to tamper with a popular classic, especially one that he arranged and which contributed greatly to the Beach Boys’ reputation, and yet he must have felt compelled to do so. What, then, was he thinking? How can the song’s unhappy and complaining grandson now regard this miserable misadventure as the best trip that he’s ever been on? What could have precipitated a change of heart of that magnitude? Indeed, what could produce such a change in anyone?
Only a powerful insight can produce, in a person, a 180-degree reversal in outlook, a metanoia. Of course, we would then need to go further back and answer the question of what could have produced this insight. Not knowing Mr. Wilson personally, we can only give a general answer to what most often precipitates any elevation in consciousness: It’s born of suffering intense enough to prompt a person to think deeply, in the hope of ending that suffering. The questions that emerge, from that self-reflection, might then lead to an illumination and clarification of one’s emotions, and an altogether deeper understanding of oneself, human beings in general, and of life itself.
Of course, the type of thinking required to precipitate a metanoia isn’t the usual sort of empty ratiocination, the abstract thinking encouraged in colleges, but rather the type of existential thinking that penetrates into the very core of one’s being. Sometimes, that changes that are wrought happen very quickly, because of intense pressure. That sort of change happened to Fyodor Dostoevsky facing a firing squad and then having his sentence commuted at the last second. But more often it occurs over many years of suffering, in the manner in which a diamond is formed from many years of intense pressure. That slow ripening might have occurred to Mr. Wilson, such that one day a new outlook on life and a new lyric emerges. But however it arrives, it is most often experienced as a gift of grace, from God or from some force in the universe.
The Uses of Adversity
We must keep in mind that this boat ride is but a metaphor to describe our journey along the turbulent seas of life. After singing the usual lyrics thousands of times, for fifty years, Mr. Wilson, now in his seventies, must have reflected back on his long and eventful life. Perhaps, he concluded that many of our most difficult trials and tribulations are actually not our worst moments but, seen from a transcendent height, they are the best. What, more exactly, is this wonderful metanoia, such that painful experiences can be viewed in a positive light?
Perhaps it would help if we considered, by way of comparison, Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It.” We find the exiled Duke Senior roughing it, in Arden Forest, with his comrades. Exile is anything but a happy state of affairs, and yet the duke rises to the occasion and says the immortal words, “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” He proceeds to explain, in the same speech, how life’s hardships lead us to the “precious jewel” of wisdom and finding “good in everything.”
Is Brian Wilson alluding to a similar perception about the hidden sweetness of adversity and the realization that life is good — not despite adversity, but because of the wisdom that adversity provides? He certainly is, but there’s a difference. Duke Senior is no glutton for punishment. He is confident that he will eventually be leaving the forest to return in glory. It’s highly unlikely that he’d be so cheerful if he suspected that his exile was to last forever. By contrast, the grandson, on Sloop John B, desperately wants to go home, but then — in Brian Wilson’s revised version of the song — has a change of heart. It isn’t the worst trip, but rather the best trip.
This would suggest that, in contrast to Shakespeare’s Duke, that the grandson might, indeed, volunteer for further boating excursions with his grandfather. After all, people do mature and view what’s negative as positive, and it would certainly be amusing if he did too, especially after all his bitter complaining. Sometimes, it’s sheer boredom or a love or adventure that drives us back to those activities that begin to become appealing.
A Shift to the Comic Vision of Life
Perhaps what has been called the “comic vision of life” could offer us a clue to the shift in perspective of Brian Wilson. Even without the songs added line, there is something intrinsically humorous about the song. Partly, it’s the contrast of the chaos created by the boat’s disreputable crew and the orderliness necessitated by the skillful labor required to sail the sloop. It is alluded to, for we hear these lines repeated a total of three times:
“So hoist up the John B’s sail
See how the main sail sets…”
Someone observing the Sloop John B from ashore, and seeing how smoothly it sails through the waters around Nassau, might not have any idea of the conflict that have beset the crewmembers. Many an organization is similar to the Sloop John B, in that respect. If you actually worked at such a company, you might sometimes wonder how they manage to make any money and stay afloat, with all the conflict and contention, and yet surprisingly they do make money. But the public only sees the cheerful advertisements and the stockholders read the annual report with beautiful photos, a letter from the CEO, and a sound enough balance sheet and income statement, but which hides the underlying bedlam. Similarly, if on a Sunday brunch, you saw a smiling family at the next table, you might have not idea that the other days of the week might have been a bit more turbulent for them. In any case, viewed from the distance necessary for the emergence of the comic vision of life, bedlam can be amusing.
One might suppose that getting stuck somewhere can also be amusing, if not for Odysseus and his men, who desperately wished to return home to Ithaca, then for other protagonists whose efforts to return home were frustrated, such as Griffin Dunne in the film “Afterhours,” (1985) and Ulysses in the film “(Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Frustrated efforts in general, which can be maddening, can when one views them under the comic perspective, can also be amusing. Let us also consider, for purposes of comparison, the laughing scene from the classic film “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” Interestingly enough, we find here the same archetype, as in the song “Sloop John B,” namely a robust and spirited grandfatherly fellow, named Howard, and a young man, named Curtain, whom Howard leads on a perilous journey.
[Warning: Film spoiler ahead!] After ten months of terrible adversity, including the death of their comrades, the two gold prospectors finally manage to return to town with a great quantity of gold, which they intend to deposit in the bank. Ah, but at the last moment a very powerful sandstorm comes, only to blow the gold back to the hills of Sierra Madre, Mexico, leaving them empty-handed. Curtain looks devastated by their bad luck. But then Howard, the old and veteran prospector, laughs in the most uproarious fashion, declaring…
“Oh laugh, Curtin, old boy. It’s a great joke played on us by the Lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer. But whoever or whatever played it certainly had a sense of humor! Ha! The gold has gone back to where we found it!… This is worth ten months of suffering and labor – this joke is!” (Warner Brothers, 1948)
Then, Curtain perceiving the cosmic joke, also breaks into laughter. It’s incredible and a testimony to the potential greatness of the human spirit, that they could take the disaster that just befell them as a cosmic joke. How liberating is this laughter! It frees us from the opprobrious seriousness of the human condition, especially from triumph and disaster, which Kipling, in his poem “If,” regarded as imposters.
Of course, the Sloop John B, despite the first mate being arrested, as well as drunken fights, theft, and illness aboard the boat, doesn’t suffer a major setback, as in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” But still we find the same carefree and lighthearted spirit of adventure, certainly when the new last line is added by Brian Wilson. Herman Melville sums it up most felicitously, in his seafaring classic, “Moby Dick”…
“THERE are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing… And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free-and-easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy…” (Moby Dick, Chapter XLIX, “The Hyena.”)
I think that this carefree — “wayward mood,” as Melville calls it — is suggested in the line, “The best trip, I’ve ever been on.” It also suggests Nietzsche’s advice for living a happy life…
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas!…” (“The Gay Science,” by Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufman.)
Of course, a real adventure is not like a trip to Disneyland, but is often riddled with painful hardships. And it might very well involve real dangers, and the possibility of calamity. Consequently, one must know how much danger one is willing to assume. Furthermore, an adventure, despite one’s planning preparations, can often be indistinguishable from a painful misadventure, for it’s the nature of life that it’s bound to be surprises, not all of them felicitous. And it’s just as well for that’s what makes life interesting, and there can be pleasant surprises in store for us, as well. And we must remember that staying home also has its risks.
Finally, it must be remembered that adventurous seafaring might certainly have its value, but it’s being used as a metaphor — as has everyone from Melville to Conrad to Brian Wilson — for the true journey of our life, which isn’t outward but inward. So let us, then, make contact with our inner grandfather, and tell him to reserve a seat for us, next to him, Brian, and Al, on the next sloop headed for a cruise around Nassau Town.