Ten minutes after high school let out, I spotted the slim freshman walking alone alongside Half Day Road. I pulled alongside slowly, to avoid splashing icy slush on his jeans, and rolled down the passenger-side window of my rented Ford Thunderbird.
“Hey Vlae, I’ll give you a lift home.”
“Thanks, but I can’t take rides from strangers.” He rocked back and forth near the window, glancing at my eyes, then looking away.
“I’m not a stranger.”
I’d wanted to rent a dark green Ford Mustang like the one I learned to drive on, but the ones Hertz had at O’Hare International Timeport didn’t include luxuries like the new eight-track tape players. So instead I got the vinyl-topped T-bird and punched a button.
The first notes of “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” one of the Beach Boys’ string of 1964 top ten hits, came out the speakers. The five voices made a dissonant, unstable chord, signaling the song wasn’t another celebration of Southern California youth culture. Brian Wilson’s pitch-perfect falsetto formed the top; Mike Love’s baritone was the bottom.
The kid leaned through the window. “That’s one of my favorite songs.”
“It’s a song made up of questions. You like to say them out loud and guess the answers.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“I’m you in roughly fifty years.”
He puckered his cheek and spat air out the left side of his mouth, making a rude noise. “Oh right. That was an episode of Twilight Zone.”
“I’m not kidding. I came back to talk to you.”
He shook his head, flouncing his shoulder-length blond hair. “Is this some kind of scam?”
“I’ll show you my driver’s license.” I handed it over.
“Whoever you really are, you did your homework. Right spelling. Right date of birth. Right color hair, but not as much of it. Still need glasses. You’re only three inches taller than me, huh? One mistake—I only weigh about 110. Whatever you weigh, I’m never going to hit 195.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Well, I don’t believe you, but okay, you don’t look like a pervert.” He slammed the rear-hinged suicide door and buckled the lap belt. Instead of leaning back in the blue vinyl bucket seat, he continued to rock back and forth.
“You…I…we live in California, huh?”
“Yeah. You acted on what all those Beach Boys songs were telling you. You got sick of the Chicago winters and being in the middle when Mom and Dad had their fights.”
“Already am.” I pulled back on the road.
“So here’s what I suggest. Let’s listen to the song one verse at the time and if there’s a question you really want answered, ask it.
Chorus: When I grow up to be a man
Mike’s nasal Southern California accent came barreling through.
Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?
Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn't done what I did?
Brian took the next two lines, starting in falsetto and dropping into a sweet tenor.
Will I joke around and still dig those sounds?
When I grow up to be a man
“Stop! What’s the answer to the first one?”
“The first one, some things you’ll still like, you’ll still be a Cubs fan, for example. Some things you won’t. At a certain age, your back will hurt too much and you’ll quit playing tennis.”
“Will the Cubs ever win the World Series?”
“The time-travel company made me sign a promise not to divulge specific information about the future that could be used to place bets or for insurance-buying purposes.” Plus, I didn’t want to spoil his delight forty-eight years later.
I turned right on Milwaukee Avenue and reached the private airport that wouldn’t be there much longer. I spied his long driveway on the left, also long gone. The horse farm our family had rented had been replaced by a Marriott hotel and golf course.
The second verse began, where the ages start.
Will I look for the same things in a woman that I dig in a girl?
Will I settle down fast or will I first wanna travel the world?
Now I'm young and free, but how will it be?
When I grow up to be a man?
“I played this on my birthday so I could hear my age for the first time. I’ve probably played the album 200 times.”
“The Beach Boys Today!” The exclamation point was one of many efforts by Capitol Records to give the group an image they didn’t fit in real life. “So any questions you want answered?”
“Will I look for the same things in a woman as I dig in a girl?”
“Don’t say dig, it’ll be a joke word by the time the ‘60s are over. Anyhow, the answer is that you’ll learn from experience to look for different things.
“What do you mean?”
“You think the two hottest girls in advanced English are Marcia Barbieri and Anna Toft, right? You prefer Anna because it seems like she’s smarter and is going farther. But if you looked closer, you could see Anna has some emotional issues that will get worse over time but Marcia is going to be a solid person and a great mom.”
“So what’s your dating advice?”
“Same thing I told my kids. Don’t let sex fuck up your life. Except it’s a little different in your case. You have intense anxiety attacks, you don’t like to be touched, and those things are going to make it hard for you to get into sex for a while.”
“Just shut up, okay?”
“Looks like I hit a nerve.”
He froze for a minute, his fists clenched, seething. His darting eyes landed on the ash tray. “I want a cigarette. You got any?”
“Hell no, It took me ten years to quit smoking after you started doing it regularly So here’s some advice--quit going behind the barn with Tony Carioli and sneaking cigarettes.”
“Yes, sir.” He saluted mockingly.
Dad was going to die of lung cancer, but I couldn’t tell him that. Or that Tony, the coolest kid I knew, would overdose on cocaine a few years later at a party and his supposed friends just let him die because they were afraid they’d be arrested if they called an ambulance.
“As for Tony, he’s trouble, but it’s okay to look at his Playboy collection.”
He spat air out the side of his mouth again, his default reaction in any situation that brought on emotion he didn’t want to express, in this case embarrassment.
“That mouth thing you do is annoying.”
He rolled his eyes.
Will my kids be proud or think their old man is really a square?
When they're out having fun yeah, will I still wanna have my share?
Will I love my wife the rest of my life?
When I grow up to be a man?
“How about the ‘will I love my wife’ thing?”
“You know why that’s in the song? Because when Brian wrote it, he had just gotten married and was already having second thoughts. Remember, this is a song by a twenty-three year old writing as if he’s fourteen.”
“Interesting, but you didn’t answer the question.”
“Let’s put it this way. Which wife?”
“Oh, great.” He puckered a cheek and started to make that noise again before catching himself.
What will I be when I grow up to be a man?
“Exactly what you think you’ll be now.”
“A newspaperman, huh? Well, that makes a good solid career.”
“Yes and no.”
Won't last forever
It's kind of sad
Won't last forever
It's kind of sad
Won’t last forever
He stayed quiet so I started in.
‘Won’t last forever’ is about mortality. I decided to bend the rule about not telling the future. “Two of the Wilson brothers will die fairly young.”
There was only one response, and he got it. “It’s kind of sad.”
Dennis was the sex symbol, the long-haired drummer, the only real surfer in the group. He became a hopeless alcoholic and drowned after drunkenly diving off a boat trying to recover a lost bag of silver dollars.
Carl had the sweetest voice in pop, featured on “Darlin’, “I Can Hear Music,” and the heavenly “God Only Knows.” He died the same way Dad did, lung cancer.
“You know what else is sad—I’m almost double the final age in the song.”
“Man, you’re old.”
I pulled up in his driveway next to the juniper bushes. Nobody was home. Mom and Dad were at work; my sister Tempra was practicing guitar at a friend’s house.
“It’s starting to snow. I’m going to have to shovel the sidewalk before Mom gets home.”
“Fucking Chicago winters,” I replied.
“It’ll be an hour and a half before anyone else gets home. Want to come in and listen to records?”
The kid wouldn’t tell anyone this, but he wasn’t popular and often lonely, the opposite of longed-for Beach Boys cool, which explained his attraction. Behind the times, too—the band’s popularity in the hard-rock-loving Chicago suburbs had peaked at least two years earlier.
“Sure, as long as I can get out of here before the snow gets too deep. I’d like to go in and pet Rye.”
I walked inside the sprawling rancher. The young, hyperactive golden retriever, which we had bred, jumped on the kid. He turned, sniffed my hand curiously and after a second jumped on me too. With his amazing sense of smell, maybe he could tell we were the same person. “When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, he was recognized only by his faithful old dog, who wagged his tail and then died.”
I walked into my old bedroom and spied the bed with the red woven Navajo blanket. An old Underwood manual typewriter sat on his desk with a piece of paper inside. He’d typed out the ages, batting average, and home runs of every Cubs player for the last three years, comparing them at each position to the reigning champions, the St. Louis Cardinals. A second page near the desk contained comparisons of the pitchers’ ERAs and strikeouts.
“What’s your research show?” I asked.
“The Cardinals are getting old. The Cubs should be better than them next year.”
True, but along with everyone else, he wasn’t even considering there could be such a thing as the 1969 Miracle Mets.
He loped over to a pile of albums on the mismatched coffee table and picked up “The Beach Boys Today!”
“Not that one,” I said. “Let’s try “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!).”
The kid knew a hack. If he changed the return setting in the middle of a side, at the end of the side the needle arm would return to the place where a single would start, but the turntable would still play at album speed--33 rpm--rather than 45 for singles. That meant that every night at bedtime, he could snuggle under the covers and listen to the full Side One. The needle would return to pick up the last chorus of “Girl Don’t Tell Me”—a knockoff of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”--followed by a second play of his favorite cut, “Help Me Rhonda (single version).” The record player would then shut off and Rhonda would sound so fine in his head as he went to sleep.
I started the side and changed the setting.
“Since nobody knows I do that, you’ve got to be me!”
The first cut was “The Girl from New York City,” not exactly a classic.
He rocked back and forth again, something I only did when I was nervous. Maybe he was nervous all the time.
“So like did you come back from the future to give me some advice? Besides not smoking, which everybody says.”
Here goes. “Put more effort into making and keeping friends. Control your temper, it’s going to become a problem. Learn to ski and dance. Ask Marcia Barbieri out on a date; she’s going to look great for at least fifty years.”
He nodded, but the advice sounded hollow. Marty McFly’s success at changing the past in “Back to the Future” was a myth. It’s almost impossible to go back and change the future, because people resist advice that conflicts with their instincts, especially people like him, who had built and fortified several lines of defenses.
“At least don’t smoke.”
“Why not? The cool kids do and I’d probably be happier dead anyway.”
At that moment, I appreciated how unhappy he’d become as a teenager. I stepped forward to give him a hug, forgetting his likely reaction. He drew back and raised his fists like I was about to attack him.
The record had moved on to the uninspired “Salt Lake City,” one of Brian’s efforts to appease his father, who was a friend of the man who owned the leading radio station in that town. Brian’s long, sad period of mental illness, exacerbated by his father’s physical and emotional abuse, had already begun, though it was still hidden from the public. But Brian wasn’t the only one with problems.
Not wanting to be touched…rocking back and forth, popping air out the side of his mouth… …obsessed with baseball statistics…periods of anxiety that left him almost immobile. His family had called him a “little man” instead of a boy and he related better to adults than his peers. I’d come back to see if the signs added up the way I suspected.
“I’m not a psychologist, but I suspect you have a fairly severe case of anxiety disorder and a mild case of something that someday will be called Asperger’s syndrome.”
He crossed his arms defensively. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Yeah, but the cost. You can’t even step out on a diving board, much less get on skis. You won’t even get a driver’s license until you’re twenty.”
“Oh God, don’t tell me that. So what do I do?
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a psychologist.”
“No, but I wish I had. I overcame some of our issues, like the fear of driving, and learned to compensate for the rest, but I should have enjoyed life more.”
When the side finally got to “Help Me Rhonda,” I started singing along with Al Jardine on one of his rare solos, one of their best.
Well since she put me down I've been out doin' in my head
I come in late at night and in the mornin' I just lay in bed
Well, Rhonda you look so fi-i-ine (look so fine)
And I know it wouldn't take much ti-i-ime
For you to help me Rhonda
Help me get her out of my heart
“Your voice is terrible. Are you sure you gave up cigarettes?”
Brian’s voice had become a wreck, too. “Okay, smartass, you sing it when it comes around again.”
At the end of the side, the needle arm clunked back into position. A minute later, “Rhonda” came on again. The kid scrunched his nasal passages to mimic the accent and took the falsetto tops on the harmonies.
When it ended, he looked at me appraisingly. “So you’re trying to tell me I’ll get my heart broken?”
“A couple times.”
“Shit. I’m such a loner. I’m scared I’ll never find anybody. Tell me this much. Will I ever find a Rhonda?”
I puckered my cheek and spat air out the side of my mouth. Then I winked.
"When I Grow Up" live performance, 1964 – shows how they could harmonize outside a studio.
PopMatters song analysis: When I Grow Up