Mind of Brian 7: In My Room


There is something frightfully, dangerously beautiful about this song. While Brian's work from the beginning through 1967 is rife with absolute masterpieces, there are many angles from which this song can be seen as representative of the whole, autobiographical in the extreme, and exemplary of the essence talentwise. A keyboard/bass player's song, it lives in a difficult key, with interesting voicings and passing chords/notes, a total fusion of form and content, words and melody and harmony completely united. The danger comes in the fact that this song forms an appealing, comforting, and unspeakably beautiful environment in which one can become lost...

Intro

As we've seen with Fun Fun Fun for example, Brian often siezes on a cliche as an intro, as though offering himself, the band, and the listener a reference point in known geography before heading out into uncharted territory. Here we get our old friend, I vi ii V (this goes back to doowop, it's the second most popular variant on the standard waltz-tempo pop ballad), with surf guitar arpeggios and that lovely, prefiguring-Pet-Sounds-and-Smile harp flourish at the end:

B  G#m  C#m  F#
The first noise you hear is "ting" like a small bell or gong being struck. And though we'll hear each of these chords again, some in close proximity to one another, just as with Fun Fun Fun the intro is the only clear statement of the cliche. From now on it'll be pure Brian at his absolute best. Listening to the demo version on the boxed set, this part is noticeably absent, as if it were added later, even in the studio.

Notice the implications of the choices made so far: we are in a 12/8 waltz sort of thing, which should be about love, and somewhat sad, viewed within the standard pop vocabulary. Before we finish, the bass sneaks in the same major V-I walkup that occupies a similar position in Surfer Girl, just between the intro and the first word:

F# G# A#
First Verse

Having established the key as B and doing that little walkup, it's no surprise that the substance matter begins on the major root chord:

B         B           B     B      B       Amaj7   B    G#m
There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets too
We have the "ting" again here, it is interspersed through out... The big surprise is how long we stay on B. The intro and the standard form would indicate that measures 2-4 of this line replicate the pattern and continue with G#m, C#m or E, then F#. That they don't is in itself innovative; that they stay on the root chord is absolutely perfect, because the song is about staying in one place, safety, and security. While a solo voice sings the first few words, a beautiful Beach Boys stack builds slowly upward over the simple major harmonies on B to get jazzier and more Four-Freshmany on the "tell my secrets" lyric.

Of further interest is how the second four measures are structured, especially when compared with the cliche pattern. Rather then B G#m C#m/E F# we get a break of key with that Amaj7 chord,a VIImaj7 that is not in the standard diatonic chord palette. That pull chord, a frequent device of for example John Lennon, is very modal and Eastern in some senses, it is something that rotates around the root of B without getting very far from it, and provides less a resolution of tension (what we expect from V-I or F#-B in this case) than a simple step sideways, which is exactly what we get here. That moment of resolution is saved for later.

The Hook

      C#m   A   F#  F#    B      Amaj7  B    B
In my room          in my room  (in my room)
For those of you following at home, note that the first two words here are a "pickup" and harmonize with the passing G#m that took us out of the verse. The passing G#m chord is also absent from the demo and a later elaboration. Now I know you can make an argument that this set of measures is of a piece with the verse itself, but I've decided to split it off a little just to talk about it separately from the verse. For one thing, some very interesting things happen here vocally. Through the verse line, the stack stays right with the lead once it joins in, singing exactly the same words and timings albeit on different notes. The drums enter on the word "room" and stay in throughout, accompanied by the ting now and then for emphasis.

Here, though, the lead holds a single C# note on the word "room" when it first occurs, while the harmonies move with the chords and change notes to follow the progression to A major and F# major. This moment, where Brian's lead holds that one note while the others move, is incredibly beautiful, and the chord pattern is absolutely perfect; almost everyone who ever hears this song even once remembers exactly this part. The same A chord (actually a close variant) that appeared in the verse is used again here in a completely different context to completely different effect (reminiscent of a similar use of Bm in the transition out of the obbligado modulation in God Only Knows...). In the verse, A gave us a modal step away from home, with a strong implication we weren't very far away and would be back in a jiffy. Here it forms a minimodulating transition between one familiar, in-key spot (C#m, the ii chord and very inside) and another (F#, the V, setting up a dominant cadence and a true feeling of returning home), giving us a nested chromatic ascent, to wit:

G#  A  A#
in the backing vocals and chords, using the fifth of C#m, the root of A, and the third of F#. If one were to look up Brian Wilson of Earth, MilkyWay in some species-neutral Intergalactic Musical Dictionary, one would hear this little moment. Clever, gorgeous, representative, appropriate: genius time.

The latter part of the hook is of interest too. It is harmonically quite similar in form to the latter part of the verse, except it has a completely different melody, and the backing vocals slip into an echoing/repetend role, continuing the break they made from the lead earlier in this section. The only difference between these four measures and the last four in the verse section is that last chord, B here rather than G#m (those of course share two common tones anyway). And for good reason: the G#m was a passing chord taking us somewhere new, setting up something even more interesting, whereas here the B fills out an eight-measure section and gives the singers (and the listener!) a breather before the next verse comes in.

Second Verse and Second Hook

B         B           B        B      B       Amaj7  B     G#m
In this   world I     lock out all my worries and my fears    in my

C#m   A   F#  F#    B      Amaj7  B    B-D#m
Room          in my room  (in my room)
Musically we have no new material here, we are continuing the story line, though some variation comes from the percussion side. This is a good time therefore to discuss the lyrics... we have a person who has secrets to tell, and has worries and fears and a need to lock them out. The "conflict" in this tale, then, is between the speaker and his own inner demons; no external players such as lovers, rivals, ex-lovers, parents, or loud braggarts are involved here. The song is about and by person who creates a world of his own that insulates him from all of the within *and* without.

The little D#m passing chord, occurring at the same point as our previous G#m and just as absent from the demo version, at once evokes the turnaround back to the verse yet takes us somewhere new. The organ line that accompanies it, three simple notes (B-A#-G#), suggests the words "in my room" without stating them, using the same timing as the hook words in the chorus. Where we end up is the bridge, very interesting in itself and wondrous in how it relates to the overall song and subject matter...

Bridge

G#m   G#m        F#     F#       /G#m  F# /G#m   F#  /   B   B
Do my dreaming   and my scheming  lie  a   wake  and   pray
This first line is sung solo, a relief in a way from the stack we've been hearing for awhile, with that middle part "testifying" feeling carried from gospel to Spector to Brian. What has been a relatively smooth harmonic rhythm throughout (smooth, measure by measure chord changes with the expected exception of passing chords in transitions) is violated here by those tossing and turning G#m and F# chords in the fifth measure, exactly perfect for suggesting what it's like to lie awake, then coming to rest back home at the B root chord for the restful feeling of prayer. As in God Only Knows Brian exceedingly well makes the words and music convey the same message, each in their own language.

G#m   G#m        F#     F#       C#m      C#m    E      F#
Do my crying     and my sighing  laugh at yester day
I treated these two lines separately simply because in this fairly in-key, non-modulating middle part, typical at least in is chord choices of the Spectoresque girl group era material that so influenced Brian, there is just so much happening. The toss-turn-settle motion of the first half is transcended in this line and yields to a smoother settling in, startin with the same chords as the first line but moving to a dominant cadence that will introduce the last verse.

The harmonies come back in here, and very interestingly enough while the chords here are the same for the first four measures, the melodic emphasis differs from the first line. Here the primary melody seems to be working off the fifth note, starting on D#, whereas in the first line the solo vocal is clearly on the root, G#, continuing off the little organ line that introduced all of this. And at the end of this part, the neat and very Brianesque trick of anticipating a chord with the melody and waiting for the harmony to catch up is done wonderfully: the voice holds the F# note on the syllable "day" across the E and F# chords, creating movement from stillness as the perceived interval/voicing shifts from ninth to root.

Third Verse and Coda/Fade

B         B           B        B      B       Amaj7  B     G#m
Now it's  dark and    I'm alone but   I won't be    afraid    in my

C#m   A   F#  F#    B      Amaj7  B    Amaj7  B   
Room          in my room  (in my room) (in my room)
There is no new music here until the fadeout, instead the focus is on closing the story. Whereas the previous material talked about sort of everyday practice, this summary locks into the immediate present and starts with the word "now." Our speaker is alone and in the dark, but has no fear because he is in the one place where he can cope with what Matthew Arnold describes in Dover Beach: "In the sea of life enisled, we mortal millions live alone." The fadeout has one of the most beautiful Brian peak endnotes, that high B on the word "room;" not among is most challenging or exhilarating, but beautiful and well chosen. Whereas on pieces such as Surfer Girl or Warmth of the Sun we see modulations at the end, this song is precisely about steadiness, modulating and changing things would be dead wrong.

Something to Say at the End

One can easily dwell on the beauty of this piece, and just as easily dismiss it as an ode to cocooning or an antisocial, dysfunctional view of the world. I prefer to think of it as embodying a fundamental truth: that in spite of our social nature, in spite of our connectedness and need for intimacy and functioning in groups and so forth, in the end we face our Maker alone, solely responsible for our own lives and choices and nothing else. As Rumi put it, tie two birds together and they cannot fly, even though they have four wings.

The obvious cognate song on the Beatle side is There's A Place, of which I've recorded a slow surfesque cover version to make the case for the overlap. But in the Lennon song, there is a lover to think of; in this song, Brian does not refer to any other human being at all other than himself: no lovers, rivals, friends, nobody.

One can also detect here some hints of sadder days to come. This song appears on the Surfer Girl album, incredibly early, by a young and successful Brian riding the surf craze to instant wealth and fame. Yet when he speaks from the heart it is of worries and fears, crying and sighing, darkness and aloneness. It is surprising if you think of the writer's age and overall socioeconomic position, sort of incongruous the way the lyrics to Help! come out at the height of Beatlemania.

It's easy, in other words, to make connections between the feelings stated here, and others more overtly mentioned in Pet Sounds (most specifically in I Just Wasn't Made for These Times and Hang On To Your Ego/ I Know There's An Answer). The forces of darkness and worry, the pressure to please others and be commercial, the feeling that one is misunderstood and just doesn't belong... it happens here first. It's clearly there to read in the Pet Sounds lyrics as well, and thus it's no surprise, well, that Smile never ships, we don't see the Pet Sounds box set, you all know what I'm referring to. But we do have this song, the truth and beauty therein, and within each of us a room of sorts like the one Brian describes... a place where we can go when we feel low and blue, where the worry and fear can't get in. For me, and for many of you I'm sure, this song is playing when I go to that place, at least some of the time.

(Note to guitarists: to play this, either take it down a step to A or capo 2 and play the chords listed here in A position. The first approach is easier to sing, the second more faithful to, and in tune with, the record...)