The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”: The Musical And Personal Horrors


This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)

THE SONG: The Beach Boys, “Kokomo.”
THE YEAR: 1988.
THE REASONS: Personal humiliation.

The first time I smuggled outside media into my parents’ house, I was six, and I had just accidentally discovered Magnum P.I. For two full minutes I stared full-eyed at Tom Selleck, resplendent in florals, trying simultaneously to both determine what alien culture I was observing, and to commit to memory the rabbit-ear alchemy with which I had finally extracted the illicit CBS signal from the open air. My parents held a principled and effective cross-source embargo on violent and sexist media from my birth until I was in junior high (I can instead recite parts of Free To Be You And Me from memory), so my Tom time was cut short only moments thereafter, but the Selleckian afterimage stayed with me, iconic, for decades. And, just to be clear, I understand fully how insane that sounds. These are the aftereffects of such a paucity of interaction with popular culture—when you can only grasp at culture’s hem, you obsess over the nature of the garment.

Consequently, I can not only count the important records of my childhood on one hand, but summon them with terrifying recall. My dad’s Pontiac LeMans had not a stereo system, but a pink cassette deck hard-wired into a raw gap in the console, duct-taped face-down to the dash, a live Louis Prima and Keely Smith tape jailed within—that was one. The Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money, art and music both jeweled with strange, unknowable references—that was another. The late-80’s theme to NPR’s Morning Edition, with the trumpet—I should not be allowed to count this, but here it is. Lastly, though, was a single 45, so impactful that the center label is probably scorched in miniature onto a sub-nape synaptic cluster, and I am sorry for speaking it aloud because it is about to get stuck in your head. I am talking about The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.”

Now that I have summoned it, please allow me a minute to talk about “Kokomo,” and in detail, because it has come to play a strange, transitory role in pop culture. Its glorious, radiant wretchedness is a thing of legend, and in 2005, that was—and on Earth-4, is probably still—the most notable thing about it, except maybe that Australia nonetheless got it to No. 1. But talking about it here, in 2012, is infinitely complicated by the fact that Destroyer’s recasting, for Kaputt, of its emotional distance and lidded-stare production, was tone-perfect; I consider it one of the greatest executions of a sonic thesis I’ve ever heard. “Kokomo”‘s horror, I mean, is now provably not caused simply by its wave-pool tempo, or its junk drawer of percussion additives, or its sax solo. To say, “Joel Peskin’s sax solo blurts into the song like a home invasion committed by mayonnaise”—it is fun to write such an easy shot, but Kaputt‘s rightfully acclaimed title track wears a sax solo throughout its entire runtime like a writhing stole, it’s twice as greasy and distracted, and it actually performs a function while it’s hanging around. Critical precision is necessary. The sin “Kokomo” commits, in other words, is not that a saxophone is present at all, but that it underperforms.

As does each other element, in turn. Listening to the song at all requires steeling yourself as though for a high humidity index; the production never fully commits to the narcotic haze clearly attenuating the lyrics (and instrumentation, and performance, et al.), and the resultant midtempo, glassy lope has all the emotional resonance of a shrink-wrapped floppy disk. The extra percussion—finger drums? Tablas? A TR-626?—never gels with the rest of the arrangement; chiefly, it lends a hamfisted versimilitude to the claim, “We are going to go to some islands.” (Never mind the fact that the itinerary proposed by Love, Wilson, et al., is so outrageous that it is impossible to inhabit the song’s narrator—surely there was some common ground between a pan-Carribean bacchanalia and, like, “Dayton/ Columbus / Girl, let’s make a rumpus”?) And when you dare take them out, what you’re left with is the far-superior drum pattern from “Just Like Honey,” with an intoxicating snare pickup in the chorus. Not to rearrange “Kokomo” en toto on the page, and I’ll stop here, but every component of the final work seems obviously improvable; “assembled by committee” is usually a dig, but here it is simply an accurate descriptor.

But in 1989, I, at seven years old, had zero qualms with “Kokomo.” Its mawkish romance had a flavor I couldn’t taste in any other song I knew, and the verse and chorus looped back into each other slickly enough that it held up to repeated subsequent playthroughs (which I abused). And since it existed only in the context of my own living room, it felt like a landed meteorite, albeit one with a cocktail umbrella jammed in. So I played it, and played it a lot, attempting to perform an exegetic analysis through concentration alone, willing myself through it, to the lands it enumerated, wondering what lived in Montserrat, only half-believing it was real at all.

So here is how I came to hate it.

Some additional autobiographical context is here needed, and I will keep it brief: I was a hyperkinetic, attention-thirsty gibbon of a pre-teen, so loud and so unfocusable that it defined my personality well into middle school. During my “Kokomo” infatuation, after a particularly volatile week, my exasperated mother came to me with an idea: What if we had a code word, just between the two of us, and I could say it when you got out of hand, to let you know that you needed to calm down, but before you were yet in trouble. I thought this plan, or at least its trouble-avoidance angle, sounded fantastic, and when my mother asked what the code word should be, “Kokomo” was my immediate choice. How could it be otherwise? It was so unique that I could hardly mistake having heard it, and nobody but me could possibly guess what it meant in context—the perfect surreptitious warning.

Perfect until it demanded execution, anyway, which happened at Tween Hell, viz., a quilt exhibition. No—a quilt exhibition on a perfect summer day, and to be trapped in such, as a child, feels identical to what being slowly digested by a transparent worm must. Hours of cicada hum, stifling church air, polite yet impenetrable conversation; if I’d known state secrets, or what those were, I’d have begged to trade for clemency. And so, eventually, my resolve flagged, and I began to whine and stomp. A fine plan, I probably reasoned, considering my newly-wrought Trouble Buffer.

What I had failed to take into account, of course, was the soon-to-be-clear possibility that my mother would not politely drop “Kokomo” into the conversation she was carrying on with a local quilter, conspiritorially, with a knowing wink—but would instead ensure that I had heard her say it. “STEPHEN,” she therefore said, suddenly down at my eye level, performing the exasperated-parent party trick of speaking in uppercase at 65dB—and the next word kerranged off each wall, septupling in size, marinating the wall-mounted batting and boiling the air—”KOKOMO.”

The humiliation wilted me. I flushed red and diminished. For the rest of the exhibition I was glumly silent, still wounded from shame’s cruelest barb: knowing you brought it upon yourself. Afterwards, in the car, I suggested (as diplomatically as a seven year-old can) that perhaps we could seek an alternate to codewords, and that was the end of it, because my mother is understanding. But when we got home, I had a plan for my residual embarrassment: I blamed it on “Kokomo” itself, reshelved the record, and swore it dead to me.

Negroni-eyed and greasy, but as you might have guessed by now, I certainly don’t hate it. But I didn’t really hate it then, not genuinely—not even in the way that I hated Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” the instant I heard it, reacting as though to a contact poison, trapped in the rear of a minivan, fifteen, approaching an air force base. But I had no taste then, by which I mean, there was not enough available music to allow me the privilege of self-assembling a taste, and rejecting Seger for being of his era (or, really, simply not of mine) would have sounded insane. And frankly, banishing “Kokomo” to the shelf was a much more accurate predictor of my future as obsessive music devourer—my tastes have modulated yearly since I was first lucky enough to have some, but I have indefinitely shelved Everclear records for committing the simple crime of recalling a wound, and also The-Dream records, and Silver Jews records, and so long as I am an organism which processes both ecstasy and agony, I will continue, knowing each time that it started there, in a New England church, with the hot, fresh shame of “Kokomo.”