"Long Promised Road"
October 11, 1971 (1971-10-11)
August 15, 1970 (1970-08-15); July 30, 1971 (1971-07-30), Brian Wilson's home studio, Los Angeles
"’Til I Die" is a song written by Brian Wilson for the American rock band the Beach Boys, released on the band's 1971 album Surf's Up and subsequently chosen as the B-side of the single "Long Promised Road". With autobiographical lyrics about death and hopelessness, it is one of the few songs in which both the words and music were written solely by Wilson.
Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote: "''Til I Die' proves that Brian could not only write beautiful music, but that he had the ability to communicate honestly and artfully with his lyrics as well. The track is decorated with a haunting vibraphone and organ bed, which frames the strong harmony vocal arrangement perfectly."
According to Brian in his now-largely discredited 1991 autobiography Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story, the song was inspired after a late night trip to the beach:
Lately, I'd been depressed and preoccupied with death…Looking out toward the ocean, my mind, as it did almost every hour of every day, worked to explain the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion and the beautiful music I was able to make. Was there an answer? Did I have no control? Had I ever? Feeling shipwrecked on an existential island, I lost myself in the balance of darkness that stretched beyond the breaking waves to the other side of the earth. The ocean was so incredibly vast, the universe was so large, and suddenly I saw myself in proportion to that, a little pebble of sand, a jellyfish floating on top of the water; traveling with the current I felt dwarfed, temporary. The next day I began writing "Til I Die", perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for The Beach Boys…In doing so, I wanted to re-create the swell of emotions that I'd felt at the beach the previous night.
The song was written over the course of several weeks as Wilson tried to express the feelings he had experienced on that night he had spent alone at the beach. As he explains, "I struggled at the piano, experimenting with rhythms and chord changes, trying to emulate in sound the ocean's shifting tides and moods as well as its sheer enormity. I wanted the music to reflect the loneliness of floating a raft in the middle of the Pacific. I wanted each note to sound as if it was disappearing into the hugeness of the universe.
After asking Brian how he came up with the chords, Don Was recalls that "he told me that he was sitting at a piano, creating geometric patterns with his fingers, trying not to move the fingers on the outside of the patterns, but limiting changes to internal movements. When he landed on a shape that both looked cool and sounded good, he wrote it down. So, essentially he created this masterpiece by contorting his fingers into really groovy shapes." However, Was goes on to say "I've absolutely no idea whether this story has any basis in truth or whether he was just making it up on the spot to entertain me."
Wilson has stated that the line "I'm a cork on the ocean" was the first thing lyrically that came to him. In the lyrics, Wilson compares himself to a cork on the ocean, a rock in a landslide, and a leaf on a windy day—seeing himself as a small, helpless object, being moved inconceivable distances by forces beyond his comprehension. "How deep is the ocean? How long will the wind blow?" The hopeless conclusion is given in the song's title. At one stage, due to the criticism the song had received from the band, Wilson changed the lyrics from "It kills my soul" to "It holds me up" or "It fills my soul" and "I lost my way" to "I found my way". Ultimately, the rest of the group insisted that the original lyrics be kept as the new lyrics contradicted the lyrics in the verses.
Bruce Johnston has praised the song on several occasions by calling it the last great Brian Wilson song as well as describing it as Wilson's "heaviest song." Johnston has also stated that "the words absolutely fit his mindset". Wilson also felt this was the case when he stated that "the song summed up everything I had to say at the time." He later recalled that Mike Love's reaction to the song was: "What a fucking downer." In 2015, Love named the lyrics of "'Til I Die" his favorite of any written solely by Wilson, although he admitted, "I don’t like the line 'it kills my soul' but I understand what he’s saying."
The song was first attempted during the recording of the 20/20 album. According to some sources, one member of the band was less than impressed with Brian's new song. Johnston remembers Brian "playing it for the band and one member of the band didn't understand it and put it down, and Brian just decided not to show it to us for a few months. He just put it away. I mean, he was absolutely crushed. This other person just didn't like it." It has been speculated by biographer Peter Ames Carlin that it was Mike Love who initially criticized the song.
Due to the negative reaction, Brian didn't work on the song again for several months. The first dated session for the song was at Brian Wilson's home studio on August 15, 1970. Brian would record five takes of the song although the song would be left only partially completed. Dennis Wilson was not present during this session due to filming dates for Two Lane Blacktop, which resulted in a Maestro Rhythm King drum machine being used on the basic track. On August 26, the partially completed track was mixed although very little work would be done on the recording until later the following year when it became a full blown production.
Years later Al Jardine reminisced, "I love the use of the keyboards...but extraordinary use of the vocals. And it's really a good vocal sound, I think Desper [the engineer] deserves all the credit on that one, I mean we just had the best microphones, the best microphone technique and engineering on that particular piece and that particular time. It was just a wonderful piece of music."Johnston expressed similar feelings towards the song as he states that "the track is very simple...and the great, great vocal arrangement that he wrote. Really, a great piece of work."
The song was first released on the band's album Surf's Up on August 30, 1971. On October 11, 1971, the song was released in the United States as the flip-side of the "Long Promised Road" single, which had also been released earlier that year in May with a different B-side. The single entered the Billboard charts on October 30 in the #93 position. It would peak three weeks later at #89 on the Billboard charts, where it would remain for one more week until the single dropped off the charts altogether. It was the first single by the group in 19 months to chart. However, at the time it was the lowest charting single in the group's history and it would remain so for a further eighteen years.
In February 1970, an alternate version of the song with a different backing track was played on the WPLJ FM radio station in New York.
An extended mix of the original recording, created by engineer Steve Desper, was included on the 1998 Endless Harmony Soundtrack. It is notable for having each instrumental layer come in after the other as an introduction and features more prominent vibraphone and organ throughout. The mix was reportedly done only for the engineer's self-interest with no intent for the song to see an official release. As Desper himself explains:
"[the band] went out for lunch or something like that and since the song was already mounted and a mix up, I put together what I thought was a structure that better showcased the harmonic beauty of Brian's writing. Somewhere thereafter I did play the track for Carl, but only in the interest of disclosure, not to sway him to change the structure that Brian intended."
Brian Chidester reported that a piano demo of "'Til I Die" featuring Brian exists, along with a fully produced version with more optimistic lyrics, but both of these have yet to surface.
As a solo artist, a remake of the song was recorded – along with an accompanying video – by Brian Wilson for inclusion in the 1995 documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times and it would later appear on the film's soundtrack. This version, produced by Brian and Don Was, is much more sparse than the original. Brian's re-recording of the song was released as the second track on a relatively rare UK single in 1995. However, the single failed to make any impact on the charts. In 2000, over a period of two days on April 7 and 8, Brian and his band recorded a live version of the song—based on Desper's extended mix—for inclusion on Brian's 2000 live album Live at the Roxy Theatre.
A sample of the song appears as part of the soundtrack to the 2014 film Love & Mercy on the track "The Bed Montage", composed by Atticus Ross.