"Where did your long hair go?" the first line of Pet Sounds last track, "Caroline No" is echoed by the first line here. "Silken hair, more silken hair fell on her face, but no wind was blowing."
This time however, a hair cut is not the central image in a lament for lost innocence, hair loss is the central image in a jaunty description of a bad acid trip. Sung and swung late '50s jazz combo style, with bongos; close to bossa nova in attitude, tone, and rhythm, if not subject matter. For the first minute.
Followed by another late '50s homage: the Shanana Chipmunks style bridge wherein the chromatically climbing doo-wop vocals escalate as the tape speeds up. A sonic jolt, and, of course, funny. Who can resist the Beach Boys turning into the Chipmunks? The first time they have distorted their own voices. The invisible hand of the producer brought to the foreground.
And then the mock dramatic spoken exposition. "I started grabbing her hair and threw it in a sack" that segues into the boogiefied finale "It's too late Mama . . ." Four different sections in a bit over two minutes.
That, on both first listen and close inspection, hang together. There's the goofy story line, announced in the title, to move us along. And if the four sections are wildly different in technique, they fit together musically. More proof of the group's arrival at a particular (perhaps peculiar) confidence in their own taste, skill and wit.
The vocals in the first section are layered, but after that the aural layering comes from the sections piled one after another. Instrumentally we are a long long way from competing with Phil Spector's wall of sound. In the last section, for instance, a treble piano figure that could have been lifted from a Howlin' Wolf record trades places with a ukulele strum (setting us up for the next track). This isn't Pet Sounds, this isn't Smile. This is something different. Studio produced and edited rock jazz.
And then the layers of meaning. Beach Boys aficionados, aware of the presence of Smile's absence, so to speak, when this was released, can wonder if this track is the group's (or even Brian's) revenge on Brian Wilson's ambitions. One understanding of "Caroline No" places it as Brian's lament for his own lost innocence. Does that make "She's Goin' Bald" a masked description of the collapse of Wilson's ambition? Or the destruction of that ambition?
More simply, it's the first female image in a Beach Boys song that doesn't fit into the found love/lost love format. And inevitably, a woman with her hair falling out suggests, if only for a second, cancer and chemotherapy. Drugs. The bad acid trip.
A funny song, an oddball tour de force, where a significant segment of the unusual humor derives from a negative space. A complicated negative space and a turning point for the Beach Boys.