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Jewish World Review Aug. 20, 1999 /8 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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A four-letter word
that has helped both
Bob and Rhonda --
A COLLEGE STUDENT wrote to me as part of a class assignment, wanting me to take a close look at my writing and then decide who the greatest influences on my style have been.

(Yes, parents are paying tuition for this kind of thing.)

So I went over several months' worth of columns, and arrived at a sobering conclusion.

There were no hints of Shakespeare or Faulkner in there; no echoes of Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Kipling.

But an unsparing look at the columns revealed an unassailable truth about who the greatest single influence on the way I put words together has been:

The Beach Boys.

Because -- as I went through the columns -- I couldn't help but notice that one rhetorical device kept popping up:

The use of the word "well."

Sometimes it appears as a transitional paragraph, all by itself:

Well . . . .

Often it jumps up out of nowhere, leading into a thought:

Well, as some people might say . . . .

It even stands alone, as a sentence that really isn't, making an abrupt comment on what has come immediately before:


And I know exactly the derivation of this: those Beach Boys songs written by Brian Wilson, sometimes with the help of Mike Love -- the songs that filled my head when I was first falling in love with music.

You don't understand? Then you never paid proper attention to Beach Boys lyrics. Think about it:

"Little Deuce Coupe": Well I'm not braggin' babe, so don't put me down.. . .

"California Girls": Well, East Coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear.. . .

"Don't Worry Baby": Well, it's been building up inside of me for oh I don't know how long. . . .

"Fun, Fun, Fun": Well, she got her daddy's car and she cruised through the hamburger stand now. . . .

"Help Me Rhonda": Well since she put me down I've been out doin' in my head.. . .

And so many more. It's inescapable -- without my even knowing it, the Beach Boys helped teach me how to write down my thoughts, and their most basic tenet was that you have to lean on "well."

To delve more deeply into the meaning of this, I got in touch with legendary rock keyboardist Gary Griffin, who has performed with the Beach Boys in live shows and has sung these songs on stages all over the world. I asked him: What function does "well" serve in starting out a lyric?

"It immediately sets a tone of informality," he said. "It's as if the singer is saying, `Well, sit down. I have a little story to tell you.' It's almost as if when you begin a line with `Well,' you're indicating that it's a continuation of a conversation you've been having with your listener."

So the word "well" carries more weight than any four-letter word might be assumed to be able to carry?

"It conveys a sense of intimacy, right away," Griffin said. "With that one word, the people in the audience get the sense that they know a lot about the singer. He's letting them in on something, like an old friend who's telling them an old familiar story. `Well' says: `As I was saying to you.. . .' It establishes a connection between the person who's listening to the song, and the person who's singing it."

Of course, neither Griffin nor I have any idea whether Brian Wilson or Mike Love had that in mind when they were writing the songs that came blasting out of tens of millions of car radios on so many summertime highways. "It could be just a verbal tic, too," Griffin said. "Maybe they started so many songs with `well' without even knowing they were doing it."

For whatever reason, though, the "wells" seem to have found their way into the newspaper columns that appear here. Sorry it couldn't have been Shakespeare -- but apparently it wasn't.

And in looking at the columns, I've noticed another word that has begun to appear with some frequency:


It's obvious where "yep" came from:

Gary Cooper, in "High Noon."

Brian Wilson, Gary Cooper. . . .

I'll take them over William Faulkner any day.

Well . . . almost any day.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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