Once upon a time, whenever I felt like messing with people's minds when they were over at the house, I'd slip one of my Smile bootlegs into the stereo without announcing what it was we were going to be listening to. It would never be long before "Do You Like Worms" or "I Love to Say Da Da" or "Vega-Tables" or one of several other songs that Brian Wilson and his hand-picked conspirator/lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, wrote and recorded for Brian's intended magnum opus, the never-released Smile album, elicited the question, "Who is this?" or, just as often, "What is this?" When I'd casually answer, "The Beach Boys," I almost always got the response I was after: "Not the Beach Boys." Yep, I'd reply, the very same.
There are two interrelated, equally engrossing ways of talking about Brian Wilson: musically and biographically. The former is far more edifying, if only slightly less calamitous. Peter Ames Carlin's Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson is the most recent attempt to understand Wilson's plunge from pop-music princedom and his subsequent physical and psychological collapse, as well as the concomitant fortunes of the other Beach Boys, otherwise known as "Brian's puppets" (brother Dennis, who introduced this painfully apt description of himself, other brother Carl, and the remaining group members, cousin Mike Love and high school friend Al Jardine). Carlin does an admirable job of chronicling Brian's artistic development from Top 40 hit—and myth (California style)—maker to nascent popular music visionary to mainly impotent pop craft dabbler. He also weaves into the musical mix most of the key human elements in the Beach Boys' salacious (even by rock and roll's slimy standards) history: Brian's mental meltdown and the countless personal and professional sham "comebacks"; brother Dennis's alcohol- and drug-fuelled suicide at age thirty-nine; the artistic sabotage that Mike Love and other like-minded money obsessives within and without the Beach Boys' camp wreaked upon Smile, Brian's most adventurous musical project. Only when it comes to discussing the recent, shameful, entirely dollar-driven exhumation of Smile, thirty-five years after the original tapes had been put away uncompleted, does Carlin inexplicably lose his usual objectivity, falling prey to the same media-wide myopia that seems to have deprived everyone of the ability to recognise a simple show-biz con when they see and hear one.
Of course, the reason for the continued interest or fascination in Wilson both personally and aesthetically is obvious to anyone with knowledge of even the People Magazine-version of his story: Brian Wilson is rock and roll's first Icarus, the amphetamine-fuelled golden boy of A.M. radio who, in daring to aspire to create "a teenage symphony to God," flew just a little too close to the sun of pop music perfection and descended back to earth brain-charred and ego-shattered, never to fully recover. It's both a morality play for a culture that teaches that mediocrity and conformity are the twin requisites for success and happiness, and an enthralling tragedy for those who believe that, contrary to society's company line, life is about more than simply buying, breeding, and being bought.
Wilson's figurative and literal burnout are the main reasons that Carlin's biography is only the latest and certainly not the last (Steven Gaines's Heroes & Villains, Jules Siegal's essay "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God! The Religious Conversion of Brian Wilson", and Nick Kent's long essay "The Last Beach Movie Revisited: The Life of Brian Wilson" from his outstanding collection The Dark Stuff precedes and joins Catch a Wave as the best of the bunch), but it's the music that got made before, and even occasionally after, the famous psychic flameout that is, ultimately, the most rewarding story. Quite simply, the best of Brian Wilson's songs are necessary listening for anyone wishing to appreciate and understand contemporary popular music.
Like most things that strike us now as such an essential part of the fabric of existence that they seem inevitable, the Beach Boys almost didn't happen. Ever since Brian at age two had been transported by a recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" to a far, far better world than the one he inhabited with his family in their Hawthorne, California, suburb, music had been his salvation (the song, he later claimed, contains "every emotion I've ever experienced. Looking back now, I can see what I heard, even if I couldn't express it in words back then"). Later, as an eighteen-year-old community college student of no particular distinction, he wanted it to be his career as well. Rounding up his most current collection of singing marionettes, Brian drilled the guys for hours in Four Freshman and Kingston Trio covers and popular R & B tunes, eventually gaining an audition with a small local record label. The married couple who ran the company liked the band's tight vocal blend but didn't hear anything that set them apart from a thousand other Jan and Dean wannabees. Did they have anything else? Maybe a song about a fad, something that all the kids were into these days?
"How about surfing?" Dennis shouted.
Dennis—who was only in the group in the first place because their mother forced Brian to include him. Dennis—who'd rather be surfing, or getting drunk, or smoking pot, or trying to get laid, anything but standing around the family piano hour after boring hour without even being able to crack a joke because Brian would scream at him to cut it out and be serious.
"Brian even has a song called 'Surfin'!" Dennis added. "We could practice it for you and come back!"
And that was because of Dennis too. As Carlin recounts it, "Dennis was so completely in the thrall of the surfing life in the summer of 1961 that when he heard his big brother musing about the challenge of finding something new to write a pop song about, he quickly blurted out a piece of advice: 'You outta write a song about surfing!' Why, he'd even write down a few of the coolest words and make a list of the best surfing spots."
The other indispensable, if unlikely, early influence that has to be acknowledged is that of Brian's enterprising older cousin, Mike Love, the same man who later admonished Brian during the recording of Pet Sounds, "Don't fuck with the formula," who dismissed Van Dyke Parks's wittily impressionistic lyrics for Smile as merely "acid alliteration", and who was usually the main conniver whenever the Beach Boy corporation noticed that their bank account was running a little low. He would crank up the usual storm of P.R. bullshit about Brian being back in the land of the living, and attempt to bamboozle the public long enough that they'd buy whatever piece of musical insipidity the band managed to cobble together with or without the help of the miserable, mentally ill Brian (the last entirely listenable Beach Boy album of wholly new material being 1968's Friends). But without Love's reassurances that no one who was making a fortune in the pop music business at the time was even halfway as talented as Brian, and his constant prodding of Brian to go for it—really, really go for it—Brian may have eventually succumbed to his essential nature and become just another fat guy who lived in his parents' basement with his cool record collection, his framed community college degree, and his sour, never-realised dreams. A con man and a dumb angel: Rock and roll makes for strange bedfellows.
And what about the song that eventually got written, recorded, and became the band's first hit (imaginatively entitled, yes, "Surfin")? That was as much a glorious accident as Brian's punk of a little brother providing them with their crucial, initial identity. Like countless other white middle-class kids from the burbs in the late 1950s, Brian got caught up in the folk music craze, sanitized versions of real folk as performed by guys with sensible haircuts and dressed in matching shirts and pants. Brian liked all the groups, but he especially liked The Four Freshman (even forty years later, he still gushes: "It brings off a feeling of love inside of me. It does. It really does. That feeling of harmony."). But he also dug greaseball rock and roll, particularly Chuck Berry, something no high-minded folkie would ever admit to (like Bob Dylan posing around Greenwich Village during this time, pretending he was a hobo troubadour instead of the former leader of a Duluth, Minnesota, high school rock-and-roll band specialising in Little Richard covers). And of course he adored doo wop. Brian even loved surf guitar maestro Dick Dale. And even though all of these disparate musical directions shouldn't have mixed—maybe because they shouldn't have mixed—something new and vital and singular was created once they were. Water and oil became Beach Boy music. When it's real, it can only be what it is.
And that is the pioneering, deceptively simple "surf" and "hot rod" music, as melodically rich and irresistibly hummable now as forty years ago when it ruled the radio; the still lyrically slight but more musically daring products of Wilson's middle-period ("Let Him Run Wild"; "In the Back of My Mind"; "She Knows Me Too Well"); the genre-shattering Pet Sounds album (gorgeously yearning pop songs more reminiscent of Burt Bacharach than the Beatles, Wilson's supposed muse, utilising, among other things, symphonic instrumentation, upside-down water coolers, bicycle horns, and recorded dog barks); "Good Vibrations", at the time of its release in 1966 the most expensively produced single in the history of popular music, a track necessitating the use of four different record studios, seven months of recording and mixing, and, most notably, the employment of a theremin, an instrument that most record-buyers were previously only familiar with, if at all, as the source of corny sound effects in more than one '50s horror B-film; and the alternatively harmonically beguiling, lyrically adventurous, delightfully mad-cap music that was to be Smile, the most legendary and lamented rock and roll album that most people never heard.
Carlin does well to quote liberally from Siegal's essay, which expertly captures just the right mix of lofty musical aspirations, increasingly weird sense of aesthetics, undermined confidence, creeping paranoia, and a capsizing drug addiction that is the Smile saga. Here's a rattled Brian returning home from the movie theatre and relating what he experienced to a friend:
"[T] he whole thing was there. I mean my whole life. Birth and death and rebirth. The whole thing. Even the beach was in it . . . It was my whole life right there on the screen."
"It's just a coincidence, man. What are you getting all excited about?"
"Well, what if it isn't a coincidence? What if it's real? You know there's mind gangsters these days. There could be mind gangsters, couldn't there? I mean look at Spector, he could be involved in it, couldn't he? He's going into films. How hard would it be for him to set something like that up?"
Later on in Siegal's piece, after being reassured that Phil Spector, Brian's personal musical God and, along with the Beatles, his chief musical competitor, wasn't perpetrating the world's most lavish practical joke, Brian describes to his friend what he's up to with Smile:
"I've gone beyond [Spector] now. I'm going for the spiritual sound, a white spiritual sound. Religious music. Did you hear the Beatles' album? Religious, right? That's the whole movement. That's where I'm going. It's going to scare a lot of people.
"Yeah," Brian said, hitting his fist on the desk with a slap that sent parakeets in the large cage facing him squalling and whistling. "Yeah," he said and smiled for the first time all evening.
"That's where I'm going and it's going to scare a lot of people when I get there."
Unfortunately, the one who got scared the most was Brian. Dennis's explanation for Smile's abandonment and Brian's consequent steady decline into an obese, house-bound shell of the musical innovator he once was—"I think it was the drugs"—is as appealing as it is brief, but certainly partial. The drugs, particularly acid, desputols, and hash, definitely were part of the equation; what were once stimulating tools for creation soon becoming debilitating impediments (fuelling Brian's already legendary perfectionism, for example, to the point that he was terrified of releasing Smile for fear it wouldn't be good enough). Yet money, and greed for this most addictive of all opiates, played an equally destructive role.
In the end, Capitol Records' incessant demand for new Beach Boys product—any Beach Boys product—coupled with Mike Love's and others' disparagement of what Love dismissed as "Brian's drug music," ate away at what little self-confidence and resolve the drugs didn't finish. But in spite of what most of Wilson's legions of apologists contend—those who see him simply as a gentle genius rendered a martyr to Art by all those nasty philistines who wiped his Smile from the face of rock and roll history—Wilson played his own pivotal role in the album's abandonment. If Mike Love acts the villain to Wilson's hero in the Smile tragedy, Brian is clearly a hero with a tragic flaw. The openness and innocence that helped him to nurture his unique artistic vision was the psychic flipside of the damning vulnerability and maddening passivity that allowed calculating clowns like Mike Love to keep him from fulfilling his musical ambitions. When the folk purists in England booed Dylan and the Hawks after he'd gone electric, Dylan didn't put down his Telecaster and sulk back to America, he shouted back. Loudly.
Despite the best efforts of television psychologists and bestselling self-help books, we tend to be stuck with who we are, basically acting the same way and making the same mistakes over and over again. So, in spite of the fact that up until very recently any interviewer who dared to bring up the topic of Smile when discussing one of Wilson's periodic and sadly mediocre solo productions was usually met with silence, self-disparagement, or a clumsy attempt on Wilson's part to change the subject (in 2001, for instance, Wilson maintained, "I don't really want to put out the Smile stuff. It's just not appropriate music. Look, Smile scared me. We were taking drugs at the time. It was a very druggish kind of trip."), 2004 saw the rerecording of the Smile songs by a cast of session players and members of the rock band The Wondermints, and their release on CD along with an elaborate Smile stage show. Did Wilson have a sudden change of heart, see the light, decide at last to make peace with his tortured past by actively confronting it? Actually, it was his wife's idea.
"We were looking for something that could follow the Pet Sounds show" (a very financially lucrative concert series that featured a frequently terrified-looking and obviously vocally compromised Wilson fronting what amounted to an all-star karaoke band performing the forty-year-old album in its entirety), "and one day we [Wilson's wife and head Wondermint, Darian Sahanaja] just looked at each other and said, 'How about Smile?' And the weird thing was, Brian didn't say no." He didn't say no to Mike Love, either, but that's not the same thing as saying yes. The rerecorded Smile album sounds exactly like you would have imagined: a well-crafted fake, as competent as it is characterless. A scheme isn't a vision.
And even though since its release Wilson's handlers have programmed him to put on a great big . . . well, smile, whenever anyone in the media asks why he's doing something he swore he'd never do—couldn't do—it's obvious that the man is still seriously spooked by Smile nearly four decades after orphaning it. Even in the course of an interview with Carlin for his book, when he's ostensibly promoting the reconfigured version of Smile on sale now at your nearest Wal-Mart, Carlin observes how "even the memory of the myth surrounding Smile made him visibly uncomfortable. He fidgeted, peered out the window. His sentences became abrupt, his face impermeable." In a way, Brian Wilson himself died when Smile did, and discussing it all over again must be akin to reliving it.
The centerpiece comprised of the brilliant, shattered fragments that make up the cobbled-together version of the original Smile that fans like myself have acquired on the musical black market, and by way of the thirty delectable minutes on disc two of the five-box CD set of Good Vibrations, is "Surf's Up", a hauntingly melancholy, yet paradoxically stirring song that was nothing less than an attempt by Wilson and Parks to deconstruct the band's fun-in-the-sun image and clear the deck for the sonic revolution that was to follow. The original demo has just Brian accompanying himself on piano. The Beach Boys themselves never ended up adding their vocals to the mix. Brian was too afraid they'd laugh. •
Ray Robertson is the author of four novels, most recently Gently Down the Stream now available in paperback. What Happened Later will be published in the Fall of 2007 by Thomas Allen.