Catch a Wave by Peter Ames Carlin

by Bill Gibron

7 November 2006

 

The Power of Love

At this point in music mythology, any author foolish enough to take on the saga of Brian Wilson and those damned dysfunctional Beach Boys is asking for a world of literary hurt. From the numerous volumes already written on the soiled sunny surfer subject matter to the endless comments from the critical community, always willing to add their embellishments whenever the group or its founding father ventures forward with another concert tour/album reissue, the legend is long and the depth seemingly infinite. Wilson has even chimed in with his own now-disavowed autobiography that adds shades of the sinister to a story already racked with irredeemable qualities and individuals. 

So Peter Ames Carlin faces a battle more upended than uphill when it comes to bringing anything new to this monster of a moveable feast. Then when you learn that his brave bio, Catch a Wave is subtitled “The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson”, you sense another unscaleable Everest rising before you. How, in a mere 300 pages, can one person possibly grasp the intricacies of the creator of California’s most famous sound? Is it possible to set facts next to fallacies and hope that some manner of truth emerges? Hasn’t Wilson’s tale already been told, especially since his post-millennial comeback has been one big open book about the process both musical and mental? Wasn’t Smile more important as an emotional obstacle to overcome than a purely professional one?

cover art

Catch a Wave

Peter Ames Carlin

The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boy's Brian Wilson

(Rodale Books)

This is the mighty albatross that Carlin carries into such a project, a burden based in fan expectations and scholarly cynicism. In order to make this familiar fable live again, you either have to change the focus, find something new to say, or really do a good job in the telling. Surprisingly, Carlin manages all three, taking what could have been the same old song about a man manipulated by his father (and later his bandmates) to strive for perfection without the reciprocal sentiment of appreciation or respect and turning it into a spiritual journey of excuses, expectations and exaggerations. We can tell where this tale is headed when the author immediately discounts many of the more scandalous stories in Wilson’s own tell-all. He argues against the almost Dickensonian atmosphere in his household (and the infamous ‘defecation’ punishment) and paints a far more plausible portrait.

Indeed, the main theme of Catch a Wave is the idea that Brian Wilson was a wounded musical genius who needed almost constant reassurance that his muse was appreciated and needed. Certainly, he pushed the advantage on his fellow group members, but when pop culture was openly embracing everything they did as some symbol of social significance (which Carlin also proves, quite effectively), they were more than happy to let their ‘leader’ handle all the pressures. The opening chapters of the book, focusing on the meteoric rise of the Beach Boys and the unquenchable creativity of Wilson, are wonderful. They put us directly in the middle of the musical maelstrom while setting up the situations – and the people behind them – that would eventually destroy the group’s focus – and compositional foundation.

There are several villains here, from that mediocre madman Murry Wilson (the boy’s demanding and domineering father), family cousin Mike Love, and that walking case of malpractice, Dr. Eugene Landy. Carlin gives each bad guy a chance to expose themselves – via actions, attitudes and aims. Murry lays the initial doubts in Brian’s buoyant mind, reminding him that hard work and determination are the only roads to success (talent or musical genius need not apply). Landy is the able opportunist, using his world famous client (already well immersed in his infamous “bedridden’ phase) to insert himself into the music business. Both men represent the authority figure that Wilson apparently couldn’t live with, but was absolutely lost without. Never given a specific mandate except to make hits, responsibility and maturity were not expected from the Beach Boy’s leading light.

This is where Love becomes so important. As a reflection of the band, the industry, and the always contentious financial end of music, the TM enthusiast with a heart of hemlock is portrayed in a peculiar manner by Carlin. On the one hand, the legitimate influence that Love had on the Beach Boys’ early music – his lyric writing, his vocal skills, his presence as a front man – are absolutely unquestioned. And frankly, they shouldn’t be an issue. Mike Love represented the mischievous end of Brian Wilson’s inherent wistfulness. With one ear on the demographic and the other on the direction the songs were taking, he argued for the move away from art and respect for the audience. Certainly, he seems misguided when he dismisses Pet Sounds (and even more ferociously, Smile) but he was also right that concert crowds just wanted to hear the hits.

Indeed, the second section of Carlin’s narrative addresses the parallel tracks that both the Boys and Brian were treading down. Insular, to the point of obscurity, Wilson wanted to push the envelope of composition where he was deconstructing pop and putting it back together in weird, inventive ways. Still, the criticism Love provided has since been proven out – sort of. Pet Sounds is only now considered a masterpiece. Back in ‘66, it was seen as either somber, or self-indulgent. Smile’s fate was equally endemic of the era. As he disappeared more and more into the sounds inside his head, Wilson was missing the meaningful changes happening in music. Today, we accept such endearing indulgences (and Smile is indeed a masterpiece) but with efforts by real rivals (Sgt. Peppers) and perceived pretenders to the throne (Tommy) surrounding him, Wilson merely melted.

But where Love’s legitimacy loses its bite comes when the Boys, desperate to maintain their superstar status, shop their efforts around from label to label. Rejected outright (usually because of unclear commitments on Brian’s part), the group begrudgingly accepts that all anyone wants is the reclusive savant that served up “Surfer Girl” and “Good Vibrations”. Carlin combines this pride pulverizing realization with the Boys’ own growing songwriting skill to create a musical Catch-22. The band itself could not get respected – and as a result, signed – without Brian. But sans their nonstop touring, productivity both in and out of the studio, and the bravery to face crowds unconvinced that they still mattered, there’d have been no significant relevancy.

Naturally, it all becomes a battle over money, power and the past. While varying labels from Columbia to CBS try to tap back into the magic Wilson wove a decade before, the band keeps pushing for a strange compromise between the new and nostalgic. Brian’s frequent falls into drugs, delirium and other types of dependency become the battleground among the family, and the group. Carlin calls out the other members, constantly stating that whenever Brian tried to contribute (for good, but more frequently, bad) the other guys simply rejected him outright. Instead of trying to inspire him to rise above the routine and the repetitive, they simply told him to stay away until he had more songs like “God Only Knows” or “I Get Around” to contribute.

This then becomes the main thematic undercurrent throughout the last act of the book. Catch a Wave does essentially skim over the ‘70s and ‘80s, using the Beach Boys occasional releases as ways to break up the well meaning monotony of Love’s ludicrous demands and claims, Landy’s illegitimate psychobabble, and his subject’s deteriorating importance. What we soon learn is that, as Dennis and Carl die off, as Love completes his coup and takes over the band completely, leaving longtime member Al Jardine to drift on his own, all Brian seemingly needed was support. Had someone figured out in 1965 that his massive wealth could be funneled into a creative space where all ideas were embraced, all songs celebrated (and as a result, completed) and all invention praised, Brian would supposedly still be handing out those little ‘symphonies to God.’

That’s what makes the story’s closing act – the rebirth of and outpouring of admiration over Smile - seem like such a deserved denouement. For years, Wilson wouldn’t even address the subject, dismissing it outright and even claiming that the tapes from the sessions had been destroyed. But once he sees that generations of musicians really respect and, more importantly, want to work with him, his bruised psyche starts to mend, and soon he’s back with lyricist Van Dyke Parks putting the finishing touches on his ‘recreated recreation’ of the legendary lost album. Other sources can and are cited for his late in life revival – a new wife, grown up kids Carnie and Wendy, the ultimate significant come around on his oeuvre – but it’s the knowledge that his music still matters that seems to have healed Brian Wilson. It’s the kind of insight that makes you feel good about the power of music. Thanks to Peter Ames Carlin and Catch a Wave, we finally have closure, something other Beach Boy books just can’t provide.

 

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