40 years later, Brian Wilson catches a wave to Monterey

[5 June 2007]

By Mac McDonald

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MONTEREY, Calif.—After almost 40 years, Brian Wilson is finally coming to Monterey.

The Beach Boys co-founder, chief songwriter/producer/arranger, guiding light and lightning rod will perform in Monterey on Saturday, one week shy of the 40th anniversary of the Monterey International Pop Festival.

Yes, the momentous event in June of 1967 that catapulted Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who and Otis Redding into the rock music stratosphere and set the standard for all other rock festivals to come, even Woodstock, which it preceded by a full two years.

The Beach Boys, who were at the height of their popularity - they had 16 Top 40 hits between 1962 and 1966 (including “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations”) and had just released the now-classic “Pet Sounds” in May 1966—were scheduled to play at Monterey Pop.

But they had canceled two weeks before the event, citing Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s draft hassles and that they needed to work on the single “Heroes and Villains,” a song that was to be a centerpiece to Brian Wilson’s new masterpiece “Smile.”

For Wilson, the refusal to play Monterey was a simple matter.

“Well, we didn’t feel like our image fit in with that kind of a thing, so we skipped it, we skipped playing it,” Wilson, 64, said in a phone interview from a radio station in Los Angeles.

Wilson is right when he says the Beach Boys wouldn’t have fit in with the crowds of flower-bedecked, pot-smoking hippies who were eagerly devouring a new, hip, edgy sound of the Summer of Love.

But the reasons may be a little more complicated than Wilson lets on.

True, “Heroes and Villains” was unfinished and “Smile” itself had been abandoned primarily because of resistance from the other Beach Boys and record company suits.

Author Peter Ames Carlin, in his excellent Wilson biography “Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson,” says that because of the “Smile” debacle, Wilson, who was deeply hurt by its failure to be accepted, felt the Beach Boys had nothing new to offer this new and evolving audience.

“Once Brian had imagined Monterey as the perfect place to publicly unveil `Smile,’ writes Carlin, “but in June, with `Heroes and Villains’ still in shards and `Smile’ in ruins, they didn’t have anything new to play. To make matters worse, they’d be standing in front of a Bay Area audience drawn to hear younger, hipper bands like the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape. How would the Beach Boys - still clad in their striped shirts and still boasting a set-list full of surfing, cars and innocent fun - go over with that crowd?”

So the Beach Boys passed on an event that, in Carlin’s words, would “inaugurate a new chapter in American popular culture.”

So, surely in hindsight, the band should have played the festival in 1967?

“No, we never thought we should have played it,” said Wilson, who has a tendency, at least this day, to speak rapidly and in short bursts of thoughts.

Wilson, who is considered one of the top pop and rock composers of all time, feels that even if “Smile” had been released that summer, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

“It wouldn’t have gone over well in 1967, it was too far ahead of its time,” he said about the album that wouldn’t be released for more than 35 years and many say led to his fall into depression, drugs and paranoia, among other well-documented problems.

When “Smile” was finally completed and released in 2004, Wilson was truly surprised at the reaction, especially from live audiences.

“We got standing ovations everywhere we went,” he said. “People just loved it. It was very gratifying for me, it really was. It was quite a thrill.”

In fact, Wilson, whose stage fright and fear of performing live were almost debilitating, hadn’t performed live in decades until 2000, when he started touring and performing “Pet Sounds” (which has been called by Rolling Stone magazine the second greatest rock album of all time, behind the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) with a group that included the band the Wondermints.

Why the change? Just the thought of performing had often sent Wilson into a deep funk.

“I was getting tired of sitting on my butt and not doing anything so I thought I’d try a solo career,” Wilson says almost matter-of-factly. “It took a (lot of coaxing), but I finally got out there. Actually I was (fearful of performing), I never thought people would like me quite so much.

“I really didn’t think I’d go over too good, but I went over great. After the concert (opening the (“Pet Sounds” tour) we got a 10-minute standing ovation.

“Ten minutes is a long standing ovation, a very long standing ovation. I said to myself `I cannot believe this, I cannot believe it.’”

Not only did Wilson perform, but he has taken both “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” on tour to great acclaim and continues to tour regularly, including with his former bandmate Al Jardine in some of his shows (including the upcoming one in Monterey).

Jardine, who was a neighbor and classmate of Wilson back in the early `60s in Hawthorne, Calif., when the Beach Boys first came together, had long since made his peace with Wilson.

“He called me up and asked me if he could do some concerts with me and I said `Sure,’ ya know?” said Wilson, who has had a long-standing feud with the only other surviving original Beach Boy, Mike Love. “It felt good (to perform with Jardine again), it really was a pleasure having him with me. I really like Al. It was like old times ... we fell into a niche. He’s really a good singer. I like his singing a lot. His voice has stayed the same all these years.”

Wilson says the Monterey show will include Jardine and an 11-piece band (“They’re the best”) that has perfected the Wilson sound, which features gorgeous multi-part harmonies, complex instrumentation and unusual rhythmic changes, and a wide variety of Beach Boys and Wilson solo material.

“I sure am (looking forward to coming to Monterey),” he said. “It’s going to be quite a night.”

Wilson, whose studio perfectionism, love of layered instrumentation and vocals and sounds push the envelope, is working on a new album that features five different vocal narrations mixed in with ballads and pop-rock tunes, titled “That Lucky Old Sun: A Narrative.” He hopes to release it in November.

As for his legacy, Wilson, who has been called a genius (“I don’t mind it”) by more than one of his peers, including Elton John and Paul McCartney (who called “God Only Knows” from “Pet Sounds” the greatest song ever written), was typically humble and understated when asked how he would like to be remembered years from now.

“As a very creative musician and a good singer,” he said without elaboration or irony.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/40-years-later-brian-wilson-catches-a-wave-to-monterey/