The Beach Boys Are Still Looking at an Impossible Future

The Beach Boys
That's Why God Made the Radio

The general consensus coming off of the first performances of the Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour is that things seem to be going better than expected, which is to say, okay. There was reason to be worried: it’s the first time that the famously fragile Brian Wilson has performed with the band since 1996, and the first time he’s toured regularly with them since 1965. For the past 14 years, the Beach Boys touring band has featured only one founding member of the band, Mike Love, and one other “official” Beach Boy, Bruce Johnston. Some incarnation of the group has been on the road for most of the past 50 years, and performances have become pretty rote if we are being generous, corny if we are not. Their “America’s Band” shtick is all California girls and fun, fun, fun, rarely visiting more obscure corners of the Beach Boys’ immense back catalog and (let’s not forget) often featuring actor John Stamos on drums.

And relations between the surviving Beach Boys have been particularly acrimonious in the past 20 years — or litigious, more precisely. The entire group sued Wilson for his characterization of them in his autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and Love sued Wilson for millions in publishing rights to Beach Boys songs. After years of tension between Love and founding member Al Jardine, Love used legal means to oust Jardine from the touring roster in the late 1990s, and Jardine started touring with a group called the Beach Boys Family and Friends. As much as the band wants to deny any bad feelings now — “All that stuff is long forgotten,” said Love; “Nobody was enemies,” said Johnston — it seems they have hardly been a united front for long.

Nevertheless, there have been positive signs from this new tour. There are more diverse set lists, to begin with — their repertoire, which varies from night to night, features songs from twenty-one of the group’s 29 albums. Reviews of their new album, That’s Why God Made The Radio, have agreed that it is generally uneven, with its worst moments evoking, as Will Hermes of Rolling Stone puts it, “not the spirit of the summer but of Jimmy Buffett’s run-down Margaritaville”. But it’s promising that Wilson is back writing music for the band, and the lovely and ambitious suite of songs he composed to conclude the album — “From There to Back Again”, “Pacific Coast Highway”, and “Summer’s Gone” — has been widely and effusively praised. And though Wilson is as fearful a performer as ever, and though the members of the group haven’t performed ensemble for more than ten years, the gigs themselves have gone fairly smoothly. June concerts have featured guest performances from the children of Love, Jardine, Wilson and his brothers Dennis and Carl, reminding us that the Beach Boys have always been a family band. “Wilson, Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks acquitted themselves far better than I expected,” reads Alex Rawls’ review in the New Orleans magazine OffBeat of their performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April. “It was as strong a performance as could likely be expected from the Beach Boys 50 years later.”

So, then, things are going okay. If the title song from the new album, which is also the first single, is the kind of schlocky self-parody that has made up most of the band’s original output since the 1980s, at least they’ll also be playing “God Only Knows”. But something in these compensations makes this reunion more bittersweet than if things were going disastrously. Any 50th anniversary will be tinged with loss — most glaringly in this case of Dennis and Carl Wilson, also founding members of the band, who died in 1983 and 1998, respectively. Men in their 70s still singing about teenage anxieties is a little sad (or “poignant” or “wistful”), and perhaps that’s by design.

Maybe the reason this reunion casts a dark tinge is not only that they are singing the same songs, but that the Beach Boys are still exhibiting the same patterns, relationships, and pathologies. In an interview with The Guardian in September 2011, three months before the Beach Boys announced their tour, Wilson denied that he would be involved. “I don’t really like working with the guys,” he said, but he made it clear that other factors would influence his decision on the reunion. “It all depends on how we feel and how much money’s involved,” he said. “Money’s not the only reason I made records, but it does hold a place in our lives.” We may speculate about what changed in the intervening months. “This anniversary is special to me because I miss the boys,” Wilson said after the tour was announced.

It is difficult not to mythologize Wilson as a damaged genius, a schizoid savant. But looking at the Beach Boys’ history it can certainly appear that the other members did not always have Wilson’s best interests in mind. What was to be Wilson’s magnum opus, the concept album SMiLE that originated with the intricately arranged “Good Vibrations” in 1966, remained unfinished for more than 30 years due to Wilson’s drug use and declining mental health — he suffers from manic depression — and the lack of support from Love, who disapproved of the experimental and psychedelic direction the music was headed in. Their 1967 album Smiley Smile, which features songs from SMiLE in stripped-down arrangements, recorded quickly in Wilson’s home studio, can be viewed as the picture of codependence.

Wilson had intermittent psychiatric care in the 1960s and early 1970s, including several brief stays in mental hospitals, but, as Peter Ames Carlin reports in his biography of Wilson, Catch a Wave, “even if he seemed resigned to staying in the hospital for a while, then the Beach Boys would come calling, wondering if he felt well enough to make the next concert tour.” Indeed, the Beach Boys’ interest in Wilson’s mental health seemed mostly motivated by business, since Wilson was seen publicly as the soul and the talent of the group. Take their 1975 “Brian is Back!” campaign, which sought to invigorate interest in the group after years of Wilson’s near non-involvement because of mental and substance-abuse problems. “Brian wanted to be left alone, but there was too much at stake,” said Stephen Love, Mike Love’s brother and the architect of the campaign. “If you’ve got an oil well, you don’t want it to wander off and become someone else’s oil well.”

Wilson didn’t get real help for his manic depression until the 1990s, after spending years under the control of the predatory psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy, who directed nearly every moment of his life and plied him with anti-psychotic medications for schizophrenia, which he was not in fact suffering from. When Wilson finally completed SMiLE in 2004 and toured the world with the avant-pop group The Wondermints as his backing band, it felt like a happy ending, with Wilson no longer dependent on the forces that had controlled and exploited him — including the Beach Boys. “The other Beach Boys didn’t like SMiLE; they didn’t want to do it,” Wilson said at the time. “But my new band is so much better. They play better and they sing better, too. I have a much better time with them, anyway.”

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Any discussion of the Beach Boys can quickly take on shades of the allegorical, the tragic — invoking the abstract totems of family, dependence, resentment, longevity, artistry and commercial success. Perhaps to latch onto the bleaker aspects of the 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour, making it another sad story in a long string of sad stories, is completely wrong — but it’s a temptation because it’s a narrative that is available to us. One might think of what a healthy decision it was for Wilson to stop touring with the Beach Boys in 1965 — from the early days of the group Wilson experienced intense anxiety about performing live, and after a harrowing panic attack on a plane to a gig in Houston, he decided to dedicate himself to composing and producing full-time.

This and other factors would make the years of 1964 and 1965 a significant turning point in the Beach Boys’ music. There was, crucially, the emergence of Phil Spector, the music producer whose arrangements called for varied and numerous instrumental tracks, making a sound bigger and more dynamic than pop music had ever known. Spector was Wilson’s key production influence going into the mid-1960s, and Wilson was an ardent fan of his music. He was particularly devoted to Spector’s “Be My Baby”, performed by the Ronettes, which, in the darkest era of his depression and drug abuse, he would listen to on a loop for days.

Wilson also gained some independence from his father, Murry Wilson, who acted as the group’s manager until 1964. “We had a shitty childhood,” Dennis said once, and stories of Murry’s mental and emotional abuse when Brian, Dennis, and Carl were young can make him sound cartoonishly monstrous. The most extreme anecdotes are likely fabrications or exaggerations — Murry making Dennis eat tomatoes until he vomited or taunting his sons by plucking out his glass eye — but it’s clear that he was domineering and abusive, leaving his children with psychological scars. Brian is deaf in his right ear, and he most likely has been from birth, but he believed for years that it was as a result of Murry hitting him when he was six years old. This handicap that had such an effect on his life as a musician and producer — he couldn’t hear in stereo — was painfully connected to his relationship with his father.

And Murry called most of the shots in the Beach Boys’ early career, overseeing their tours and the production of their records. In 1965, with Murry in a smaller role and Wilson free from touring obligations, his skills as a composer and a producer grew quickly, as he experimented with more complex and innovative arrangements. The resulting album, The Beach Boys Today!, is an important artifact, with its sound forming a link between the Beach Boys’ doo-wop-influenced beginnings and the lush and orchestral Pet Sounds, the album that may be pop music’s apex of beauty. This is true lyrically too: Today is a transition away from their earlier subject matter — cars and surfing, most notably — to a focus on love, relationships, and fear.

‘Today!’ was the band’s first flirtation with the album-as-art form.

The Beach Boys released seven albums between 1962 and 1965, generally perfunctory collections of singles and B-sides with the odd cover song thrown in. Today! was their first flirtation with the album-as-art form. The album’s most notable conceptual element is its division into two contrasting sides, with the first featuring up-tempo songs (both “Dance Dance Dance” and their cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” are on this side) and the second featuring emotional ballads. Both the fast and slow sides showcase production more adventurous than in their earlier recordings: the up-tempo “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” makes prominent use of harpsichord and harmonica in an exuberant arrangement full of pauses, tempo changes, and key modulations.

The orchestral arrangement on the ballad “In the Back of My Mind” anticipates Pet Sounds, with swelling string and horn sections and baroque interludes. Its final instrumental coda mirrors the emotional discord expressed in the song’s lyrics, as, in Carlin’s words, “the strings, horns, and bells are played out of synch, each instrument meandering alone into the descending silence.” Pet Sounds was released only a little over a year after Today!, and it can be hard to separate Today! from the masterpiece it led to — so much so that Today! can feel like a rehearsal for Pet Sounds, with its themes and ideas repeated and perfected in the later album.

In Pet Sounds’ “You Still Believe in Me” we can hear tones of Today!’s “She Knows Me Too Well”, with their narratives of a man who’s aware of how patient his lover is with his bad behavior. The narrator of Today!’s “Please Let Me Wonder” decides not to confess his love, letting his romantic fantasy remain in his imagination; this reticence seems to mature into the meaningful silence between the lovers on Pet Sounds’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).” “I’m Waiting for the Day” from Pet Sounds can be heard as a reversal of the roles from Today!’s “Help Me Ronda”, with the narrator agreeing to be his beloved’s rebound guy. In the cover of the doo-wop standard “I’m So Young” on Today! — “I’m so young, can’t marry no one” — we might hear “wouldn’t it be nice if we were older.”

But to hear it only in relation to Pet Sounds would be to undermine what a strange and original work Today! really is. In truth there are lyrical themes and echoes that ripple through all of Wilson’s work, for various reasons. As Carlin points out, “It was extremely difficult for [Wilson] to resist the pressure to build on his greatest hits by repeating them over and over again.” But beyond the expectations on Wilson to produce new hits, his is also a mind of intense preoccupations and hang-ups — his songs revisit the same circumstances across albums because he is still racked by the same apprehensions.

There are lyrical themes that recur frequently over Today!’s 28 minutes. “Good to My Baby” from the fast side and “She Knows Me Too Well” on the slow are surely sung by the same narrator: on the first he protests that he’s good to his girl, despite all evidence (“They think I’m bad and I treat her so mean / But all they know is from what they’ve seen.”). On the second he confesses to being the worst boyfriend imaginable — “When I look at other girls it must kill her inside/But it’d be another story if she looked at the guys” — before explaining that she knows him so well “that she can tell” that he’s devoted to her. More broadly, Today! displays an intense anxiety about relationships, as with the withheld confession on “Please Let Me Wonder”. On “In the Back of My Mind”, a man in a happy relationship is tormented by the fear of the relationship ending. “So happy at times that I break down in tears,” he says, “but in the back of my mind I still have my fears.”

There’s also a focus on the teenage experience on Today!, which has been a consistent subject for the Beach Boys’ music. This makes some sense — Wilson was barely out of high school when the Beach Boys formed — but on Today!, the childlike lyrics take a turn for the unsettling. “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” takes the stance of a teenager wondering what adulthood will be like, but with lyrics like “Will I love my wife / For the rest of my life,” we might wonder if the song isn’t expressing a child’s questions about the future, but newly-married 23-year-old Wilson’s uncertainties about adult life.

Creepier is “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister”, in which the narrator chides a boy who has done his little sister wrong. “Why don’t you kiss her,” he says a little too insistently, and going further, “Why don’t you love her / Like her big brother?” As far as vaguely incestuous pop songs go, “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” was probably composed with innocent intentions. But we do know that in his early 20s Wilson had an interest in younger women. He began dating his wife Marilyn when he was 21 and she was 14, and he married her when she was 16. “He was constantly looking at teenage girls,” said Tony Asher, his co-writer on Pet Sounds. “He thought they were the most beautiful girls in the world. And he was married at the time, so it was fairly obvious he was confused about love.”

Wilson’s attraction to teenage girls and his prolonged interest in teenage life smacks of a kind of arrested development. This delayed adolescence can be attributed in part to Murry’s overbearing ways — Murry manipulated Wilson so that he remained dependent on him for guidance and approval. As the Beach Boys’ manager he babied and controlled them well into Wilson’s 20s. As Carlin describes, “Murry rode herd over them like a Boy Scout leader, rigidly enforcing the rules he’d established to keep the boys polite, disciplined, and out of trouble.” The traumas of Wilson’s childhood and his relationship with his father made it so he never really escaped those years — he always felt a deep connection to his high school life.

Well into the 1970s, when Wilson was in his mid-30s, he would call his high school friends, wanting to reconnect. During 1966, while recording Pet Sounds, he began making frequent calls to his high school crush, Carol Mountain, sometimes as late as 3:00am. Mountain is the subject of Pet Sounds’ “Caroline No” (“Carol, I Know”), which gives an unnerving glimpse of Wilson’s psyche, as he wonders if he could love the adult Carol like he loved the teenage one. “Could I ever find in you again,” Wilson asks, “the things that made me love you so much then.” The problem of his delayed emotional development may be something Wilson never fully worked through, and it was probably made worse by his drug abuse. In the mid-1970s Wilson was actually planning an album called Adult Child, which the other Beach Boys eventually shelved, and, well, that kind of sums it up, doesn’t it?

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“We do another one, ‘When I Grow up to Be a Man,’” Love said recently when speaking about the 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour set list. “The opening is incredible, it’s got fantastic harmonies — but yeah, it’s written from the point of a young guy looking to the future and here we are, very much in that future.” In some ways, of course, this is true. All of the members of the Beach Boys have weathered a lot since that song was written and achieved just as much. The band that recorded “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” was on the verge of their greatest artistic successes, and they were also about to enter an era of chaos and disappointment, drug use and debauchery. The song expresses awe at a future that none of the Beach Boys could have fully imagined.

But in another way the Beach Boys never reached the future that the song dreamed of, because the song does not really envision the future at all. “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” is about envisioning the past. It was written by a 23-year-old who imagined a 13-year-old imagining what it was like to be 23. This is still the position the septuagenarian Beach Boys are in today — looking back at their younger selves looking forward to a future that is not the present, an impossible future. Carlin describes the Beach Boys as utopians, and this is a helpful way to think of them — theirs is a vision of a teenage paradise where everyone’s young forever, where they can all be California girls and you can go surfing in Kansas. Even Wilson’s most mature work, the avant-garde song cycle SMiLE, he described as a “teenage symphony to God.”

This utopian spirit can be sadder than if their music were pessimistic: Wilson and the other Beach Boys have spent their entire lives wishing for a childhood they never could never have. As such, any connection we draw between their past and present feels hopelessly ironic. Take the last track on Today!, “Bull Sessions With ‘Big Daddy'”, in which they talk to journalist Earl Leaf about their 1964 European Tour. “The first show I only made three mistakes,” one of them says of a show in Paris, to which Wilson replies, jokingly, “I haven’t made a mistake yet, in my whole career.” “Brian, we keep waiting for you to make a mistake,” someone else replies.

This snippet of conversation says volumes about Wilson’s complicated relationship to the other Beach Boys, particularly once he chose to quit touring. And this dynamic is still present in the Beach Boys’ new tour, in how crucial it was that Wilson be a part of it, in the fact that the band has existed, holding on, teeth clenched, for 50 years. This is why the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour can’t avoid some shade of the melancholy, even despite hopeful signs: we wish by now the Beach Boys could have escaped each other, and the complex web of family, money, and history that binds them.