The End of the Beach Boys’ Summer

The press release for The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations Tour describes the DVD as “50 minutes of Beach Boys faire at its finest” and “a perfect snapshot of why The Beach Boys are one of the most endearing and beloved musical acts of all time”. Neither statement is true. The bulk of the program is live footage from a 1976 Anaheim Stadium concert, which is not likely to be described as a peak performance by fans or casual observers. The “snapshot” claim is partly accurate, as the program is fragmentary, never lingering long enough on any scene or idea to form a coherent whole. But most of what was “endearing” and “beloved” about the Beach Boys was in short supply in 1976, replaced by an uneasy and at times forced spirit of reminiscence that masked more serious dysfunctions.

In short, Brian Wilson was not in good shape. Seen here, going on stage and in front of cameras to ride the crest of a resurgence in the band’s popularity, Brian was simultaneously a key ingredient in creating the nostalgia, and also a man in desperate need of sorting out his personal life before returning to the band. Then (in the original television broadcast) and now (with this DVD release), the ethical questions that arise involve the choice to turn this troubled phase of his life and career into entertainment.

The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations Tour aired on television following two notable musical releases for the group, whose popularity had waned in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The first of these was Endless Summer, a 1974 compilation album that reached the number one position on the Billboard 200 and sold more than three million copies. The second was 15 Big Ones, an album of covers and original material that arrived three compilations later in July 1976 and signaled the “return” of Brian as producer. The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations Tour was produced for NBC as a sort of extended commercial for the Beach Boys’ revival. Though it aired on the heels of 15 Big Ones, the program featured little new music, mostly focusing on Endless Summer tracks or other selections from the band’s back catalog.

It’s not just the song selection that dwells on memories of the past. Much of the live performance footage is cut together with images intended to evoke the bygone inspirations of the younger Beach Boys. A woman drives in a convertible as the wind blows her hair, the camera zeroing in on her hair in a sort of image that would later become associated with Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. We see beautiful cheerleaders kicking in slow motion to “Be True to Your School”. Viewing the 1976 documentary in 2013 turns the women and the film stock itself into doubly vintage icons — sun-kissed visual illustrations of another era, now a few more decades removed. For the most part, the persona of each Beach Boy is also preserved in the past, as they are introduced to the viewer while driving cars (Mike Love and Carl Wilson), on a boat (Dennis Wilson), and basically recreating the Pet Sounds cover (Al Jardine).

Brian is the exception. Each time the program includes him in a new scene it’s as if the intention is to shock the viewer with his appearance. He’s introduced to the audience as an overweight and unhealthy figure who stays in bed and chain-smokes all day. Even his interview is conducted while he lies in bed. He says to the camera, “I stayed in my room for about three and a half years… I was hiding away from everything and anything”. From a boat, his brother Dennis tries to defend Brian’s reclusiveness but ends with, “He’s crazy.” And in the performance footage, as a white-gloved Mike Love desperately tries to steal the attention from everyone else on stage, Brian is revealed to be off to the side. He is more or less hidden away from the band that depends on his presence. There is nothing in his demeanor that suggests he wants to be there.

Thus a profound sense of denial runs throughout The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations Tour. Attempts to promote the band by invoking memories of a simpler time fall apart when cross-cut with the bandleader’s diminished condition. The single clear-eyed sequence is the one that deals with the Wilson family and specifically the influence of father Murry. Isolated in his bed, Brian identifies Beach Boys as his family. Then in a recording studio, Dennis and Carl testify to their father’s love for them, recounting that gave up his business to invest in the group years ago. Brian counters this fond remembrance by saying “I was never scared of my brothers. I was scared of my Dad, though, I’ll tell you that.” Dennis later refers to his father beating people up. The documentary isn’t intended to arrive at “the truth” about Murry, but this variety of perspectives on the father allows the audience to better understand the effects on his sons.

All of this father/son talk sets up “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man”, another number edited to create a surprise with Brian’s presence. Suddenly, he is out of bed and with his two brothers at the piano in the recording studio. The performance is a bit messy, but brothers’ interaction reveals a shared humor and no shortage of shared secrets. Looking at the three men seated in a row, it would be very unlikely to predict that Brian would outlive the other two by decades.

“I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man” is the only sequence in the program that employs the necessary context to appreciate its full significance within the family/band’s history. Yet that it exists in the finished product is frustrating, because like the footage of Brian in bed, it suggests the filmmakers (director Gary Weis and producer Lorne Michaels) were aware of the underlying drama but mostly uninterested in exploring it faithfully. Had none of the bigger picture been present in the documentary, then The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations Tour could be written off/appreciated as a mere trifle. That the program goes into such territory for a minute or so before returning to flippancy suggests a willful ignorance of the real story. Perhaps as with records like Endless Summer, more money was to be made by highlighting the good days than by putting the spotlight on present turmoil.

And in that fashion, the program does provide some memorable scenes that are fascinating as pop-culture curiosities. Paul McCartney is a guest at Brian’s 34th birthday party. They sit beside one another as friends, family, and kids crowd the room. Dennis acts as a judge at a beauty pageant. In the most dubious sketch, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi show up at Brian’s house, dressed as members of the Highway Patrol, Surf Squad. They ask his wife, “Is Brian Wilson here?” She says, “Yeah, he’s upstairs in his room, why?” They charge up the stairs and tell him he is in violation of “paragraph 12” of “section 936a of California Catch a Wave Statute”. His crime is “not being a surfer or going to the beach.” At once an absurd joke about Brian staying in bed and the Beach Boys’ specious status as surfers (with the exception of Dennis), the sketch begins awkwardly and increases in that manner as the comedians carry their suspect to the beach and into the ocean to be battered by the waves. On the beach, Brian looks utterly lost and forced to perform in a parody of his real-life troubles.

Towards the end of the program, Brian says to the camera, “I gotta get going here, get outta bed,” a statement and delivery that feel as staged as the “Blues Brothers” bit. This is a scene intended to create the impression that Brian is okay, his troubles are over, and his group’s former glory is restored. The inclusion of a “Welcome Back Brian” sign in the audience during the performance of “It’s OK” highlights that intention. But despite all of these strategies to calibrate the image of the band and its leader, other available media from and about the Beach Boys in 1976 tell a different tale.

For example, the following interview was conducted by Bob Harris and shot just after the Anaheim performance. In it, Brian talks about his nervousness in joining the band live on stage as well as his absence (“recluse period”) and how drugs “messed [his] mind up”. At the end of the video, he credits his doctor (Eugene Landy) with helping him get off of the drugs.

In this continuation of the video, he says he’s grateful that his family and friends encouraged him to get back to work, because “It’s making me a lot of money, and it’s making people happy, which is my first goal”.

It’s telling that he doesn’t say the new productivity is necessarily making him happy. Those inclined to be critical of his family/band’s role in pressuring him to get back to work before he was ready, might cite this interview as evidence that he was doing it mostly for the benefit of others. After all, returning to the stage in 1976 didn’t prevent and perhaps contributed to a subsequent relapse into drug abuse and other unhealthy behavior.

Dr. Landy would become the primary negative force, using the guise of a healer. After being fired in 1976, he would return in 1983 and become an extremely controlling presence in Brian’s life. The various methods that Brian mentions briefly in the interview with Harris would grow to include Landy’s near-total domination of his personal and professional affairs. Chuck Klosterman described the doctor’s methods in a 2006 New York Times article called “Off-Key”: “he isolated Wilson in Hawaii, prescribed him high doses of psychotropic drugs and proceeded to reconstitute his understanding of existence. Landy conducted clandestine 24-hour therapy sessions; for years, he and Wilson lived together. Every conversation — every action — was an extension of the program.” There are several video clips and documentaries that deal with the Landy years, but none of them sums up the strange doctor-patient relationship quite like this short video from 1983:

In 2013, Landy is gone, the surviving Beach Boys have experienced yet another successful revival (this time celebrating the band’s fiftieth anniversary), and Brian is in the studio recording new material. The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations Tour enjoys the benefit of this “happy ending” that seems to justify its flippant look at a dark period in the band’s history. Yet the tendency to make fun of/have fun with the bad times of Brian’s life remains, as is evident in this clip of a smug David Felton reading from his November 1976 Rolling Stone interview with Brian:

Considering the subject matter, Felton’s delivery, the laughter of the audience, and the dredging of a 1976 interview in 2011 all seem to be in poor taste. But that’s entertainment, right?

Across the decades, Beach Boys enthusiasts have proven capable of piecing together unofficial versions of unreleased recordings, most actively for the long-shelved SMiLE. Maybe the best way for fans to counter all of the fun being had at Brian’s expense is to take advantage of the media available on YouTube and elsewhere in order to create their own documentaries. To not be dismal, but at least respectful, of the serious issues that plagued a man and his family for decades. Doing so wouldn’t change the past, but it would be much more useful in preserving the history of an artist who deserves better than to have his downward spiral sold as good vibrations.