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Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin (2007)

400000000000001009403_s4From amazon.com

Review Beach Boys fans read this excellent book at their peril.

There are a very few good vibrations in the story of Brian Wilson and his group, but there’s no shortage of extremely bad vibrations. By the end of the book you may feel you’re heartily sick of each and every drug-addled, money-obsessed, talentless washed-out Beach Boy with the exception of Brian himself. These days they’re a living, breathing embarrassment. They sue each other perpetually, and Al Jardine and Mike Love now tour America with rival bands claiming to be the Beach Boys.

Pity rich pop star Brian Wilson. First he was bullied and humiliated by his father, the repulsive Murray Wilson. Later he was bullied and harrassed by Mike Love. Years after that he was taken prisoner by a deranged psychiatrist who bullied him 24 hours a day. What all these people wanted was – more hit songs! More! Another million seller! Now!

The exhilaration of making hit record after hit record quickly became a relentless treadmill. Brian was the sole creative force in the group. By the age of 22 he was composer, lead singer, bass player, arranger and producer. After two years of that he had his first breakdown and quit touring. The wave crested in 1965 when everything was working out – they’d fired Murray as manager, Brian stayed home and wrote more hits and the group toured.

But then he began to change. Within three years there was “Pet Sounds”, the still astonishing single “Good Vibrations”, and then the disaster of “Smile”, Brian’s increasing psychological problems, and by 1968 the Beach Boys were pulling crowds of 200, hopelessly out of fashion. The 1960s was a very fast decade.

During the next 20 years (!) Brian was not a functioning human being. His colossal intake of drugs and food was in inverse proportion to his tiny output of songs. The whole sorry saga makes for gruesome reading. “As Carnie remembers, her father began most of his days with a dozen eggs and an entire loaf of bread” and for dinner “he’d eat his entire steak in two bites”. From the late 60s to the mid-80s the other Beach Boys were perpetually dancing around trying to get Brian to lay more golden eggs for them.

They tried anything they could think of, including tough love (pretending to fire him from the group). They ended up hiring a 24-hour-a-day showbiz psychiatrist to rescue him, Dr Eugene Landy. And before you could say “medical ethics” Brian had started writing songs again but they were credited to “Wilson/Landy”. So the Beach Boys sued the psychiatrist.

The grim story does have a kind of happy ending though – after trudging through this (always well-written and readable) catalogue of unhappiness we arrive at the year 2001 when Brian, now married to Melinda Ledbetter (who sounds like one of the few really nice people in the whole book), finally – 34 years later! – finishes “Smile” and even performs it live on stage to universal acclaim. As you finish the book you think “Enough – I don’t ever want to read another word about these horrible people or about poor tormented Brian – I just want to listen to their beautiful music”.

And in some ways I’m sorry I did read this book. It’s strange to admire the Beach Boys’ great mass of brilliant music so much but to dislike them all as human beings, except Brian of course. You don’t dislike him, but you do pity him. I don’t believe the author intended to perform hatchet jobs on all these people, he just let the awful facts speak for themselves. And now I’m hoping the remaining Beach Boys won’t sue me for this review.

Review What makes this particular biography unique is the fact that it was written with the consent and participation of Brian Wilson. Trying, as it would seem, to set the record straight, or at least correct some of the falsehoods perpetuated by his physician/guru Eugene Landy, who purportedly had a very strong influence on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story.”

Peter Ames Carlin explores the history of the Beach Boys through their leader (at least for the first decade) and he writes as an obvious fan of the group and their music.

In writing of Brian’s gradual coming apart, he give amples time and space to the other members of the group, who in Brian’s absence, continued to write and record some of the Beach Boys best and most creative albums. Yes, “Pet Sounds” is a masterpiece, but what about “Sunflower,” “Friends,” “20/20?” These albums stand on their own as fantastic contributions to the world of music.

Mental illness is a grey area, and thankfully, Carlin doesn’t put Brian on the couch and try to dissect why he is the way he is. Of course, Brian’s relationship with his father, his wife, and the other band members is looked at, but Carlin doesn’t attempt to explain away what is essentially a state of being, a creative mind that buckled under the weight of the world.

I haven’t read any other Beach Boy or Brian Wilson biographies, so I can’t compare or judge based on what isn’t here. On it’s own, this book provides an extremely insightful look at one musical genius and the history of the Beach Boys through that lens.

Obviously, for any fan of the group, for anyone who truly appreciates the Beach Boys legacy and not just their “fun in the sun” albums, this is a great book.

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Book Catch a Wave: The Rise Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin | , , | Leave a comment