Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin (2007)
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.
In the “Tribute Concert to Brian Wilson” on DVD, released a couple of years ago, Sir George Martin took the stage and narrated a short film about how Brian Wilson was the biggest influence (and challenge) to The Beatles. How they were blown away when they heard “Pet Sounds.” (Paul McCartney has called “God Only Knows” the greatest song ever written.. ) ..
He talked about how it took his own combined talents as their producer, the writing talents of Lennon and McCartney, and the instrumental virtuosity of all four Beatles to create their records, but Brian Wilson did ALL of that for the Beach Boys.. wrote the songs, arranged them, sang them, played instruments and ran the board during production and editing. What George Martin was saying was that it took him and all four Beatles to do what Brian could do alone.
Now who am I to argue with Sir George. As much as I love and adore The Beatles’ music, he was right. I can almost picture John and Paul sitting slack jawed when they first heared “Pet Sounds.” To which they answered with “Revolver” to which Brian was going to answer with “Smile” but then.. you know the rest.
The catch phrase going around about “Smile” is “Imagine if Sgt. Pepper had been shelved and released 37 years later.” It is a very apt and fitting description of the feeling, the tears of joy, that any fan of Brian’s will get when they play this album.
Of course, Carl and Dennis are deeply missed, and yes, Brian, now 62 years old, doesn’t have that soaring falsetto he had forty years ago (on the same DVD I mentioned above, a must-buy if you are a true fan, Vince Gill performs “Warmth of the Sun” and the high falsettos in “Surf’s Up” and he was chosen for that concert, specifically to sing those songs, because his crystalline pure falsetto can reach those notes that Brian can’t any more..) ..
The Wondermints, Brian’s new band, totally get it. I’m not sure if anyone totally gets Brian, but it’s evident that he has a band of guys half his age who are totally devoted to him to the point of worship, and their goal was to do his songs justice. And that is what they’ve done.
Brian’s wife, Melinda has described many times the inner demons that still haunt him, even on stage. The man has gone through some fundamentally sad, tragic, near-fatal periods of total suffering in his life, and for him to emerge from all that’s happened to him, decide to revive “Smile” and release an album this beautiful is nothing less than unbelievable.
Sure I have various bootlegs of the 37 year old tapes. What true fan doesn’t? And yes, it would be nice to have a companion piece to this new recording made from those original tapes. I wonder what the dolts at Capitol Records think of watching what might have been their album soar to #1 on a little Warners’ house label like Nonesuch..
But let’s not get bitter here.. the album is, afterall, “Smile” and that’s what it will make you do. The music is not always easy. It might take a couple of listens, but it just goes to show again that a true artist is always ahead of his audience, not the other way around. A truly talented artist challenges his audience, whatever medium he works in. Think about it, it’s 2004, and this is 1967 music that’s still ahead of its audience.
I can only chalk up some of the negative reviews of “Smile” found here to folks who simply are too young to know what 1967 was like. It was, IMO, simply the year of the best pop and rock music ever released. If you were there, if you were in High School or College back then and buying records, you know what I mean. One masterpiece after another came out that year. Maybe we Boomers wouldn’t have understood Smile if it had been released in 1967. Sgt. Pepper’s is much more accessible music. Smile pushes you to think. It’s complex. Challenging. It’s as revolutionarily brilliant as George Gershwin’s music was in the 1920s. Eighty years later, people can still enjoy and revel in “Rhapsody in Blue” or “An American in Paris.” They’re still played and new recordings of them are still released.
“Smile” is like that. This is music that people will be listening to, enjoying, and talking about for many years.
Calling Brian a genius is doing him an injustice. We’re plain lucky tha he’s still around, and could give us “Smile”.. it’s joy, and leagues and light years ahead of most of what passes for music these days. If it doesn’t click for you, put on some good headphones and listen to it seriously, block out distractions, and try to understand where this music came from, and who it came from.
On the last page of the booklet that accompanies the jewel case in the beautiful white textured slipcase, Brian dedicates “Smile” to all his fans who waited so many years for it.
Brian, it was worth the wait. It’s beautiful. Thank you!