The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson,
& California Pop
from the music journals of Bob Rixon
First of all, I am a devoted fan & listener. Yet, so much
of my notes concerning Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys have been
aimed at countering the wild claims made about Brian's genius & at challenging
the uncritical, indiscrimate praise heaped upon his creative work after
"Good Vibrations." Brian was once a brilliant pop songwriter, bandleader
& producer. Held to those standards, he generally receives praise
& gratitude from me. But a great composer must accomplish
more, much more, over the course of a long career. & no pop artiste
has disappointed me more over the past 35 years than Brian Wilson.
The wide variety of BB influenced pop vocalese
over the post-Good Vibrations years (Association, 5th Dimension, Cyrkle,
Nazz, Critters, Fleetwood Mac, Raspberries, Hollies, CS&N, Free Design)
is stylistically pre-Heroes & Villains. The BB's still released good singles,
most of which stiffed. They pulled together two fine albums (Wild Honey,
Sunflower), several likable ones with the virtues of weirdness (Friends,
15 Big Ones, Love You), the remainder mediocrities (Carl & the
Passions) if not abysmal failures (Surf's Up). But none of these
sold all that well or counted for much in the larger scheme of pop music.
The central fact of Brian's adult life is that he suffered an incapacitating,
nightmarish mental illness for several decades, rooted in Murry Wilson's
horrific abuses & Audrey Wilson's passivity; instigated by the overwhelming
pressures of success & Brian's own compulsive & insatiable competitiveness
(Be True to Your School, sis boom bah). The great tragedy is that
all the people around Brian in the late Sixties pretended nothing was wrong
- this includes his bandmates, his wife, his entourage & hangers-on,
Van Dyke Parks, & the critics who described his mind as being "gloriously
blown" when it was cool to think being depressed, paranoid & agoraphobic
was some sort of positive counter-culture "statement." In L.A., Brian's
condition was an ugly secret everyone knew. I've long suspected that only
Carl Wilson & maybe Charles Manson had any insight into the chaos that
was the Beach Boys.
& so the Beach Boys, who WERE California pop, had the potential
of being the world's most harmonious, inoffensive hippies & then maturing
into a marvelous hybrid of Martin Denny & the Mills Brothers.
FULFILLING THE FIFTIES
Like the Beatles & The Rascals, the four older Beach Boys (Brian, Mike,
Al & Bruce) were an apotheosis of the Fifties, a fullfillment - the Greek
term for it is "kairos." As First Generation Rock & Roll teenagers, they
were their own history. These bands ended as much as they started. The sound
in Brian's head - Four Freshman on top of Chuck Berry - was the simplest
formula & also the strangest, like fighting over control a car radio
in 1958. Using both was genuinely progressive. Beginning with "art rock"
& "punk", every subsequent trend has been reactionary. "Progressive
rock" wasn't progress at all.
By the mid-sixties the Beach Boys were a band in need of lyricist.
Brian was emotionally arrested. Mike Love, whether through lack of
talent or unwilliness to study Smokey Robinson, wasn't up to the new challenges
presented by Bob Dylan, John Lennon or Jagger/Richards. Tony Asher was adequate
on Pet Sounds. But the band never recovered from its association with
Van Dyke Parks. His abominable influence would haunt the Beach Boys forever
For all of their humor & high spirits, the Beach Boys were unable to
poke fun at themselves & their predicament - at least in the studio.
Their predicament always was being The Beach Boys. Parody was handed
over to Jan & Dean, brilliant genre auteurs whose formula was Freddy
Cannon Meets The Wrecking Crew Via the Hollywood Argyles. Little Old
Lady from Pasadena! Honolulu Lulu! No surprise that Brian hides inside Jan
& Dean's best singles.
taste, left coast doo wop roots, friendship with Brian Wilson, collaboration
with Bones Howe & Hal Blaine count for something, call me a Jan and Dean
fan. These two smart nutballs were genre auteurs in their hits & their
B-sides. Problem is, there's no real five star compilation.
For the later post-Jan, folky/Smiley Smile material, go with the Dean Torrence
anthology, a pleasant surprise (Dean also an ace LP cover designer). Sloan
& Barri's incredible "Theme from the T.A.M.I Show ("They're coming from
all over the world!") seems to have disappeared without a trace. The great
covers of "Bucket-T" (I swear they chant "Buck it till you fuck it") &
"Mighty GTO" & strange instrumentals like "B-Gas Rickshaw" are hidden
away on the original "Dead Man's Curve/New Girl In School." What remains
are a string of brilliantly contrived & produced singles serving up Southern
Cal surfing, sand, sunshine, silliness, safe sex & acceleration sans
Brian's angst. & Brian loved 'em for it. So do I.
4/04 R.I.P. Jan Berry
Pet Sounds, a very serious record, influenced The Beatles, who
turned themselves into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band & recorded
an LP that doesn't get serious until the final track. California
Days: What does "I'm bugged at my old man" tell us about Murray Wilson?
Nothing. It tells us plemty about how fear & loathing had arrested Brian's
emotional development. Brian wished he could say, to Murray's
face, "I'm going to bugger you old man with a broomstick." We
know Pet Sounds is really about evasion & denial. Dion captured
some of the hollow, compulsive machismo driving "The Wanderer." Denny sang
it live to get laid. "Rosie on my chest," indeed. More likely on her knees.
Wild Honey gave us "I'd love just once to see you..." Was that a joke?
See who? Why not just crawl under the girl's pool cabana with Elvis?
Carl & the Passions, their last chance, was more false labeling,
a one hit wonder named "Marcella." "One arm over my shoulder, sandals
dance at my feet, eyes that knock you right over, Oo Marcella so sweet" is
American poetry Van Dyke Parks couldn't improve upon.
Anyway, the Boys stumbled hit or miss from 1966 to 1970. With Sunflower
it seemed that The Beach Boys had renewed themselves, rediscovered their
strengths, caught up with their fans & positioned the group for a nice
ride through the Seventies. Sunflower is wonderful album, not a bad
song on it. It sounds mostly like Carl's album. They never made
another really good album.
DISNEY GIRLS, SURF'S UP. & I'M DOWN
The problem with Surf's Up begins with the title, which is false,
& the design, which is conflicted. I despised Surf's Up
as much as I loved Sunflower. All the shit The Beach Boys left off
Sunflower is back in full force; Van Dyke Parks, the ghost of
Smile, the self-conscious artiness, & instead of likable Mike
Love nasal corn one gets Mike Love ruining "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine."
When Bruce Johnston crafted a first rate lyric for "Disney Girls," the tongue-in-cheek
wit got buried under the sentimentality of a gorgeous arrangement & choirboy
vocals. Whose fault this was, I don't know. The lyric clearly points away
from the impression the cut presents as a whole. Neither Bruce nor
Brian nor Daryl Dragon knew how to musically handle its satirical tone. But
for a mildly mocking wah wah, you'd never know "Disney Girls" was a joke
from beginning to end. It needed just a touch of Kurt Weill, or the Jive
Five, or Randy Newman. It's still the standout cut on Surf's Up,
an otherwise dreary album. The Beach Boys could idealize themselves as they
never actually existed ("Do It Again," "Getcha Back") but were incapable
of parodying themselves.
Nobody really expects rock & rollers to improve as they age, & the
few that do are pleasant surprises. But if you claim someone is a genius,
a serious composer, a writer of art song, mini-cantatas, whatever,
& that artist arrives at the age of 63 having made a career out of an
unfinished "masterpiece" abandoned at the age of 27, with nothing subsequent
even approaching the creative level of what he did at age 24, no word to
describe him would be more accurate than "failure." The circumstances of
the failure only soften the critical judgment, but the verdict is unchanged.
writing & photograph © Bob Rixon