Music

Wednesday Mini Book Review: Catch a Wave

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Fifth in a series of short weekly book reviews :

Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, by Peter Ames Carlin (Rodale, 2006). It's difficult for me to be entirely sure how interesting non-obsessives will find books on this topic–I'm one of those who can listen with pleasure to Brian Wilson's music and the Beach Boys' voices most of every day with enduring pleasure and wonder. But I also think his story has been treated unusually well in book form, with almost every attempt having a lot to recommend it even to non-fans–from the juicy to-the-bone gossip mongering of Stephen Gaines' Heroes and Villains to the read-between-the-lines drama of Brian's autobiography (ghostwritten under the control of his svengali psychotherapist Eugene Landy), Wouldn't It Be Nice?, to Timothy White's erudite, highly contextualized bio of the Beach Boys in the form of a history of Southern California's pop cultural influences, The Nearest Faraway Place, to the inspired and groundbreaking fan worship of David Leaf's The Beach Boys and the California Dream, to the embarassment-of-riches in-depth curator archeology of Dominic Priore's Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!

I've either loved, admired, or at least gotten a kick out of every one I've read, but with Catch a Wave, Peter Ames Carlin has written the definitive (and probably never to be equalled, given the undoubted and continuing rarity of Carlin's combination of reportorial skills, access to the players, and smart, sensitive love for the music and its context) educated, feeling, and–most difficult virtue of all in writing about the Beach Boys–fair account of the dramatic tale of the tortured pop genius who had it all and left it all behind, and his band of brothers, cousin, and pals who had to deal with a very difficult man who both gave them everything he had and made their lives possible, but was simultaneously difficult, passively aggressively demanding, and let them down for decades in dozens of ways.

Difficult as objectivity can be for a Brian Wilson fan, which Carlin definitely is, he is fair to all the characters involved, giving them all their own voice and respecting the complicated reality of their motives and feelings in a story whose emotions and twists are more complicated than the stark heroes-and-villains story that's common among fans, with Brian the supersensitive genius brought low by the philistine machinations of his evil cousin, Beach Boy Mike Love (the one with the nasally voice that sang lead on most of their early hits). Carlin makes you see how it makes perfect sense that watching your beloved relative–unquestionably the reason for your wealth and success–collapse into decades of self-abuse and non-productivity could create understandable resentments and often fumbled, but ultimately loving, attempts to both save the Golden Goose and manage him.

Carlin does a fair amount of myth debunking, maintains a high level of readability and drama throughout, and hits all the right notes regarding the major relationship dramas in Wilson's life, all of which involves paradoxical and conflicting emotions and motives, from Brian and the Wilson brothers' coping with their superdemanding stage father, to Brian's first wife Marilyn coping with his emotional retreat from her and their daughters into excessive drugs and eating through the 1970s, to Brian's love/control/hate/escape folie a deux with Landy, who took over his life and his business in the 1980s even as he saved them, to Brian's decades long wrestling with the legacy of his greatest piece of music, Smile, whose abandonment in 1967 marked the end of the Beach Boys dream of constantly rising success and achievement and whose revival in 2004 marks the seemingly impossible redemption in Carlin's subtitle–a happy ending for both Wilson and his fans that seemed utterly impossible as recently as 2000.

Carlin captures that particular hold Brian has on his audience, and his audience has on him (what was maybe even better expressed by Reason's own cartoonist Peter Bagge, who perceptively called Brian Wilson "the straight white nerd's Judy Garland"), with such captured observations and quotes as Brian's "my particular fans aren't ever going to be satisfied. It's like a mom taking care of her baby" and Carlin's own noting that Wilson's fans hear "Brian's sad wail as the voice of your own wounded inner self. His suffering became your own, only larger and more beautiful" and that Smile became "a metaphor for every other fragmented dream and broken ambition in the world."

And this, from Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, should appear as wise caution above the computer of every driven, twitching-eared fan who writes books or articles or blogs about the passions that their favorite music arouse in them. Johnston emailed Carlin: "I can tell that you are far deeper into the Beach Boys thing than I will ever be in 100 lifetimes! It's only business to me."

For those of us whom the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson could never be just business in a 1,000 lifetimes, and for those interested in the passionately reported and told story of one of 20th century America's most interesting myths of success achieved, run from, and re-embraced, Carlin's book is a wonderful gift.

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  1. Nice review Brian, much obliged.

    My parents didn’t allow rock music in our house because they hated it. Except that my dad used to walk around singing Blueberry Hill and Coasters tunes like Charlie Brown. Anyway, the first rock tune I can recall hearing was from the Beach Boys and it knocked me out. I was sold.

    So Cal was radically different in those days, smaller, more cohesive, still imbued with the laid back sense of outgoing friendliness that has long since fled. We thought it was the coolest thing ever that everyone actually knew where they lived and that some of the BB members weren’t even out of high school.

    Oh yeah, and I was the kid that bought completely into the myth that Brian’s Little Surfer Girl or at the very least, one of The Girls On The Beach were just waiting down at Huntington Beach for TWC. Pretty sure she was blond but it seemed like she only showed up at the pier on the days I had to mow the lawn.

  2. I always speculated that Brian realized that the music had changed, moved on if you will, and maybe that’s why after doing lots of weird things, he walked out on life. By 1967 the culture of the moment had taken hold. The BB were OLD and Cream was now. Everything older than last week was just declasse. That had to have colored the way Brian saw his talent. Not that the talent was gone but nobody was interested anymore.

    The other thing I can’t get past is why it took Mike Love thirty plus years to remember that he wrote all those songs with Brian Wilson.

    I’ll shut up now.

  3. “The straight white nerd’s Judy Garland” is hilarious!

    The Beach Boys are, bar none, the whitest music ever made. Bizarre that they made a wonderful hit out of Sloop John B.

    SoCal is still outgoing and friendly–maybe your friends just got old, TWC. People actually born/raised in southern California are incredibly nice and open. The problem is the people who go there 🙂

  4. Brian Doherty wrote: “It’s difficult for me to be entirely sure how interesting non-obsessives will find books on this topic”

    Not at all really.

  5. BBFan, yeah, we all got old. But I think there’s more to it than that. California once had a reputation–I hate to use the term friendly but that’s what it was. Across the country people knew that Californians were friendly. It’s different now, sort of like how bikers don’t much wave to each other anymore. I see glimpses of how it used to be, but I see it in other places.

    It’s raining cats and pigs and I’m at a self-serve pump at a Chevron station in Hilo. The attendant comes out and literally takes the gas nozzle away from me and says get back in the car brah. I protest, but this is self-serve. He flashes a big grin and says, yah, I know, you should see what we do for full serve, and I think, sheesh, this is what Californians were known for in the old days.

  6. Nice review, Brian. And nice posts, TWC.

  7. He flashes a big grin and says, yah, I know, you should see what we do for full serve

    …he said as he lovingly glided the nozzle into the tank.

  8. …he said as he lovingly glided the nozzle into the tank.

    That was funny!

  9. Thanks Tom.

    Jesse, that was really, well, it made me LOL.

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