Wednesday Mini Book Review: Catch a Wave


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.