Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Brian Wilson - New York Times 3/25/2001

  Brian Wilson: A Rock Utopian Still Chasing an American Dream
 

  By PETER AMES CARLIN

  40 years since Brian Wilson formed the Beach Boys, it's hard to
  say anything about them that they haven't already contradicted
  themselves. Once surfin' pin-ups, they remade themselves as
  avant-garde pop artists, then psychedelic oracles. After that they
  were down-home hippies, then retro- hip icons. Eventually they
  devolved into none of the above: a kind of perpetual- motion
  nostalgia machine.

  Still, the Beach Boys remain one of the most beloved of American
  pop bands. A perennial favorite on radio, the group was inducted
  into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. All 28 of their
  original albums are being re-released this year, and a new
  collection of rarities, "Hawthorne, California" (named for the
  blue-collar Los Angeles suburb where they grew up) comes out next
  month.

  This activity only heightens Mr. Wilson's reputation. The band's
  main producer and composer, once held captive by psychic ills that
  all but killed him, returned to productivity in the 90's. Now
  celebrated as one of the most innovative composers in pop music,
  Mr. Wilson will be honored again on Thursday in a Radio City Music
  Hall gala, (to be broadcast in July by TNT) featuring performances
  by Paul Simon, Aimee Mann, Ricky Martin and Mr. Wilson himself, who
  will perform his 1966 masterwork, the album "Pet Sounds," in its
  entirety.

  As those musicians will surely testify, Mr. Wilson's surfing songs
  are every bit as fun as his more artistic work is daring. But what
  makes all his best music timeless is the American utopianism that
  fueled it. After all, there are many ways to talk about life,
  liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Imagining a place where
  "everybody has an ocean," "the kids are hip" and "the bad guys know
  us/ and they leave us alone" merely puts those ideas into the
  hedonistic terms of postwar baby boomers. When Mr. Wilson's muse
  matured, his utopia became music itself, his frontier a new kind of
  art- rock that would combine the transcendent possibilities of art
  with the mainstream accessibility of pop music. He didn't quite
  complete his journey, but the music Mr. Wilson created endlessly
  inventive, spiritually generous and rich with literal and
  figurative harmony reflects the best of what America is. Just as
  Mr. Wilson's downfall, and the corruption of what he had achieved,
  reflects the worst.

  At first, the Beach Boys just wanted to sing about the beach. But
  in a country that has always projected its dreams into the western
  horizon, the California coast had a meaning that went beyond the
  specifics of the youth culture of the 60's. For generations, Mr.
  Wilson's family had followed the westward migration in search of
  its own dreams, and as that impulse took root in his imagination,
  the waves rolled past the horizon and the hotrods became vehicles
  of transcendence. "Catch a wave, and you're sitting on top of the
  world," he sang in a 1963 song.

  Rock 'n' roll is cluttered with utopian fantasies, but the Beach
  Boys made theirs instantly recognizable and entirely visceral. Yes,
  this modern utopia can be dangerous ("a 20-footer sneaks up like a
  ton of lead") but at its core, it is an all-purpose equalizer and
  liberator. Its challenges and rewards almost entirely physical
  may seem arbitrary, but what matters most is having the guts not to
  "back down from that wave." Whether he meant to or not, Mr. Wilson
  projected onto the California coast the same vision Herman Melville
  saw in the whaling ships of Nantucket, and Mark Twain described
  flowing down the Mississippi: the endless promise and bottomless
  risk of the unknown.

  But to Mr. Wilson, the unknown came in two forms the music that
  thrilled him, and the psychic darkness threatening to engulf him.
  To ward off the darkness, he dived into music, and it took on
  unexpected depth. The Copland-esque introduction to the 1965 song
  "California Girls" pointed the way to a more orchestral sound, but
  Mr. Wilson's musical vision reached full flower with "Pet Sounds,"
  the album that came next.

  Written as a song cycle, "Pet Sounds" follows the arc of a romance
  from innocence ("Wouldn't It Be Nice") to disillusionment
  ("Caroline, No"). And while the lyrics (by Tony Asher) are
  straightforward, the music is anything but. Here, Mr. Wilson's
  musical imagination knows no bounds. His melodies shoot skyward,
  only to burst like fireworks, the harmonized voices drifting slowly
  to earth. When he uses familiar instruments (organs, pianos,
  electric and acoustic guitars and basses), he layers them until
  they're unrecognizable. And when he emerges from the studio closet
  with oddities like a bass harmonica, a theremin, banjos and water
  jugs (played with a mallet), they end up sounding familiar and
  completely right. Certainly "Pet Sounds" is a melancholy work. But
  the beauty of the songs, coupled with the sheer invention of his
  production, is rapturous. The album echoes with that distinctly
  utopian feeling that anything is possible.

  To emphasize the point, Mr. Wilson went even further with "Good
  Vibrations," an epic pop-art single that careened from one
  unrelated section to another with only a wailing theremin to hold
  it together. "Vibrations" was a global chart-topper in the fall of
  1966, and its success encouraged Mr. Wilson to turn his muse to the
  spiritual heart of America itself. He called the project "Smile."

  Writing with Van Dyke Parks, a brilliant songwriter whose lyrics
  skipped merrily between vivid images and cryptic statements ("I'm
  fit with the stuff/ to ride in the rough/ and sunny-down snuff, I'm
  alright"), Mr. Wilson created a set of musical vignettes that
  described American history from Plymouth Rock to the "columnated
  ruins" of modern society. In this way, "Smile" sprinted into the
  wide-open horizon depicted in the Beach Boys's earliest songs. The
  songs on "Smile" adhere to no rules: a single phrase may pop up in
  different songs, in different ways, sometimes with different words,
  all of which seem to have fluttered down from the cosmos. There are
  waltzes and Hawaiian chants, folksy songs about barn yards and
  symphonic pieces about high society. But beneath it are all-
  American banjos, harmonicas, tack piano, violins and cellos and a
  belief in human innocence. "Just away from a nonbeliever/ she'll
  smile and thank God for won-won-wonderful," he sang in "Wonderful."

  Still, Mike Love, the group's lead singer, despised the new
  music, holding extra bile for Mr. Parks's lyrics, which proved far
  too oblique for Mr. Love's surfin' sensibility. Coupled with Mr.
  Wilson's own emotional frailty, to say nothing of his mounting drug
  use and deepening tension with the band's record company, Mr.
  Love's resistance to "Smile" spelled its doom, and the album was
  never officially released. Mr. Wilson would never be so free again.
  Decades later, some observers wondered if that one failure had
  shattered his spirit.

  In the late 60's, Mr. Wilson stripped down his ambitions,
  composing sweet little songs about puttering around his house,
  going out to watch sprinklers in the park or staying up late and
  listening to the radio. But as Mr. Wilson approached 30, his demons
  overtook him. Often obese, strung out and clearly miserable with
  life and himself, the Wilson of the 70's and 80's stood in
  terrifying contrast to the joyous music he had once created. "I'm a
  cork on the ocean, floating over a raging sea," he mourned in "Til
  I Die." "I lost my way."

  THE BEACH BOYS continued without him. For a time, they worked hard
  to showcase the new songs they had written for themselves. But when
  "Endless Summer," a double album of their 60's hits, rode a tide of
  Watergate-era nostalgia to the top of the charts in 1974, a die was
  cast. By the early 80's the band had all but given up making new
  music. Instead, it focused on another all-American pastime: making
  money.

  Armed with Mr. Wilson's greatest hits, the Beach Boys took to the
  road as a kind of surfing medicine show. Pulled onward by a
  seemingly endless demand for their old hits, they played through
  the alcohol-related drowning death of Dennis Wilson in 1983, and
  through the fluke non-Wilson hit they scored in 1988 with "Kokomo."
  Even now, after the bandleader Carl Wilson died of cancer in 1998
  and Mr. Jardine's subsequent departure from the group, the Beach
  Boys machinery grinds on. For the Beach Boys of today whoever
  they are singing the romantic "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is merely
  business as usual.

  The band's artistic decline would seem much more tragic if it
  weren't for Brian Wilson. Working as a solo artist since the late
  80's, he has produced a number of albums, including "Orange Crate
  Art," a 1995 collaboration with Van Dyke Parks that reclaimed some
  of the old "Smile" spirit. More surprisingly, the former recluse
  put together his own band and started performing impassioned, if
  not always seamless, concerts that include songs from every era of
  his career. And when Mr. Wilson sings his traditional closer, a gem
  from his first solo album whose chorus summons the utopian wish for
  "love and mercy/ for you and your friends tonight," his voice sounds young and hopeful and thoroughly American.