Brian Wilson’s Wave

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe voices are clear and strong, their song crackling with energy. “Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out,/Some honeys will be comin’ along/We’re loading up our woodie with our boards inside/And headin’ out singing our song....Let’s go surfin’ now/Everybody’s learning how/Come on and safari with me....”

This is “Surfin’ Safari,” one of the first songs the Beach Boys recorded, in 1962. Compared with the glossy, sex-drenched pop music of the twenty-first century, it sounds impossibly naive, a rattling contraption of tip-tap drums, rudimentary bass, wacka-wacka guitar, and hokey surfer slang. And yet, something vital radiates across the decades.

You can hear it in the music and you can glimpse it on the cover of the album Surfin’ Safari. There you see a cluster of mostly teenage Beach Boys—the brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their neighbor David Marks—perched on a vintage yellow pickup truck that has come to rest on a California beach at dawn, looking toward the horizon. Yes, it’s corny with their matching blue Pendleton shirts and khakis and the awkward way Brian Wilson and Mike Love grasp a board to their sides. But you can feel the anticipation. Something’s coming with the morning.

For the Beach Boys, that dawn held stardom. “Surfin’ Safari” climbed to number 14 on the national singles charts, clearing the way for dozens of bigger hits, “Surfin’ USA,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and other paeans to sun, fun, and romance. And that was just the beginning. In the second half of the 1960s the musical vision of Brian Wilson, the group’s chief composer, producer, and arranger, took on extraordinary sophistication. Even now his most richly melodic, intricately structured songs —“God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Heroes and Villains,” to name a few—touch the horizons of popular music. They also touch the heart of the American dream. Imagining a place where “everybody has an ocean,” “the kids are hip,” and “the girls on the beach are all within reach” merely puts it in the hedonistic terms of teenaged baby boomers.

Which isn’t to say that the Beach Boys have spent their lives fulfilling the promise of their songs. In fact, they spent decades wandering a morass of family dysfunction, mental illness, drug abuse, and money-fueled power struggles. Brian Wilson was usually at the center of the mess. The chief Beach Boy went from creating one of the rock era’s most acclaimed albums (1966’s Pet Sounds) to shelving its much-anticipated follow-up ( Smile, recorded in 1967) and then spending decades as a virtual recluse, haunted by his early success and tormented by subsequent failures. In his absence, the other Beach Boys used his lovingly crafted songs to stoke a touring nostalgia machine.

Yet the decades-old “Surfin’ USA” still brings a charge to the air, and the ambitious Pet Sounds sounds as glorious as the absence of the even more revolutionary Smile has been deafening. Now Brian Wilson’s late-life renaissance has led to his finishing Smile, one of the most hotly anticipated pop albums of 1967 and 2004, a complex, symphony-length ode to America.

“I just got hungry to get better,” Wilson says. it’s early last May, and the founding Beach Boy is sitting in a Beverly Hills deli speaking about Smile and a life that has veered between the magical and the horrific. We’re talking in late afternoon; the dawn ended a long time ago. But as Wilson recalls the standing ovation his long-lost masterpiece received at its live debut in London this past February, his lined face takes on the same wide-open expression it has on the cover of Surfin’ Safari . For a moment his watery blue eyes catch the light through the window, and it’s as if he’s back on the beach, looking out.

He’s not the first in his family to look past the horizon. His forebears sailed to America from England just after the end of the Revolution, then moved to Ohio, where the first American-born Wilson—named, in the spirit of the times, George Washington Wilson—was born in 1820. The Wilsons were farming people, but as with so many citizens of the young nation, their eyes had a habit of wandering in the direction of the setting sun.