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Brian Wilson’s Wave
For the brilliant songwriter behind the Beach Boys, the endless summer gave way to a very hard winter. Now he is back, with a work that wants to be no less than a musical history of the American dream.
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Brian Wilson’s pursuit of the frontier was suddenly being opposed by the very corporate structure it had created, and at the hands of his family too. Moreover, he discovered that Capitol Records, apparently in league with Murry Wilson, was cheating the band out of a significant percentage of its royalties. The group, then in the midst of setting up its own music imprint with Capitol, filed a lawsuit, which drained energy and time from the Smile sessions. To make matters even worse, Carl Wilson, who had just turned 18, was being prosecuted by the government for evading the draft. And Dennis Wilson, in the throes of his first divorce, was diving headlong into a swamp of women, drugs, and alcohol. All these worries strained Brian’s fragile psyche. Earlier displays of eccentricity that had seemed harmless—placing his piano in a sandbox so he could feel the beach while he worked, insisting that business meetings be conducted in his pool—took on the cast of paranoia. He became convinced his house was bugged, and when the recording of a Smile track titled “Fire” coincided with a rash of real fires in downtown L.A., he decided his music had somehow been responsible.
In June 1967 he pulled the band out of its Saturday-night spot at the Monterey Pop Festival, originally planned as the live debut of the new Smile material. Jimi Hendrix, whose electrifying performance cemented his reputation, declared at the climax of his show, “You’ll never hear surf music again!” A few weeks later Brian Wilson threw away his set of Smile tapes and swore the album would never be released.
As the pop culture followed Hendrix’s lead toward the dark and dissonant in the late sixties, the Beach Boys found themselves adrift, divorced from both their audience and their increasingly reclusive leader. Brian Wilson still wrote and recorded—he composed the majority of the songs on the band’s next five albums—but now his songs played like miniature versions of what had come before, simply wrought tunes about going to the park, listening to the radio, or, as one 1968 track put it, being “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.”
The touring Beach Boys updated their clean-cut image with beards, long hair, and some of the peace-and-love verbiage of the moment, but underneath it all they remained uncomfortable with the political and social counterculture. Dennis Wilson fell into a brief friendship with Charles Manson, then an aspiring L.A. songwriter, whose tune “Cease to Exist” ended up uncredited, and much revised, as the Beach Boy’s “Never Learn Not to Love.” And the group even took up with the Beatles’ discarded guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “The Beach Boys are just one prominent example of a group who got hung up on chasing the Beatles,” Jann Wenner wrote in Rolling Stone. “It’s a pointless pursuit.”
Still the band persevered. When the Grateful Dead invited them to join them onstage at New York City’s Fillmore East in 1971, under the gaze of Bob Dylan, the event had a Malcolm X meets Martin Luther King type of pancultural significance. For the moment, at least, the two California bands that had defined the leading edge of West Coast music in the last decade could stand on the same stage, look out at the world around them, and sing the same song.
This popular rebirth didn’t brighten Brian Wilson’s own malaise. Married unhappily and feeling unequal to the task of raising his two daughters, he retreated into drugs, cigarettes, and gluttony. As his musical contributions ebbed in the early seventies, songs such as “Til I Die” limned his descent into depression. “I’m a cork on the ocean/Floating over a raging sea,” he sang in 1971. “How deep is the ocean?/I lost my way.” The man who had celebrated the Pacific as a sea of limitless possibility was being sucked beneath its surface.
But even as his own condition worsened, the Beach Boys’ commercial prospects improved. Two new, if temporary, band mates, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, added soulful textures to their early-seventies sound, and their commercial fortunes took a dramatic shift skyward in the summer of 1974 when a two-album repackaging of their biggest hits, Endless Summer, rode a wave of Watergate-era nostalgia to the top of the Billboard charts. Now their concerts, anchored by the sterling musicianship of Carl Wilson and the gleeful showmanship of Mike Love, could fill baseball stadiums. As anticipation for a new album rose in late 1975, Brian’s family figured he had spent long enough time nursing his psychic wounds. They hired Dr. Eugene Landy, a pugnacious Hollywood psychologist famous for his 24-hour intervention therapy, to help him get back on his feet and, more important, back into the recording studio.