Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson

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9781594863202: Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson
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Now the subject of the movie Love & Mercy, starring John Cusack! Brian Wilson was the visionary behind America's most successful and influential rock band. And as the leader of the Beach Boys, he sold 100 million records, produced Pet Sounds, and built a catalog of songs that continues to define the sound and feel of American popular music. He also became one of the culture's most mysterious and tragic figures. But after spending years lost in a wilderness of despair, Wilson has fought his way back to productivity. And now with teh release of Smile - the masterwork that nearly undid him - he has returned to music's center stage.

Now Peter Ames Carlin, who conducted in-depth, exclusive interviews with dozens of sources and listened to hundreds of hours of unreleased studio recordings and live music, tells a uniquely American story of the band, the music, and the culture the Beach Boys both sang about and helped create. Carlin brings a fan's passion, a seasoned journalist's objectivity, and a cultural critic's insight to his subject, and the result is a magesterial and authoritative account of the Beach Boys' visionary figure, who has emerged into a new era of creativity.

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About the Author:

PETER AMES CARLIN is also the author of the 2012 biography of Bruce Springsteen, Bruce and Paul McCartney: A Life. His latest book, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, will be published on October 11, 2016.  Previously he was a senior writer for People in New York and the TV columnist for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He lives in Portland, Or. with his wife and family.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

It's eighty degrees and sunny in Hawthorne this afternoon, with a gentle breeze brushing against the trees and a sky so perfectly and deeply blue that it seems like a dream. And it would be just another spring day in the Southland, were it not also the day the Beach Boys will be elevated into the official annals of California state history. The ceremony is taking place right here, at the out-of-the-way intersection of West 119th and Kornblum streets, where Murry and Audree Wilson once raised their sons Brian, Dennis, and Carl. Now the spot is marked by California Historical Landmark #1041, a ten-foot structure that is at this moment draped by a large white cloth.

"When the wintry winds start blowing, and the snow is starting to fall . . ."

That's Al Jolson singing, his voice echoing from the speakers on the stage that has been set up near the hidden monument. Several rows of chairs line the front of the stage, many of them filled with the wives, ex-wives, widows, children, friends, and compatriots of the Wilsons and their bandmates. A row of journalists--cameras, microphones, notebooks, dangling credentials--comes next, and behind them stands a thick crowd of onlookers. Fans, mostly, some from as far away as Australia. Many wear souvenir T- shirts from long-ago concerts and albums, the faces on them young and sweet, redolent of another time. Their presence here today pays tribute both to the younger musicians pictured on their chests and the younger fans they were when they plunked down the five or ten or fifteen bucks at the merch stand and pulled the shirts over their heads. Perhaps this is why the atmosphere is so hushed, the mood such a strange mix of ebullience and melancholy.

"California, here I come! . . ."

Then, from off in the corner closest to the VIP section, the crowd starts to cheer. Brian Wilson has appeared, steered gently by his wife and a few friends to his seat near the front of the stage. He is a large man with broad shoulders, a prominent belly, and a weathered face that is neither friendly nor hostile, but almost entirely impassive. Voices from the crowd call his name, but Brian doesn't look up. He seems detached from the world around him. Or maybe just lost in his own memories of a life touched by so much fortune--good, bad, and horrendous--that he seems less like a living, breathing person than a personification of every dream and nightmare borne upon the westward tide.

"Right back where I started from . . ."

Jolson's song comes to an end, and soon you can hear Brian's own teenaged voice coming out of the speakers, captured on a summer evening that passed on this very street nearly forty-five years ago. He's singing and chattering with Dennis and Carl and cousin Mike Love, the four of them smoothing out the rough spots in their vocals to "Surfin'," their first song. "If you laugh, I'm gonna pop you in the mouth! And if I laugh, you can pop me in the mouth!" someone says, but this only inspires a gale of giggles. The voices start to sing, accompanied by a slightly out-of-tune guitar. "Surfin' is the life, the only way for me/So surf! Surf! Surf!"

There are speeches memorializing Dennis and Carl, then the unveiling of the monument, for which Brian rises to be joined by original Beach Boy Alan Jardine and also David Marks, a Hawthorne neighbor and not-quite-original group member who served for a couple of key years in the early '60s. The three men perform their task in silence, yanking on the sheet to reveal a massive brick-and-brass monolith. They take a moment to examine it up close, pointing to its ornamental records and the brass fresco that shows them as they were, sort of, on the cover of their first album, Surfin' Safari. They pose for a few pictures, then they walk away in three separate directions.

Something is going on here that no one is acknowledging. And it's not just the lingering sorrows of death or the obvious discomfort felt by the three survivors who have come here. It's larger than that. A feeling that underscores every note they ever sang and every song that drew so many people here. When the current mayor presents Brian with a ceremonial plaque, he speaks emotionally about the vision of Hawthorne the songwriter presented to the world. "I just want to thank you for playing positive music," he declares. "No drugs, no sex, no violence."

Eventually Jardine gets his turn to speak. He grew up just a few blocks away, and now he's brought his mother and his own kids back to witness this moment. And yet he struggles to be upbeat, plugging his new kids' book and a cable show called Rock Stars and Muscle Cars he says he'll soon be hosting. Then he reflects on old times. "Dennis always gave you the truth. That means more than ever. Especially now." He laughs bitterly.

Al is referring to Mike Love, the other surviving original Beach Boy. He can't be here today because he's 3,000 miles away playing a show with a group called the Beach Boys that doesn't include any of the other people being celebrated today. Mike sent his official regrets, noting the schedule conflict. But just a few days later, his story will change markedly. "See, my memories of those days are very sweet and great, before I got cheated by my uncle Murry and by my cousin Brian, too. It was a more innocent time." So, why not pay tribute to those times? Mike hemmed and hawed for a while, then shrugged. "I didn't want to go. So how's that? A lot of the people there don't get along with me . . . how about Al Jardine? He's suing all of us now, including Brian Wilson and the estate of Carl Wilson. So I didn't particularly want to see him."

When Al finishes, Brian takes the stage with four of his current bandmates to sing stripped-down versions of two early songs, "Surfer Girl" ("The first song I ever wrote," he notes) and "In My Room." This last one is particularly poignant, performed so close to the actual spot where he had dreamed it up, lying in his childhood bed fending off the darkness that hovered just outside. "In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears . . ."

Brian stands stiffly onstage, singing with his eyes closed, losing himself in the familiar melody, the weave of voices that is now as familiar as the walls, doors, and windows of the house that once stood at his back. But the actual house has been gone for twenty years, bulldozed into dust by eight lanes of the I-105 freeway. So what we're really looking at here, gleaming beneath that brilliant afternoon sun, is a line of cars rocketing westward, all of them hurtling away from wherever they came from into the very horizon the Beach Boys spent their lives singing about.

"California, here I come/Right back where I started from . . ."

Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' original songwriter, producer, and visionary, is in his sixties now, a man of age and wealth and almost no discernible interest in the world as it existed before him, particularly with regard to his family and their own journey across the continent to the golden coast where he was born. "We never talked about that stuff," Brian says. It is the spring of 2004, and he's in one of his favorite restaurants, a bustling hillside deli in a mall down the street from his home on the crest of Beverly Hills. "That's the one thing they never did, never talked about our ancestors at all." Now, it's hard to know if Brian is saying this because it's true or because he just doesn't remember any such conversations. Or, more likely, he just doesn't want to address the issue. He's an intimidating man, both for all he's achieved in his life and for all he's suffered along the way. And given the remove of his celebrity and his psychic torment, it's hard to separate the humor from the horror in his eyes when he does recall something his father did like to say.

"Kick some ass!" Brian is smiling now, in his silly, sad way. "Exactly, that's what my dad said. Kick ass! Kick ass!"

Murry Wilson was a big guy with a big personality and even bigger dreams of glory. That he would attain them through the work of his sons was a source of great pride and outrage from the old man. "My relationship with my dad was very unique," Brian says. "In some ways I was very afraid of him. In other ways I loved him because he knew where it was at. He had that competitive spirit which really blew my mind."

"Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around." That's the story of Brian's life. But also the story of his brothers, his cousin and friends, and all of the ancestors whose ambitions, fears, hopes, and determination delivered them to this land beneath the unyielding sun. California, here we come. Right back where they started from. "Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world."

As described by Timothy White in his intricately researched The Nearest Faraway Place, the story of the Wilsons in America begins in the late eighteenth century, when the first Wilson to venture to the New World settled in New York. The first American-born family member, named Henry Wilson, was born in 1804 and eventually moved west to Meigs County, Ohio, where he worked as a stonemason. His son, named George Washington Wilson in the spirit of the times, was born in 1820, and he and his family farmed a plot of rich, river-fed land in Meigs County for more than six decades until his own son, William Henry Wilson, decided to pursue fortune west to the wide-open plains of Hutchinson, Kansas. So west they went, with patriarch George in tow, settling onto a large, if relatively arid, farm that William Henry soon abandoned in order to go into the industrial plumbing business. Contracts to work on the state's new reformatory system, along with the many opportunities afforded by the modernizing world around them, provided a decent working-class living and a solidly built clapboard bungalow on one of Hutchinson's nice residential streets. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, William Henry began to think again of chasing fortune into the western horizon.

California! At the dawn of the new century, this was the setting of every ambitious man's dreams. The real estate flyers papering the town painted in the details, describing the valley soil as every bit as rich and fertile as the sun was warm and the breezes gentle. Thus inspired, William Henry scraped together the cash to buy, sight unseen, ten acres of prime farmland in the southern California village of Escondido. William Henry loaded up his wife, kids, and even his eighty-five-year-old father into the family jalopy; they arrived in 1904 and spent the year laboring on their new vineyard. And though the sun did indeed shine, and the water flowed as promised, and the vines did erupt with fat, juicy fruit, the farming was every bit as hard as it had been back in Kansas, and the money not nearly as vast as previously anticipated. By 1905, William and family were back in the plumbing business in Kansas. Still, memories of the California sun and the dreams of ease and fortune that had once stirred William Henry's soul came to rest in the imagination of his teenaged son, William Coral "Buddy" Wilson. As the boy grew, so too did his visions of the golden future that awaited him in the Golden State.

Dark-eyed, heavy-browed, and thick-featured, Buddy Wilson took off for California in 1914. Then in his early twenties, the young man--already married to Edith Shtole and the father of a child or two--fairly seethed with ambition. Surely, he imagined, a man with his drive and appetite could find an untapped stream of gold somewhere in that rich, open economic frontier. Leaving his family back in Hutchinson, Buddy would spend months at a time searching for his place in the sun, looking increasingly in the oil fields of the southern coast. Guys could make a fortune if they latched onto the right rig, and so Buddy used his plumbing skills as his entree, working as a steamfitter on the pipes that channeled the gushers out of the ground and into the pockets of the rich men whose example he was desperate to follow.

But Buddy would never join them in the gilded halls of the powerful. Moody and scattered, plagued by searing headaches and a self-destructive thirst for whiskey, Buddy wandered from job to job to long stretches of unemployment, which he passed grumbling into a glass in a dim barroom. When Edith and the kids finally joined him in 1921, taking the train to the elegant-sounding village of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, he couldn't afford to lease an apartment in town. Instead, the family spent their first two months living in a snug eight-by-eight-foot tent with all the other squatters on the beach.

Edith took a job pressing clothes for a garment manufacturer, and eventually the family moved to a small home on an unpaved road in Inglewood where the eight Wilson kids attended school, worked weekend jobs, and marched the thin line dictated by their sour father and stern, demanding mother. Escape, such as it was, came in the occasional afternoon bike rides to the open, breezy expanse of Hermosa Beach.

Escape was a necessity for Buddy Wilson's kids. Buddy, now in middle age and resigned to his life of small prospects and severely limited horizons, had long felt his ambition curdle into resentment. Often awash in alcohol and self-pity, Buddy's bile regularly boiled over into violence, directed most often at Edith. But he could also turn his fists on his children, once beating the school-aged Charles so savagely (for mistakenly shattering his glasses) that Murry, then a teenager, had to come to his brother's rescue, shoving the old man out of the house until he sobered up. And this wasn't the only time Murry had come to blows with his father. Increasingly, the family's second-oldest boy found himself thrust into the role of his mother's protector, raising his own fists against the father he loved but who seemed unable to love him or anyone else in the family.

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