Picture this: highly-paid session musicians made to wear fireman’s hats, blow through the wrong ends of their instruments and crawl around grunting like pigs; a grand piano planted in a living-room sandbox; meetings held at the deep end of a swimming pool.
This surreal scene from Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson’s 1967 recording sessions for the never-to-be-completed album Smile is part of pop music’s Talmud, an anecdote to be decoded endlessly for significance: did these antics signal composer-producer Wilson operating at a giddy creative peak that could have eclipsed The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Or did this portend the breakdown and addictions that would leave the California bard bloated and shuffling in a bathrobe, struggling to turn out any music at all?
This is the core of a legend. The tragic genius of Brian Wilson. It is to pop what the tragic genius of Vincent Van Gogh is to modern art: a parable of sensitivity sacrificed to cruel indifference. In this story that villainy comes from lead Beach Boys singer Mike Love, who scorned Smile and pressured Wilson to stick to the band’s formula of surf, sun, cars and girls.
For decades that lore has echoed through new records and retrospective box sets, countless books and essays, documentaries, TV movies, fictional accounts (such as Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music) and tribute songs by, among others, John Cale, Tears For Fears and the Barenaked Ladies. This year brings another crest in that wave: in April, the 72-year-old Wilson released his latest and perhaps final solo album, No Pier Pressure. And the widely praised biopic Love and Mercy is now in US cinemas, with Paul Dano as the young hit-making wizard and John Cusack – who has been likening Wilson to Mozart, a frequent comparison of his most ardent admirers – as his diminished older self. This summer Wilson goes on a rare tour and will release his new autobiography, I Am Brian Wilson, in autumn.
Even an observer sympathetic to Wilson might wonder: when will it be enough?
He gets around
Critics like to squabble over which artists are overrated or underrated. But Wilson defies those categories entirely. The Beach Boys’ chief creative force was one of the prime movers of rock’s mid-1960s artistic evolution, harmonising angelically with his brothers Dennis and Carl (no relation to the writer of this article) and cousin Love. He made recording history with sonic landmarks such as Good Vibrations and God Only Knows. He kept The Beatles looking over their shoulders. And then, after 1967, despite some decent efforts, he didn’t. The Beach Boys’1976 marketing slogan “Brian’s back!” has never really come true. These facts remain relatively undisputed.
No, Wilson demands another bracket, one for the artists who are great but whose greatness is proclaimed to the point of redundancy, taking up more than their share of cultural shelf space. Instead of the overrated, call them the overstocked. It’s a label Wilson would share with The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, or in other arts Picasso, the Mona Lisa or Citizen Kane.
In Wilson’s case, this extravagant praise is in part a retroactive overcorrection to The Beach Boys’ slighting by the late-1960s counterculture. Vietnam-era college hippies, embarrassed to have adored the band’s escapist hits as teenyboppers, savaged them as cheesy shills for the Great American Lie. According to Peter Ames Carlin’s 2006 book Catch a Wave, Dennis Wilson (the band’s drummer and only real-life surfer) came home from the overseas tour for the band’s 1966 triumph Pet Sounds practically in tears because British fans had pointed and laughed at their square striped shirts.
Yet by the 1970s the Beach Boys were already being reclaimed, first in nostalgic movies like American Graffiti, and then by a punk generation that rejected hippie pretensions for back-to-basics rock ’n’ roll. The Ramones, for instance, seized on and subverted the early Wilson template: Be True to Your School became Rock’n’Roll High School. For the artier branches of post-punk, Wilson’s pained vulnerability, his uses of offbeat instruments and his intricate harmonies, not to mention the Smile saga itself, became a touchstone, from Pere Ubu and XTC to REM and the Pixies to U2 and My Bloody Valentine – and any band that’s ever been called ‘chamber pop’.
The days when Wilson was underestimated musically, then, are long gone. What drives the continual dredging through his biography now is the human-interest angle: unlike Hendrix, Joplin or Lennon, he is one of the few 1960s icons who survived to the present day. It also plays into the popular tendency to fetishise any overlap between genius and madness, which seems at once like a denial of the commonness of mental illness and a way to channel our envy of the gifted. Finally there is the nagging desire, whether exploitative or well-meant, to push the one-time prodigy to produce again, to squeeze out one last masterpiece. These factors all distort both Wilson’s story and his significance.
The anxiety of influence
The word ‘genius’ always risks estranging its subject from their cultural context. There were many influences on Wilson’s signature style: the heritage of Tin Pan Alley (Gershwin especially), the street-corner harmonies of black doo-wop and white barbershop singing (Wilson’s beloved Four Freshmen) and the basic building blocks of rock ’n’ roll – Surfin’ USA, The Beach Boys’ first Top 10 hit, was a direct rip off of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. Meanwhile in the late 1950s, New York songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – who contributed to The Coasters, The Drifters and more – brought greater instrumental and harmonic sophistication to rock. They gave an apprenticeship to Phil Spector, the Wall of Sound production guru who in turn became Wilson’s model and idol – and from whom he poached the virtuoso crop of LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.
Wilson’s ability to draw on and synthesise all these influences, while keeping pace with competitors such as The Beatles and The Byrds, was impressive but it was not out of nowhere, and it was hardly unique among musicians. What made it more dramatic was that it came in the person of a white Christian kid from the California suburbs instead of Jewish New Yorkers like Leiber and Stoller or the Detroit soul musicians of Motown, cranking into high gear around the same time. Combining clean-cut, boy-next-door appeal with aesthetic forward-thinking was what made Wilson a real anomaly in US pop-culture history. And in that myth was also the seed of his downfall, as creativity and conformity collided.
Then again, was doom really fated for Wilson? Listen to Wilson’s reconstruction of Smile from 2004 as well as the 2011 Smile Sessions box set, and you might hear a not entirely unusual case of an artist who simply extended himself too far on an overly ambitious project. In other words, heresy as it is to suggest, Mike Love, that obnoxious prat, might have been a little bit right.
A generation’s spokesman?
Smile, like Good Vibrations, was composed in a modular form, which meant that each song consisted of discrete sub-sections that could be pulled apart and assembled hundreds of different ways. It was not in the composition but in putting those pieces together that Wilson got direly muddled. What’s more, Wilson’s taste in lyrics was always spotty. Like the Swedish producers who dominate pop today, he cared more about syllables matching music than about coherent sentences.
Wilson’s reconstruction of Smile in 2004, assisted by the talented young band The Wondermints, was a true act of personal and artistic redemption. Yet even there you can hear that the music, while rapturously imaginative, can also be wearingly glee-clubby and gimmicky. Perhaps it would have been different if it had been finished in 1967. No one can know.
Of course Wilson’s travails are more than worthy of our compassion. But again they are not nearly so singular as his acolytes make them sound. There are not similarly towering piles of books and movies about the lost tragic geniuses of Laura Nyro, Sly Stone, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Gil Scott-Heron. Nor are there so many song-by-song almanacs of the studio miracles wrought by, say, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and George Clinton, even though they arguably had a more decisive effect on the pop music of the 21st Century.
No, that level of sentimentality is reserved for the most intimately held high-school and college memories of what remains the dominant segment of the US critical class: white, middle-class Baby Boomers. It is determined by what ranked highest in their 1960s, that most culturally overstocked of decades. Perhaps the best to hope for from the latest swell of Brian and Beach Boys revivals is that it becomes the last for a long while. Let that endless summer fall, and leave Wilson’s troubled soul to pass peacefully into winter, for future generations to return to, with their own love and mercy.
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