The Brian Wilson tale one is a strange, sad, but ultimately uplifting one. Against all odds, the troubled genius of the Wilson family, 62, has outlived both of his brothers, returned to writing and performing, and now in two weeks will finally present to the world, if not “THE,” then at least “A,” version of his most ambitious musical vision, Smile, more than 37 years after it was begun as the follow-up to Pet Sounds.
The music press is of course deeply interested – Bernard Weinraub heralded the news in the NY Times a couple of days ago:
- Mr. Wilson, the mastermind of the Beach Boys, had envisioned an album that would merge pop hooks and elaborately composed interludes, with allusive lyrics by Van Dyke Parks that encompassed romance, American history and the alchemical elements.
….But “Smile” turned into a nightmare for Mr. Wilson, who was spiraling toward a nervous breakdown and struggling with drugs and with personal demons that would envelop him for decades. The other members of the Beach Boys had grown dubious about the commercial prospects of the increasingly complex music and lyrics. There was rancor from Mr. Wilson’s father, Murry, a frustrated musician who had beaten him during his childhood, and there were legal battles with the Beach Boys’ label, Capitol Records. Mr. Wilson had grown reclusive and increasingly bizarre: he ordered eight truckloads of beach sand dumped around his piano at home so he could wiggle his toes in it for inspiration.
After 85 recording sessions, including more than two dozen for the song “Heroes and Villains” alone, Mr. Wilson abandoned “Smile,” and it turned into the most famous unheard album in pop history. “I thought it was too weird, I thought it was too druggie influenced, I thought the audience wouldn’t get it,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview.
What remains of the original “Smile” are songs that appeared in different versions on subsequent Beach Boys albums — among them “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” “Cabinessence” and “Wind Chimes” — and fragments of session tapes. But after reworking “Pet Sounds” for a triumphant concert tour in 2000, Mr. Wilson decided to return to “Smile.”
This year, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Parks, a 10-piece band and additional strings and horns resurrected the album from shards and memories. After performing a live version in concert in Europe, they returned to the studio to make an entirely new recording of “Smile”: 17 intricate, multifaceted, enigmatic songs, grouped into three suites, sometimes linked by recurring themes. The album will be released by Nonesuch on Sept. 28, and Mr. Wilson will perform a concert version of “Smile” on a monthlong American tour that begins on Sept. 30 in Minneapolis and reaches Carnegie Hall on Oct. 12 and 13.
Current tour dates are:
9/30/04 Orpheum Theatre Minneapolis, MN
10/01/04 Overture Hall Madison, WI
10/02/04 Auditorium Theatre Chicago, IL
10/04/04 Michigan Theatre Ann Arbor, MI
10/06/04 Massey Hall Toronto, ONT
10/07/04 Music Hall Cleveland, OH
10/08/04 Keswick Theatre Philadelphia, PA
10/10/04 Warner Theatare Washington, DC
10/12/04 Carnegie Hall New York, NY
10/13/04 Carnegie Hall New York, NY
10/14/04 The Orpheum Theatre Boston, MA
10/16/04 Chastain Park Ampitheatre Atlanta, GA
10/18/04 Knight Center for the Performing Arts Melbourne, FL
10/20/04 Mizner Amphitheatre Boca Raton, FL
10/21/04 Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Tampa, FL
10/23/04 Verizon Wireless Theatre Houston, TX
10/24/04 The Backyard Austin, TX
10/25/04 Nokia Theatre at Grand Prairie Dallas, TX
10/27/04 Paramount Theatre Denver, CO
10/29/04 Pala Events Center Pala, CA
11/03/04 Walt Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles, CA
- The European reviews were rapturous. “The music echoed everything from Philip Glass to Kurt Weill to Chuck Berry,” a reviewer wrote in The Daily Telegraph when “Smile” was performed in London. “Leonard Bernstein said Brian Wilson was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He was not wrong.” A critic for the Guardian referred to “the groundbreaking complexity and sophistication” of “Smile,” saying that the concert “made it seem like the grandest of American symphonies.”
….”It was finally ready to be finished, ready to be accepted,” [Wilson] said. “We thought it was too advanced for people at that time. We think people are now ready to understand where it was coming from. Back then, no one was ready for it.”
Echoing Mr. Wilson, his friend and collaborator, Mr. Parks, said: “There are intimations of mortality here, intimations about the end of his performing cycle. With these intimations, decisions become profoundly more difficult.
“I get the impression that Brian knew he was running out of time and if he was going to present the work he’d have to make a decision to do it and no longer be embarrassed that he had followed his own madness as a 24-year-old composer. This is inexorably a highly personal move and a musical move.”
….”I’m 62 but I feel like I’m 42,” he said. “I wanted to retire but I changed my mind. I can’t help but make music for people. I love to make people happy. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I got standing ovations wherever I went in Europe. I feel young. I feel happy. Isn’t that something?”
It’s a lot Brian, a lot.
Brian and Melinda Wilson, his wife since ’95, were on CNN’s Larry King Live on August 20 and talked, among other things, about Brian’s “lost years”:
- B. WILSON: I’m doing good. I’ve had a slight nervous breakdown in the ’60s. I got through that. And I got through the ’70s. And I was in a doctor’s program during the ’80s and then I met Melinda and we’ve been together ever since. I’ve got a happy life.
KING: Why — when you met Brian, was he having problems?
M. WILSON: He was having a lot of problems when I met him. We met back in 1986 and that was during the Landy years and…
KING: Explain what that means.
M. WILSON: There was this psychologist named Eugene Landy who…
KING: Was treating?
M. WILSON: Was treating Brian. He was brought in, I guess it was late ’70s by Marilyn originally?
B. WILSON: 19 — mid 70s.
KING: Marilyn, your first wife?
B. WILSON: Yes.
M. WILSON: His first wife. Because Brian was kind of out of control. And then again in the early ’80s the Beach Boys hired Dr. Landy. I don’t even want to call him Dr. Landy.
KING: Now what did he do that so changed Brian? He was called in to help and it turned out worse, right?
M. WILSON: He was called into help and I think originally he did help. He helped Brian lose weight and he helped Brian care about himself physically again, but then, as time went on, he became very captive of Brian — or Brian was primarily a prisoner…
B. WILSON: I wasn’t allowed to call my family or my friends at all for nine years.
KING: He had that much control?
B. WILSON: Yes, he had that much control of my life, yes. He doped me up with medication. He kept me doped so I couldn’t resist what he told me to do.
KING: For what purpose, Brian?
B. WILSON: He was a control freak. He gets off on controlling.
- KING: Did you suffer from depression, Brian?
B. WILSON: Did I suffer from depression? Yes, a little, from time to time. Yes.
KING: Did it occur while the Beach Boys were No. 1?
B. WILSON: Yes. It occurred then. Yes, it did. Then it occurred later in the ’90s, a little bit in the ’90s. 2000s, I’m not as depressed as I was. I get depressed now and then but not very much anymore.
M. WILSON: Actually, depression is something that if you have it it never really goes away.
KING: It’s treatable.
M. WILSON: It’s treatable.
B. WILSON: It’s been minimized — my medicine has minimized it. Right, been minimized?
M. WILSON: It’s absolutely been minimized.
KING: At the height of it, though…
M. WILSON: At the height of it it was just God-awful. It was really bad.
KING: Contemplating ending your own life?
B. WILSON: No — well, a couple times I had those thoughts, but I never got serious about it — I never got serious.
KING: What attracted — you were stepping in — did you ever feel, Melinda, you were stepping into a minefield? I mean, you meet a guy with enormous talent and enormous problems.
M. WILSON: Actually, Dr. Landy is the one that introduced us.
M. WILSON: Yes, we just — he could probably kill himself now for it but he brought Brian into an automobile dealership that I was working at at the time for Brian to buy a car.
KING: You sold him a car?
M. WILSON: I sold Brian a car. And it was like surreal. It was like I knew of the Beach Boys but I really didn’t know that, like Brian was the genius behind the Beach Boys. Growing up in California…
It would appear Brian needs help, and now that person is Melinda. There’s much more to the interview, including the history of the Beach Boys.
Towards that end, there is an exceptional piece by Peter Ames Carlin, somewhat surprisingly, in American Heritage:
- In 1904 William Wilson bought 10 acres of vineyard in Escondido, a rural village southeast of Los Angeles. This particular dream lasted a little over a year. The work was harder than he expected, and he missed his friends back home. But his son, William Coral (“Buddy”) Wilson moved back to the Golden State in the early 1920s. However, he was forced to scratch out a living as an oil-field steamfitter. This disappointment, coupled with the pressure of supporting a wife and eight children on blue-collar earnings, would come to darken Buddy’s eyes and harden his heart. And the pain would ripple out to his children.
Buddy’s second-oldest son, Murry, born in 1917, inherited his father’s ambition, along with a family passion for music. He dreamed of becoming a professional songwriter, but as a high school graduate in the depths of the Depression, he was realist enough to pursue a career in local industry. He hustled his way into lower management at the Southern California Gas Company. Later he got a job with Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Married in 1938 to Audree Korthof, a sweet-natured baker’s daughter, he settled in Hawthorne, a modest suburb on the southwest fringe of Los Angeles, a few years later.
Murry and Audree’s first child, Brian, came in June 1942. He was sensitive, tall, athletic, and friendly, with a preternatural ear for melody and harmony. His father said that 11 months into his life he could hum a note-perfect “Marine Corps Hymn.” At five, he was spending hours listening to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. His brother Dennis, born in 1944, had blond hair, freckles, and a restless, prankish energy; his neighbors called him Dennis the Menace. Carl, the youngest, came at the end of 1946. Soft-eyed and pudgy, he had a feathery voice and a sweet, accommodating personality to match.
Along with his father’s ambition, Murry Wilson had inherited Buddy’s self-pitying rage. After losing an eye in an industrial accident at Goodyear, he turned his discontent on his sons, taunting them mercilessly, demanding impossible levels of perfection in school, on the baseball diamond, in keeping the house tidy, and he was quick to assert his authority with his fists. When physical violence seemed to lose its efficacy, he would pluck out his artificial eye and force the children to stare into the empty socket.
Even as adults, Brian, Dennis, and Carl had trouble assessing the emotional effect their father had had on them. “In some ways I was very afraid of my dad,” Brian told me in 1998. “In other ways I loved him, because he knew where it was at. He scared me so much I actually got scared into making good records.” But Murry may have had a more brutally damaging effect on his son’s ability to make music, for the architect of so much intricately crafted songs is deaf in one ear, and Brian links his lifelong disability to a blow delivered by his father just before his third birthday.
The loss did nothing to diminish the boy’s appetite for music. Singing and playing became the teenage Brian’s most potent form of expression and most reliable avenue of escape. He spent hours alone in his bedroom, electrified by the rhythms of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, or riding the harmonies of the Four Freshmen. He could toss off graceful melodies and then arrange multipart vocal arrangements. Later he’d get Audree and Carl to sing with him while he perfected the blend.
Dennis would sing too, if you could ever manage to make him sit still long enough. More often the Wilsons’ middle son preferred going to the beach, drawn to the surfers who were beginning to take over L.A.’s shoreline. In the summer of 1961, when he heard Brian musing about writing some rock ’n’ roll and putting together a band to play at dances, Dennis offered a suggestion: “Why don’t you write a song about surfing?”
That was the beginning. Brian’s first thought was to call his cousin Mike Love. A year older than Brian, Mike was a tall, sharp-tongued jock whose indifference to school had left him, after graduating in 1959, with no real prospects for college or a career. He’d been thrown out of his parents’ home after they learned that he’d gotten a girl pregnant. Convinced that the fastest, easiest road to economic security led through the entertainment mills of Hollywood, he was only too glad to merge his own pop ambitions with those of his talented cousin. Working together one summer afternoon, the boys composed a shuffling R & B–style song they called, simply, “Surfin’.” It pivoted on a chanted chorus that echoed the thoughts of every teenage surfer in Southern California: “Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me / Now surf! Surf with me!”
Eager to put together a band to perform the song, Brian called in Al Jardine, a music-loving Hawthorne High classmate who had long pursued Brian about forming a folksinging group. Fourteen-year-old Carl came next, adding his sweet, smooth voice and the growing catalogue of Chuck Berry licks he was learning to play on his guitar. Dennis was the last addition, mostly at the insistence of Audree, who didn’t think it would be fair to leave him out, especially since he’d thought of the whole surfing-tune idea in the first place. The boys rented microphones, drums, amplifiers, and a standup bass and recorded a livingroom demo over the Labor Day weekend. The tape impressed Murry enough for him to proclaim himself their manager. Soon the group was in a storefront studio on Melrose Avenue, recording their song for professional release.
Put out in early December, “Surfin’” became a hit in Los Angeles, and equipped with that small triumph, Murry took the band to Capitol Records, which in May 1962 released “Surfin’ Safari,” a more melodic, vividly worded version of “Surfin’.” A pop guitarist named Dick Dale had earlier pioneered instrumental surf music, capturing the energy of the waves in lightning-fast guitar arpeggios and wails, but the Beach Boys were the first band to spin beach life into song.
My own (lengthy and rather outrageously pretentious) take on the Beach Boys legacy is here in conjuntion with a review of the Sounds of Summer collection from ’03:
- I own about ten different Beach Boys collections, but I am always willing to look at a new one. Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys is an outstanding single-CD compilation with 30 songs covering the Boys’ entire career, the best single-CD set yet from the greatest American group of the ’60s.
Not only does the collection have 30 great songs, but it also has invaluable information on each one: year of release, highest chart position, producer, songwriter, and the name of the lead singer, which helped me finally sort out once and for all who sounds like what. All of that for $13.99 – now that’s value.
The story of the Beach Boys is the story of the pursuit of paradise. The Beach Boy’s immaculate blending of angelic voices provide the auditory and symbolic thrill of an earthly paradise. The darker Brian Wilson songs don’t touch this same nerve. The public has largely ignored them as aberrant. The Beach Boy’s amazing success with compilations and live shows over the years emphasizes this point: the public would rather not have to do the filtering.
Historically, the New World was sold as an earthly paradise from the outset. America was a land where “God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state” (Roger Williams, 1644). America was a land of vast natural resources and uncountable acres of land free for the homesteading.
Prior to that, America was the home of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Instead of Eternal Youth, Ponce de Leon found Florida, land of the Eternal Old, but that’s another story. The hope of eternal youth persisted, just below the surface, until the frontiers of America had been exhausted: no magic fountain, not even boundless land. Even if America didn’t hold the secret to eternal life, it didn’t seem unreasonable that America could still yield paradise.
American history is littered with tales of failed Utopian societies. There has been one great success: Mormon Utah. The Shakers and the Harmony Society awaited the millennium communally. The denizens of Fruitland, in 19th century New England collected thousands of books on metaphysics, but neglected to figure out agriculture and went down the horticultural toilet in a few years.
“Brook Farm” was created with the notion that the individual, not God or nature, had the power to create a better world through spiritual and mental development. “Modern Times” was an experiment in communal anarchy.
America has seen the dark side of Utopian idealism as well: autocratic rule doomed Oneida as it has all personality cults from Jonestown to Jeffrey Lundgren’s.
Americans as a whole have generally dismissed these efforts as impractical, but most Americans secretly harbor the notion that America itself is one large Utopian society. We suffer in the face of a reality that fails to meet our ideals. This utopian ideal is the reason that we have made America the “land of opportunity” – the land where failure is never viewed as permanent.
In America, bankruptcy is no particular shame, many entrepreneurs boast of it as a great turning point in their lives – the only failure is giving up. The whole structure is set up so that one doesn’t give up. (This is the insidious danger of a permanent underclass. The career welfare recipients have given up, thereby short-circuiting the entire system. America has created a society where everyone desires the same material ends; but a significant portion of that society (the permanent underclass) doesn’t have access to the ends through societally approved methods. This has led to an epidemic of acquisitional methods not approved of by society at large, like crime.)
In the introduction to his great rock ‘n’ roll book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus addressed America’s promise: “To be American is to feel the promise as a birth right, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal, of a mass of shadowy, shared hopes.”
Bruce Springsteen addresses this promise in the aptly titled “The Promised Land,” from Darkness of the Edge of Town:
“…Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing
But lost and broken hearted”
The Promise is what we make of it. The Promise is not a guarantee, it is the structure of opportunity. To survive its rigors is tantamount to surviving a storm. Don’t be deceived by false promises, promises of material wealth are not the point. The point is the struggle itself. America offers an environment where the impediments to an honest struggle have been minimized.
The Promise of America is a beautifully manicured, well-lit field on which to play ball, and the umpires to make sure that the contest is run by the rules. We must pick our own team and choose our own opponents. The Promise is not one of victory.
“Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man,
And I believe in a promised land.”
With this song and this album, Springsteen graduated from the perpetual summer of Born to Run to the autumn of adulthood. Springsteen had the will power and the artistry to make this transition. It was much-resisted. Darkness sold poorly compared to Born to Run but Springsteen persisted – yet another story.
It is exactly this transition from boy to man, from notions of Paradise to the realities of the Promise, which the public did not allow Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to make. Brian’s frustration at the blockage of his public maturation exacerbated personal instabilities and amplified his drug abuse. Wilson’s subsequent emotional breakdown incapacitated him for much of 20 years.
The Beach Boys’ success at promoting the themes of an American paradise and perpetual youth precluded them from growing up, lest America be forced to do so as well. For Brian, youth and paradise were primarily themes to focus his song writing upon. Dennis Wilson was fixated not with paradise, but with water, and it was water that eventually killed him.
Only Mike Love (the “oldest” Beach Boy in appearance though not age) – bald at 25 – understood the nature of the Beach Boys appeal. His boyish personality and goofy onstage demeanor define the appeal of the Beach Boys for many people. The Beach Boys made a triumphant return to the stage (and through compilation albums) in the ’70s with Mike Love out front, not fat freaked-out Brian Wilson.
Now to he songs: “Surfin Safari” was the Beach Boys first national hit, released in the fall of 1962. Mike Love was the tour guide with a broken-nosed twang that millions of flatlanders interpreted as a “California accent.” Mike Love was the spokesman for the Southern California paradise from the get-go.
The very first verse evokes California as a paradise, the kind of place where guys get up early in the morning and are so happy they sing. Beautiful girls accompany them to their “job,” which is surfing. They love this job so much that they do it for free – it is untainted by the stench of commerce (kind of like blogging). Also, in the Beach Boys’ version, the occupation is open to everyone, “Let’s go surfin’ now, everyone is learning how, come on a safari with me.” This does not correspond well to reality.
The social structure of surfing is built upon the concept that not everyone can do it. It is difficult. It is physically demanding. It requires more time than golf to master. It requires great patience. It requires the ability to swim very well and it requires an ocean. If these impediments weren’t enough to prevent “everyone” from surfing, then the open hostility of the “locals” to invading flatlanders, would be. The turf wars of surfers have been as intense, if not as deadly, as those of street gangs.
Even on the Boys’ first hit, symbolism and metaphor superceded reality. Surfing wasn’t a reality for the vast majority, it was a symbol of a magical ever-youthful place. Surfing brought good health through exercise and sea air. It brought popularity through its mastery. It brought success with the opposite sex, who were driven to hormonal overdrive by the sea air, surfing prowess, and lots of skin.
These were things that anyone would wish for, and anyone could partake of these delights through the music of the Beach Boys and through the attitudes and dress of the beach. No real surfers would have spread the gospel with the evangelical zeal of the Beach Boys. No real surfer would want the competition for precious wave space.
The rest of “Surfin Safari” is a travelogue of choice surf locations and techniques: “They’re anglin’ in Laguna,” “They’re kicking out in Doheney too.” These were codes to learn and use.
“What are the choice surf spots as delineated in Surfin Safari, Poindexter?”
“Gee, I don’t know Miss Crabfish.”
“Just as I suspected, you haven’t done your homework.”
“Don’t Worry Baby” (1964) is where Brian established himself as a production, as well as songwriting genius. He out-walls Phil Spector without the bombast, just plush layers of shag carpet vocal, chugging guitar and drums. Some say that this is where Brian began to let the dark side show, but the essence of the song isn’t the foolhardy braggadocio that gets the singer’s character in trouble, it’s the encompassing and omnicient love with which girlfriend comforts him.
When the girl tells him, “When you race today just take along my love with you,” she means her love is something palpable that will protect him like a great pink airbag. This fits into the Beach Boys paradise theme: in paradise, love protects you from harm.
“Help Me Rhonda” (1965) is another plaintive song, but the music is so cheerful that the singer knows with certainty that Rhonda will indeed lend a hand, and probably a gland. The singer is cheerful because he believes he knows the answer before he asks the question, a question that confirms what is already known through eye contact, body language and “vibrations,” in this case “good.”
We love to ask questions to which we already know the answers, and ask favors we know will be granted: these confirm our perception of ourselves as perceptive individuals.
“California Girls” (1965) is another production and melodic master work, with great good humor and a dose of ribaldry that even David Lee Roth could appreciate. Now the worldly sophisticates, the Boys detail the amenities of girls from the far corners of the USA. None compare to California girls.
Brian Wilson was insightful in his recognition of the power of environment to transform people. For example: many new arrivals to Southern California immediately a) get a tan b) lighten their hair c) lose weight. The first two are functions of the beach and the weather, the 3rd a function of the “California lifestyle,” which basically says that if you are going to go to the beach and engage in the year-round outdoor activities, you better not look like a big fat toad or you are not going to fit in, babe (unless you don’t care – in which case, why move to Southern California in the first place? – it’s expensive and crowded, so stay home).
Sure, the “East Coast girls are hip” and the southern girls have a beguiling way of speaking. Certainly, the midwest girls have learned a few things watching the farm animals, and the northern girls, having nothing better to do and having extra padding, know how to keep a guy warm. But if you could move them all to Southern California you’d see a transformation! Darker, lighter and lighter is the way it ought to be, the way it’s got to be! The Beach Boys don’t travel to the babes, the babes come to them. (David Lee Roth found this image hilarious: we’ll transform this nation! In his version of the song, the vocals rise to a crecendo of hometown boosterism and visions of endless miles of streamlined, color-coordinated nymphettes, forever young, forever nubile.)
Don’t take the Boys wrong, though. They know that it’s all a joke. You can hear them smiling as they sing. It’s a nice fantasy though, like a Budlight commercial.
By 1966, Brian figured he’d join the psychedelic generation where he could disguise his adult expressions in the jargon of peace, love, understanding, flowers and “Good Vibrations.” The story of the six months in the studio (studios – they recorded in four) and the fanatical perfectionism with which Brian attacked his “3 Minute Symphony” is well known. What isn’t often discussed is the why.
Early in his career, Brian used the surf-youth culture as his theme upon which to make music that would be popularly successful and pleasing to himself. He felt restricted in the latter in order to maintain the former. The growing gap was driving him, quite literally, insane. To top it all off, the Beatles, his only real peers, had just released the baroquely ornate and rapturously received Sgt. Pepper album.
“I can top that. I can put together an even better album that will confirm once and for all that I am not only their equal, I am their superior. I have this handicap. I must remain a child. That’s all they will accept from me, even my own brothers and cousin want children’s stories. I’ll show them. I can get hip to this psychedelic lingo. I’ve taken acid, too. My Mother used to always talk about vibrations – how dogs and animals could pick up on fear and stuff. Why not people too?”
Mike was into it. He was a psychedelic guy himself, always ready for something new. Anything to stay young and take his mind off of his hair, or vice versa.
The song took all Brian had. By the time he finished “Good Vibrations” he was drained emotionally, physically, mentally and artistically. The proposed album, Smile, fell apart. Brian destroyed the master tapes. “Good Vibrations” was great, but was it worth it? Probably not. It would have been preferable to have a sane Brian Wilson for the next 20 years.
That was basically it for Brian for almost 20 years as a functioning human being, although musically he had a brief, beautiful return to form with “Do It Again” and “I Can Hear Music” in ’69, the latter exquisitely sung by Carl Wilson.
The 70s were fallow. The Beach Boys Love You was a sweet, painfully childish album. It bore no hits. It was as though Brian had rebelled against the pressure to make adolescent music by making blatantly childish music. And this was the highlight of the ’70s.
The ’80s were better – the Regans had them to the Whitehouse. “Getcha Back” was catchy and broke the Top 30 in 1985. Things really picked up with “Kokomo” and Brian Wilson’s first solo album, both in 1988. “Kokomo” was the Beach Boys first #1 single since “Good Vibrations.”
“Kokomo” revived the idea that paradise is a place that can be reached here on earth. Brian Wilson had lost his ability to write toward that paradise – he had lost his willingness to explore a myth in which he no longer believed.
“Kokomo” was written by the unlikely tetrad of Mike Love, Terry Melcher, John Phillips and Scott Mackenzie with a Beach Boys-Turtles-Mamas and the Papas-”San Francisco, put some flowers in your hair” type of sound. This hodgepodge, written for a numbskull movie, sounded more like the Beach Boys than the Brian Wilson album did.
First, it has Mike Love on lead vocals; second, it has Carl Wilson coming in with his falsetto “Ooh I wanna take you down to Kokomo, we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow, that’s where we wanna go, way down in Kokomo.” Third, it has a nonsensical but great sounding chorus, “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, I wanna take you, to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty momma,” which is chronically adolescent, just like the Beach Boys. The thrill is there. Brian of ’88 can’t fight the Beach Boys of ’64 and win.
There is also conceptual brilliance at work in “Kokomo” – it completes the Caribbean exploration that was begun with “Sloop John B.” The Caribbean connection does many things: it allows the Beach Boys to extend the idea of paradise from Southern California to the Caribbean, a repository of many of the same pleasures as Southern California and a place to pick up new and enticing rhythms.
The Caribbean is another vision of Paradise – in some preferable to over-crowded, busy, expensive, Californa. “Kokomo” updated the Beach Boys appeal to a more exotic locale with sympathic vibrations.
It has been very nice to see the revival of Brian Wilson, ironic that he alone remains alive of three very talented brothers, brothers whose pursuit of musical Paradise will remain one of the 20th century’s greatest musical legacies.
And I agree with Bill Sherman’s comment on the original post of this review that I underestimated the quality of the Beach Boys’ ’70s work, although my alibi is the focus on the hits as they appear in the collection.
Bill’s own review of Wilson’s recent Gettin’ In Over My Head is here..
I look forward to finally hearing Smile, although nothing about my conception of Wilson’s pop genius depends upon it.
A remarkable mini-film about the making of Smile – with music, interviews with Brian, Van Dyke Parks, fans who saw the live performance earlier this year and candid video from the studio – is now available here (Windows Media) (QuickTime)