"A traveling circus bear" was the impression of how an indoctrinated and mentally ill Brian Wilson dealt with the stage thrust upon him during the miserable dark ages of the Beach Boys. He was brought out on tour with them certainly not as a performer, and then less as a symbol of strength and persistence than as a brand name.
Brian's compositions for his band are ground zero for rock & roll and all of its virtues... the disposable, teasing irrelevance, the intangible subversion, and ultimately the timelessness of unkempt, often inarticulate emotion. They were rock & roll, and a consequence of this as their very nature was their incapability to hide their weaknesses and play up their strengths. Everything about them was honest, and that led both to some of the most embarrassing music released by any major band... and a series of nuggets almost undeniably the most transcendent in pop music history.
What marked them was enthusiasm. Brian Wilson was a joyful tyrant in the studio, capturing each and every sound he wanted with a dedication and a spirit of experimentation. He was a live wire, and such was his devotion to his studio craft that nothing seemed to stand in his way. He was crafting symphonies that graced the lives of everyone, "I Get Around" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and the wondrous "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)", and then he was packing his wisdom into ornate, graceful materials heard by almost no one -- "In the Parkin' Lot" or perhaps "Salt Lake City." It was the sound of a man.... not an artist, a man... who loved what he was doing, whose every impulse was satisfied by his capabilities in that building, maybe even more than by the final result. The ends had been the subject of Phil Spector's adoration regardless of the means. Wilson was different; he savored the creation.
He was at one with his genre of music because its innocence was spoiled simultaneously with his. A HARD DAY'S NIGHT had aroused suspicion, RUBBER SOUL had left little doubt, and now the decision was made that pop music was becoming Art. More than the drugs, more than the abuse, more than the neglect, what destroyed Brian Wilson's career was what knocked Alfred Hitchcock's off course at very nearly the exact same time: idolatry, or rather the responsibility that comes with idolatry.
An art form is at its peak when those who surround it fail to recognize it as art. Art is a fictitious concept to begin with, one with boundaries, one that discourages the drive and discovery needed to invent. As soon as Brian was one of the Beautiful People, as soon as he became embroiled in the expectations of his own status, his world began to crumble.
It's a struggle confronted by most of our idols, and the only ones who succeed are the ones who are either arrogant or wise enough to ignore it. For as soon as the public is Aware, the creative process becomes Dramatized, and Drama demands Action. No longer is the creation allowed to be at the forefront; the World is obsessed with the Ends, and the Ends are what must be controlled.
Brian Wilson reacted to the situation differently than anyone else, by taking on the pressure directly and turning it into music, PET SOUNDS, more specifically turning it into one of the angriest, most brutal pop records ever released, the unforgettable "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." At this moment, the sleighbells and bass harmonicas mean nothing; what matters is Wilson's poignant cry for sanity, for a return to order, for everything to become clear again, for the American dream to return. The Good Life had the last word, and it turned the period of optimism and infinity around into decades of loss, worse yet of wondering.
It could be argued that PET SOUNDS itself is a surrender, if only to the middle of the road. The man whose band's lyrics had consciously been striving for simplicity and naive humor from the beginning was now collaborating with a man known for his work in advertising. However, it could be much more convincingly argued that the questionable origin of the work is what enhances the universal nature of its power -- that old pop art ideal about the magnificence existing everywhere, enhanced by easy-listening sheen and subdued vocals. Melodrama was a direct line of evolution from the Beach Boys' classic material -- it had long been the defining feature of girl groups from the Shangri-Las to the Marvelettes -- but Wilson's feat was in avoiding schlock. The sound of his record was a function of his desires for it, not an attempt to move for the commercial, as if they needed to do that anyway.
But the record was only a modest success; despite widespread acclaim in Britain, it inspired no real excitement at all in the United States. The burning question -- what now? -- sank Wilson into despair. Capitol had poured all of their energy into promoting PET SOUNDS as something different, as an artistic landmark. The overwhelming confessional traits of the album had painted its creator into a claustrophobic corner. There was no way that he could go home again.
He set to work on SMILE announcing it as the Event of his career, sliding out "Good Vibrations" and with it gathering the Beach Boys' biggest hit to date. Wilson was turning into a mad scientist in the studio, working with a genuine Artiste on his lyrics and recording the music in fragments, sacrificing spontanaiety and truth for a "teenage symphony to God." The tapes that survive range from impressive seconds of sincere inspiration to, much more often, ambitious and ultimately monotonous noodling... hours and hours of it.
If, as it's been said, Wilson was attempting to bring "Mark Twain into rock & roll," what was the point? Ever since the music began to incite resentment its performers have thrown themselves into a tendency for the great Crisis of Conscience, the sudden feeling that to make rock & roll is Not Enough, worse yet, Not Fulfilling. Wilson was surrounding himself with elitist peers by this point, which no one could deny having an effect on SMILE, but it's just as hard to debate the point that if Wilson had any true convictions about what made his music worthwhile, he would never have traveled down this avenue.
There is also the matter of drugs. If ego and "art" are half of what kills creativity, we must narrow ourselves enough to see drugs as the other half. "Drugs" are reputed to be what drove John Lennon and Paul McCartney into creative overdrive. In that case, why do we worship Lennon and McCartney and not the acid they dropped? A good way to prove that drugs are no good whatsoever for even the brightest minds among us is to compare the Beatles' "Things We Said Today" (1964) to their "Hello Goodbye" (1967). For that matter, compare the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" (1964) to their then-unreleased "Do You Like Worms" (1967).
The entire idea of an art form as vital as rock music is that it does not require genius to perform it, that the genius is merely a complement to the craft, and obviously that the form reinvents in its own context the skills of its creators. A person terrible at every attempted creative endeavor in a lifetime could produce excellent pop music. By its very nature, it is not a high-minded form, and that is the way it should stay. We've already got classical music.
Wilson and the Beatles were hardly the worst offenders in the revised manner of thinking, but it remains disheartening that they would throw themselves into the mob with so little hesitation. The visionaries were becoming followers.
If the abortion of SMILE is the fault of the Beach Boys, which I have come to doubt, it is unfair to applaud them for taking away Brian's indulgence. To begin with, he had every right for an indulgence, and much more importantly, they most assuredly did not resent the material for the right reasons. Wilson was always a brilliant songwriter and producer, and buried within these miles of material was some elegance. Abandoning the album in favor of a condensed and rerecorded version, SMILEY SMILE, may have been the most courageous move of his career.
In a way, however, it was also the end of it, and this time, his own ego and paranoia and the harsh criticism of his bandmates were not to blame. The industry had changed for the same reasons the Beach Boys had changed, but far more radically, and the former biggest-band-in-America could no longer keep up. Rock was becoming something uncomfortably overblown, and it was more monstrously popular than ever. When the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER was released, it was a signal that something was over. The ideal of music's potential as populist art, as unforgiving expression of class struggle, was gone. The Beach Boys cancelled a headlining apperanace at Monterey, and probably for the best; they would probably have been pulled from the stage.
Brian and the Boys sank into their studio operating as something of a minor cult band, churning out three acclaimed but ignored albums before the end of the '60s. Wilson was no longer acting as producer but he was still contributing songs; as it became increasingly obvious that his role as bandleader was over, he withdrew from the public eye, his status as cult figure rather than cultural hero forever sealed.
The band stuck to their guns about their radically uncommercial material from SMILEY SMILE to 20/20 for a surprisingly long time -- almost four years -- but they had to eat and eventually a change came in the form of a move to Warner Bros. Records and a new manager, Jack Rieley, bent on changing the Boys' image and, of course, releasing SMILE.
In reality, the move away from left field on SUNFLOWER did not result in a successful record, and Rieley did little except give the band better album covers and clutter up their lyric sheets with pretentious nonsense ("white hot glistening shadowy flows"), attempting to pander to Socially Conscious audiences with boneheaded commentary in a series of idiotic tunes about everything from welfare and persecution to the environment and student demonstrations. Rieley was actually a spy for the Nixon administration sent to investigate the activities of subversive rock bands, and all he really managed to do was sap whatever integrity remained in the Beach Boys' image. Brian Wilson was now only periphially involved; depressed, overweight and drugged, he was spending extended amounts of time in bed, his mind seemingly a glimmer of what it used to be.
The band trudged along through lineup changes for two years. Bruce Johnston, member since 1965, left, replaced by two South African musicians named Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin, whose gifts brought newfound focus to the band's music. Their patience for Rieley, however, did not last, and the entire band suffered through the arduous recording of an album in Holland which left everyone drained -- and Warners, faced with the bill, furious.
Then came ENDLESS SUMMER. Arguably the second turning point in the Beach Boys' career after the anticlimactic death of SMILE, 1974 saw this Capitol greatest-hits turning into a surprise blockbuster, a brillaintly-sequenced #1 album that incited a resurgence in popularity for a band that had been on a commercial downswing for eight years. For the band and their record label, it was a godsend. Without it, they might never have recorded another album.
Brian was placed in the care of a suspicious "celebrity" doctor named Eugene Landy all in the interest of a PR move -- having him return to the production helm for the Beach Boys' twenieth album, aimed for a 1976 release. The stumbling through oldies and attempts at recapturing long-gone energy that followed resulted in 15 BIG ONES, nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia but a highly profitable one, their biggest studio LP since BEACH BOYS' PARTY! in 1965.
The album's release emerged amid an obnoxious multimedia campaign revolving around the theme of Wilson's return to full-time work with the band. Mike Love wrote the jingle, "Brian's Back" -- "They say that Brian is back / Well, I've known him for oh so long / They say Brian is back / Well, I never knew that he was gone." Wilson was a commercial symbol at this point, a figurehead... and far from a mentally stable one, but to be fair it was not entirely his fault. He was being treated as if he was someone's pet dog.
And his reward was the opportunity to make a new album the way he wished to do it. Proving that his facilities were still not only capable but willing to produce outstanding work, 1977's LOVE YOU is a haunting, moving, and ultimately uplifting display of the individuality of a man and his dissatisfaction with his own survival. He is still desperate to live -- "God, please let us go on this way" -- but something holds him back. The songs are funny and deceptively simple, but in fact, musically and lyrically, clearly stand as his most sophisticated and subtle work. More even than PET SOUNDS, this is one of the most personal statements ever put on vinyl... a call to arms for the underdog and the loser, a cycle about universal angst, Brian's real "teenage symphony to God"... and like PET SOUNDS, it failed to sell up to expectations.
Wilson's hope seems to have been lost when control was stripped away from him yet again. 1979's L.A. (LIGHT ALBUM) and 1980's KEEPIN' THE SUMMER ALIVE have the least involvement on his part of anything they had released up to that point. The aggressive genius had become the picture of passive regret, a lost man wandering aimlessly, the spirit gone from his eyes. It may be a valid point that to return him to the crooked Landy saved his life. The question is how much of a life remained by then anyway.
Wilson's mental illness is debatable, but the dire state of his psychological mindset really isn't. Judging strictly on the grounds to which I have the right, I doubt that anyone with the capability to create 15 BIG ONES and LOVE YOU was insane, maybe because of how universal and worldly his work remained, but the fact is that the man needed some form of help.
Landy spent the '80s guiding Wilson everywhere, and soon enough medical treatment turned into obsessive-compulsive behavior as the watchdog became sinister, attempting to become Wilson's family and beneficiary, shoving him into bizarre projects like a ghostwritten biography and a Frankenstein-like solo album, even at one point announcing a movie based on their friendship. Landy was an egotist, a nutcase, and as interviews with him clearly show, a very dangerous man.
Wilson's songwriting had dried up, his contributions to the 1985 eponymous Beach Boys album upstaged by brother Carl's and ranging from bad to unlistenable. The bad press, the ugly rumors all rolled on.
The end did not come in 1990, with Wilson's unofficial but permanent departure from the Beach Boys and his escape from the clutches of Landy. He married in 1995, but Melinda Wilson has merely made the exploitation a less explicit cause of her own. The man terrified to step out on stage since even before his biggest problems began was sent out on tour in 1999. He has released three solo albums in the last nine years.
On stage, Wilson at times displays good humor and a glimmer of the leadership it required to create his classic records. Just seeing him sing again is enough to induce vast emotion... but it's hard not to ask if the stage is where he truly wants to be. It is good for him to be surrounded by people -- his new band and his fans -- who tell him that he is a genius, that we love what he has done for us, but in a way the rogues gallery that gathers around him, from Melinda to Jeff Foskett to David Leaf, is as frightening in its piece-of-the-pie mentality as Eugene Landy's Big Brother-like surveillance and supposed collaboration.
In the studio, Wilson continues to spark occasionally, but his creativity is consistently hampered by third-party attempts to soften the blow of his aging. I don't know if Wilson is still capable of creating unforgettable pop music, nor to be honest do I think it really matters. He admits to being afflicted with longterm writers block, and it shows; he has released one truly notable song since 1988. So does he want to be as prolific as he has become? Whether he does or not should be his decision, but I'm not sure if it really is. I'm certain that what he has created in the last few years would improve without the cookie-cutter treatment it has endured, the MOR whitewash that has tainted it and robbed Wilson's work of its unique grandeur.
The same criticism applies to an admittedly remarkable documentary released in the U.S. in 2002, BRIAN WILSON ON TOUR. The DVD follows him on his history-making 1999 tour, capturing him for ninety minutes straight in rare form, full of optimism and strength. It's enough to make you believe all over again... yet I would trust it so much more if the careful editing did not all seem so positive, so sunny, so perfect. A moment of doubt or any kind of anomaly would rob me of my suspicion that Brian's "thrill" to be on the road is a great lie, because that honesty would be affordable if he is really enjoying himself.
Does Brian love the adoration? Just like you would and I would, of course he does. But I don't think he loves what comes with it... the same thing that came in 1966, pressure. I don't think he needs to be straining for inspiration; he can roll with it when it comes, because with the achievements of his life it is a right he has earned.
And perhaps no pressure he has encountered was as massive as that which greeted him upon being swept into the revisitation of SMILE in 2004. From the beginning fans cast doubts on how comfortable the man could possibly be spending time with material that had left him so disillusioned. The disappointment -- inevitable for something in the can for almost four decades -- for most is an obvious conclusion, but thus far they have kept quiet, perhaps for fear of offending the Survivor. Reviews of the initial shows in Britian exploded with outrageous hyperbole. Coming this fall, another insult, a new studio recording of SMILE with Brian and the Wondermints, and bigger yet, a U.S. tour playing the unreleased record in its entirety.
I look at all the press articles and the related indicia and the hype and the reactions and the passionate opinions and the train that rolls onward and onward, and I have to ask myself if the traveling circus bear is wondering when it is all going to end.
[October 2004 Addendum:] SMILE was released in September 2004, greeted with universal acclaim and some of the biggest fanfare for any release in the last quarter-century. For many, it seems to have lived up to the hype and much more. For his part, Brian Wilson appears relieved. The refreshingly blunt documentary BEAUTIFUL DREAMER reveals a man with a burden lifted, a man who has reached a kind of salvation that didn't come easy but was worth it. As a fan who has never been moved by most of the SMILE recordings or songs, not to mention one who considers Brian's current horrible band the whitewashed vanilla Beach Boys, I am greatly moved at the reception of the release and feel gratified that a hero's sad story has met with what seems like a happy ending. Brian Wilson will always be one of America's greatest entertainers and artists, and it's appropriate that he should reach the height of his recognition so late in life, perhaps when he needs it the most. At the moment, the questionmark in the title of this essay seems wholly unjustified.
Music Reviews: The Beach Boys complete discography