Tales Of An Alternative History
by Jason C Carnevale
"One hell of an anniversary!" exclaimed P-S’s overworked editor when I first submitted to him the idea and direction of this piece. I told him that this article, or tribute, needed to be written, if for no other reason than to honor the man of whom millions find themelves in constant, visceral admiration. To countless musicians, he is the quintessential "Mozart from the Suburbs". To millions more, he is the man who breathed life into the great "California myth", which on this cold New York December night could use a little retelling…
Like a sudden tidal wave, Brian Wilson rose out of the calm, orderly rows of American 1950’s suburbia, captivated the world for one incredible decade, and left everyone struggling in his wake to figure out just what had happened. And every time you thought you could pidgeonhole him into one style of music…he changed his act completely and challenged us all to catch up. He achieved great peaks, hit the deepest bottom, and then recovered to bounce back.
Picture this: Hawthorne, California, circ. 1961 or so. Kennedy’s in the White House, GI Joe has teenage kids, and all of America is in love with the good life. And here comes these boys; for that is all they were, really. Just a bunch of good-natured, clean-cut kids with surfboards and the most expansive grins the country had ever seen.
How could they not be happy, a simple garage band that had made it into the big-time singing about the warm, carefree LA life that the rest of us could only idolize.
Of course, over the years the themes of their songs changed. Surfing gave way to cars, cars to trepidation about the future, fear of the future to wistful longing for the past. And all this within four years time. Only the Beatles underwent a transformation so dynamic, and in the end even they could barely keep up. As Paul McCartney described in a 1983 interview, "I heard in recent years Brian Wilson saying that he and the Beach Boys were always in a race to catch us. This was high flattery to me! I always quite thought it was the other way around. John especially thought so."
Despite Paul’s assertions, many of us in America did not see it that way, especially in the Fall of 1966. Those of you latter day Wilsonites need to forget the hindsight of 25 years and put yourselves into this timeframe to really understand the situation. Two years earlier, the Beatles had landed in the United States with the suddenness of a California earthquake. During the summer and fall of 1964, and for the better part of 1965, the group completely dominated the top of the charts, captured the hearts of screaming pubescent girls worldwide, and knocked all would-be competitors off the map.
Except the Beach Boys. After all, this was their backyard, and before the British Invasion, their own personal fiefdom in which to define youth culture. Even so, the group was woefully unprepared when the first sounds of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" hit our shores. For the next year, Brian Wilson struggled mightily to compete. He assembled the finest studio orchestra ever put together in one room. He used these to craft some of the most sublime pop songs ever recorded, and in doing so, expressing all that the Beatles (being from cold, gloomy England) could never hope to articulate.
But while some of the group’s more valiant efforts such as "I Get Around" or "California Girls" were rewarded with number one positions in the charts, Wilson knew this was not enough. "I wanted to create a sound that was like what we had done before," he explained in a 1977 interview, "but different, more spiritual, like if you could put a whole bellyful of love, directly into the song."
II – SURFERS RULE
1966 seemed the ideal time to showcase such a new twist on the old sound, and the Beach Boys’ release that year certainly was emblematic. But, since more articles have been written on Pet Sounds, even in the last five years, than there are pages in this magazine, it does not need to be mentioned here. Suffice to say, at the time it inspired the Beatles to push themselves further musically, and now, it continues to inspire groups as varied as the Ramones and Fleetwood Mac, not to mention hundreds of others.
And yet Pet Sounds flopped in the first months of its original release. Even in retrospect, Capitol regretted the false start of the album’s marketing campaign. Too intent were they on promoting the group’s clean-cut surf-boy image that they could not understand how Wilson might want to forge into a new direction. This fact becomes even more unfathomable when one considers how in 1965 the Beatles were doing more or less the same thing in their transition from Rubber Soul to Revolver, and obviously from Revolver to Sergeant Pepper. Even Brian Wilson lost heart for a moment, "I was sitting around, in between working on Good Vibrations throughout the Fall of 1966. And I was just getting down, you know, about how Pet Sounds had done."
According to Brian, this was his first serious album, his baby, the one in which he had invested his emotions and much of himself. "I remember that November it was always in the back of my mind, even while I was working on Smile, actually it was called "Dumb Angel" back then. I just kept going back on that whole trip, you know? It was just gettin’ harder and harder to focus on what I was doing, because there was always this little fear in the back of my mind, like, what if the next album flops too?"
Somehow, the group convinced Wilson, who had suffered a nervous breakdown on tour only a year earlier, to join them in England for a few brief concert dates. Landing at Heathrow and seeing an army of screaming British fans was a turning point. "That airline door opens, and out comes Mike, then Dennis, Al, Carl, and finally Brian." Described Bruce Johnston with a grin, "we walked a few steps down the ladder, and Brian just stood there at the top, taking it all in. It was beautiful, and I had, no I HAVE never seen him look as happy as he did at that moment."
The scene of the Beatles arrival in America which the Wilson brothers had watched two years earlier on the family television had happened again. Except this time, it was them making an arrival, in the Beatle homeland, where Pet Sounds was already being hailed as a pop masterpiece. Brian stayed for one week and three sold out concerts before catching a plane back to Los Angeles. He had already spent too much time away from the studio, and he was anxious to get back."Going to England was a great experience," he remarked in 1980, "I never imagined how popular we were over there, and I began to realize that no matter what happened, we would always have fans who would cheer us on and make us number one somewhere."
Brian returned to the Smile sessions with the determination to create the finest album anyone had ever recorded anywhere, no matter what we Americans thought of it. Almost in vindication of this new-found confidence, the first single, "Good Vibrations" reached number one in December of 1966. By the end of the year, the New Musical Express proclaimed the Beach Boys as the #1 group in the world, having "beaten" the moptops from Liverpool. After all, Lennon, McCartney & Co. had just come off a disastrous world tour, nearly been imprisoned in the Philippines for snubbing Imelda Marcos, and were desperately trying to quash rumors that the band was breaking up.
But even Wilson knew that these were just petty rumors, and that it was best not to let himself become complacent. During his brief British vacation, he had immersed himself into the London music scene and after seeing up-and-coming artists like Jimi Hendrix and the Cream, knew instinctively that a change in music was coming. He also knew that the Beatles had a huge project in the works, set for release sometime in the spring of 1967. Above all, however, he knew that what he was working on was better, provided he could complete it in time."Brian came back from England like a man possessed," described Smile lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks, "he got off the plane, had the whole crew pose for a picture right there in the terminal at LAX, and then said, ‘this is it. We’ve got to finish this f***king thing or the band’s finished.’"
For the next three months, Wilson never left the studio, recording hundreds of miles of tape, and editing nearly 2/3 of it. When the boys returned, Brian proudly took them into the studio to hear what he had made. Reportedly, Dennis loved it, Bruce and Carl were supportive, but neutral, Al and Mike hated it. A major fight ensued, of which even today the details remain unclear. While all sides remain somewhat tight-lipped about what transpired, many rock historians see it as the point in which the band began moving towards an inevitable breakup.
"Brian was sobbing afterwards," recalls friend David Anderle, "apparently, he and Mike Love had come to blows because Mike was putting ice on this huge black eye, and Brian’s nose was swelling up and bloody, just looking awful. From what I was able to get out of him, I guess the other guys didn’t want to provide the vocals, Brian threatened to leave the band and go solo with Smile, and things escalated from there." Anderle laughed, "despite all the drama, he got his way. Smile was released, as we all know, as a Beach Boys album."
The world’s first hint of the impending pop revolution was the release of "Heroes and Villains" as a single on March 14, 1967. With it’s 5:44 running time, it broke the old 3:30 barrier, and hit number one within three days of its release. Capitol’s advance promotion of "SMiLE" kicked into high gear, causing a jump in sales for "Pet Sounds" and a boost for that album into the Top Ten. If Brian Wilson had never written another melody at this point, his place in music history would have been secured. Not to fear, however, because the Beach Boys revealed SMiLE to the world on April 1, 1967, the humor theme of the album designed to coincide with its April Fool’s Day release.
I am listening to my old vinyl copy of this album while writing this article, and hoping that we will actually see a compact disc version sometime next year, provided Marilyn Wilson approves it. I am simply at a loss for words to describe the nation’s reaction to the album in 1967. Not everyone liked it, of course, but for those of us in the ‘60’s who were waiting for something new in the music scene, who had been following rumors of people like Clapton, Hendrix, and Morrison, it was huge. SMiLE blew us away…
Even from the start, on the first few notes of "Prayer", listeners knew they were hearing something big, something majestic. "Heroes and Villains" followed, then halfway through the album we got "Good Vibrations". Side 2 was even more revolutionary (no pun intended). What other albums have a track that is banned from being played on the radio for the next ten years because of ridiculous FCC fears that it will incite a riot? And then the closer, the shimmering "Surf’s Up" which was praised by none other than Leonard Bernstein, who even today regards the entire album as a symphony comparable to Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" or Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker".
The album spent three months in the number one position, remained in the top ten until Thanksgiving, and lingered in the top 40 well into 1969. It won countless musical awards including a Grammy for Best Pop Album 1967. The only album put out by a group in 1967 which even came close was Sergeant Pepper’s by the Beatles. And yet, there were some that preferred John Lennon’s psychedelia to Brian Wilson’s Americana.
"Really, man," maintained San Francisco music critic Ralph Gleason in 1970, "SMiLE is a nice album, but it’s really more pretentious than great; I mean, how much can you expect from a guy from the LA suburbs with barely a High School diploma? The Beatles, now they wrote a rock-and-roll symphony!"
Brian Wilson suffered his second nervous breakdown in the summer of 1967. Perhaps it was just a release of all the tension built up by the creation of his masterpiece, or merely a frustration at Capitol’s pressure to go back into the studio and "top SMiLE". Either way, Wilson began to retreat from production, even going so far to allow the rest of the band to create the group’s next album, "Wild Honey." For the first time in five years, on a Beach Boys album was written, "Produced by the Beach Boys", rather than "Produced by Brian Wilson." Wild Honey (released Dec. 18, 1967) was a collection of rhythm and blues flavored songs, including a cover of Stevie Wonder’s "I was Made to Love Her" and a live version of "The Letter."
Reactions by the critics to Wild Honey was mixed. Some loved the album, praising its raw sound and, and the group’s ability to move into another direction. Others, expecting "SMiLE II" were wildly disappointed. Despite the band’s triumphant performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, many of the music world’s intelligentsia began to question whether the Beach Boys could survive the changing music scene without Brian Wilson exerting his creative command. Of course, even the Beatles had begun to slow down, their "Magical Mystery Tour" album only a moderate success, quite unlike Sergeant Pepper earlier that year.
III – HANG ON TO YOUR EGO
1968 will be remembered as the year of assassinations, riots, the Tet Offensive, and the battle between the two top bands in the world for the domination of popular music. Capitol Records realized that they had a really great thing going, and were determined to exploit the situation for every dollar the Tower could squeeze. Despite the creation of both Brother Records and Apple Records, Capitol/EMI attempted to put as much pressure on both groups to compete against each other. This would be accomplished by a sort of "Battle of the Bands" marketing campaign that would hopefully consist of simultaneous album releases, joint record store displays, and possible combative television appearances (sans Brian) by both bands. What this usually meant was that if one band began recording, there was pressure on the other to head for the studio and do the same. However, there was always more pressure on the Beatles.
"It began to get really f***ing crazy," John Lennon told P-S for this article, "see, Capitol knew that Brian was rather fragile emotionally, and while they wanted to squeeze their ‘golden goose’ and make him lay eggs , they didn’t want to squeeze him too hard. What this meant for us is that if Brian suddenly said, ‘oh I’d like to go record a song,’ WE would get this call from George Martin, who would tell us something like, ‘OK lads, Wilson’s recording again! I’m afraid EMI wants you at Abbey Road on Monday morning…."
Both the Beach Boys and the Beatles released their hit singles of the summer, "Do It Again" and "Hey Jude", on the same day. "Do It Again", a nostalgia number before nostalgia became an 1980’s marketing craze, was Brian Wilson’s return to the studio. He spent the remainder of the summer there, recording melodies, fragments, and assorted jewels such as "Friends", "Diamondhead", and "Busy Doin’ Nothing." When Mike Love and Al Jardine returned from India after their indoctrination into Transcendental Meditation, the old Smile sessions fireworks began anew.
The fact of the matter was, the group hated what Brian had put together. "It sounded like Capitol’s pressure had made him start getting unfocused. It wasn’t quality work…there was potential, don’t get me wrong, but everything just sounded like it needed a lot of polish," remarked Jardine in 1974.
Prepared this time for Brian’s outbursts, Mike Love calmly told Wilson that if he continued producing work like that, he could very well go solo. The meeting broke up and the band did not speak to each other for weeks. Frantically, Capitol’s music executives tried to quash stories of the group’s infighting, but, through a number of sources that our editor still will not reveal to this day, this magazine was the first to break the story (see P-S vol. 1, number 6; "Surf’s Down?" 09/14/68).
As has occurred many time since, Carl Wilson became the mediator between his brother and his cousin. Why not produce a double album as the Beatles were doing, and put all of Brian Wilson’s songs on one side, and the rest of the Beach Boys’ contributions on the other? This proved to be a handy solution and so in conjunction with the Beatles’ "White Album," the Beach Boys released a two-disc assortment of rock –and-roll, waltzes, and acappella melodies. Because the album simply had a picture of an ocean and waves on the front, it became known at the time as the "Blue Album", or simply "Ocean Blue."
Which album people prefer today is simply a matter of preference. The Beatles sound more experimental, but at the cost of melody. On the other hand, The Beach Boys sound very melodic but for the most part remain fairly grounded in reality. For example, the group was at top form on "Do It Again" or "Breakaway", but also inserted antiquated acappella renditions of "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" and "Old Man River". And yet, the album’s brilliant closer, "Time to Get Alone " remains one of the most sublime listening experiences of the decade. In retrospect, however, perhaps the album was intended to be a calm benediction of sorts. During a year whose tragedy and violence seemed to have no end, it remained a commentary on how that which eventually proves timeless does not always lend itself to the passions of the moment.
IV – WE’RE TOGETHER AGAIN
Speaking of passions, the fragile truce of "Ocean Blue" was short-lived. While the Beatles finished "Abbey Road" in the spring and released it to high critical (and commercial) acclaim, Capitol desperately pressured the Beach Boys to put out something, anything, in 1969. Otherwise, what was to happen to the Tower’s grand marketing scheme? Unfortunately for those fans caught up in the phony "war" cooked up by the suits in the marketing department, the next Beach Boys release would have to wait. "I think by 1969 we were all moving in different directions," explained Carl in a recent interview, "Dennis was off doing his thing, Brian got very intrigued with the idea of producing bands that wouldn’t question his direction (laughs), and the rest of us…well, we just wanted to play the music."
Discord in the band caused what many rock historians have since labeled as the "trial separation before the divorce." Brian Wilson took advantage of the new Brother Records label the band had established to sign and produce an assortment of new acts. Some of these included Redwood (later Three Dog Night), James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and briefly, former Rolling Stones member Brian Jones before he was found dead in his swimming pool later that year. Reportedly, Wilson enjoyed the creative freedom over these brilliant new acts, mainly because they did not question some of the musical directions he was prone to take. Even today, after her string of self-produced albums in the 1970’s, Ms. Mitchell has repeatedly given credit to her first instructor in the studio.
On the other hand, the Beach Boys spent the better part of the year on tour, sans Dennis, who remained on a Malibu beach composing songs by himself. The group began a worldwide, 100 city tour that started in Europe, journeyed to the Far East, headed back to the United States, and then rolled down to South America and Australia in the Fall. Those that saw the group on the ’69 tour witnessed a band which had reached the height of its career. Already veteran performers, they could call on a repertoire which included everything from the surfing songs of earlier days to sections of Smile, as well as some of the more popular tunes from Ocean Blue.
Many close to the band began to believe that this arrangement would prove to become the band’s indefinite future, though no member had made an official announcement to that end. Brian was happy working without his cousin, and yet belonging to the band at the same time. Dennis had his own life which no one really inquired into, and the rest of the band seemed overly content to tour with the music until people stopped coming to the shows. By the end of the year, most of the music world, including my own beloved P-S magazine, were already proclaiming that the Beach Boys as such were no longer, and that the Beatles had taken their place by default as the pre-eminent group of the day. Even Mike Love was ready to concede that if the band were to regain its prestige, Brian Wilson needed to have complete control over the next album.
And then, that which had always motivated Brian Wilson, either on a Hawthorne football field or in a west Los Angeles studio, awoke inside the "Bellagio Beethoven" (as he was nicknamed by a rock critic in 1969). It all started in November of that year, when Paul McCartney announced to the British press that their upcoming release, "Let It Be", would be produced by none other than the great Phil Spector.
"Now, you’ve got to understand something, man." Exclaimed Dennis Wilson in 1982, during one of his last interviews. "Brian just worshipped that guy. And this was the one thing that Brian could always s*** his pants thinking about, that if his idol Phil Spector and his archrivals ever collaborated, it would just kill us." Dennis paused at that moment. "To be brutally honest, it almost killed him."
Feverishly, Brian threw himself into the studio, working at a pace and with an intensity not seen since the heady days of 1966. Many of us at the time thought that Wilson’s task was damned near impossible. Not only did he have to come out with something shimmering enough to beat the Beatles, but it also had to be technically innovative as well to beat Phil Spector. Even another Smile would not cut it this time. Critics from several publications around the globe were literally poised to jump all over the Beach Boys if they attempted to recreate the same sound of four years earlier. It was quite obvious that whoever was able to make the successful transition of "pop" to "rock" would be the group that ushered in the Seventies, just as they had dominated the Sixties.
Of course, the Beach Boys need not have worried. "Let It Be" was one of the greatest musical bombs of all time and today at best is considered a trite novelty and at worst perpetually elicits a "what were they thinking?" by even some of their most dedicated fans. The British music weekly New Musical Express wrote, "The Beatles are finished. Utterly finished. Under the reign of ‘Lord’ McCartney, they have subjected an all too willing public to mediocre pap for the past two years. Now, with Lennon’s innate creativity apparently muzzled (or merely twisted beyond all recognition) by his newfound Japanese bride, the group have completely dropped all pretense of individuality in a blatant attempt to copy Brian Wilson. And doing a piss-poor job at that!"
In recent years, even Paul McCartney has tried to distance himself from the album, saying that it was John Lennon who hired Phil Spector, and that the original Get Back sessions were far superior. Lennon of course maintains to this day that it was the other way around, that it was McCartney who was obsessed with beating Brian Wilson. It is still the one Beatles album that Capitol has not released on compact disc. And according to sources on Hollywood and Vine, there are no plans to do so in the future.
Now, with "Let It Be" having become "Dead On Arrival", Brian Wilson and his 1970 wrecking crew finished work on "Landlocked, and was now prepared to play it to the rest of the band before adding vocals. For the most part, even Mike and Al were impressed with the sound. The songs, such as "Old Man Sunshine", "Add Some Music", or "Slip On Through" were catchy, with a great beat, but without the more esoteric lyrics that had divided the group since 1966. The only song that met with disapproval was "Till I Die."
"I didn’t hate the song." responded Mike Love when asked that question directly, "I just thought that it was a poor choice to end the album with. I mean, here we had this mostly positive, good feeling collection of songs, and he wanted to end it with this negative, depressing dirge." Again, the objections of the rest of the group divided the band. Brian insisted that the song remain on the album as its closer. Mike was equally insistent that the last song be something different, "I Just Got My Pay" perhaps. Eventually, Brian appeared to cave in.
"He came into the studio for the final playback"recalls Anderle, "and played the album for the rest of the band. Just a magnificent, beautiful piece of music.. we all thought so at the time, and still do. Well, anyway, the album finishes with ‘I Just Got My Pay.’ Mike and Brian hug, everyone’s smiles and laughter, and the party goes on into the evening. The next morning, Brian brings the final tapes over to Capitol, and (laughs) guess what the new last song is?"
For those that bought the original album release, the last song "listed" on the album is "Looking At Tomorrow." However, if one allowed the needle to proceed after this last track, one would first hear silence for several seconds, and then the first chords of Brian Wilson’s first (and some would say last) great song of the 1970’s. This was a pleasant surprise for most, but reportedly sent Mike Love into a screaming rage the first time he heard it. More was to follow. "Landlocked " was released on August 22, 1970., The next day, Brian Wilson announced he was leaving the Beach Boys.
V – LET THE WIND BLOW
The atmosphere at the press conference was a combination of surrealism and absurdity. Brian Wilson announced softly that he was leaving the Beach Boys to pursue "other projects" and to "spend more time with my wife and children." How could he possibly leave when he had restored the band’s creative fortunes? When they were still at their peak, ready to influence another decade of music? These questions were asked by fans, columnists, music critics, and even other artists. But despite thousands of letters from the public urging Brian to reconsider, the world was forced to accept the fact that the Beach Boys, in their original form, would forever remain a phenomenon of the 1960’s. Even the Beatles would soon be gone, but not before delivering their truly excellent swan-song "beatles ‘71" (though, in my opinion, ‘Imagine’ still doesn’t quite measure up to ‘Till I Die’ as an album closer!).
Wilson remained a virtual recluse for the next five years, falling into deep depression. These days formed part of the great Brian Wilson myth, giving rise to the stories of the fallen Maestro spending three years in bed, arising only so long to score more drugs or partake in his penchant for massage parlors. The Press was shut out, those that remained close to Brian refused to discuss his condition, only to say that he was taking a well-deserved rest. When asked about this period of time in 1980, Wilson responded, "well that’s not necessarily true. I did spend a lot of time just hangin’ out in my room, but I did go out and see friends and stuff." On those rare occasions that he did indeed go out, Wilson marked time with other rock musicians. Elton John has recalled meeting Brian in 1971, as does David Bowie. More importantly, however, Brian renewed his acquaintance with John Lennon during the former Beatle’s infamous 1973 "lost weekend" in LA . At the time, neither wanted to discuss musical collaboration, "Brian told me that his music career was dead," said Lennon in a recent interview, "he never even suggested making a record until much later."
But while Brian Wilson believed his career in music was "dead", for the rest of the former Beach Boys, life had to go on. Carl Wilson gathered the remainder of the original group, added South African musicians Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, and reformed the band under the name Carl and the Passions. Their first album, "So Tough" was released in March, 1972 to moderate sales and a rather lukewarm response from the critics. A year later, "Holland" did even worse, though the single sold well, being a Brian Wilson throwaway named "Sail On Sailor." The album languished in the charts for several weeks and then disappeared altogether. Those that purchased tickets for the summer concerts reported that the band was still a great live act, but with every show the empty seats increased. By the end of the 1973 US tour, the band was losing copious amounts of money with every show, drawing as little as 200-300 people in venues as large as New York.
This of course set the stage for the famous "Endless Summer" debacle. It arose from when Murry Wilson, who had tricked Brian years earlier into giving him controlling interest in the entire Beach Boys songbook, was unable to persuade his son in 1970 to rejoin the now-struggling band. Murry, resentful of his son’s apparent lack of concern for the rest of his family, split the songbook three ways, and left one equal part each to Carl and Dennis, and then a smaller portion to Mike. Brian was not included in the parceling out of his own compositions.
So, in late 1974, Capitol pressured the group to allow them to release a "Beach Boys" greatest hits collection the next summer, which was part of a design to "test the waters" for a possible 15th anniversary reunion of the group in 1976. Brian Wilson did not attend the meeting with the record company heads, but had made it clear that it was too soon for another incarnation of the Beach Boys. Murry had died a year earlier. This left Brian "out-of-the-loop", as it were. Dennis cast the other dissenting vote, but Carl and Love’s controlling interest in the catalog still allowed Capitol to go ahead as planned with the greatest hits collection, despite the compser’s objections. Except, to sever completely all possibility of giving Brian Wilson veto power over the project, "Endless Summer" was released not as a Beach Boys album, but by Carl and the Passions.
VI – LET US GO ON THIS WAY
"Endless Summer" was a runaway success. It reached #1 and then stayed in the Top Ten all summer, and well into the fall of 1975. The massive lawsuit filed by Brian Wilson against his brother, cousin, and Capitol Records lasted even longer. In the meantime, to capitalize on their new success, Carl and the Passions (now without Blondie, Ricky and Dennis) changed their name again to the New Beach Boys. At this time, Bruce Johnston returned to the band, and the group announced that their first album would be an oldies album titled "15 Big Ones" to commemorate "fifteen great years as Beach Boys". And, to add insult to Brian’s injury, the group hired Phil Spector out of retirement to produce what is still seen as a backhanded slap at their former leader.
"The reason I left the band is because I could not look at my cousin without wanting to rip his f***ing eyeballs out," calmly explained Dennis Wilson in 1979. "Brian has his faults, man, I still get pi**ed when I think of that ‘retirement’ s*** he pulled back after Landlocked. But, I love him. He’s my big brother…and he didn’t deserve that, especially when he was going through his tough times."
Musically, Brian could still take his revenge. Several weeks before the much publicised July 4, 1976 release date of "15 Big Ones", from the house on Bellagio Road came a shocking spoiler. Brian Wilson was coming "out of retirement" to produce an album collaboration with none other than John Lennon. Wilson gleefully announced that it too would be an oldies album, but would be a collection of more edgy, rhythm and blues songs, as opposed to the bubblegum doo-wop of "15-Big Ones". Fueled by an overblown, slick (and some would say shameless) marketing campaign, the New Beach Boys were able to achieve the commercial success which had eluded Carl and the Passions. It unfortunately eclipsed "Rock and Roll Music" which ended up selling better in Europe and Japan.
Soon the "word on the street" in 1977 was that Brian Wilson was hard at work on a debut solo album. Finally it seemed the New Beach Boys would have their comeuppance as their former leader would create something that would expose them (and blow them off their collective surfboards) for the headless nostalgia act that they were rapidly becoming. Meanwhile, judgement was reached on Brian Wilson v. Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, and Capitol Records. The Court determined that the copyrights to 1/3 of all songs owned by Carl, Dennis, or Mike would be transferred to Brian Wilson based on the argument that Murry Wilson had come by ownership of the copyrights in a "less-than-legal" fashion, and as such, did not have the exclusive right to determine the catalog’s future ownership. Capitol Records was also made to pay an undisclosed settlement to Brian Wilson out of the profits generated by the Endless Summer album. On the other hand, the Court also determined that the group could legally keep the name "New Beach Boys." Mike Love then filed a countersuit against Brian Wilson to add his name to several Beach Boys songs in which he had contributed lyrics. Wishing to avoid further litigation, and instead focus on his music, Brian reportedly settled out of court, and Love’s name was added to several pre-1966 Wilson compositions.
With more than a little fanfare, Brian Wilson’s self titled solo album was released in the Fall of 1977, at the same time as M.I.U. by the New Beach Boys. Originally meant to be titled "Brian Loves You", the album was a complete flop. It was about as far from the traditional Brian Wilson sound as was possible, and therein lay its downfall, and its utter brilliance. It was not a Beach Boy album, and certainly sounded like nothing from the 1960’s. It was raw, underproduced, and almost embarrassing in parts .
Most critics hated it, others just listened to it out of weird fascination, songs like "Johnny Carson" and "Let’s Put Our Hearts Together" almost confirming all the stories and rumors that had haunted Wilson since 1970. It did not help that the 300 pound Brian, smoking 3-4 Marlboro packs a day while also addicted to heroin, cocaine, and a daily diet of steaks was not really up to making personal appearances or solo concert tours. A disastrous guest spot on NBC’s popular Saturday Night Live only served to confirm that Brian Wilson was perhaps washed-up. The bearded, drugged mass at the piano trembling with stagefright was a far cry from the man who had used SMiLE to wrench all of popular music to his will.
Fast-forward a few months later to the winter of 1978. One night Brian walked out of his house and disappeared into the gloom. Over the next few days he walked the streets in a drunken haze, playing piano at gay clubs for beer, trying to score drugs, walking into the Tower Records on Sunset waving a plastic lightsaber and urinating on the front door. He eventually ended up in Tijuana, Mexico, and somehow found his way to a bench in San Diego’s Balboa Park where the police found him and sent the incoherent Wilson to a local hospital.
"We all knew something needed to be done about Brian, but what?" his wife Marilyn told P-S Magazine. "he was mentally ill, but no one, not even me, wanted to acknowledge this. I thought about a Dr. Landy, who had made a name for himself at the time by helping certain rock musicians kick their drug habits. But then after talking with a number of Brian’s old friends, I dismissed that idea. My husband’s problems ran a lot deeper than just drugs, though they certainly didn’t help."
Marilyn convinced Brian to place himself under intense psychiatric care. Slowly, within the next two years, he began to turn his life around. By 1980, though still taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist regularly, Wilson had kicked the drugs, stopped smoking, started exercising, and had completely slimmed down. He was also reportedly hard at work on another collection of songs, and was looking to go back into the studio that summer. "Imagination" would be his first album in three years, and his fans were hoping, but not counting on a comeback.
But then a number of people in the music industry will always look forward to a Brian Wilson project, even now, if it could possibly restore the creative reputation which was already taking a yearly beating at the hands of the New Beach Boys. MIU was the start of an entire set of mediocre albums that has continued on to even last year’s "Still Cruisin". What never fails to amaze this writer is why the group continuously plays songs from before 1965, rather than any selection from Ocean Blue, Wild Honey, or even Landlocked. Even the Beatles who reunited to tremendous fanfare at Live Aid ’85 played everything from "Hard Day’s Night" to "Maybe I’m Amazed."
"Brian’s Back!!" touted the June 23, 1980 issue of Newsweek, which had scored the rare coup of an interview with the revitalized Wilson. The interview briefly attempted to focus on the music, but soon became an airing out of the band’s dirty laundry. Many read the article and were stunned at Wilson’s candor, especially a certain troubled loner who lived in Hawaii.
"I hated the surf songs. I hated surfing. I think songs about cars are okay to a point, but that’s not really where my music was. I just did those early albums because that’s what was popular. It sold records and made my dad happy." –Brian Wilson, 1980
The Summer of 1980 became Wilson’s comeback season. He made a few guest appearances, including a couple intimate concert dates at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles. There was even talk about someday performing the entire Pet Sounds or SMiLE album live on a nationwide tour. And of course, there was the new album, which was being worked on in the studio, and was already rumored to be something special.
At the same time, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were finishing up "Double Fantasy" in New York. Lennon candidly remarked that at least sometime in the 1980’s the two former rivals would collaborate on another project. During P-S’s famous interview with Brian on December 8, I asked him if he and Lennon were still in competition with each other. Wilson laughed and said, "Only a healthy one. We are going to get together again and record an album with all new songs. We’ve talked about that, and we think it would really be a great project…you know, my music, his lyrics."
Whichever album one preferred, the Fall of 1980 seemed to be a great moment for Rock-and-Roll. Lennon’s "Just Like Starting Over" and Wilson’s "Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight" were fighting each other for the top position in the charts. With the New Beach Boys’ latest offering "Keeping the Summer Alive" having failed to chart, it seemed as though the public were finally seeing through that charade. Finally, in November, both albums hit record stores at the same time. Wilson’s "Imagination" was instantly hailed as an innovative pop masterpiece, with its title track opener, and the other four singles, "Walkin’ the Line", "Melt Away", "Let It Shine", and "Happy Days". Closing the album was the track which shut down all of Brian’s detractors of the 1970’s, the epic "Rio Grande". It was almost as if Wilson were saying, "I can still make SMiLE happen again. Just wait."
And we all were. We were waiting for the next album. And for the vaunted Wilson-Lennon collaboration whose release was rumored for the end of 1981. The day the "Imagination" album hit #1, Brian Wilson arose early. He did an interview with me for P-S that is still regarded as the most in-depth session that he had ever consented to doing, and my most treasured memory of my journalistic career . Later Anne Leibowitz arrived to do a photoshoot with Wilson, who ironically is placed on a surfboard. Afterwards, it was off to Western Studios for a session to record a few segments, or "feels" as Wilson called his demos. By 10:50 PM, about to return home, he had learned that for the first time since Landlocked, his album had reached the top of the charts. With an armful of cassettes, Brian left Western Studios in a hurry; he wanted to share this moment with Marilyn. He drove home, where Mark David Chapman was waiting for him outside…
VII LOVE AND MERCY
I have no clear memories of the next week. It remains a fog of grief. Images of throngs of people on Bellagio Road outside his house, and outside Capitol Records in Hollywood. Sound bites of a distraught, tearful John Lennon, a blubbering Mike Love on national television early in the morning. The magazine office was already taking on the atmosphere of a funeral. President Carter’s declaration of a "National Day of Mourning" and his order that all flags be lowered to half-mast. Many of us sat around, talking about what had happened, stunned, angry, overcome. We put on a cassette of Pet Sounds, and just let it play, and play, and play. Most of us went home in the early afternoon, despite the deadlines and other assignments. Concentration on anything was just impossible.
The anger lasted almost longer than the grief, and then became a dull ache of pain that I feel even now, on this snowy December evening ten years later. I was in New York today to hear an artist who was touted as "the next Brian Wilson", and of course is not. No one can replace him. It is like what Eric Sevareid said at the passing of Walt Disney in 1966, "people are already saying we’ll not see his kind again."
P-S Magazine has always maintained a close relationship with Wilson. Since he allowed us the honor of naming this publication after "Pet Sounds", we gave him a free lifetime subscription, and he occasionally wrote letters praising an article we had written, or condemning it. But when he didn’t like something, he always told us gently, as if it hurt him more to tell us than it would for some young writer to receive such criticism. I have framed all such letters that he sent to me.
The rest, as they say, is history. "Imagination" stayed on the charts throughout 1981, and a follow-up of unfinished tracks, "Sweet Sanity" was released in 1983. This past year, the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, and later in the year Brian Wilson received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. Presenting the posthumous distinction to Marilyn Wilson was none other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And so I will wrap up this tribute to the reluctant Surfer Boy who hated surfing, who kept the sun shining all year, and who defined the 1960’s, and the course of popular music forever. Love and mercy to all of you tonight, and to Brian Wilson, wherever you are.
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