Beach Boys fans in recent years have been subjected to a spate of books about their heroes, ranging in quality from good to bad to downright ugly. Perhaps the most disappointing of the lot was Brian Wilson's putative autobiography, Wouldn't It Be Nice?, which played fast and loose with facts and copyright laws alike. Timothy White's new book, The Nearest Faraway Place, however, comes as a most welcome addition to the Beach Boys bookshelf.
White's first journalistic contact with the Beach Boys came during the 1976 recording sessions for Fifteen Big Ones and its concomitant "Brian Is Back!" charade, all written up in due course for Crawdaddy. Since that time, he has followed up many times and gained an unusual degree of trust from the group, especially from Dennis and Brian. This book boasts as well the extensive cooperation of Brian specifically for its preparation. Thus it is able to offer eyewitness closeups, among them some very affecting moments: Brian being coaxed into singing "California Feeling" at Brother Studio; Dennis polishing the woodwork aboard the Harmony in Santa Monica Harbor; Brian again, this time jogging down the Old Malibu Road in 1984. To the attentive reader, these and many others are bittersweet scenes with a lot of small ironies, and White has the eye and ear for the most telling detail.
Unlike some of the Beach Boys' chroniclers, moreover, White truly digs their music. He is not at all bashful about proclaiming the Beach Boys "the prime vocal unit of their generation and among the most resourceful in the chronicles of American songcraft," quite a noteworthy pronouncement, considering that White is the editor of Billboard. His love of the music is contagious, too, particularly with Sunflower, where he lingers lovingly over each track. (Interestingly, in White's esteem Sunflower supercedes even Pet Sounds, whose undercurrent of pessimism is not to his taste. Likewise, the available Smile sessions do not ignite White's passion as readily as the poetry of surf, dragstrip, and the lonely guy that came before.)
White's perspicacious understanding of the music business enables him to comment on the developing commercial battle between the Boys and the Beatles and leads him to demonstrate the critical importance of their first live album in 1964; this was also the first Beach Boys album to hit the top of the charts and the one that proved that others besides the Brits could inspire screams from the young boomer audiences.
These virtues, considable already, are joined by a freshness of approach and an unusual degree of scholarship. For one thing, perhaps most refreshing of all, White avoids the "Heroes &Villains" approach to his subject, the made-for-tv graveyard ready-made for the Beach Boys. Here, balance prevails, and there is genuine sympathy for nearly everyone. Not only is Murry Wilson given the credit he deserves for the initial success of the group, but his failures as a father are cast against a backdrop of inevitability, for he too is shown to be a victim. The one exception to White's "fairness" doctrine, appears to be Eugene Landy, who is duly credited with saving Brian's life but portrayed otherwise as a monster (White reminds us that he played a role in the Wilson family's litigation against Landy several years ago).
Had he resisted the understandable inclination to be disgusted by Landy, however, I'm sure that White would have discovered yet another instance of human frailty, equally deserving of sympathy and equally the perfect product of American show business. (I'm surprised there hasn't already been a Broadway musical based on the life of Landy.)
As to scholarship, White really "gets down" with his subject; patience is indeed required of the reader, but it is rewarded by a sense of perspective that other writers have either not attempted or failed to deliver. Readers should therefore not be put off by White's lengthy asides on quite a diverse array of subjects, from the first orange grown in Southern California to Main Street in Hutchinson, Kansas, to Hula Hoops, Barbie dolls, and Linda Eastman, as it were; indeed, one has to travel more than 60 pages into the book, tracing the progenitors of the Wilson clan from Sweden to the prairies of Kansas to California's promised land before he arrives at the birth of Brian Douglas Wilson in Los Angeles in 1942. But this "big picture" approach is precisely the point of the book, and it affords a thoughtful consideration of what the Beach Boys mean. Not content to write an overblown fan magazine, White truly illuminates the convergence of politics, economics, and family history with the multifaceted youth culture that fed Brian Wilson's poetic genius. The book immerses us thoroughly into the Hawthorne crucible with Dick Dale, Spade Cooley, Clarence Leo Fender, L.A. radio personalities and record labels, Big Daddy Roth, Ozzie and Harriet (and Rick), Moondog Bengston, Kanvas by Katin swimtrunks, Hobie Alter's custom surfboard shop at Dana Point: the shrines of Southern California teen culture are all here. The book is studded with deep-background reminders of national and international events, as well: Roger Maris's sixty-first home run and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, moments of shared American exultation and grim reminders of what really did lie beyond the next horizon.
To support all this documentation there are eight pages of acknowledgements and an incredible fifteen pages of bibliography, testament to the depth of White's dogged dedication to his elusive subject.
The Nearest Faraway Place is a thoughtful book, without the usual sentimental cliches and lurid exploitation that has generally appeared between covers. This is not to say that the book will please all readers, though, and it might do well to mention its shortcomings as well as its undeniable strengths. White's book offers a thin selection of photos, unremarkable in the main, and no graphics. It contains no discography and will be of little use to those who are primarily interested in recordings. Certain pieces of information-- Brian's early relationship to his idols, the Four Freshmen, for instance, or the full extent of his collaborations with their arranger Dick Reynolds- - are glossed over too quickly here. (Outright inaccuracies are few, but they do crop up occasionally, as in the assertion that Brian's "Malibu Sunset" demo for Andy Williams was forever lost, or that Dennis was "the youngest Wilson brother," as White states at one point, though he surely knows better. In any case, the book would have benefitted by a more thorough proofreading.
Given the space devoted in the book to the many legal suits and countersuits that have plagued the principals of the story, the book went into print perhaps too early to include any direct discussion of the recent settlement of Love v. Wilson or closer examination of Mike's successful claim to have co-authored many well-known Beach Boys songs, though White does credit him in passing for cowriting such Beach Boys classics as "Hawaii," "Catch a Wave," "I Get Around," "All Summer Long, " "Help Me Rhonda," "California Girls," "With Me Tonight," and "Gettin' Hungry." Unfortunately, the book does not explain why Brian's credit as sole composer-lyricist on these songs went unchallenged for more than 20 years.
The concluding narrative chapter, most exquisitely titled "You Still Believe in Me," takes a last, fond look at Brian fumbling his way through a 1994 appearance with Ronnie Spector. While Brian was uncertain of ever having actually met Ronnie, she was able to recall, in near-photographic detail, the day more than thirty years ago when this brash manchild submitted to Phil Spector the Ronettes classic that never was, a song called "Don't Worry Baby." "Is fate the justice of what could never be," ponders White, "or is it the fulfillment of the tests that had to come?"
I'm not completely sure what he means by this, but it sounds to me like an unanswerable question, the sort of conundrum a Maharishi would propose: is now an end or a beginning? White, like Brian Wilson, like California itself-- forever the nearest faraway place--continues to hold out the promise of a new beginning.
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