Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Surf Was Up
A summer with the Beach Boys
There may be no adequate way to write about music. One can write well enough about music—the personalities, the business, the facts of the matter surrounding a career or an album—but music itself defies proper language. This has always been the case, even when people argue with great passion for their favorite rock critics or essayists. Robert Christgau cannot tell you how a great song sounds. He can barely tell you why it’s great. This is not to pick on Christgau, or anyone else. A good deal of music writing is strained because music escapes what it is writers have been conditioned to do. Music is not nouns, verbs, and adverbs, and it can, in most cases, only be rendered on a page through comparisons to something or other—this sound, that sound—or described with clunky and pandering metaphors. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read Pitchfork.
I am a failed musician myself, having been taught cello and clarinet as a child and having never, at any point, risen to the level of mastering an instrument. At 17, I came into a circle of rock musicians and tried to teach myself guitar. Left-handed, I learned the chords wrong, and soon gave up. I cannot sing. I’m tone deaf. I have never conceived of a song. I have book ideas for days and I laugh at the idea of writer’s block, but I could not write music if you locked me in a room for a year and told me to do it. In the music world, I am a listener and an appreciator, and nothing more. For a short, curious period at the age of 18, I managed my friend’s band.
Of late, I have been Beach Boys-obsessed. It started with the Sirius XM channel, available only through August. The channel was on last year, but I only cared so much. This summer, I cared deeply. The Beach Boys are, in many ways, a strange band. To most of humanity, they will never outrun their early 60s selves, the adolescent crooners of surf and car culture, embodying the faded California Dream. The ultimate Boomer act, Mike Love with his goofball hats, waving around a tambourine. The songs are catchy, but so what? By the latter half of the 1970s, the Beach Boys had regressed into an oldies act, their number called. They would make money forever, but never be taken as seriously as they deserved to be. To invoke the Beach Boys and Beatles together—to declare, in fact, the Beach Boys at their best could match and surpass them—can still seem like sacrilege. But the Beach Boys did. In the mid-1960s and briefly in the early 1970s, they produced some of the greatest and most staggering pop music the world has ever known, the very “symphonies to God” Brian Wilson, their chief songwriter and visionary, promised to deliver up.
The Beatles got the best of all worlds; the Beach Boys only got some. For a clean decade, the Beatles burned bright, always in vogue, celebrated by high and low culture alike. They were beloved and extraordinarily popular as the lads in suits and mop tops, belting out ballads of young love. They were revered as the avant-garde, heralds of a psychedelic era that still proved as lucrative as the sepia-toned world they escaped. Each album was an unbridled success. They created trends and then topped them. To be a Beatles fan was to be like everyone else but still, somehow, retain a sense of singularity. Experimentation did not soil them in the eyes of the public. Their break-up in 1970, traumatic at the time, only cemented the lore. They would never play live again. History has allowed the Beatles to be everything to everyone. They are not held captive by Please Please Me. The fan who still prefers the pre-acid Beatles understands what came next. “I am the Walrus” and “Getting Better” live harmoniously in the mass consciousness with “Love Me Do.” Paul, now 80, is an uncomplicated titan, and people flock to his concerts with the gratitude that he is still here, knocking out the hits. No one expects him to be 23 again.
The Beach Boys never broke up. They slogged through the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s. They have existed long enough to produce forgettable, awful music. They still tour. You can see Mike Love at the Civic Center Auditorium in Amarillo, Texas on Friday. Brian tours separately with his own backing, thanks to a legal arrangement made in the 1990s. If, in the public imagination, tragedy hangs over the Beatles—John murdered in 1980, George dead from cancer in 2001—the Beach Boys remain the more star-crossed enterprise, darkness trailing any hint of sunshine. They were, for a time, inextricably bound up with Charles Manson. Dennis, the drummer and middle brother, drowned to death at 39 after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Carl, the youngest brother and de facto leader after the 1960s, succumbed to lung cancer in 1998, at the age of 51. Brian is the last Wilson living. He has struggled, very publicly, with mental illness. In the 1970s, when he had retreated from the world in a haze of cocaine and alcohol, his body swollen beyond 300 pounds, few would have believed he would live to see 50, let alone 80. An unscrupulous, abusive psychologist once held him captive, even demanding producing credits on his solo albums.
Brian, like Paul, is a postwar icon floating through 2020s life, but he wears his damage plainly. His interviews still have a shellshocked quality. Like any man of retirement age, he cannot sing like he once did, yet there is some percentage of the fan base that will always take quiet offense. Like Paul, he produced miracles before turning 30. Unlike Paul, he will always be a prisoner to these miracles. His explanations of Pet Sounds will never satisfy. The Nobel Prize committee is not coming for Brian, like they mistakenly did for Bob Dylan. There is no proper award for music that hunts out frontiers that were not even imaginable before they were found. Dylan was many things, but he was not a musical genius. Brian walked with Mozart.
The Beatles and Beach Boys were perfectly contemporaneous. Brian was born exactly two days after Paul McCartney in 1942. They were admirers of each other, and Paul has called “God Only Knows” one of the great songs of all-time. It is. Brian, like Paul and the rest of the Beatles, came from unremarkable circumstances, the first of three sons born to machinist and aspiring songwriter Murry Wilson in Hawthorne, a suburb of Los Angeles. Brian’s two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis, would be integral to the Beach Boys, making them the rare rock act that was almost entirely a family affair. Murry and his wife Audree were both musically inclined, adept singers who, in the case of Audree, loved to play piano. Murry wanted to be a popular songwriter himself but couldn’t hack it. He tried to get schmaltzy songs recorded and published over the years to minimal success. What this meant, at least, was that the Wilson household was filled, almost constantly, with music. The boys, especially Brian and Carl, harmonized with their parents, and Brian’s budding obsession with George Gershwin, the Four Freshmen, and Burt Bacharach was nurtured at every turn. Carl, born in 1946, was most interested in the new fad of rock n’ roll, and joined the legions of other youths—including Paul and John in Liverpool—in rushing to the radio whenever an Elvis or Chuck Berry song could be heard. Dennis, born in 1944, had a limited interest in music early on, preferring to hang with girls, surf, and play sports. The best-looking of the three—the trimmest and most chiseled—Dennis was the platonic ideal of a Beach Boy, the only one who indulged in the California pastimes so much of their early music would endlessly celebrate and transmogrify into myth. The irony of Dennis, inveterate troublemaker and fuck-up, is that he would prove to be the second most talented member of the band, an innovative songwriter and pianist when he applied himself.
The Wilson household was suffused with joy and violence. Paul had a musical father like Brian, but the trumpet player and pianist Jim McCartney did not savagely beat his sons or seek, in later years, to compete with them. Murry would loom over the Wilson children as long as they were alive and haunt them in death. He was the sort of person who could cry like the lion in The Wizard of Oz, as Dennis once said, when he heard a tune that moved him. And if he was angered at all, he throttled his children and his wife, punishing them at all hours of the day and night. Murry’s temper was volcanic, arguably psychotic. He supposedly hurled Brian into a wall and smashed him over the head with a 2x4. He made Brian defecate on a plate as retribution for a practical joke that included fake feces. Brian was deaf in one ear, and the rumor was Murry’s abuse made him that way, though the deafness may have been genetic. Dennis, the most willing to talk back, came in for the most beatings. Murry was a screamer, and had no trouble psychologically intimidating his offspring. Brian, sensitive and shy from an early age, a joker by nature, was desperate to please. Murry could rarely be pleased. Whether it was music or athletics, Murry was there, chiding Brian to be better, lashing him when he failed. A lanky, All-American teenager, Brian was a natural athlete, a power-hitting outfielder on the baseball team and a back-up quarterback on the football team. Music, though, was all that mattered to him. He could sit for hours at the radio, meticulously deconstructing harmonies. He was a gifted and tireless piano player. His voice ranged three octaves; he sang in a local church choir, awing those who heard him. His falsetto was like none other. Carl, his youngest brother, had a striking voice too, and in later years it would be Carl who sang lead on “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations”, two of the most celebrated Beach Boys tracks.
The rise to fame was swift. The boys never really paid their dues. A friend of Murry’s recorded their first track, the primitive “Surfin”, and it became a regional hit in 1961. Joining the band was the Wilson brothers’ first cousin, Mike Love, who would always sing with them at family gatherings. A neighborhood friend, David Marks, joined up to play guitar. Al Jardine, a high school and college classmate of Brian’s—both briefly attended a local junior college—played on “Surfin” and left the band not long after, unsure if it would ever find financial success. (Jardine would return in 1963, not long before Marks departed, and become a mainstay.) Supposedly, it was Dennis’ idea to write a song about surfing, the hot new southern California craze. Brian had never surfed but liked the concept. Christened the Beach Boys by the small record label that put their music out—the Wilsons, Love, Jardine, and Marks had decided to call themselves the “Pendletones”, a pun on a type of popular woolen shirt worn at the time—they were on their way, at the right place at the right time. Murry would manage the band in his overbearing manner until they fired him in 1964. By the end of the decade, he would sell away the Beach Boys’ publishing rights for $700,000, a paltry sum for a band that was worth many millions.
California, in the early 1960s, was exploding with energy and promise. The population boomed as towns and cities were reinvented overnight. Los Angeles and San Francisco had seized baseball teams from New York City. For those with the money or just the racial privilege, these were rocket summers, with new automobiles careening down new freeways and sparkling suburbs gobbling up the horizon line. California was ready, at last, to claim the future from the East. The next presidents, literary heroes, and cultural mandarins would be minted here. The Beach Boys weren’t thinking this as they strode upon the scene, with their regional hits quickly gaining traction. But they sensed they were feeding an imagination. It was no coincidence that the Beach Boys, in 1961 or 1962, were hottest in the inland California cities, transfixing places like San Bernardino where the Pacific Ocean may as well have been halfway to Mars.
What was so special about a bunch of local kids singing about surfing and fast cars? There were other surf bands, other purveyors of the so-called California Sound. There was Jan and Dean. There was Dick Dale. There were other groups, crooning of youth, optimism, sunshine, and the perfect wave. They were, in their own ways, talented. What they lacked was Brian Wilson. Brian was an accelerator, a catalyst, a font of ideas that came from places unseen. Fascinated by Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound, Brian, entirely self-taught, was going to produce the Beach Boys. Murry was a tyrant, but it was Murry, with his aggression and hustle, who got his sons to Capitol Records in 1962 after other labels shot them down. It was Brian, once there, who insisted on cutting the tracks for their first album outside the famed basement studios of Capitol. Capitol had built recording studios for orchestras and ensembles, not rock groups, and Brian had other ideas. It is important to remember how much control record companies exerted over artists in the early 1960s. Many performers did not write their own music and were routinely cheated out of royalties; they were property of the companies, to be exploited as the executives saw fit. The idea of a musician as an auteur—a performer who could imagine songs, dominate a studio, engineer a hit—did not exist in any serious way. Brian, not yet 20, was going to change all of this.
The early Beach Boys albums are almost comically named, and it’s easy enough to dismiss them as cornball California. Surfin’ Safari. Surfin’ USA. Surfer Girl. Little Deuce Coupe. The albums arrived at a frenetic pace, as many as three a year, Capitol Records extracting all they could from their most precious resource. Brian wrote hits, for himself and for others. Infuriating Murry, Brian gave away a number one hit to Jan and Dean, “Surf City.” Two girls for every boy. It didn’t matter because Brian had more. The early Beach Boys shows were rough, the teens still mastering their instruments, the sound spotty at the clubs and auditoriums and dances they were booked at. What set them apart was their improvement, their uncanny ability to catalyze and mutate. Their harmonies soared, Mike Love’s nasal tenor and bass baritone exquisitely complementing Brian’s angelic range. The live shows quickly became a draw, backed by albums that produced entirely new material. The Beach Boys did not cover old folk songs or ask others to write music for them. Brian’s head was bursting with melodies. He enlisted outside collaborators to pen lyrics because he was self-conscious, unnecessarily so, about putting words to the music rushing through him. These best friends were temporary, here today, gone tomorrow, and they all made their own mark. With Roger Christian, a radio DJ, Brian found the words to “Don’t Worry Baby”, his first pop standard. With Gary Usher, Brian wrote “409” and “In My Room”, the kind of doo-wop song that could bring generations of admirers to tears, including Whoopi Goldberg. It was, among Brian’s earliest songs, a view into his psyche—his propensity, when pressed, to retreat, to erect worlds of his own to hide within. “In My Room” was prescient. In another decade, Brian would spend entire years in his room.
The Beach Boys’ first album, Surfin’ Safari, was not billed as a Brian Wilson production. Neither was Surfin’ USA. This was because Capitol Records still operated in the 1950s, crediting production to their young staffer, Nick Venet. Venet helped sign the Beach Boys but he was not writing or producing the songs. This would be rectified on Surfer Girl, which jumped to 13 on the charts. It was the first of many albums that gave Brian the sole producer credit. One early reality of the Beach Boys, despite their peerless harmonies, was that they were deceptively weird—a superstar musical act melding and violating old traditions. They pulled off complex, a cappella glee-cub arrangements with sophisticated chords and modulations. They brought jazz harmony to surf. They smashed together Chuck Berry, the Ventures, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Brian’s compositions outstripping whatever rock had previously brought to bear. Brian couldn’t make the Beach Boys alone, but they could not exist, in those years, without him.
In 1964, they had their first number one hit with “I Get Around”, following a string of successful songs that climbed close to the top of the charts. The band dynamic was captured best during an awkward interview with Dick Clark on American Bandstand.
“It’s an amazing thing because you have hit after hit. Who determines, Brian, what will be done next?”
“Well I guess I do, I don’t know,” Brian replies, smiling uncomfortably. “I write the songs and produce them so I have a lot to say about it.”
“Do you have like a corporate set-up, does everybody have a vote, can you vote him out or down if you don’t like his ideas?”
“Well, yes we do, but he usually has good ideas,” Carl says.
“He’s the biggest one, that’s all there is to it,” Clark shoot backs. The six-foot-three Brian stands woodenly, begging for the appearance to be over.
Nineteen sixty-four, the year the boys spoke with Dick Clark, marked a turning point for the band. The Beatles, the most popular act in Britain, arrived on American shores, and rock music could never be the same again. Carl followed the Beatles most closely; Brian, also a fan, obsessed over their artistry and dominance. He was rattled, even disturbed. Beatlemania was like nothing else. The Beach Boys were no longer the preeminent rock group in the United States. It didn’t help that Capitol, the label the Beach Boys belonged to and increasingly resented, was the Beatles’ distributor in the U.S., and that their band names were so close alphabetically. Any record store, naturally, would throw the bands together. If the other boys wanted to keep producing hits to pace the Beatles, Brian wanted something far more—to create art that would both surpass the Fab Four and transcend, in ways unimaginable, what they had all been doing to that point. The Beatles, for Brian, were both a terror and a blessing. They would spur him to make the greatest songs of the century. And they would fuel, in a matter of years, his budding psychosis.
What the Beatles would do, invariably, the Beach Boys did first. Before George Martin, with Paul and John, made the production studio into an instrument, Brian was managing this almost entirely on his own, a young savant directing the most accomplished session musicians in the world. Brian quit touring before the Beatles did, devoting his working life to studio time. He even dropped acid first. In 1964 and 1965, the Beach Boys were, on the surface level, doing much of what always did, their songs, for the most part, retaining their summery sheen. Mike Love kept the swagger. Brian brought the sensitivity, the rumination, the self-doubt that still produced pop bliss. They were making, all of sudden, enormous amounts of money. “Help Me Rhonda” would become, in 1965, their second number 1. Unlike Elvis, who never left North America, the Beach Boys crossed oceans, greeting screaming fans throughout Europe and Australia. While the Beatles had eclipsed them, the Beach Boys were still wildly popular in the United Kingdom, with a devoted following that rivaled what they enjoyed in America. The British, from the jump, always seemed to appreciate the Beach Boys’ artistry, and critics there would treat them as a peer of the Beatles.
Through 1964, Brian toured the world with the Beach Boys while writing and producing three albums: Shut Down Volume 2 in March, All Summer Long in June, and a well-regarded Christmas album in November, put out at the behest of Capitol Records, which wanted their young hitmakers to take full advantage of the holiday shopping season. By the end of the year, Brian had married 16-year-old Marilyn Rovell, a family friend and singer, hoping to have more emotional stability in his life. But the marriage was done in a panic, on impulse. Weeks later, on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston to accompany the band on a U.S. tour, Brian began sobbing uncontrollably. He put a pillow over his face and screamed. His bandmates struggled to calm him down. Brian begged to return to Los Angeles but played out the shows with the band. It was his first publicly acknowledged mental breakdown. Not long afterwards, he told Dennis, Carl, Mike, and Al that he was no longer going on tour with them. They didn’t, at first, take the news very well. A Beach Boys show without Brian Wilson seemed as unimaginable as Paul sitting out a Beatles concert. Brian was their bassist. He played keyboards. He sang lead on many songs. The band was, at the end of 1964, one of the world’s most popular rock groups. Brian was going to stay home.
From that point forward, the Beach Boys were cleaved in two, though fans didn’t quite understand the implications of what Brian had decided. There would be a public Beach Boys, a touring Beach Boys, a band playing the hits night after night, defining reality for many thousands of people. And there would be Brian Wilson, sequestered in Los Angeles, writing songs. No other popular group had such an arrangement. When the Beatles decreed they would no longer tour, they did it together, all four vanishing from the stage. The Beach Boys, from 1965 onward, would never leave the stage. Brian, for long stretches of time, would. Glen Campbell, soon to be much more famous, toured in place of Brian, and then Bruce Johnston, a young musician and producer, joined the band on a temporary basis. Soon, he would become a permanent member, and the Beach Boys as a live act functioned as well as it did before. Carl could sing Brian’s vocals, and so could Bruce. Al, who had sang the lead on “Help Me, Rhonda”, was an asset. Mike Love was a consummate showman and loved the stage. The Beach Boys didn’t need Brian out there. They needed him writing songs and producing albums. They needed his imagination. In 1965 and 1966, Brian would give them—and the world—everything he had. He would ascend.
The marijuana of the 1960s was much weaker than what is smoked today. LSD, in California at least, was the opposite. At the time, the acid supplied was manufactured by the notorious San Francisco psychedelic chemist Owsley Stanley. It was strong enough that the dosage, in later years, would be cut in tenths. This was the acid Brian, already psychologically fragile and prone to visual and auditory hallucinations, would try. He was one of the last people who should have taken such acid, or any acid. He took it dozens of times. Brian’s marriage was also tumultuous; the two were very young, and Brian wasn’t around much, preferring the company of friends. And the music mattered more. No matter his mental state in this period, Brian could produce. Capitol Records made extraordinary demands of him that he always met, the hits pouring forth. This was the era when a Beach Boys album was all but guaranteed to rocket into the top 10. In 1965, the band would release three more albums, one of which, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) pointed the way to the future. “California Girls”, with its stunning orchestral prelude, rightfully captured the imagination of America, but it’s the B side, “Let Him Run Wild”, which tugs at me the most. A bolder, brighter, and more curious song than most pop standards of the era, it gestured towards Pet Sounds, the magnum opus that was still a year away. Brian sings lead, his falsetto at its peak—let him run!—and the syncopated antiphony of the vocals lends the song a special power rarely found in rock music. The vibraphone, the horns, the tremolo bass—it is, at just over two minutes long, a perfectly engineered pop song. Brian, ever self-conscious, would repudiate the vocals, claiming he sang “like a fairy.” It was, despite his claims to the contrary, one of his greater vocal performances. Rerecording the song was a mistake.
The story of Pet Sounds has been told many times and I don’t want to belabor it too much here, though some detail is essential. Love and Mercy, the Brian biopic starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, helps bring the recording sessions to life. Brian, done with touring, heard Rubber Soul and understood he would need to compete with, or even surpass, such music to keep the Beach Boys relevant. It was, in his proper view, a complete album, no filler material, no waste. Though the term wasn’t in vogue yet, Brian was seeking to create a concept album, one organized around theme and sound. One that could exist as a whole. His stated ambition was to create the greatest rock album ever made.
Remarkably, he succeeded.
Still a devotee of Spector, Brian decided he could outdo the Wall of Sound, and he had the resources to do it. The Beach Boys were successful enough that Capitol Records was willing to finance the album at an unprecedented cost, with expenses eventually exceeding $70,000, more than a half million in today’s dollars. Pet Sounds was technically a group effort, but it is better understood as a de facto Brian Wilson solo album, with an assist from lyricist Tony Asher, a young copywriter Brian made his latest writing partner, and the Wrecking Crew, a loose collective of Los Angeles-based session musicians who had been the house band for Spector and played with just about every prominent performer imaginable, including Elvis and Frank Sinatra. The Wrecking Crew were awed by Brian’s talent and imagination. He could produce, arrange, and compose music at a level they had never witnessed before. Pet Sounds would be the first album where none of the Beach Boys played their own instruments. It was Brian conducting his full orchestra. The rest of the band returned from tour to record their vocals, knowing little about the music ahead of time. Brian was sensitive to any vocal that was, in his estimation, too sharp or flat, and drilled his bandmates endlessly to get it right. Carl, as mentioned before, was tapped to sing lead on “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations”, the single recorded during the Pet Sounds sessions that wasn’t released with the album. (The former was notable at the time for having the word “God” in the title of a song, something that had been somewhat taboo in popular music.)
Rather than intensely describe Pet Sounds, I’d urge you to listen to it in full, if you haven’t ever bothered. The music does not age. It is not so much of the 60s but of a psychic state that anyone can enter in any decade, in any stage of life. There is no surfing on Pet Sounds, no celebration of summer. A melding of pop, jazz, classical, and exotica, it existed outside of most music being produced at the time. It sounded nothing like a Beatles album, or any album. It was, in one sense, an album of sadness, longing, and heartache, a dispatch from Brian’s increasingly tortured mind. The unusual tone colors, strange tempo changes, and unlikely harmonic progressions brought pop to a new realm. The instruments on the album, including ukulele, accordion, Electro-Theremin, viola, trombone, and cello had never been heard in the context of rock music before. Bicycle bells and Coca-Cola bottles joined the soundscape.
Pet Sounds was received rapturously in the United Kingdom, and less so in the United States. “Good Vibrations,” the “pocket symphony” that cost more than $50,000 to make, shot to number one in the fall of 1966. A few weeks later, the Beach Boys were officially—for a moment at least—more popular than the Beatles in England, topping a New Musical Express readers’ poll. “We haven’t been doing much and it was run just at a time when the Beach Boys had something good out. We’re all four fans of the Beach Boys. Maybe we voted for them,” Ringo Starr said. The band was peaking on the strength of Brian’s innovation—his pop instincts perfectly blended with his willingness to push boundaries—and a canny public relations campaign helmed by Derek Taylor, the former Beatles press officer who was now in the employ of the Beach Boys. “Brian Wilson is a genius!” was the most memorable line, one that would’ve been hyperbole in most other contexts but was, without question, true.
Yet American audiences didn’t quite know how to parse Pet Sounds, if they devoured, along with the rest of the world, “Good Vibrations.” The album reached number 10, a strong performance for any other band but a disappointment for Capitol Records, which was accustomed to the Beach Boys breaking into the top 5. Praise was more scattered from American critics. For some, it was too different, too alienating. Capitol executives weren’t fond of the album because there were no cars, bikinis, or blondes. It was not the Beach Boys music they knew. Off the album itself, the American public only seemed interested in “Sloop John B”, a traditional folk song Brian arranged that would peak, to the band’s surprise, at number three on the American charts. Capitol had chosen to release it and the executives there, leery of Brian’s behavior, felt vindicated. “Caroline, No”, first issued as a Brian Wilson solo record and later off Pet Sounds, only climbed to 32. In later years, it would be regarded as one of the great ballads of all-time.
To Brian and the band’s despair, Capitol hardly promoted Pet Sounds at all. Their energy went into the Beach Boys’ first greatest hits compilation, Best of the Beach Boys, which reached a higher chart position than Pet Sounds. While the enormous success of “Good Vibrations” and the acclaim Pet Sounds won overseas would be enough to buoy any band, it was a time of growing uncertainty for the Beach Boys, and especially Brian. Brian was not well, but few understood the depths of his despair. He took criticism poorly. He bore heavily the failure of Pet Sounds not hitting the top of the charts, like any Beatles album would. The well-intentioned “genius” campaign from Derek Taylor only added further pressure; Brian was convinced, more than ever, he had to live up to that declaration. He behaved erratically. Tony Asher, his writing partner during Pet Sounds, was appalled that Brian slept for much of the day and left uncashed royalty checks around his house. He was the genius who could bawl when Flipper came on television. Asher didn’t want to work with him again.
To outdo Pet Sounds—to sustain the genius, to return to the top of the charts—Brian would labor on a new album. A more talented songwriting partner, Van Dyke Parks, entered the fray, and the two began collaborating on an album that Brian, at first, called Dumb Angel. Later, it would be rechristened Smile. Much would happen to the Beach Boys in the next decade, but what would become apparent, in retrospect, was how good they had it in 1966. The money flowed easily. The critics, for the most part, cheered. Brian’s eccentricities could be handwaved away as a byproduct of his talent. He had a sandbox built beneath his living room piano, to feel the beach as he wrote music. Another room, for reasons unclear, held an elaborate tent. Gym mats, for a period, replaced living room furniture. He took all meetings in his swimming pool because he was convinced his house was bugged and people, including his controlling father, would be listening in. He came back from a movie convinced Phil Spector was trying to talk to him through the film, all in a bid of imagined psychological warfare. He listened to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” hundreds of times in a row, hunting for messages. He spent nights scouring Los Angeles, on a whim, for ping-pong tables and telescopes. In the late 1960s, he opened a health food store called the Radiant Radish—he devoured junk food but became obsessed with the concept of vitamins and vegetables—and hung out there at strange hours, manning the cash register in his bathrobe, pajamas, and slippers.
The divergence between the Beatles and the Beach Boys came in 1967, and in the public imagination, it would last forever. Rubber Soul begat Revolver begat Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, dropped in late May of ‘67. Pet Sounds, in my view at least, is superior to all of them, but the Beatles had undeniably achieved greatness, astounding critics and hitting number 1 again. The psychedelic era was here, with its hippies and Summer of Love, the anti-war movement in full swing. The Beatles had evolved perfectly, staying current with the zeitgeist, firing brilliantly as a studio band. They were the heroes of the new age, just as they were heroes of what came before. Whatever controversies and tragedies arose—John’s “bigger than Jesus” remark, the death of manager Brian Epstein that August—could not alter the commercial trajectory of the band. They sat at the top, and would always be at the top. If the solo careers, in the 1970s and beyond, would be spotty at times, John, Paul, George, and Ringo would endure, forevermore, as colossi of the culture.
The Beach Boys, suddenly adrift, would have a different fate. Brian could not finish Smile. His head was teeming with ideas. Sound effects collages, a health food album, a comedy album. He was reading heavily, especially on numerology, mysticism, and the occult. He wanted a song to sound like fire, another to sound like water. Always a perfectionist, Brian could now hold musicians for hours without performing music; the “vibrations” were off, he declared, and thousands of dollars were lost as they were sent home. The fire suite unnerved him when he believed a spate of fires around the Los Angeles area had been caused by his music. Outside pressure continued to weigh on him. Capitol wanted more hits, and he wasn’t delivering hits. A film crew from CBS appeared at Brian’s house to interview him for a documentary on young musicians called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. Those close to Brian, in subsequent years, would believe this TV appearance helped tip him over the edge, into a darker realm of instability and withdrawal. Narrated by Leonard Bernstein, the documentary filmed Brian at his piano, playing a selection of the haunting “Surf’s Up”, which had been intended for Smile. “There is a new song too complex to get all of, first time around,” Bernstein says. “It could come only out of the front man that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’” Bernstein didn’t explicitly call him a genius, but many viewers interpreted it that way. Brian crumpled under the attention.
Bruce Johnston, who had gone from touring musician to permanent Beach Boys member, would later remark that Smile was a vital artistic statement, the kind of project that should have won a Ford Foundation grant. What it wasn’t was commercial music, Johnston argued—and he was probably right. The formidable single “Heroes and Villains” emerged from the album, a pared down version of a song that, in some of Brian’s prior formulations, could last as long as 12 minutes. Several years later, “Surf’s Up” would see the light of day on the album of the same name, and it would be one of Brian’s last major offerings. Parks wrote the lyrics for both, and each song could not shine without his offbeat yet crystalline verbosity.
For a variety of reasons, Smile collapsed. Brian’s mental state was too fragile. The band supported him, but was not enthused by all of the music. Parks departed, to work on a solo record with Warner Brothers and escape band tensions. Most of the Beach Boys, Brian included, were smoking too much pot and hashish, slowing down progress on the record. Though Brian was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, many of his friends, and even bandmates, weren’t sure what to make of his behavior. Weren’t all geniuses eccentric? Brian fell out with one close friend, record producer David Anderle, after Anderle, an amateur artist, painted a portrait of him. Brian believed the portrait had captured, in a literal sense, his soul. Out of the ruins of Smile came an inferior record called Smiley Smile, which neglected much of the material from the abandoned album. The chart position, 41, was disastrous for the band, which was used to reaching the top 10. The Beach Boys decline had begun.
In part, forces out of their control did them in. Had Brian rallied to finish Smile, it still would have performed worse than Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys, by 1967, were simply not cool anymore. The shift in the national mood had been swift and, for the band, devastating. The locus of the culture had moved, both physically and psychologically, to San Francisco. Pet Sounds heralded the psychedelic era, but the youngest baby boomers enthused by tie-dye and acid wanted nothing to do with the Beach Boys, a band they now associated with the first few tired years of the 1960s. On tour, they still performed in their striped shirts and sang of hot rods and surfing. They were perceived as lightyears behind Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead. Rolling Stone, the new magazine of hip, was mostly dismissive of the Beach Boys, and fans only fell further away.
The Beach Boys were a band absent any discernable politics. Brian’s songs had grown intricate and introspective, but they said nothing about Vietnam, civil rights, or any of the upheaval in the country. They made no allusions to the turmoil, as Paul Simon (another Brian admirer) would do in his various hits. From the standpoint of art, this was defensible. It was not, however, a wise commercial proposition in the late 60s, with young, radicalized audiences demanding that their performers at least show superficial interest in the current movements. The breaking point for the Beach Boys was their last-minute decision to pull out of the Monterey Pop Festival, which would quickly become one of the most iconic concerts of the era, the very height of the musical counterculture. The band feared a hostile audience, but they were always a strong live act and would have been better off, in every sense, showing up. They were now derided as the “Bleach Boys” and the “California hype.” Hendrix, a king of the festival, declared the band was little more than a “psychedelic barbershop quartet.”
The Beach Boys, Brian included, were profligate spenders. Whatever came into their coffers went out the other way. Dennis and Mike, between them, had almost a dozen marriages. They blew money on cars and houses, assuming the spigot that turned on in 1962 would stay on indefinitely. It didn’t. Record sales plummeted. Touring income evaporated, as the Beach Boys were forced to play smaller venues. There was a time, in the late 60s and early 70s, when the band that once rivaled the Beatles was playing half-filled gymnasiums in cities like Manchester, New Hampshire. The non-Brian Beach Boys, to their credit, toured tirelessly—it was increasingly the only way to guarantee a steady income. Their albums could no longer crack the top 20, let alone the top 10. While Wild Honey, the soul-infused album that produced fine songs like the title track and “Darlin’”, reached a respectable 24, Friends was a bomb, falling out of the top 100.
And then came Charles Manson. The band’s entanglement with the man who would go on to spearhead one of the most infamous mass murders in American history seems strange enough to be another myth, a selection of happenstances stitched together to create a lurid narrative. But it was Dennis, the hard-living drummer, who had coincidentally picked up female hitchhikers who were members of the Manson Family. It was Dennis, in the spring of 1968, who found Manson himself in his driveway. When Dennis walked into his lavish home on Sunset Boulevard, he saw a dozen people milling around, most of them young women. It was a scene the promiscuous drummer could appreciate. The most socially adventurous of the Beach Boys, he had trouble saying no to anyone, let alone a charismatic cult leader. He was fascinated by Manson, who happened to be an amateur musician. For six months, the whole Manson Family took up residence with Dennis, who was never much for safeguarding his money or possessions. Manson and his followers cost him, in that short time, at least $100,000. They gobbled up food, clothing, penicillin shots (for persistent gonorrhea), and automobiles, wrecking his uninsured Ferrari. Dennis remained enthralled, going as far to call Manson “the wizard” in one magazine interview. In another, he tied the Manson cult’s draining of his resources to a form of self-actualization. “I had all the rich status symbols—Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, home after home,” he said. “Then I woke up, gave away 50 to 60 percent of my money. Now I live in one small room, with one candle, and I’m happy, finding myself.”
At this point, the Beach Boys had built a studio in Brian’s Los Angeles home. They had also, like the Beatles, founded their own label called Brother Records to better manage their finances. Dennis believed Manson had potential and brought him to Brian’s home, where Manson recorded numerous songs that would never be heard by the public. In September 1968, Manson recorded a song called “Cease to Exist” that was later retitled “Never Learn Not to Love” and reimagined for the Beach Boys as a catchy number on an otherwise forgettable album, 20/20. The song was credited to Dennis; Manson apparently relinquished publishing rights for, in the words of Dennis, “about a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of stuff.”
Dennis would eventually grow fearful of Manson and seek to dissociate himself from the Family. Various reports over the years have suggested Dennis thought Manson was dangerous or at least felt his drug use was out of control. He abandoned his house and left the Family to his possessions, hiding out at a friend’s basement apartment in Santa Monica. In August 1969, as Dennis sought to keep his distance as much as possible, Manson Family members perpetrated the Tate-LaBianca murders. Shortly afterward, Manson himself came to Dennis’ home demanding money. He said he had “been to the moon” and a terrified Dennis, not yet knowing what Manson and his followers had done, handed over the cash. Later on, when Manson was caught, Dennis spoke privately with the district attorney trying the case but refused to testify publicly. He believed the Manson Family was going to kill him. In the years to come, he would allege receiving more death threats.
None of this, of course, had anything to do with the Beach Boys’ music. They were now, in addition to seeming unhip, tarred by their Manson association. There was far less chatter about the record they released in 1970, Sunflower, even though it was a sharp pop album, a return to form for a band that badly needed it. Brian, so long the engine of the Beach Boys, was in retreat, and other members stepped forward with their own intriguing songs. Dennis, freed of Manson, was coming into his own as a songwriter, with “Forever” shining through. Bruce Johnston pitched in “Deirdre.” Brian’s pop instincts weren’t rewarded on the charts, but “This Whole World” could’ve been dominant before the zeitgeist turned against the Beach Boys. “All I Wanna Do”, co-written and sung by Mike Love, has been generally accepted as one of the earliest forms of dream pop and chillwave, influencing a generation of indie musicians. Critics praised Sunflower. The album still didn’t break into the top 100.
In the narrative of the Beach Boys, also-rans to the Beatles, the early 1970s are ignored. When much of their audience had moved on, the band did some of their best work, and did it increasingly without Brian, who self-medicated with cocaine, alcohol, and amphetamines. He locked himself in his bedroom as his bandmates recorded below, occasionally appearing in his bathrobe to deliver song ideas or point out criticism he had of the sound. He grappled with intense bouts of depression, contemplating suicide. Carl was the de facto leader now and the band had a new manager, Jack Rieley, who hoped to vault the Beach Boys back to relevancy, stressing socially conscious lyrics and a new sound. Rieley, something of a huckster, had strong instincts for the market, and the Beach Boys would enter the top 30 with one of their finest records, 1971’s Surf’s Up. Brian’s involvement in the production was minimal and the whole band, once more, was allowed to flex their songwriting muscle. Carl delivered his own small masterpieces, “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road,” and Bruce wrote his best song, “Disney Girls.” Rieley contributed lyrics and even sang.
The peak of the album, and perhaps my favorite stretch of music on any record, still belonged to Brian. “Surf’s Up”, a song of obscure beauty that is difficult to render into words, made its debut, heard in full by the public at last after Brian offered a tantalizing taste on the 1967 documentary. “'Til I Die”, the final track, had no collaborator. Brian wrote all the words. They reflected how he felt and what he believed life held for him now. The song conjures the dark churn of the ocean, the infinity that waits for the frail human body that slips below the waves. An organ hammers on.
I’m a rock in a landslide. Rolling over the mountainside. How deep is the valley?
I’m a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away. How long will the wind blow?
The coda is sublime in its agony.
These things I’ll be until I die.
Until I die.
Until I die.
Until I die.
The Beach Boys, for many, ceased being a creative force after 1973. That year, they released Holland, an acclaimed soft rock album that made it into the top 40. At the time, the Beach Boys were, for their white bread reputation, one of the rare multiracial rock bands in America. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar had grown up under apartheid in South Africa and played in a successful band called the Flame that attracted the attention of Carl, who signed them to Brother Records. Soon, the two were touring musicians with the Beach Boys, and it was Blondie who sang lead on “Sail on, Sailor”, the single off the album. The album was named Holland because the band had decided to record an album outside Amsterdam, hoping for new creative inspiration in Europe, where they were still very popular. In true Beach Boys fashion, they spent enormous amounts of money flying pieces of their Los Angeles studio to the Netherlands barn where they reconstructed, almost from scratch, a new studio.
Within the band, debates raged over whether to play more of the oldies or the new material. Mike Love, conscious of the band’s faltering commercial standing, leaned toward the former, while Carl preferred featuring recent work. Brian was absent from most of these debates. Ultimately, Mike won. Capitol Records, which still owned the rights to the Beach Boys’ most valuable material—the band had jumped to Reprise when their contract ended—released a new greatest hits record of pre-Pet Sounds songs called Endless Summer. Mike took credit for the title. In 1974, there was already overriding nostalgia for the Kennedy years, and the surf and sunshine of the Beach Boys fed it well. Endless Summer wasn’t just successful. It was a number one album.
The Beach Boys became, whether they liked it or not, an oldies act. Their bank accounts were flusher, so they would lean into it as hard as they could. Once more, they played to sold out concerts, commanding $50,000 a night. An ill-fated “Brian is back” PR campaign brought Brian, shaggy and overweight, to concerts and TV interviews, creating the illusion all was well with him and the band. It wasn’t. He remained deeply uncomfortable at concerts, trotted out like a bloated circus animal. Off tour, he could go missing for days, and was once found wandering the streets of San Diego, missing his shoes and wallet. Another time, Paul came to visit Brian at his home and Brian was too petrified to speak, fleeing to the chauffeur’s quarters to hide and sob. The ex-Beatle couldn’t coax him out. Despairing for Brian’s health, the Beach Boys recruited the controversial Dr. Eugene Landy to help Brian recover. Landy proved too expensive and too controlling; he helped Brian lose weight but was eventually dismissed. When Brian began deteriorating again, Landy was brought back, holding Brian captive for much of the 1980s. The psychologist controlled where Brian went, what he ate, and whom he saw. To remain in Brian’s life meant appeasing Landy. Before he lost his license and was chased out of Brian’s orbit, Landy collected several million dollars in fees for his oversight of the genius behind the Beach Boys.
Brian’s voice had deepened and thickened. The falsetto was gone but traces of magic remained. Critics praised The Beach Boys Love You, a 1977 album with punkish elements and zany imagery. It became known for pioneering the use of synthesizers and Brian’s discordant subject matter, which ranged from planetary systems to roller skating. It was the last time, perhaps, the Beach Boys were very interesting.
To the surprise of many who had followed the band, Dennis became the first Beach Boy to release a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, a well-reviewed cult favorite. Dennis, however, was too drug-addicted to sustain an artistic career, and his final years were spent drunk and destitute. His last wife, whom he had a son with, claimed to be the daughter of Mike Love, though Mike refused to acknowledge her. This made her, potentially, also his cousin. Dennis had courted her, it seemed, to spite Mike, the bandmate he hated most. Mike reviled Dennis just as much. In 1983, Dennis drowned to death, closing a definitive chapter for the Beach Boys.
The band trundled on. What else could they do? They even found in themselves one more number one hit, “Kokomo”, written entirely without Brian. Entering middle-age, the band was done innovating. They became kitsch, a pink cocktail at poolside, a dip in the salty surf. They were Ronald Reagan’s band. They managed cameos on Full House. Even Brian, improbably, showed up. The band could break up in theory, but never in practice. There would always be a Beach Boys on tour, Brian or no Brian, playing the hits. Fighting through his demons, Brian performed a version of Smile in 2004, accompanied with a full backing band and orchestra. It was a triumph. In 2011, the salvaged Beach Boys tracks from the album were released as The Smile Sessions. It was not Pet Sounds, but nothing could be, and the songs floated on, a tether to a mind that once burned like none other. The Beach Boys, a year later, released a new album, Brian and Mike reuniting for a tour. They wouldn’t get together again. To the consternation of Brian and Al, who also no longer tours with the band, Mike’s Beach Boys headlined a Donald Trump fundraiser in 2020.
Sixty years after they first walked into a studio, the Beach Boys still exist. They became a band before the Kennedy assassination and they’re still a band today, in the waning months of 2022. They will be one, probably, until most or all of the members die. There is nothing morbid about this, nothing venal. They’ll play as long as people will pay to listen, and the people will pay. No band embodies a nation, but the Beach Boys came close. America, in all its bigness and brilliance and failure, pulsed through them always.