|Sea Changes ~~~~~~~~~~|
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ by Robert Lloyd L.A. Style, November 1987
When "Surfin'," cut almost on impulse for the small Candix label, became a local hit, and Capitol Records followed with a check for $600 on the basis of demos for "Surfer Girl," "Surfin' Safari" and "409," Brian found himself suddenly on the crest of his very own perfect wave. The Beach Boys became his point of communion with something big inside himself and in the world beyond, and the songs began to pour out. Not just sprightly, drum-driven odes to fun fun fun on the beach and in the streets, but gorgeous, plaintive ballads, offering thick Freshmenesque harmonies, breathtaking changes and sky rocket melodies limited only by Brian's stratospheric top note. "When the Beach Boys started," he says, "I was on my ass with creativity." Surfing and cars and the mundane details of teenhood provided the main context -- more from its having already proved itself a viable hook than from any messianic devotion to the subject -- but the life came from the music, and the music came to reshape the context. Deuce coupes and surfboards were abandoned finally not because those fads had run their course, but because the sounds erupting in Brian's head were so far beyond genre as to make genre impossible.
In the mid-'60s, inspired in part by the galloping productions of Phil Spector ("I think everybody took a lesson from him") and in part by the psychedelic drugs that would too soon overwhelm him, Brian began to conceive his pop in symphonic terms, building up songs out of timpani, castanets, cello, flute, French horn, bicycle horn, wind chimes, theremin, church organ, accordion, coconut shells, banjo, vibraphone, tack piano, glockenspiel and harpsichord. But where Spector piled track upon track in order to transform his musicians into a juggernaut of pure, solid sound, Brian worked in clean lines and counterpoint to a more thoughtful end. Most important, he had access to one instrument that was never Spector's to use. He had the Beach Boys, those peerless voices; and he pushed them, as he pushed himself, toward a manner of expression that had no real precedent in popular music, toward a kind of cosmic-baroque doo-wop, wherein the four Freshmen would be exploded into a thousand parts, to be set swirling in canons and fugues and stratified, cyclical refrains. "The guys" were Brian's first and best orchestra -- he could ask Carl to sing like a clarinet on "Heroes and Villains," and Carl could do it -- and he opened holes in the accompaniment to afford them more room. His music grew airier, less aggressive, more personal -- it began at times, even to whisper. "I wanted to create sounds," Brian says, "that people could hear and yet not really have to listen too hard for -- a background thing that is there so subtly that it is not really going to bother you. We have that sound that is subliminal, almost. But I think that's one of the reasons we've been around so long, because we put out sounds that people can listen to without having to say, 'Whew, great group!" They just say, 'Hey.'"
That, to make an exceedingly rich work too simple, is the theme of Pet Sounds, a record not about youth but the passing of youth, and what that seems to promise and what it finally exacts. That the party could not continue indefinitely was a radical proposition for any pop band in 1966, let alone the one that had strung the decorations and mixed the punch, and Brian made it the subject of his most visionary compositions and arrangements. Nothing on Pet Sounds is as simple as it sounds, and nothing is gratuitous. It's chamber pop, achingly lovely and highly charged, in the service of the language of the heart. Where the hunt had once been for the thrill of romance, it was now for the necessary comfort of love; but love is hard to find, and harder to keep. "Where did your long hair go?" the composer sings at the album's wrenching close. "Where is the girl I used to know? Oh, Caroline, no." The surfer girl is gone for good, and her former suitors looses a falsetto cry so poignant and pained you can feel his world crack 21 years away. Two years before Jimi Hendrix needlessly (and, as it turned out, wrongly) declared, "You'll never hear surf music again," Brian Wilson had already swept the beach clean.
Pet Sounds did not sell well, and Brian -- who will tell you today that the record was "too high and girly" and that he regrettably "got into a more feminine sound than I anticipated I ever would" -- would never leave himself quite so open (or sound quite so adult) again. But the music -- the music was coming now in torrents, and later that same year the Beach Boys released Brian's next masterpiece, "Good Vibrations," a song that crams five distinct movements into the space of three and a half minutes, and which required an unheard-of six months, four studios and, depending on your source, anywhere from $16,000 to $50,000 to finish. It hit number one in mid-December, by which time Brian was already deeply involved in what he described to his latest and most interesting (if not necessarily best) lyrical collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, as a "teenage symphony to God."
This was Smile, which was to have included a suite on the elements and an abstract musical history of the settling of the West; it was never properly completed, though fragments ("Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up," "Cabinessence") trickled out onto various LPs through the early '70s. On the evidence of what remains, Smile might have been something to reckon with; at the very least, it would have been the world's first art-rock LP. But Brian lost his way, and perhaps his nerve, somewhere among the stacks upon stacks of tracks he was assembling toward an increasingly uncertain end. The drugs in which he was now utterly awash undoubtedly had more than a little to do with that, but perhaps no more than what he saw as lack of internal support for his new music. To do what's expected or to explore the unexpected has been the great and recurring conundrum of the Beach Boys' post-surf career. And Brian, whose allegiance has ever been torn between the muse that beckons him forward and what he perceives to be his responsibility (as leader, actual or nominal) toward his brothers and band, still smarts from the lack of faith in his ability the very question implies. "I felt like a mother who was tending to her children," Brian says. "I said, 'Well, you need this, you need this kind of music, these harmonies here.' And I still have that kind of instinct in me. I don't understand why it always falls on my head to accomplish something that is different from what's already happened. You might want to do the same thing that somebody else did -- that would be copying. But if you did the same exact thing, there's no way anyone could tell you [sneering], 'Hey, what's that?' It would be more like [approvingly], 'All right, all right!' So that's why I don't, you know...."
After the Smile debacle, the band, with expectations quietly lowered, closed the decade with a trio of modest but rewarding LPs that saw Brian in steady retreat from the front line. They rang in the 1970s with the luminescent Sunflower, a true group effort that brought Brian temporarily back into the fold and includes some of his (and the group's) best writing. Surf's Up (Brian basically out again) was its somewhat disappoint successor, but on the basis of the title song's connection to the already legendary Smile, it excited enough public interest and critical acclaim to put the Beach Boys back on the map and on the road, where they've since been a steady draw. Brian was once more rehabilitated for the mid-'70s 15 Big Ones and the sketchy but heartfelt The Beach Boys Love You (over which he exercised nearly complete if not always careful control), but for the last decade the group on record has been a mostly unmemorable affair.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of Brian's career is that he's almost as famous for being crazy as he is for making music. (One of the more unfortunate aspects of his life is that this fame has a basis in fact.) Just as Van Gogh will never be shut of his severed ear, nor Elvis Presley of his banana splits and pills, Brian must continue to contend with the public memory of his most eccentric inspirations and acts. The piano in the sandbox, the tent in the living room, the purple house, the burned tapes, the waterfall of drugs, the years spent in bed, the night he went to the Troubadour in his bathrobe -- these episodes all clatter along behind him like tin cans tied to the tail of a cat.
"Don't throw me in the sanitarium yet," he says, I'm not ready to go to the insane asylum yet. I still feel there's a little bit of sanity left inside me, and a little bit of level-headedness. Could be more square than anything else, but at least it's level."
Sometime in the mid- to late '60s, Brian -- his constitutional shyness compounded by drugs, creeping agoraphobia and career/artistic/personal frustration -- began to divorce himself from the world. He was by then enough of a power -- as a hitmaker, first, and then, with Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" and the promise of Smile, as a "genius" -- to be granted the license to get away with it. By the mid-'70s, swelled to twice his natural size, he had retreated so far that he wouldn't even leave his room.
Brian's then-wife, Marilyn Rovell, contacted Dr. Eugene Landy, a high-profile psychologist with a reputation for cracking hard cases, especially those involving drugs, by a program of round-the-clock "therapy" and dictatorial control. Landy was indeed able to get Brian out of bed and back into the Beach Boys; and when Brian backslid dangerously over several years subsequent to the doctor's dismissal (for, it is speculated, reasons of cost and interference in group affairs), Landy returned, ironically at the band's behest, to do it again. Fitness trainers slimmed and toughened the patient's body; a vocal coach rehabilitated his larynx. Brian has worked hard to shake his "drunken-bum image." He's stopped smoking, stopped drinking, stopped taking drugs (even coffee is out). "Drugs took me on a little trip," he says. "I'm really sorry for taking them. I think they fouled up my brain."
Brian spends a lot of time in this room. "I devote my life to my music," he says, and the statement is nearly heartbreaking for its being so evidently, so absolutely true.
For the last 14 months, he's been working on his solo album. "It seems like a godawful long time, but that's what it takes to get the sounds right. I'm conscious of the fact that if we don't get the right sound, ten years later I'm going to be mad at myself." Just as he chides himself now, by way of example: "Oh, why did I let Mike go flat on 'California Girls'?"
The album's "executive producer" is Dr. Eugene Landy, who has also of late been splitting writing credits with Brian. "I have a sneaking feeling that my doctor is a mental telepathist and can actually plant musical ideas in my brain," says Brian. "I'm crazy to that extent." He notes that "Gene changes the lyrics very often, totally revamps the lyrics" and that, in addition, "Dr. Landy is considering doing some singing on the album."
It does not appear to be an entirely congenial collaboration. "I could go into the studio today and cut a top-ten record. I have a song called 'I Am Broke,' which could be a smash." Will it be recorded? "No. Dr. Landy doesn't like it. He thinks it's too simple. He doesn't think there's any song to it." Landy also hinted to Brian that one of his new songs "might be a little outdated." "I didn't know what to say. Let me just say that the kind of music I hear is way beyond having someone tell me I am out of touch."
Still, Brian believes that if it were not for Landy (who has become, in essence, the executive producer of his whole life) he would be dead now -- a possibility, certainly -- and he's willing to follow even the doctor's musical orders, however much they contradict his own instincts. And he may have an inkling that, left to his own devices, he might well not record anything at all, and his songs would live and die in the confines of a small room in Malibu.
For the Captain of a Joy Team, such a condition, if it were even thought to be permanent, would be exactly death. Brian Wilson's great gift is to midwife beautiful, durable music into a confused and fleeting world. It's a public service, one might say, and it requires a public.
He begins to play, one hand beating pop-elegant chords in a characteristic pulse, the other counterpunching to enliven the rhythm. It only takes a couple of measures for the thrill of recognition to kick in. The manner and order of one chord's fall into the next, the voicings, the phrasing of melody -- it's not "Good Vibrations," nor anything else you've heard before, but it's unmistakably Brian Wilson's. His voice, restored from gravel by care and desire, soars, makes it all sound personal. Which it probably is.
Love and mercy that's what
you need tonight
"Brian's Back" -- thus have
his periodic resurrections been celebrated and
ballyhooed and marketed across the last dark decade and
a half. Back to where, though, is never actually
said; most likely, no one really knows. Let's not be
premature -- let's just say he's on his way from a place
he hated to a place he can manage to live, and that this
much is clear: When Brian Wilson makes music, he is
quite completely here.
Copyright Robert Lloyd
© 1987 and 2006