Sea Changes ~~~~~~~~~~
Brian Wilson and the Cosmic-Baroque Doo-Wop
 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  by Robert Lloyd L.A. Style, November 1987

H is backyard stretches all the way to China. Somewhere between the balcony and the Imperial City, between the Earth and the moon, there are forces at work, mysterious powers animating thegreat, rolling mass that
curls and shatters at the foot of the beach house. There are a dozen surfers out in it today, their boards and bodies glistening like the Pacific in the California sun. They paddle and ride, paddle and ride, underneath his window, right underneath his nose, patient and persistent and most likely unaware that Brian Wilson lives here.
     "The ocean's very nice," Brian says quietly, gazing westward from his living room. "Very calming. When you look out, it looks like the house is sitting on the water, which makes you think you're living on a boat. The water is good for your mind. And also it kind of makes you feel that you're lost. I'll look at it right before the sun goes down, and I'll think, 'Oh, the water looks beautiful.' And then, sometimes when I see it early in the morning, I get this helpless feeling like there's nowhere to go."
     In 1961, when Brian was 19, he wrote, at the prompting of his youngest brother Dennis, a song called "Surfin'." That was the genesis of the Beach Boys, the band that for a quarter of a century Brian has dominated and been dominated by and which he has shaped, carried, struggled with, lost and depended upon in such confusing, revolving succession that he no longer knows whether he's in or he's out, or which condition he'd prefer. Now that he's a hair's breadth from completing his first solo album, he's even more uncertain. Though being a Beach Boy in the late 1980s has its advantages ("money" is the one that comes to Brian's mind), it is not, by all accounts, the eternal picnic their music -- which is to say, their early music, the only music most of the public cares to hear anymore -- has come to represent. Battening down internal squabbles, drawing a tarp over personal problems, throwing in the hold whatever artistic differences they may still have, the band even Nancy Reagan loves sets sail each summer to play the hits that now sell soft drinks and to conjure a golden age (or a dead world) from which they are long removed. But the vision persists -- "Good Vibrations," "Help Me, Rhonda," "I Get Around," "California Girls" and dozens of other songs all remain potent, and the Beach Boys, having made too much history, find themselves condemned, perhaps forever, to repeat it.
     Of any story with so many characters so tightly bound one to another for so many years -- the band ("the guys," as Brian still calls them) first included three brothers, one now dead, a cousin, and a friend from high school -- there are bound to be many versions. Brian himself subscribes to at least a couple. In one, "The Beach Boys and I don't get along.... More or less we're artistically bankrupt, or you might say we've run out of ideas.... Mike Love hates his work. And so does Carl. And Al Jardine didn't even want to play about five shows that we did on the East Coast.... I don't give a goddamn whether I tour with the Beach Boys or not."
     And in another: "We could slam dunk a sensational production if we wanted. But how bad do we want it? What is it that we really want? Survival."
     And in the best version: "We were always pretty young at heart. And I thing together, as a unit, we formed quite a Joy Team, a team of joy spreaders. We were born with it, we had it right there. So we took it on. My brother Carl said one time, "You know, the task of an entertainer is to bring joy to the world." We're kind of a team of joymakers. But it's been a haul, I'll tell you that."
B rian didn't surf: Football and basketball had been his high school sports, and the Four Freshmen his passion. That was where life really began for him, in among the shifting parts of an offhandedly modern popular vocal
group. "The Four Freshmen totally turned my head around," he says. "I'd listen, and I'd go to the piano and analyze the harmonies." A tenor, he extended his upper range singing to their records. "Let me tell you, that's quite an adventure. I sang along with the high part; and four years of nothing but Freshmen, [of matching] my voice with that particular group, turned me into a good falsetto singer. I learned to be able to sing in that register and express myself in that register."
     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.'"
B rian Wilson's first masterpiece was Pet Sounds. Issued in May 1966, it was the culmination of a line of thought that had occupied him at least since "In My Room" in '63 and "Warmth of the Sun" in '64.The best and most 
complex of Brian's early songs are his ballads, not only for their harmonic daring but for their depth of feeling and seriousness of intent and for the window they seem to open on his heart. There's something of Brian in everything he's written -- while he may not have surfed, he wasn't averse to a good time -- but he never seems more fully present than in songs about being out of place, or lonely, or afraid. Though the Beach Boys, who had not yet abandoned their matching striped shirts, had come to stand for that peculiarly American brand of hedonism often identified as innocence, their leader (already two years out of his teens when "Surfin' U.S.A." went to number three) understood that real innocence is a fragile and temporary affair.
     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.
B rian Wilson's first nervous breakdown took place on December 34, 1964, on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston. Then pressure of writing for, producing, performing in and traveling with the Beach Boys -- in an era
when pop bands were expected to deliver three LPs a year, with a steady parade of hitworthy singles in between -- simply caved him in. And so he quit the road, to save his mind and his music. In this endeavor, he was not wholly successful. Two more breakdowns followed in short order.
     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."
F or Brian Wilson to make new songs, he requires "a small room, where there's not much to see." In the house where he now lives, that space lies downstairs from the bedroom and contains an upright piano, a Yamaha
DX-7 synthesizer and a very large gong. A battered bass guitar case leans against a wall hung heavy with gold records and various certificates of honor, merit and achievement. "Look at all those awards," Brian says abstractedly, not as a boast, but as though considering what, taken together, they might say about the man who earned them.
     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.
B rian is seated at the piano. At this precise moment, a recent arrival christened "Love and Mercy" demands a hearing.
     "The song is very simple," Brian warns. "Don't expect 'Good Vibrations.'"
     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
     Show love and mercy to you and your friends 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.
     The last notes ring and fade, and Brian turns from the keyboard and smiles. Not a crazy smile.
     "That's it," he says. "Isn't that nice?"
     But the question is only rhetorical.¶


turn around

Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1987 and 2006