Beach Boys

Skyline Stage, September 8

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. —George Orwell, 1984

Some young people might have a hard time comprehending that 30 summers ago the Beach Boys were considered the Beatles’ artistic superiors. They’ve done much to tarnish their legacy since, turning their live act into a lucrative nostalgia machine that celebrates and at the same time cheapens their enormous contribution to pop music. Now in their 50s, the boys of summer must see winter approaching: like their English rivals, who recently assembled a definitive video-and-CD autobiography, the Beach Boys seem to be engaged in a process of setting the record straight.

But their current retrospective projects, Stars and Stripes (on Chicago’s River North label) and The Pet Sounds Sessions, illustrate the deep divisions that have plagued the band throughout its career. The latter, a four-CD box originally slated for a June release on Capitol but held up and yet to be rescheduled, exhaustively documents the making of the album that first earned Brian Wilson the troublesome epithet of “genius.” Stars and Stripes, released last month, features a dozen country artists covering early Beach Boys hits while the band harmonizes; the first of a two-volume set, it’s the brainchild of Mike Love, Wilson’s cousin and the band’s obstreperous front man.

Joe Thomas, founder of River North, first proposed to Love the idea of a Beach Boys country album. Love, he told Billboard, replied, “If you can deliver Willie Nelson to me, I can deliver Brian Wilson to you.” As executive producer, Love positioned the Beach Boys’ hot-rod songs as forerunners of 90s country. “Both styles of music are uniquely American,” Love has said. “Both are about telling stories.”

Thomas and Brian Wilson produced Stars and Stripes, and they elicit some shining harmonies from the band on Lorrie Morgan’s “Don’t Worry Baby” and Kathy Troccoli’s “I Can Hear Music.” As a compelling and original vocal unit, the Beach Boys have the potential to age more gracefully than most 60s geezers, but they’ve yet to try a full-out a cappella record or tour. Most of the album’s country rockers fall flat, the infectious hooks of “I Get Around” and “Help Me Rhonda” handily defused by changes in tempo and rhythm, respectively. Willie Nelson’s hesitant reading of “The Warmth of the Sun” blossoms in later verses with some thoughtful phrasing. “Caroline, No,” the plaintive ballad that closes Pet Sounds, receives a full orchestral arrangement, with Timothy B. Schmit delivering a close copy of Wilson’s young, fragile vocals.

All history is subjective, the history of creative people doubly so. Love and Wilson, though quick to profess love and admiration for each other, have a long, complicated history. Wilson an inspired and intuitive songwriter, produced a string of Top 40 singles in collaboration with Love and others; in 1965 he suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out of the touring band to mastermind a series of increasingly complex and ambitious recordings that culminated in Pet Sounds. Musical differences with Love drove Wilson out of the band in 1967, and the critical adoration bestowed upon him at the Beach Boys’ expense has always been a sore point for Love. “The history of this band is like the history of Russia,” Love told Mojo in 1993. “It’s been written under a regime that distorts the past.”

Love’s preferred version of the Beach Boys’ story was embodied by Sunday’s show. At Skyline Stage, the scrim behind the band was lit with a perfect day at the beach, though cold rain pelted the roof, and east of the pavilion the lake was gray and restless. Younger players supplied the drums, percussion, organ, and bass, while the vets–Love, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, and Carl Wilson–coasted through their well-worn hits. When the crowd found a song to grab onto, the band grabbed onto the song, almost in gratitude–an edgy “I Get Around,” the chorus of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Those who braved the rain caught a surprise appearance by Brian Wilson, who was in town working on volume two of the country project. Clad in black with bright red sneakers, the bill of a baseball cap pulled over his eyes, he ducked behind a digital piano early in the set and sang on quiet, letter-perfect renditions of “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room.”

These moments of simple harmony punctuate a discordant career. Love’s contributions to the Beach Boys’ best work have been determined more by litigation than by critical observation, and Wilson has been reinvented for the public as often as a presidential candidate. A recent documentary about Wilson, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, ran extensively on the Disney Channel and briefly at the Music Box last year; it portrays him as a visionary brought down by his stubborn bandmates. The sound track, on which Wilson performs some of his less familiar songs, eschews former bandmates in favor of studio musicians.

At the time Wilson was collaborating with Andy Paley (a producer of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers) on new material for a Beach Boys album; he was also assembling The Pet Sounds Sessions with producer Mark Linett. A gargantuan project, it includes a reissue of the original mono mix, alternate takes of songs, tracking sessions in which Wilson discusses and shapes the arrangements with a large ensemble of pop and traditional instrumentalists, and a stereo version in which the vocals and instrumental tracks were digitally matched from different master tapes. It’s clearly a project based on the supposition that people will be studying this stuff in a hundred years–and clearly intended to give credit where credit is due.

The box set was finished in March, and Capitol announced a June 25 release date. EQ’s June issue featured an extensive cover story drawn from liner notes (written by Beach Boys biographer and Wilson booster David Leaf), and Billboard was planning another story on the release. On June 18, Sub Pop released a limited-edition 45 of three tracks that sold out instantly. But neither the box set nor a planned 30th-anniversary reissue has materialized. Bruce Johnston last week told the Tribune that the other Beach Boys are blocking the release because they’re “trying to remind everybody that [they] had a lot of input, and that was overlooked in the liner notes. I think the band might’ve felt they were treated like they were just backing vocalists.” Roy Gatinella, vice-president of catalog marketing at Capitol, predicts a January 1997 release; Dennis Diken of the Smithereens will author the new liner notes.

The record should show that in 1966 the Beach Boys threw their weight behind Wilson, staging highly successful tours and quickly concocting a profitable “live” party album that bought him time and funds for his elaborate project. But Wilson maintained control of the music. Upon the band’s return from the road, he presented them with finished tracks of the songs and fully arranged vocal demos; he took most of the lead vocals and frequently wanted to recut their parts himself. Love, who was uncomfortable with the record’s melancholy, convinced him to revise the lyrics of a song called “Hang on to Your Ego” (now “I Know There’s an Answer”) and came up with the title Pet Sounds.

Wilson and Love split most famously over the creation of Smile, Wilson’s psychedelic follow-up to Pet Sounds. At the time, Derek Taylor, a publicist who had previously worked for the Beatles, used the acclaim Pet Sounds had won in Britain to launch an American publicity campaign declaring Brian Wilson a genius. The pressure to deliver, aggravated by Wilson’s drug problems, collapsed the project, and Wilson began a decade-long retreat from the music business and reality.

The band’s “story” has been written many times since. David Leaf’s The Beach Boys and the California Myth was published in 1978, shortly after Wilson managed a tentative return to the band and endured another publicity campaign (this one instigated by his dubious psychologist-caretaker Eugene Landy). A pioneering effort, Leaf’s book traces the band’s musical growth and sociological context, but he presents it unapologetically as “the story of an artist–Brian Wilson–growing up, growing out, growing away from his family.” Leaf’s liner notes for the Pet Sounds CD release (1990) and the superb box set Good Vibrations (1993) operate from a similar perspective.

Quick on the heels of Leaf’s book came an “authorized” biography by Byron Preiss, which was similar in scope to Leaf’s book but was intercut with half a dozen quotations per page, as if amended by committee. The 1983 death of drummer Dennis Wilson frames Steven Gaines’s merciless Heroes and Villains, a detailed and lurid account of rock-star excess that manages to be even-handed by leaving no one unscathed but seldom articulates the beauty of the band’s music.

The loss of Dennis Wilson is also chronicled in the awkward documentary An American Band. The film collects some fine performance footage, strung together by canned narration from Love, Johnston, Jardine, and Carl Wilson. Interviews from the late 70s show Brian Wilson at his nadir, fat and nervous, lying in bed in his bathrobe. The film reaches for closure by including the Beach Boys’ meeting with President Reagan in 1983. They had long been a fixture at the White House’s Fourth of July celebration when James Watt, Reagan’s notorious secretary of the interior, replaced them with Wayne Newton, explaining, “We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism as was done in years past.”

This prompted an uproar from sympathetic fans and won Watt a gift from the president to show reporters: a plaster foot with a bullet hole in it. “I like the Beach Boys,” Nancy Reagan declared. “My kids grew up with their music.” George Bush vouched for the band too; they’d played a fund-raiser for him. Later in July the Beach Boys were welcomed to the White House for a photo op. Reagan eagerly stitched the band’s sun-and-surf days into the crazy quilt of his own fondly imagined history.

That December, Dennis, a drug-abusing alcoholic and the original surfer boy of the group, drowned in Santa Monica Bay. His wife wanted him buried at sea, which federal law prohibited. A phone call was made; Reagan gave it the nod.

Wilson got himself together in the late 80s for an eponymous solo album, and in 1991 published a ghostwritten memoir, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, widely denounced as a fabrication of Dr. Landy, from whom Wilson was separated by a legal order shortly thereafter. Love sued for defamation of character. “When it came to the first deposition in the court, Brian admitted it was made up, phoney,” Love told Mojo at the time. “He couldn’t remember what happened to him back then and he was using other people’s distorted version of events and calling it his own.” Early in 1995, Love sued for and won credit and royalties for nearly 80 of Wilson’s early songs, including “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda,” and even “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” from Pet Sounds, to which, according to lyricist Tony Asher, Love contributed only the “bompa-bomp-bom” in the last few measures.

Wilson’s side was propped up once more by the film and sound track of I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, both the work of record producer Don Was. The film portrays him as an addled but energetic man who feels deeply about music and is more candid about his own transgressions than many of his family and friends. It exonerates him for years of indolence and self-absorption, laying blame on his abusive father, his myopic bandmates, the pressures of the music business. John Cale of the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore are on hand to legitimize Pet Sounds for the Nirvana generation. But don’t go looking for a copy at your local retailer: the CD was pulled from stores in preparation for the big reissue project. Pet Sounds spent its 30th birthday out of print.

Meanwhile Wilson is working with his daughters on an album for Mercury. The second Stars and Stripes CD will arrive in spring of 1997, featuring Tammy Wynette, Ronnie Milsap, and Rodney Crowell. And the Beach Boys will probably polish their little nugget of pop history for another decade or so. We all construct ourselves from memories, burying some, heightening others, assembling a collage that will somehow keep us afloat. But eventually the tide rolls out, and like the Great Communicator, we all drift off to sea.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by James Crump-RSP.