A Newsweek article dated May 27th…
He heard voices, did drugs and fell apart. Can the band’s reunion help put Brian Wilson back together again?
Brian Wilson, the lumbering savant who wrote, produced and sang an outlandish number of immortal pop songs back in the 1960s with his band, the Beach Boys, is swiveling in a chair, belly out, arms dangling, next to his faux-grand piano at the cavernous Burbank, Calif. studio where he and the rest of the group’s surviving members are rehearsing for their much-ballyhooed 50th Anniversary reunion tour, which is set to start in three days. At 24, Wilson shelved what would have been his most avant-garde album, Smile, and retreated for decades into a dusky haze of drug abuse and mental illness; now, 45 years later, he has reemerged, stable but still somewhat screwy, to give the whole sun-and-surf thing a final go.
Before that can happen, though, the reconstituted Beach Boys must learn how to sing “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” the first new A-side thatWilson has written for the band since 1980. They are not entirely happy about this. Read the rest of this entry »
The Beach Boys’ brand new song, featuring Brian Wilson – their first in many years.
Another take on BW’s 2008 album, this time by Micah Towery, Aug. 29, 2008 from Slant magazine…
That Lucky Old Sun is Brian Wilson’s tribute to his favorite place on Earth: Southern California. This literal and metaphorical geography is a mantra to which he always seems to return. And that’s not exactly a bad thing. It gives a sense of place, even perspective (each state seems to carry its own historical and artistic connotations, as Sufjan Stevens has demonstrated). Wilson does not lie about where he comes from, nor does he feel compelled, like Dylan and Stevens, to continually remake himself or try on different mantles of style and influence. Wilson is a workhorse for his idiom, which has always been a distinctly American one, rooted in the literal geographic—or in the case of Smile, historical—place. Old Sun is the distillation of this method. One could even call it a concept album in the tradition of Johnny Cash’s America and Ride This Train (complete with the narrative interludes!).
This does not mean Old Sun simply rehashes more of the same, or treads the same water because it focuses on Southern California exclusively. In many ways, Wilson updates his style, while still paying tribute to the things he loves. The recurring title track describes the sun as a kind of bum who drifts around, just taking it all in while everyone else works hard in its glare. In many ways, Wilson associates his life (and art) with that of the sun. A large Read the rest of this entry »
An advertisement for the long, long, long-awaited release (as a box set and as a 2-CD distillation) of The Beach Boys’ fabled, brilliant unreleased 1967 masterpiece.
Even though we’ve heard this many times before, it looks like the legendary original Smile (or as much of it as was completed before being abandoned in 1967) will finally be released this year by Capitol Records. If this is indeed true, let us begin celebrating. This article comes from the Crawdaddy! website, Feb. 8th of this year…
By now we’re all pretty well versed in the lore of Smile, the album written by Brian Wilson and recorded by the Beach Boys in ’66-’67 as a would-be follow-up to their landmark Pet Sounds, but was never released. Conflict within the band, between the band and Capitol Records, in the individual lives of band members and in Wilson’s own wavering psyche caused the album to be shelved for almost 40 years, until just a few years ago when Wilson decided to resurrect the project and re-record it on his own (with help from Van Dyke Parks). Brian Wilson Presents Smile came out in 2004, scored a 13 on the Billboard charts and earned three Grammy nominations, including Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, which Wilson won in the first Grammy victory of his solo career. Read the rest of this entry »
A review of Brian Wilson’s new album (released this week) by Joseph Jon Lanthier from Slant magazine (Aug. 14, 2010). My own take on the album to be coming in the near future…
Even when boiled down to its bar-and-staff bedrock, the legacy of George Gershwin is hardly free from the socially regressive mystique that ribbons most cultural benchmarks of the early 20th century. We’re likely to be debating whether Rhapsody in Blue classily legitimized or smoothly bastardized black motifs until we achieve the ethnic monotone prophesied by Bulworth. Read the rest of this entry »
After the minor success of Carl Wilson’s 1981 self-titled debut solo album, he was determined to make a name for himself outside of his role with The Beach Boys, whom he felt were becoming increasingly irrelevant as a creative force due to Mike Love’s desire to steer the band down the path of a nostalgia-peddling oldies act.
Oldest brother Brian, the former undisputed leader and genius of the band was still struggling with longtime substance and mental issues during this time and, after a few years back at the helm, was, once again, unwilling and unable to lead the band. Middle brother Dennis, who nobody ever seemed to take seriously, despite his obvious songwriting talents, was deep into his alcoholic decline which would result in his accidental drowning by the end of 1983 at the age of 39. Carl, who seemed to be the only member of the band left who showed any desire to keep them moving ahead as a creative force, was outnumbered by the more conservative factions in the band, and had too much of an easygoing personality to force the issue. He simply bowed out when the fighting got too intense and his peacemaking efforts failed.
So after coming out with his uneven but mostly solid first effort, he settled down to the task of recording album #2. He decided not to use hitmaking producer and longtime band associate Jim Guercio this time around, and went with Jeff Baxter as producer. Also, unlike the first album, Carl decided to record some oldies along with a handful of originals. Unfortunately, he seemed to be trying too hard, like Carlos Santana and many others during this time, to get a hit single at all costs with big-name producers – even at the risk of losing what made them special in the first place. They were clearly aiming for the AOR market that was big at the time. On Carl’s first album, his personality still came through, if only sporadically, and he recorded some genuinely excellent songs. On Youngblood, though, he went in more of a generic hard rock direction that wasn’t really his forte, as well as also going the MOR adult contemporary route on the ballads.
It’s sad that he chose to use outside producers on both of his albums and not do the job himself, since he clearly showed immense talent in that regard. What’s also unfortunate is that Carl never went solo in the late-‘60s-early-‘70s when he was writing and producing some of his best songs. I guarantee the songwriting and production would have been much more creative and organic-sounding during that time than it is here. Corporate AOR rock didn’t exist yet, and music wasn’t so sterile and overproduced like it became by the following decade. Carl, along with Dave Davies of The Kinks, simply waited too long to finally step out of the shadows of their more famous brothers. By the time the spotlight was directly on them, it appeared they didn’t really have anything left to say, or else decided to bury their creativity and go for the overly-commercial and slick hard rock sound that dominated early-‘80s radio.
Don’t get me wrong – a lot of that type of music was enjoyable, if on a superficial level, but with someone like Carl Wilson, you simply hoped for more. Still, it’s never right to judge someone by what you think they should be doing – you have to judge them by the terms they have set for themselves, as well as the fashions that were popular at the time. Besides, who’s to say that the music Carl created on his own wasn’t a genuine reflection of his musical tastes? Judging the album on its own terms, though, I have to say that, unfortunately, it wasn’t really all that good, even within the boundaries of said genres.
The first two songs rock out in a generic, overheated way. It could be just about anyone recording this stuff. And why did every producer of that time feel the need to use cheesy-sounding synths and generic, sub-Sanborn saxophones in every other song? His version of the 1975 John Fogerty song “Rockin’ All Over the World” is better but still doesn’t compete with the original.
The ballads are on the sappy side and don’t hold a candle to the previous album’s “Heaven.” His cover of Leiber & Stoller’s “Young Blood” (surprisingly spelled as one word in the album title) is good. It could have been a bit stronger but is enjoyable nonetheless. One of the better songs on the album, surprisingly, is the last song, “Time,” which resembles REO Speedwagon, of all groups. It might sound like a Kevin Cronin knockoff, but it resembles one of his better tunes, and ends the album on a somewhat positive note. It clearly doesn’t erase the fact that this album was a disappointment for Carl Wilson fans though.
Is this it worth a listen if you are a fan of his? Definitely — anything Carl sang is worth hearing. If it were to finally come out on CD, should you go buy it? Perhaps. Is it something you will listen to often? Hardly.
By the time this album had come out, Carl returned to The Beach Boys and resigned himself to living out the rest of his days playing golden oldies to fans who didn’t seem to mind. In 1985 they came out with their final album of all-new material (and final one featuring Brian), a slick self-titled release, which Carl had a big hand in, and whose songs are better than anything here. Still, Carl, unfortunately, never followed through on the strong early promise he showed in the early ‘70s. Perhaps living in his older brothers’ shadows (especially Brian’s), as well as letting Mike Love take over in the later years, was too stifling for him. I think under different circumstances he could have been much more than just a brilliant singer. Then again, what’s so bad about that? When given the right material, Carl was simply one of the best.
Carl Wilson, the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, was, unquestionably, the best singer The Beach Boys had in their ranks – he possessed one of the most fragile, heartbreakingly beautiful voices in all of rock ‘n’ roll, especially when he sang falsetto. He could literally sing the phonebook and bring tears to your eyes. Simply put, the man sang, to quote an unreleased song of his, with “an angel’s voice.” Just one listen to songs like “God Only Knows” or “I Can Hear Music” bears this fact out. That he could also sing in a tougher, more masculine-sounding voice, like he does on 1967’s “Wild Honey,” and be just as convincing, showed just what an amazing vocal ability he truly possessed.
He also showed some of the songwriting genius of older brothers Brian, and to a lesser extent, Dennis, but he didn’t have the ambition that either one of them had. He did reveal a more experimental side with “Feel Flows” from the 1971 Surf’s Up album, and, of course, he co-wrote many other excellent songs for The Beach Boys, including “The Trader” and “Long Promised Road,” but his songs seemed to lack the ambitiousness of the songs Brian wrote for Pet Sounds and Smile, or even the type that Dennis wrote for his 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue. Perhaps it was the fact that he didn’t have the demons inside him that seemed to drive Brian to immortal status, and which sparked Dennis, intermittently, throughout his short, troubled life. Carl was always the most grounded of the three. He was also not nearly as prolific a songwriter as Brian. He did show amazing talent, though, especially for production, and he was the main driving force during the late-‘60s-early’70s era of The Beach Boys, as they moved on without the guiding light that Brian had been for them during their best days.
By the late ‘70s, though, the band had started on the long decline toward irrelevance and nostalgia-peddling that continues to this day. They also were not getting along, with the band divided evenly between the non-drug-taking, conservative members of the band (Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston), who wanted to simply please the crowds, and the drugged-out, ambitious Wilson brothers, who were still trying to keep the band relevant and creative. Perhaps due to Dennis’ increasing interest in starting a solo career, at the same time as his life was spinning inexorably out of control, and Brian’s continued mental issues and lack of interest writing for The Beach Boys, Carl was outnumbered. The conservative half of the band won out, and Carl, like his two brothers, lapsed into substance abuse as the decade grew to a close.
Carl eventually straightened himself out, unlike Dennis (Brian would eventually sort himself out as well, but that, of course, is a whole other story), and moved forward into the 1980s with renewed purpose. For a couple of years during the beginning of the decade Carl decided he had had enough of the constant bickering within the band and the unwillingness to expand creatively, and decided to try his hand at a solo career. Surprisingly, he chose to move in a more AOR (album-oriented rock) musical direction, and away from the sound of The Beach Boys. Then again, considering that this was the time when AOR ruled the airwaves, and assuming that he was simply trying to stake out a separate musical identity for himself, perhaps it’s not such a surprise that he would go this route. For the most part, it actually worked.
It would have been nice to have seen this become an opportunity for Carl to show that he was just as much of a songwriting and production genius as Brian was, and to unleash his own personal Pet Sounds or Smile, or to write more songs along the lines of “Feel Flows,” but it wasn’t to be, whether by choice or design. The resulting album, Carl Wilson, was what he chose to release to the public, and even though it might not be what fans were hoping for, and despite the fact that it fails to reveal much about the true nature of the artist, it’s still a commendable effort, and has aged much better than a lot of similar AOR-styled music from that time.
Some of the songs on the album reflect a much harder edged sound than we are used to hearing from Carl, or any member of The Beach Boys, for that matter. Carl stated around this time that he wanted to “rock out” and have some fun, and there is certainly a more guitar-heavy sound throughout, including guitar solos that wouldn’t have been out of place on an Eddie Money album. Still, it would have been better if he hadn’t gone for the somewhat stilted corporate rock sound that afflicted so much music of the time. Be glad, though, that the album wasn’t made later in the decade, or it probably would have had even less of an organic feel to it, and more of the sterile and overly slick production that has dated so much of the music that was released in the latter half of the ‘80s, including The Beach Boys’ 1985 self-titled comeback album. At least here, the production isn’t too much of a hindrance.
“Hold Me” gets the ball rolling in a very commercial vein, with a catchy chorus, and sung as a duet with Myrna Smith, a former Elvis Presley backup singer, who co-wrote all the songs on the album with Carl. It was the first single released off the album, and why it didn’t become a big hit might have to do with Carl’s lack of name recognition at the time. He wasn’t really known to the general public outside of The Beach Boys. People certainly knew his voice when they heard it, but didn’t always realize who the man was that was singing, and probably only knew his face from band photos.
The next song, “Bright Lights,” also could have been a hit, but was never released as a single. After that, there are a few generic songs that are redeemed mostly by Carl’s forceful singing.
The highlight of the album is “Heaven,” which might be one of the most beautiful songs he ever wrote. It’s a pretty, moving song, that in lesser hands, might have come across sappy, but which Carl handles with his usual expertise. It became an adult contemporary hit for him, and later was sung in concert, with The Beach Boys, as a tribute to Dennis, after his untimely passing. Another highlight is “Hurry Love,” the B-side to “Hold Me,” which features another beautiful vocal effort by Carl.
“The Grammy” sounds decent enough during the verses, but is let down by the background vocals and an undistinguished chorus. It ends without making much of an impression. “Seems So Long Ago” ends the album on a more positive note, despite threatening to cross over the line into schmaltz. The song, and the album, finish with a long sax solo, and Carl humming along.
Even though the album was a bit uneven in quality and style, it was still a solid first effort. The album didn’t establish Carl as a hit-making solo artist, though, and by the time he came out with his second effort, 1983’s Youngblood, Carl had returned to The Beach Boys where he remained until his death from cancer in 1998. Sadly, by the late ‘80s, he seemed to have stopped writing new songs, and settled into the nostalgia route that Mike Love steered the band on.
It’s a shame his solo albums didn’t sell more. If they had, he might have never returned to The Beach Boys, and perhaps would have continued growing as an artist. He never reached his full potential as an artist, just like Dennis, only for different reasons. Still, his passing was a definite loss to the music world, but thanks to his brilliant Beach Boys efforts, and the best songs from this unfortunately-out-of-print album, Carl Wilson will never be forgotten.
Beach Boy biographer David Leaf wrote this obituary for Dennis Wilson in 1983 (I’m assuming December, since that’s when Dennis died) for BAM magazine…
In November 1983, after the Beach Boys’ opening night concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, I spoke with Brian Wilson backstage. During a long conversation, Brian asked me whether I liked the way the group had performed “Surfer Girl.” As their harmonies had been mediocre, and as I’ve never deliberately hurt Brian’s ultrasensitive feelings, my answer was evasive. But it was also the truth.
“Brian, I don’t know why, but it was on that song that I missed Dennis the most. You know, the way he stands at the microphone, with his hand in his ear, his eyes closed, singing and swaying with the music. It’s just not the same when he’s not there.”
Dennis would never perform with the Beach Boys again. He died just a month later, weeks after his thirty-ninth birthday. And if you had seen Dennis in the last year, his death really wasn’t a surprise.
I last saw him in April 1983 at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey. It was obvious that something serious was wrong. He could barely speak, let alone sing, and his once muscular surfer’s body seemed doughy. Describing it to friends, I called it “beer bloat.”
Whatever the L.A. County Coroner ultimately concludes, my feeling is that Dennis’s death wasn’t from alcohol or drug abuse so much as a cumulative overdose of life. Nobody I’ve ever known lived a more intense existence. When Dennis Wilson worked, it was nonstop, for days at a time until he would collapse from exhaustion on a studio control room couch. And when he played – well, let’s just say that in recent years, he was more a “player” than a worker.
The night he died, a South Bay newspaper reporter asked me to characterise Dennis. I told him that Dennis’s most fascinating personality facet was his intense curiosity. Dennis wanted to know everything through experience, and he attacked life with a combination of blind faith and childlike innocence. He lived his life with a freshness and vitality, all that really mattered was this one, wonderful moment of now. Dennis was a perpetual bad child, but he could always win your forgiveness with his smile.
Incredibly, it was not an act. Dennis had never been taught how to deceive people, and he was genuine. In his dealings with the media, Dennis was easily the most candid and revealing member of his family and the group. A rare combination – intensity and honesty; and Dennis didn’t lie – except maybe to himself. As with Keith Moon and other dead rock stars, chronology is relatively meaningless. Dennis Wilson lived more life in a month than most people do in a lifetime; we need not feel badly just because he died so young. We mourn not only for his youth but the waste. He had much to give, and he only tapped a fraction of that. On albums like Sunflower, Dennis bloomed, and his emotional artistry would later see its first (and last) major expression on his impressive debut album, Pacific Ocean Blue. His music was adult and maturing, and there was the promise of more to come. Sadly, he never really knew how much his music was appreciated.
Dennis seemed uncomfortable with his talent (who wouldn’t be, in the shadow of Brian?), and while insisting that his brother “Brian, is the Beach Boys,” Dennis overlooked the fact that he, Dennis, was the Beach Boy. He, with his sandy hair and winning grin, was the one the girls screamed for.
In his personal life, Dennis acted as if he feared nothing, including death. Some people said he was self-destructive, but from what I saw, Dennis approached almost everything he did as a challenge. Maybe he pushed himself beyond the limit so that he could prove that for himself, there were no limits. And for Dennis, there was so much to try that it was inevitable that he would cross the boundaries of “acceptable behavior.”
Not that this is an apologia for Dennis. He could be rude and irresponsible. But when he was sober, Dennis often exhibited to his fans a modest charm and unexpected thoughtfulness. He made everybody he was with think they were the most important person in the world at that single second. He was sincere, but like a child, would move on to a new toy. Maybe worst of all, Dennis didn’t know how to say no.
There were qualities he kept hidden, too. Perhaps most moving was the remark one of Dennis’s children made after Dennis died. “Mommy,” he cried, “things will never be the same again. No one can make me laugh like Daddy can.”
When I heard that Dennis had died, I was determined not to dwell on the sadness; and when BAM Magazine asked me to write a reflective memoir on what Dennis Wilson meant to California music, I began to flash back to the times when I had seem him or been alone with him. Like the day I had watched him vigorously perform his promotional duties for his pride, Pacific Ocean Blue; that night, he took me and a bunch of other writers into Brother Studio to sing on “He’s A Bum,” teaching us that making records was hard work.
Later that night, Dennis was at the piano in his beachside house. He pounded out “Heroes and Villains” at the piano, and then smoothly and with a musical wink, moved into “River Deep, Mountain High.” By three in the morning, he had me writing Iyrics to a new song of his. And as the night wore on and I fought sleep, he told me a little about his time with Charles Manson, and the fear he still lived with. As dawn broke, he was on the phone, rousting friends.
There were also the concerts in the early ’70s when Dennis would sit at the piano and humbly play his beautiful, haunting love songs like “Barbara” and “I’ve Got a Friend,” as if to say, “I know they’re not as good as Brian’s, but …” or at the end of the show, when caught up in the crowd’s excitement, he peeled bandages off his hand and jumped onto his rightful perch – the drums.
Possibly my favorite memory is the time he called me at three in the morning. He was reading the book I wrote about the band, [“The Beach Boys and the Californian Myth”], and he had been hurt by something I’d written. He demanded to know the source of a fact. “Dennis,” I softly replied, “normally, I wouldn’t reveal a source, but itl this case, I’ll make an exception. Your mother told me that.” Dennis countered with “Why did you listen to her?” We both erupted in laughter. I think that was the last time I spoke with him.
I certainly don’t claim to have been a close friend of Dennis Wilson’s, but the time I’ve spent with him and his music has always been precious. I hope that I’ve absorbed just a little of his spirit. He was alive! In death, I pray he finds his peace.