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Dying and Not Dying in the Biographies of the Beach Boys

PopCon at MoPOP, Seattle, April, 2019. Music Matters Panel with Donna Gaines, Ramones; Karen Tongson, Karen Carpenter; Tom Smucker, Beach Boys;  Fred Goodman, Lhasa; Evelyn McDonnell, Series Editor. Photo: Curt Weiss

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s the Beach Boys were both out of favor and hard to explain or describe on this side of the Atlantic. 1971’s Dance, Dance, Dance, a Capitol records bargain bin rerelease of 1965’s The Beach Boys Today summed up the confusion with back cover notes that began “The Beach Boys are hard to put into words,” and continued, “do not offer a clear conception of the nature of man like, say, the Stones, nor like the Beatles, true images of themselves . .”

White pop groups in the USA back then were supposed to exist from before or after the Big Bang of the Beatles, but the Beach Boys were both, with a career that stretched from the New Frontier and the Civil Rights Era through the escalation of the War in Viet Nam and the rise of Second Wave Feminism, Gay Liberation, and Black Power; from the Ronettes to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. That more than a decade era called the Sixties cracked in half in the USA; and encumbered by their at-the-time perceived as hopelessly-square earlier hits, the Beach Boys struggled to regain their pop prominence on the hip, late sixties side of the break. It’s that struggle, I believe, played off against their earlier successes, dramatized by the deaths of two of the Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl and the survival of the third, Brian, that sustains their ongoing, sporadic, pop relevance.

With Brian Wilson absent in the early 1970s, the rest of the Boys evolved into a savvy, talented, tight touring group who managed to pull their entire career into focus in concert for us slowly-growing-in-numbers-and-enthusiasm American fans.

And then. . .  the astonishing success of 1974’s Endless Summer, pre-Pet Sounds early hits compilation flipped them back to the top of the charts and back into the concert arenas, overshadowing all their quirky-yet-wonderful and hip-back-in-fashion, post Pet Sounds releases, and Pet Sounds itself. 

Maybe this was the pop music part of a Watergate/oil embargo/stagflation induced reactionary nostalgia prefiguring The Age of Reagan. And maybe it was a rejection of hippie idealism and a reaffirmation of humble yet potent, mass lower-middle-class white suburban origins. And maybe it was a reclamation of really great foundational music, prefiguring indie and punk rock, and roots rockers like Springsteen and Mellencamp.  But by flipping their career on its head, back to those ten-year-old hits, the Endless Summer tsunami washed over everything from Pet Sounds and beyond and left their career as a whole unexplained. What did all the rest of it mean?

The death of Dennis Wilson in December, 1983 provided one explanation, headlines with a hook and an ending (surfer drowns) that established a beginning (sunny teenagers) and a middle (success, booze, blow, Charles Manson).   

1986’s Heroes and Villains biography and the TV movies it inspired like Summer Dreams filled this framework with family feuds, court cases, addictions, physical fights, and sexual intrigues, fair enough. But by de-emphasizing the music, this story line counterposed the scandals to fun-in-the-sun early hits, and created a cautionary tale about late sixties countercultural excess, a simplification that ignored the lonely, anxious, moody music they’d been recording from their beginnings in their only sporadically innocent early 1960s.

In death, Dennis the drug-abusing (mainly vodka) brother could become justification for sticking with the Endless Summer hits and a world view hardening towards a conservative politics –the “moral” of movies like Summer Dreams.

But did that explain Dennis? He was also the surprising composer whose songs helped keep the Beach Boys afloat beginning with the Friends album in 1968. 

It was his 1972 track, “Cuddle Up” that Twyla Tharp used to thread through and conclude her 1973 ballet/modern dance mash-up Deuce Coupe. A huge boost to Tharp’s reputation, Deuce Coupe was also the earliest successful presentation of the whole span and spectrum of the Beach Boys career beyond their own concerts. {Below are clips from the Deuce Coupe Program and from Robert Christgau’s review in Newsday.} With Brian self-exiled, Dennis explored and extended the boundaries of the Beach Boys wounded, insecure, needy masculinity – and fatally sabotaged himself with his own sex addiction, attraction to violence, and at times indulgent studio bombast.

Excerpt above from original Deuce Coupe playbill lists “Cuddle Up” as closing esong. Excerpt below is from Robert Christgau review of Deuce Coupe Newsday

 What if the Beach Boys had continued to open up while staying focused as a group after the Deuce Coupe ballet, instead of centering on the arena hits in 1974, ignoring most of his contributions?

A shadow Dennis haunts the Summer Dreams movie with a question: did Endless Summer kill him?

In 1998, youngest brother Carl Wilson succumbed to cancer. The onstage bandleader, Brian’s extra ears in the studio through Pet Sounds, the dependable perfect pitch and timber voice in concert, the producer by default of many of the later albums, Carl was also, like Dennis, for a time an important songwriter when the Beach Boys worked to rebuild their audience in the States. Outlasting his brother by 15 years, Carl returned from a brief solo career in the early 1980s and then disappeared back inside the Beach Boys, his personal story hidden behind those of his brothers and the rest of the band. His death left the Beach Boys concert tour group officially licensed to Mike Love and a reflection of Love’s perspective, effectively ending the original Beach Boys as an actual band.

Then the surprise. Brian Wilson didn’t die. Sprung loose from authoritarian-turned-demonic shrink Dr. Eugene Landy, remarried, with his psychosis rediagnosed, devasted by the death of brother Carl, Brian was now nonetheless free of any family or group obligations. He began touring with his own musicians, performed Pet Sounds live, continued to release uneven but often interesting new music and in 2004 completed, performed, recorded and released Smile, abandoned since the late 1960s.

Highbrow, lowbrow, left, center, right, literary, gossipy, progist, popist, British, American, the praise was comprehensive and universal. A piece of the big-picture, what-does-America-mean, ambitious late sixties had been redeemed, with a difficult, at times deadly, four decades long struggle.  And because this was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, that redemption was retroactive to the early sixties as well.  Lodged in a shared public consciousness, this troubled story with a real happy ending was potent enough to clear space for the creation and success of the mainstream Hollywood movie Love and Mercy, centered on Brian.

Today, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston tour with a seasoned backup band as the Beach Boys, and let’s give Mike credit in his upper 70s for staying alive and playing the big cities and small towns at home and abroad. Brian Wilson, at times too publicly frail, tours as himself with ex Beach Boy Al Jardine and Al’s son Matt, ex Beach Boy Blondie Chapin, and many of the power pop acolytes who helped resuscitate Smile. Each group favors the aesthetics and contributions of its respective leader, but the two rivals fill their shows with many of the same old crowd pleasers they co-wrote five or more decades ago.

Mike’s shows can swerve into a presentation of an unpleasant, even creepy, back-in-fashion male leer and his on-stage banter can signal an upsetting but not so surprising accommodation with Trumpist jive. Brian’s half century survival as a pop music innovator has led to collaborative acknowledgement with, among others, Kacey Musgraves and with someone we can all hope will one day be the president of the United States, or serve in AOC’s cabinet – Janelle Monae.

That makes it possible to think of Beach Boys music as an ongoing project dramatized by Brian’s survival and continuing creativity. And that’s a more hopeful interpretation for me than the idea of the Beach Boys as a twinkle from the now distant star of a lost and reimagined MAGA America dramatized by Mike Love. As an old fan it’s gratifying of course to see Janelle Monae move to center stage and bring Brian along for “Dirty Computer,” proving that his musical genius has applications beyond representations and recollections of the past.

So we are allowed to hope it’s more than a schtick or a tip of Monae’s hat to an old pro. Maybe there’s a real link between the sacralized, sexualized technology of an Afro punk droid and those half century old, strangely spiritual Beach Boys car songs, like “Ballad of Ole Betsy” and “Spirit of America,” Maybe the mechanical anima the Beach Boys sang to survives in Cyndi Mayweather. Maybe Dirty Computer is the new coda to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” after the falsetto descant, reuniting the girl and the T-bird, replacing “Daddy” with Tessa Thompson.

PopCon at MoPOP, Seattle, April 2019

Click on image to access U of Texas Press info

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