Long Promised Road

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.22.43 PMBooks about the Beach Boys tend to focus on Brian Wilson, depicting him as the “mad genius” behind the band’s music. Such accounts trace his evolution from a surf-pop wunderkind to the architect behind the masterful Pet Sounds album, then dwell almost lasciviously on the mental breakdown surrounding the recording of the long-deferred Smile album before turning to his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the troubling relationship with the Svengali-like therapist who took over Wilson’s life. While such narratives are certainly valid, they tend to ignore other members of the band—in particular Carl Wilson, the youngest of the brothers who formed the heart of the band. In Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys, Kent Crowley aims to correct that.

Less of a counter-narrative than a complementary one, Crowley depicts Carl Wilson as the emotional and musical center of the band, particularly during the years when Brian’s contributions were negligible. In Carl’s early childhood, he was a somewhat reluctant partner in his older brother’s musical machinations, only singing along with Brian under duress and as a result of maternal intercession. Yet as the band started coming together, Carl’s talents as a guitarist and his natural ear for music made him Brian’s closest confidant and later ensured his role as the band’s musical director as the oldest Wilson brother drifted further out of the picture.

As Crowley makes clear throughout the book, a combination of talent and compassion allowed Carl to hold the Beach Boys together through some of the band’s leanest years. Yet even in these lean years, Carl emerges as somewhat of a creative dynamo, crafting some of the finest, albeit most obscure, music the Beach Boys ever created. Indeed, part of the heartbreak of reading Crowley’s account of the band is seeing Carl’s desire to push the band ever forward on the artistic front while personal, financial, and cultural concerns gradually transformed the band into a nostalgia act built almost entirely on the legend of Brian’s genius.

Needless to say, Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in Beach Boys lore. While Crowley’s extensively researched and emotionally sensitive biography can’s fully extricate Carl from that shadow, it succeeds in shining a well-deserved spotlight on the brother whose love for his family and the beautiful music they created together kept the band alive when the rest of the world appeared to have given up on them.

3 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Weapon of Self-Distraction and commented:
    A review on the new book about Carl Wilson, Long Promised Road, at a cool blog. For all the many books on The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, as well as Dennis Wilson, there has never been one that looked at Carl Wilson’s life. As the boo details, and this review at Small Press Reviews details, if it wasn’t for Carl, The Beach Boys would’ve ended when Brian Wilson checked out, and into spending more time on mood-altering drugs and his sandbox.

    Disclosure Alert! I do marketing & publicity for this boo.

  2. Interesting. I guess I never thought about Carl Wilson that much before. I guess it’s always the mad geniuses and their hijinks that generate all the publicity. There are more fireworks there and it seems like everyone likes to read about eccentricity and its sometime companion self-destruction. Music can be a tricky muse.

    1. I agree… Music is definitely a tricky muse! If you want to hear some exceptional music from Carl, give the albums Surf’s Up and Holland a listen. Or the single “I Can Hear Music.” All good stuff!

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