Books 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.
If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampusmay be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…
Not a review this week — though it is a good book from one of my favorite authors, James Tate Hill. Instead, I’m sharing the book trailer for purely self-serving reasons… I wrote and recorded the music in the background, and I think it sounds pretty good!
In Christmas Before Christianity, Lochlainn Seabrook presents a thoroughly researched examination of the “ingredients” that have, over centuries and millennia, contributed to our contemporary understanding of what many, right or wrong, consider the holiest day of the year. Early on, Seabrook discusses the paucity of historical evidence surrounding the figure of Jesus in order to subsequently demonstrate the ways in which the relative blank slate of his biography allowed early Christians to incorporate a myriad of other belief systems into what eventually came to be accepted as canon. Chief among these other systems, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was a firm belief that the sun was the center of all life. Indeed, the author points out that, in his words, “Jesus’ birth on December 25 specifically was not mentioned by any writer, scholar, or historian” during the time in which Jesus lived; what’s more, the date traditionally associated with the birth of Christ was not established until the year 534, “not because Jesus was born on that date, but rather because the Christian masses overwhelmingly identified Jesus with the Pagan Roman sun-god Mithras, as well as with other pre-Christian solar deities, all whose birthdays fell on December 25.” In addition to investigating the ways in which pre-Christian mythology fed into the story of the birth of Christ, Seabrook also examines the origins of the season’s accoutrements including the Christmas tree (a pagan fertility symbol originating in Egypt), the tale of the three wise men (an allusion to ancient astrology and the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt), and Santa Claus (an amalgam of Odin, Thor, and various maritime deities). Other topics Seabrook explores include the evolution of Christmas cards, plum pudding, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and pantomime from their ancient forms to the ways in which we employ and enjoy them today. Altogether, a fascinating and meticulously detailed read for anyone curious about the origins of Christmas — or, for that matter, about the ways in which myths and legends evolve over time.
Word on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.
Jacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.
The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.
There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.
Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.
With a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.
Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.
Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.