Brian Wilson

Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited

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First, a disclaimer: I’m the author of this book! With that in mind, allow me to note, in all humility, that Tired of California, brief though it may be (weighing in at a mere 25,000 words) offers an extremely thorough account of the Beach Boys’ career in the early 1970s, culminating with the recording of their landmark (if oft-overlooked) Holland album.

For decades, the story of the Beach Boys has been the story told in the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy: Brian was the genius who put the band on the map, but a combination of drug addiction and mental illness led to his downfall. Some versions of the story, like the TV movies Summer Dreams and The Beach Boys: An American Family  also portray Brian’s “bad-boy” brother, drummer Dennis Wilson, as a doomed romantic figure whose drowning in 1983 cast a pall over the band’s fun-in-the-sun image. While all versions of this story have the band returning to their former glory in one way or another, they also leave out a brief period in the early 1970s when the Beach Boys were producing critically acclaimed albums that barely made a dent in the record charts. This period of dramatic artistic growth culminated in a prolonged visit to the Netherlands, during which the Beach Boys recorded the subject of my proposed book, Holland.

One thing that makes the Holland era so interesting is that it represents a time when the Beach Boys were trying to reinvent themselves. Central to this endeavor was the work of Jack Rieley, a somewhat shady character who insinuated himself into the Beach Boys organization and gradually took over. To give the Beach Boys new life in the public imagination, Rieley urged them to drop their greatest-hits concert act and focus on new material. He also launched a public relations campaign insisting that it was cool to listen to the Beach Boys again. This campaign, however, was built around the myth that Brian Wilson was still an active member of the band when, in fact, his participation in recording sessions was minimal. Nonetheless, efforts at conjuring the illusion of Brian’s participation led the Beach Boys to produce gems like 1971’s Surf’s Up and 1973’s Holland.

I could go on and on about this topic. Indeed, I have gone on and on about it, and I put all of my thoughts, not to mention a lot of research, into the project. If you’re curious, check it out on Smashwords: Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited.

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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.

Suddenly Something Happened

I like Jimmy Beaulieu’s Suddenly Something Happened for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that he devotes several pages of his autobiographical graphic novel to explaining his love for the music of Brian Wilson. In this brief passage, Beaulieu’s gifts as a story-teller are on full display in that the artist reveals both his affinity for the self-proclaimed “psychadelicate” pop star and his own uncertainties about his own role as a man and an artist in post-post-modern society. Indeed, what makes Beaulieu’s work so endearing throughout this graphic novel is his willingness to explore all of his insecurities — from his bad luck with women throughout his early adulthood to his long-term ambivalence over living in Montreal.

Throughout the volume, Beaulieu also does some interesting things with narrative structure: in addition to jumping back and forth in time to illustrate the ways in which the past is always with us, he also manages to illustrate the ways in which we’re always in two places at once — within our mental space and our physical space — by offering competing narratives within the space of a single story. A trip to a boutique to help his girlfriend find a dress, for example, becomes two stories in one as the dialogue focuses on the girlfriend’s purchase while the narration reveals Beaulieu’s inner thoughts regarding the state of popular music and his own peculiar guilt and ambivalence over being a fan of the genre.

Interestingly, the author also has the humility to note in a brief epilogue that he’s concerned about “every awkwardly constructed sentence” in the book because English is not his first language. Yet what the written word doesn’t convey as elegantly as the author might like, the image depicts with absolute clarity. In terms of line drawings, Beaulieu is the master of the subtle (and not so subtle) facial ticks that reveal the deepest and most pressing of emotions. Despite the book’s title, Suddenly Something Happened offers readers a glimpse of the gradual blossoming of young artist into adulthood.