It is impossible, philosophers tell us, to know joy without pain. Thus, it’s also reasonable that one of the most joyous songwriting legacies of the 20th century was accompanied by more tribulation than one man should bear. In a career that began 40 years ago with the rather modest debut of “Surfin’ USA,” Brian Wilson developed a revered melodic genius that embraced both grace and melancholy, and with his re-emergence in the last few years, his impact is once again being felt on pop culture. It is impossible, philosophers tell us, to know joy without pain. Thus, it’s also reasonable that one of the most joyous songwriting legacies of the 20th century was accompanied by more tribulation than one man should bear. In a career that began 40 years ago with the rather modest debut of “Surfin’ USA,” Brian Wilson developed a revered melodic genius that embraced both grace and melancholy, and with his re-emergence in the last few years, his impact is once again being felt on pop culture.
Wilson, whose disdain for touring with The Beach Boys was legendary, became something of a hermit after those initial recordings of sand, surf and fun, fun, fun brought the group to national acclaim. Little deuce coupes and surfer girls promoted the ideal California vacation in two-and-a-half minute vignettes that mixed the harmonic mesh of The Four Freshmen with the urgent beat of Chuck Berry. But, while those songs were enormously successful they did not entirely fulfill Wilson’s creative drive. The “sunshine and surf,” he says today, “that’s kinda Mike Love’s trip, you know?”
Indeed, the ultimate trip that Wilson took with his music was initially disapproved of by the touring Beach crew. Lurking inside him was music that blended symphonic ideals, dense chord structures and ethereal lyrics. It was only after he retired from touring that Wilson was able to break long-established songwriting rules in creating such pieces as “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows” and “Surf’s Up.” Going against the grain was – despite the safe, clean-cut image of The Beach Boys – a constant goal. “We tried very, very, very hard to,” Wilson notes. That they were able to accomplish that goal while maintaining some compatibility with the pop format is impressive.
Wilson’s story is not a pretty one. Raised with brothers (and fellow Beach Boys) Dennis and Carl in Hawthorne, Calif., Brian was subject to physical and emotional cruelty by a father who was supportive only of his musical aspirations. He lost the hearing in his right ear, but was driven to perfection, building an inner turmoil that was heightened when the group reached national prominence. Even as “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Help Me Rhonda” and “Don’t Worry Baby” carved out an indelibly upbeat pop legacy for the band, the endless promotion schedules and touring demands added to the weight of Wilson’s responsibilities, which included him acting as The Beach Boys’ producer, arranger and chief songwriter. In December 1964, he experienced a nervous breakdown on a flight with the band. “I wanted to stay home and write music for the guys while they toured,” he now says, with obvious understatement. Working in seclusion, untreated depression took hold, and the use of heavy narcotics added to a numbness that seemingly lasted for years.
But in the beginning of his retirement from touring, Wilson used the time to throw himself into a number of pop masterpieces. “Good Vibrations,” with its interlocking segments – a sort of pop version of the classical sonata, consisting of a series of musical movements – still ranks among Rolling Stone’s top 100 pop singles of all time, while its format has been borrowed by such other ambitious efforts as Wings’ “Band On the Run,” The Beatles’ “Day In The Life” and Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding/Funeral For A Friend.” “God Only Knows” had the audacity to actually flaunt religious beliefs in its title, and “Surf’s Up” became the ultimate hybrid of pop and brooding serenity.
“It’s got nine melodies in it, somethin’ like that,” Vince Gill humorously protested after he was asked to sing “Surf’s Up” in a TNT tribute to Wilson last year. “It’s insane.”
As is trying to figure out exactly how Brian Wilson writes. His earlier drug abuse and his current anti-depressants prevent him from being deeply articulate. His inability to convey what’s going on inside, however, may have plagued him throughout his life, leading one to believe that Wilson simply exists on another plane. The release of Hawthorne, CA, a double CD loaded with studio out-takes and alternate tracks, showed that Wilson had difficulty conveying his thoughts even before his legendary experimentations. In the intro to “Salt Lake City,” he tries to emphasize the approach he wants the bass to take, but ultimately conveys it with loud guttural sounds that make little sense from a strictly aural standpoint. He got what he wanted in the studio from sheer perseverance.
So it’s not surprising that Wilson reveals little in the way of detail for his songwriting process. He has no explanation for his melodic gift. “I think it comes from Heaven,” he says, “from up in Heaven,” though he does concede that the melodies come more sporadically.
Songwriting now is “not really as enthusiastic a trip,” he admits. “There’s not as much inspiration that goes into it.” The kind of music he made – and continues to create – is in short supply today. Pop music seems sliced into unchallenging boy-band ditties; the anguish of hard music and R&B – that is more about performance than song craft. Caught up in the details of production and attitude, the industry no long has the passion Wilson exuded for unique harmonies and chord progressions, which often provided the genesis for his enduring songs.
Wilson possesses “the ability to turn powerful emotions – terrible tragedy – into life-affirming art that helps and heals, music that in our darkest moments gives us hope,” David Crosby said in the TNT special. The relentless hope in his music – a positivity, he says, that infiltrates his songs “subconsciously” – is the motivating force behind the rejuvenated interest in Wilson. With his return to limited touring, the pent-up admiration of the public can now be expressed in person, in addition to its expression via those impersonal (but hardly pesky) royalty checks. “My managers and my wife told me if I tried a solo career, it would be great,” Wilson says. “So we tried it, and it went over fantastic – standing ovations and everything.”
That may not surprise the rest of us. But Wilson, remember, is a perfectionist who was constantly berated in his youth. This is a guy whose best work initially scared his bandmates, a guy who still doubts that “Good Vibrations” is as good a record as The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Thus, one can sense the sincerity in his hard-won joy when he took his place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I’m proud,” he says,” to be in the same ballpark as Burt Bacharach.” And the same ballpark as Paul McCartney, who inducted him that night with thanks “for making me cry.” That night, perhaps, finally summarized Wilson’s lifelong vocation. All the pain that informed his music, pain he translated into intrinsic joy, had been given an emotional value. “Music is my life,” he told that Hall of Fame audience. “Tonight, what you’re saying is that my life has been well spent.”