Ready to “Do It Again”? Beach Boys Wilson, Marks, Johnston, Jardine and Love
Christmas has apparently come early for music lovers in the form of last week’s announcement that all of the surviving Beach Boys intend to reunite for a 50-city world tour next summer in recognition of the legendary band’s 50th anniversary. That would be founding members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine, along with Wilson’s longtime road replacement Brian Johnston and early Beach Boy David Marks (the one who thought he stood a better chance at success by forming his own band, David and the Marksmen, surely one of the most tragic career missteps in the annals of popular music). The quartet are to be supported by Wilson’s backing band, according to Love, who acknowledged that his cousin Brian has vacillated on his commitment to the tour. “He has his moods,” said Love, “no doubt about it.” All of which means that we can only buy our tickets and keep our fingers crossed.
There was a time when the prospect of a Beach Boys reunion would not have excited me at all. I grew up dismissing them with a dose of contempt, an arrogance born of ignorance along with the fact that I became musically conscious around the same time that the band was hitting its nadir. All that I could discern was a long list of vacuous hits about cars, surfing, and girls. To me, the Beach Boys were the vanilla ice cream in the Baskin-Robbins of pop music. They were a K-tel collection. What a shame that the people who made such a substantial contribution to American music should have seemed frivolous and inconsequential to a young person a mere decade after their prime. But there was a bearded Mike Love prancing about onstage in a stocking cap and bathrobe, and I could not conclude otherwise.
I started to change my tune as a young adult, most notably in the summer of 1989, after I saw the Beach Boys live on a tandem tour with Chicago. There was a bit of historical significance to the event, as the two bands had toured together in 1975, and once again the groups were performing an encore set of songs together. I attended the show for Chicago, who performed first, and I expected to be a bit bored when the Beach Boys took the stage. I was smugly unimpressed as they opened with California Girls, complete with bikini-clad beauties bouncing across the stage as though the music and lyrics by themselves might be too obtuse for the audience to grasp. But then there was Sloop John B and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and it wasn’t long before I abandoned my cynical eyes and simply enjoyed the music.
Midway through their set came a number that, incredibly, I had never heard. God Only Knows struck me as a remarkable and captivating song. It was beautiful and, to my uneducated ear, so unlike the Beach Boys. There was a profundity to the lyrics, and the melody and arrangement unfolded in ways I never could have predicted. I was totally won over. For the rest of the show, I listened with a more charitable discernment, and I thoroughly enjoyed what I heard. By the end of the evening, I knew I had some homework to do.
What a joy it was to discover Pet Sounds, as much a rite of classic rock passage as familiarizing oneself with Sgt. Pepper and The Dark Side of the Moon. There was God Only Knows again, and so much more – the pensive daydream of Let’s Go Away For Awhile, the mesmerizing intimacy of Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), the cry of the lonely outsider on I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, and the devastating heartbreak of Caroline, No. How could this fantastic album have escaped me for so many years? As I dug deeper into the Beach Boys’ catalog, I began to realize the depth and breadth of what I had missed.
There are dimensions of Brian Wilson’s genius that rarely get airplay, hauntingly beautiful tunes like Wonderful, ‘Til I Die, Wind Chimes, Let The Wind Blow, Surf’s Up and The Warmth Of The Sun. Bizarre creations like Fall Breaks And Back To Winter, She’s Goin’ Bald, and Vegetables showcase an unrestrained creativity. And then there are what I like to think of as genuine drug casualty songs, including Johnny Carson and Solar System, childishly literal pieces devoid of any poetic metaphor. None of the above resembles the fun-in-the-sun attitude of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits, and all of it is fascinating.
Just as compelling is the biographical history of the Beach Boys, especially Brian Wilson’s struggles to overcome drug addiction, obesity, stage fright, and mental illness. The band’s timeline is fraught with alliances, betrayals, legal squabbles, failures and comebacks. The supporting cast includes strange characters like Wilson’s notorious therapist Eugene Landy, who restored his client’s health while practically dictating his behavior, and Murry Wilson, the domineering family patriarch and band manager who later sought wealth by submitting an unintentionally humorous, unsolicited jingle to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tragic losses of Dennis and Carl Wilson punctuate the story with further sadness as well as a large helping of improbability: who would have predicted that Brian would be the last surviving Wilson brother? As I learned, the Beach Boys were not the dull, pin-striped choirboys I had perceived in my youth. Like their music, their lives have been much more complex.
So it turned out the Beach Boys weren’t bland after all. I was pleased to see them again in 1993 as headliners following a minor league baseball game. Once again, it was a great show. Afterward my wife and I stopped for a moment outside a fence surrounding the stadium when we noticed people boarding the tour bus. A haggard Carl Wilson acknowledged his fans with the quickest of waves before disappearing into the bus, an image that returned to me when it was announced that he had succumbed to cancer in 1998. In 2000, I had the great fortune to see a concert by Brian Wilson, whose performance was riveting. Backed by an incredibly talented band, the genius behind the Beach Boys delivered a great set, though his fragility was occasionally evident. At one point, he stopped and restarted a song because something was not to his liking. During the encore, he strapped on a green bass, stood stock-still at center stage with the gravest of expressions, and introduced Barbara Ann with an unconvincing, monotone utterance of “Let’s rock.”
Will the great Brian Wilson truly reunite with his old bandmates for a 50th-anniversary tour? If he does, will the contentious Beach Boys be able to keep their collective dysfunction at bay for the duration? A few generations of fans who have never had the opportunity to see the yin and yang of Wilson and Love on the same stage hope that it all comes to pass as promised. As one of America’s musical giants once asked, wouldn’t it be nice?