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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Ears of a Dog: Brian Wilson Badger Don't Give a Damn

Chapter One: If you think the Beach Boys are vanilla, you haven't been paying attention.

Anyone who knows me is probably aware that my lifelong obsession with the Beach Boys has only matured and deepened, like a fine wine, if fine wine were actually made in California.* They recorded the first songs that I remember actually sitting down and listening the hell out of as a kid, and if I have my druthers they'll be the last sound I hear.

So you'll probably be surprised that I didn't find out about their 2012 reunion tour till it was about over, and the group's resident carnival barker, Mike Love, was once again making headlines for being a colossal piece of shit.

Well, I was busy wallowing in something or other. And old guys getting back together to Do It Again don't generally float to the top of the intertubes unless a. They're still on drugs, or b. Mike Love is being a colossal, floaty piece of shit.

But now that I'm calling people I've never met names, maybe you want some background, eh?

Here's the cast of characters, from my admittedly slanted (though certainly not unique) point of view:

1. Brian Wilson: This deceptively stubborn dreamer is ever the genius behind the band.

If you're a Pet Sounds atheist, or only know the band as stripey-shirt old dudes who used to chew bubblegum in California, you may have shot beer out your nose snickering at the word "genius" right there.

But read up on your history, kiddo; the Beach Boys transformed rock music like precious few before or since. Without the Wilson family (more below) you would have no [fill in your favorite band; I'm fucking serious, including death metal ( and especially punk rock]; despite their pop hits, the Beach Boys have always been musicians' musicians in secret. And if you have any place in your heart for a tortured yet eternally, weirdly naive soul, you need to get listening to some of Brian Wilson's work and do it now. Youtube Pet Sounds. You're welcome.

ANYWAY, like any 1960s genius worth his salt, Brian Wilson proceeded to get really fucking strung out on the her-on.

Not that he didn't have an excuse: at first the drugness was all Aquarian fun and games—but then, among other setbacks, Brian's father Murry Wilson (more below) proceeded to go behind his back and sell the rights to all the hit songs of his blooming youth to some record weasel for an insultingly paltry sum.

And unlike Wilson's junkie contemporaries such as, well, you know, Her and Him and especially He Whose Idiot Fans Routinely Deface the Cemetery Where Oscar Wilde Is Also Buried—really, in this aspect Wilson is more akin to white-knuckled survivor Marianne Faithfull—he didn't croak from it.

Instead he recorded some crazy shit, holed up for a few years with a nice steady stream of junk and some cheeseburgers, drifted out of his cherished marriage, and then got hornswoggled by a creepy psychiatrist.

Eugene Landy, now dead, led Wilson around on a pharmacological leash from 1975 to about 1991, which may have contributed to his current, tragic motor-skills malfunctions (although nobody is excusing the heroin for its malfeasance, either). Landy also "managed his career," a no doubt lucrative side business. Meanwhile, the "Beach Boys," led by an increasingly cock-headed Mike Love, continued to tour and commit horrible acts against their own good names and Nature herself, such as "Kokomo."

In the late 1990s Brian Wilson experienced a resurgence of sorts, touring with a full orchestra, which I never saw because I was always completely broke in the 90s.

And finally, in the early aughts, he managed to release the album SMILE: an ambitious set of recordings that were supposed to be an immediate follow-up to Pet Sounds, designed to blow Sergeant Pepper straight back over the Thames, except that the project was killed by Mike Love, some record executives, and Mike Love.

In the following years, bouyed by a resurgence of interest from rock journalists, and under the care of some non-bat-shit-crazy psychiatrists, Brian Wilson was able to get back to a state where the 2012 tour could finally happen.

2. Al Jardine: Except for a brief period during the first bloom of the band's glory in the 1960s (I do not know, factually, why they ditched him for a couple of years, but my gut says Mike Love was involved), Al Jardine has been the steadiest member of the band, a humble and spry old stanchion of the band's sound. Until Mike Love's latest rat-ass stunt, of course.

3. David Marks: A relatively quiet figure; a childhood neighbor of the Wilsons who is sticking by Brian Wilson now (whether out of loyalty or because he knows what side his bread is buttered on I couldn't say; I can't read people's minds, unless they're Mike Love, who is about as opaque as Donald Trump); see also Mike Love's latest piece-of-shit move.

3. The Wilson Family, i.e. People Whose Last Name Was Wilson But Whose First Name Wasn't Brian: Sigh. These days Brian Wilson is pretty forthcoming about the fact that his father Murry used to beat the shit out of him and his brothers; in one interview he says matter-of-factly that he worshipped his dad because of the latter's musical talent, and hated him because, well, he was a violent, controlling cunt.

In his defense, Murry's own career as a musician had been by and large frustrated; he was also the victim of an industrial accident which cost him an eye (which makes you wonder how good his aim really was with that 2X4 which is rumored to have destroyed most of the hearing in one of Brian's ears, #shadesofbeethoven), but there's really no excuse that truly suffices for fucking up your kids. Yet, as James Baldwin never tired of saying, (to paraphrase) it's a sin how much pain it takes to make beautiful music. Whenever I hear the early composition "In My Room," the first, B-side manifestation of the celestial Wilson harmonies to come, I can't help but imagine the young Wilsons huddled in the bedroom they shared —and where Brian taught his brothers to sing harmonies—crooning away their fear as the storm approached.

Speaking of which, you've got brothers Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson. They were talented musicians in their own right, who didn't seem too resentful about being overshadowed by their genius brother, but they implausibly and sadly failed to outlive their junkie brother. Well, in Dennis Wilson's case it wasn't that implausible; an alcoholic (thanks, Murry!), he drowned in the 1980s in a drunken fall from a yacht. (Personal note: That was one of the first shitty things that I remember hearing on the TV news. My dad was miserable.) Carl Wilson died of cancer in 1998, leaving Brian all alone. Except, of course, for...

4. The Shitbag Cousin of the Wilson Family, aka Mike Love (whose surname is so implausibly ironic Thackeray wouldn't have used it). Here we enter the Dept of Already Covered, and Not Sure I Could Do It Better, as Vice Magazine sums up Mike Love's career of fisting the Wilsons unlubed with a deftly compact hit-and-run, here:

In case you don't feel like sidelining, don't worry, I'll touch back to a couple of Vice's points below, since they bring me neatly back to where I began.

In the middle of that 2012 reunion tour that my dumb ass missed, Brian Wilson suddenly, mid-gig, stopped just sitting there behind the piano being a calcified Famous Person Battling Mental Issues While Propped Up On a Stage. The old mischievous spark relit in his eyes and, magically, he paddled up out of his funk and started belting shit out like a septuagenarian punk rocker, to a standing ovation.

It looked as though all the ridiculous claims that Love, as the de advocato bandleader, had been laughably making since the 1980s (Brian's back! We're back! It's the real Beach Boys!) were—through some double-overtime, fairy-dusted, rock 'n' roll Hail Mary pass—coming true.

So when all the contracted gigs were up and the dust had settled, and the surviving members all seemed so happy and reunited—not just behind the tour, but behind an album of brand new material that was impressively passionate and accomplished, except for the cheesy songs Mike Love wrote the lyrics to; but at least he was writing about how great it was to be back together and having fun and making music again—

Goddamnit, I was going to link to a lyric video of Spring Vacation, but the link doesn't work where I live, because Mike Love apparently sued somebody; well, I'll post it and maybe you can see it from where you are:

— you would have thought the hatchet was buried and these guys were back to hang for good. "Seems like it could go on forever," he says. "As long as we can all stay together," he says.

Ha ha ha. Nope.

Next thing you knew, Mike Love—who has sued Brian Wilson roughly once for every year the two of them have walked the planet together and who, most pertinently, somehow wrangled control of the band's name unto himself during the 1980s—kicked all three of the other living original Beach Boys out of "The Beach Boys." Even Brian Wilson. (ESPECIALLY Brian Wilson! That guy always wants such a big cut of the ticket revenue for, ah, making the whole thing ever occur in the first place.)

Love then booked a tour as "The Beach Boys," featuring his carny-ass self, Bruce Johnston, and the notably small proportion of the reunion tour's talented backup crew that he managed to siphon off.

Wilson's bemused public response to being shitcanned from his own band was: "I'm disappointed and can't understand why he doesn't want to tour with Al, David and me. We are out here having so much fun." I cried when I read that. Such a sweet soul.


**Sorry, gratuitous tear-jerking Beach Boys video from their first appearance on British television; the first guy who gets interviewed by the smarmy Brit between songs is Mike Love, and the second is Brian Wilson. ROCK-HISTORICAL NOTE: This video also includes what I contend is the first documented use of "Ringo" as an insulting epithet for a drummer whose actual name was not Ringo Starr. 
P.S. Since I've gotten old, and the Beach Boys have all gotten REALLY fucking old (or dead), the poignant call-and-response that happens at the end of "When I Grow up to Be a Man"—between Mike Love's "Won't last forever" (hey, chances are he wasn't always evil) and Brian Wilson's ethereal "That's kind of sad"—never fails to make me want to slump on the floor crying. In a good way. I guess.

Of course, I don't know what's really going on in the guy's head (or behind the scenes) after his cousin fucks him over for the umpteenth time. For all I know, what happened next was that the 71-year-old Wilson, Jardine, and Marks went after Captain Rumdouche in the world's slowest-rampaging chase scene, only to be even more slowly interrupted by the same cops who broke up the party in that one Replacements song.

But I'm just projecting. And, as Mike Love moderates will quite usefully point out, nobody who wasn't involved really knows what happened between all these guys over the years; at times Brian Wilson might have just been paranoid as hell, and sometimes he might be aware of that. (Peter Bagge has rather a convincing take in this direction, especially when it comes to Love's lovely vocals on "Heroes and Villains," but then again he wasn't a fly on the wall, either, although it must also be noted that the article is fricking hilarious:**

Might, might, might. Point being, for all I know, these three ole teddy bears uttered not a bitter word, not aloud nor in their hearts of hearts, as they turned around and planned a "yeah, OK, jackass, we're kinda sure we can guess who the fans are actually going to want to go see next year" tour. (More in Chapter Two.) After all, if I were in Brian Wilson's shoes, I'm not entirely sure I wouldn't be secretly relieved to quit touring without the litigious, bullying, philistinic shithead cousin who'd been a thorn in my side since long before he started complaining about how fussy the melancholy masterpiece Pet Sounds seemed to his pancake-shallow ass while in the studio ("Who's gonna hear this shit?" he famously whined. "The ears of a dog?"). But again, that's just me.

And yet I'm far from being alone in my proxy spite: A Google search of "Mike Love sucks," in quotes, yields around 261,000 hits, including an Amazon page where you can buy a pin that says "Mike Love Sucks." Which I, naturally, just now purchased for daily wear (don't worry, I'm sure there are plenty left for the rest of you).

My favorite of these hits is probably this: on the Man vs. Clown! blog (soon to be the newest addition to my blogroll), the author lists the hilarious variety of insulting things that people just like me typed into Google about Mike Love that brought us to his blog:

Come to think of it, the original post by Man vs. Clown! kinda almost beats Vice for reasoning out why I want to throat-punch a defenseless old man who's given me countless hours of entertainment, in a less punchy, far more exhaustive, and yet balanced, form: 

My favorite is: "He keeps suing poor Al every time he tries to tour." Poor Al. In a way he's kind of my favorite Beach Boy.

*Yeah, yeah, they beat France at winemaking in some typically California-smug movie, but Wisconsin wasn't invited to the competition, now, was it? And how about Germany? You gave us the Beach Boys and a few halfway decent punk bands, I guess; now piss off.

**Note, 8/23: Not 48 hours after writing this, I saw an advertisement on the side of a bus for the Daniel Clowes exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and I thought... hmmmmm. Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes were the big/competing underground cartoonists of the 1990s, as I recall. I'm not a professional psychologist, but I'm not entirely sure it would be totally off base to wonder whether Peter Bagge's impassioned defense of Mike Love's perceived "philistinism" (vs. Brian Wilson's artsy-farts) might have something to do with the perceived contrasts between Bagge's more jovial, rollicking style and Clowes' hollow-eyed grimness... just sayin'.

Chapter Two: Nice guys finish first. This time. For now. I'm serious!

Although, I repeat, there is no recorded evidence that Wilson, Jardine, and Marks actually hunted Love down and poured honey and fire ants on his groin when he kicked them out of their band, they were far from beaten. With Wilson experiencing some of the best moods and steadiest musical inspiration he's displayed since... well, shit, since I was born almost 40 years ago, and Al Jardine in astounding voice, they did exactly what I hoped they would do: tour under their own names, and let the fans figure out what the competing "Beach Boys" tour meant. That's got to be the best, subtlest, most effective fuck you move I've seen in a decade.

I was lucky enough to be on Facebook when Brian Wilson posted the tour; if I'd looked at it a few hours later, I may not have been able to get seats. I immediately texted my dad, who got me started on rock music, and told him I'd just decided what I was going to get him and Mom for their 44th anniversary. Deciding to cancel their previous plans for that weekend took all of ten seconds, during which all of the center seats in the Ravinia pavilion sold out. By the time I got ahold of my significant other—a noise musician whom I dragged, cajoled, and mocked toward the Beach Boys fold, but who was thoroughly converted by this show—the seats on the left of the stage had disappeared as well. Yeah, the fans knew what was what. But I managed to scoop up four consecutive seats in the back right section, and we were golden.

It was the first Beach Boys show I've ever seen live, and I'm gonna call it that, at the risk of being sued. And it was one of the best things I've ever seen. I was a little nervous: was Wilson going to fall back into the Baby Boomer version of a K-hole and let the backup band struggle on in embarrassment? Well, even if he had, Marks was playing the guitar with fresh, seasoned, veteran enthusiasm, and Jardine was as full of tuneful proto-punk energy as ever. 

But Wilson... he walked onstage to another standing ovation, which he waved down impatiently. (As Peter Bagge pointed out, Wilson—like his entire family and, apparently, anyone who grew up within a critical radius of him—is crazier than a shithouse rat. He would continue to grumpily wave off praise for the rest of the night, once interrupting the crowd's overlong love session by screaming "Next song! Next song!" Al Jardine, of course, gently reminded Wilson that he needed to let the crowd show their thanks. Speaking for myself, I could have clapped thank you till my hands fell off; Brian Wilson is one of that strange handful of people whom I've never met, but without whose influence I can honestly say I don't know I'd have lived to see twenty.) And then he sang like a motherfucker.

I've never heard anything so lovely. 

Yeah, his voice cut out on him a couple of times, and yeah, they had to hire another slightly less old guy to do the falsettos he used to nail before the heroin. But his visible frustration made his tender belting and crooning all the more poignant. You hate to make a guy into a metaphor, but I couldn't help seeing in him the frailty that attacks us all. He just wears it almost more beautifully than it's comfortable to hear. And he is rising from the ashes. Who knows how long it will last, but for now it's heartbreakingly wonderful.

Not to take away from the backup band; the young guys (by "young" I mean half of them were older than I am) who made possible the perfect but fresh live renditions of even things from the multitracked Pet Sounds appeared to be playing the absolute dreamiest dream gig of their lives, and they were throwing their all into everything. Sometimes Wilson waved his arms to signal to the young dudes like a veteran orchestral conductor—which I like to think, in a better time and place, would have been his destiny.

And for christ's sake, those septuagenarians gave everyone more than their money's worth. They played for at least two hours, not including intermission; the show started promptly at 8 PM and didn't end till around 10:30. Not that it seemed that long. God, I didn't want it to end.

The best part, though, was when my father leaned over to me and said with a giant smile that it was the best concert he'd ever seen. I don't think there can be a better moment for a girl of my generation to have with her dad.

I agreed. And we weren't just hallucinating; I can't even find a bad review of any performance of the 2013 Brian Wilson "solo" tour (with Al Jardine and David Marks of the Band that Dare Not Speak its Name but Fuck it, That's Exactly What I Saw).

And now among the things that They can never take away from me, I can treasure the fact that I was there when the Beach Boys were kicking ass again. And that's something I never thought I'd get to hear.


  1. Great to find another Beach Boys fan in the "antinatalist community"! As a bit of BB trivia, Caroline, No, from Pet Sounds, was released as a single just under the name Brian Wilson.

    All good vibrations to you, Ann! I'm almost a third of the way through NVSQVAM.

    1. PS I doubt BW was the only person to perform on that recording... did the rest of the band just hate it that much? Or did he sue them? Or did they sue him? You could write an historical novel with this shit.


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