Brian Wilson - The Beethoven of Rock

This the opening page spread of Kurt's article about Brian Wilson in August, 1968  Eye  Magazine.

This the opening page spread of Kurt's article about Brian Wilson in August, 1968 Eye Magazine.

EYE MAGAZINE
KURT VON MEIER
AUGUST, 1968

Behind Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is an extraordinary history, com­posed of mosaic fragments of modern mythical archetypes rearranged to cre­ate an original yet deeply familiar image. First of all, the Ludwig van Beethoven syndrome comes to mind as a source.

There are the obvious similarities be­tween Beethoven and Brian Wilson : the brilliance, intensity and success of their compositions, plus the technical virtu­osity of first-rate performer& The ma­jor and most tragic event of Beethoven's mature career was his deafness; the realization that all sounds of the world were becoming gradually cut off from his existence. Thus he could only con­tinue to compose (such masterful works as the Ninth Symphony) from sounds that existed within his own head. Brian Wilson's case is a. poetic inversion of Beethoven's. Beethoven lost his hearing tragically toward the end of his life, when he had already a developed talent; Brian Wilson has been almost complete­ly deaf in one ear since birth. Strictly speaking then, there could be no "trag­edy"; it was hearing he never had.

Brian Wilson's story is almost cer­tain to come out happier. Several doc­tors had assured him that the nerve endings in his ear were dead, and that his hearing could not possibly improve. That is one reason why, of all top groups of the sixties, only the Beach Boys have never really had a stereo-conceived album : Brian produced them all with the use of only one ear. But with the insights and advances of mod­ern medicine, a hopeful diagnosis could finally be made. Last year, just after finishing up the recording sessions for Wild Honey, a successful operation was performed. Although Brian is still re­cuperating, a joyful "Beethoven's Al­ternative," appears imminent—as though history were finally squaring things with civilization. All those un­realized sounds and unimaginable ste­reo combinations are now within the realm of possibility. Who knows what it will sound like on records, or what this may mean for the Beach Boys' sound wherever they play?

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A study of the group's progression since their inception gives us some idea of what might come next. Pet Sounds marks the end of the Beach Boys' first phase, beginning in late 1961 when Brian produced the group's first single, "Surfin'." In a way, all of their music —from that first release right up to the Pet Sounds album—fits together with firm stylistic consistency.

The music, the group's image, even the Beach Boys' individual and collective life-styles all emerged to form a coherent "Beach Boy Idea." The Beach Boys are up front: direct, honest, wholesome and healthy. They symbolize a golden California; a red, white and blue America—but without the quasi-fascist, professional-flagwaver over­tones we have come to associate with this image.

One of the key problems confront­ing the group's evolution lay in transcending much of what became associated with this heretofore suc­cessful Beach Boy Idea. In order to move forward artistically, they had to expand and modify the historical and aesthetic limitations of the name and the image. It is just this image-identity problem, together with related interpersonal issues, that is raised by Pet Sounds. Al­ternatives and implications are ex­plored in Smiley Smile, and a final resolution is achieved in Wild Honey. Indeed, the last three Beach Boy albums document a confronta­tion facing almost every pop group that has met with success and yet has attempted to go further in terms of its own art—the search for a dynamic and productive, yet peaceful and loving, natural or­ganic balance in the group.

The Beach Boys—like the Beatles and other groups. in England—dis­carded the older show-biz idea of a carefully costumed, tightly chore­ographed act just before making Pet Sounds. The liner photos show them in traditional Japanese attire. This was more than just a road-show gimmick for a one-shot laugh. There was a deep feeling of affinity with Japanese life-styles and cul­ture--and while a Samurai suit might not be the best thing to wear for a concert in California, the Japanese audiences loved it, appre­ciating with pride the respect and inspiration their own culture had engendered. This is also reflected in the music, such as the use of Kabuki drum sounds at the begin­ning and near the end of "Caroline No."

The Idea of the Beach Boys, how­ever, had not yet dissipated. Most of the guys admit there was an indefi­nite period of crisis when it just didn't make any sense to confine the group's development to a mis­guided, rigid adherence to some "corporate image." Getting away a little bit from the necessity to wear striped T's and topsiders, the group demonstrated outwardly their greater sense of inner freedom and self-expression.

From the start, the Beach Boys were a very close-knit unit, secured by ties of close friendship, and by family relationship. It was also clear from the start that Brian, the eldest of three Wilson brothers in the group, was the prime mover. In fact, Brian might even have been an outstanding member in Johann Sebastian Bach's brilliant musical family. Admittedly, words like genius fantastic, outstanding and brilliant are bandied about loosely in the music business, often in ref­erence to Brian. This in itself doesn't prove very much. There is, however, fairly widespread agree­ment in ranking Brian right up there with the other creative mas­terminds in the field—John Len­non, Phil Spector, Smokey Robin­son, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, and one or two others. (You fill in the blanks.)

As Derek Taylor—longtime friend of the Beatles—once wrote about Brian Wilson, "He alone in the industry—at the top of the pop pyramid—is full creator of a rec­ord from the first tentative con­structions of a theme to the final master disc. Brian is writer, per­former, singer, arranger, engineer and producer with complete control, even over packaging and design."

Brian is the anchor man of the Beach Boys. They know it and he knows it. At another time, and with other people, this would immedi­ately suggest a fantastic assort­ment of potential ego/group hang­ups—because of the group's tight­ness.

For all of the arts in the 1960's, certainly one of the most basic and recurrent concerns is the problem­atic necessity of an assertive, even aggressive ego as a condition of creativity. In painting and sculp­ture, this surfaces as a stylistic problem of "impersonality" seen both in the commercially derived imagery of Pop Art painters and in the austere forms and machinelike textures of "minimal" sculpture. From architecture to scientific re­search projects, this impersonality is indicated by the absorption of individual contribution into the achievements of team effort. In popular music, we witness the sub­tle shifts that occur between indi­vidual stars and the groups with them. The Beach Boys exemplify the complex problems of this shift­ing-limelight ego-game. But their importance in the history of popu­lar music lies in the group's beau­tiful and practical solution to these hangups while each member re­mains essentially himself.

Groups tend to form around lead­ing talents. And there is often a great temptation, subsequently, for the key figure to assume an identity separate from that of the group. This causes a group as tightly fash­ioned as the Supremes to become "Diana Ross and the Supremes," or the Animals to become "Eric Burdon and the Animals." Of course, many groups, following a fifties tradition, still start off like a chief and his Indians. But there is an­other tradition which respects the identity and integrity of the indi­vidual while envisioning a heightened potential for self-realization which he gains as a member of a tribe. The Beach Boys reflect this growing attitude, along with the Beatles, the Stones and many of the groups out of San Francisco.

Now, a whole generation of musi­cians is developing, who are much less interested in power plays than in everyone's contribution to the mutual health and happiness of the entire tribe by becoming a more beautiful, complete person.

Brian Wilson's perceptive genius —in somewhat artificial distinction to his creative talent—lies in recog­nizing the Beach Boy Idea as some­thing more valuable in personal, human terms than merely the com­mercial, show-biz image. Maybe that is why he didn't climb on everyone else's back just to get a little higher himself. There are problems of just plain decent be­havior, too; it would be much easier to push your own ego-image out in front if you didn't happen to dig the other people with whom you had been working and creating for several years.

Whether the motives be profes­sional, or personal, every member of the group slowly came to realize the indispensable sense of inter­relationship. Through the transfor­mations that occurred during pro­duction of these three albums there arose a pervasive desire for nat­ural, organic forms of organization, rather than the artificial, authori­tarian structures imposed on many pop groups (by the work schedules, by managers, or by the members of the group themselves). In the case of the Beach Boys, it only remained for this mutual realization to be road-tested, then instituted as a new "organizational" foundation.

The first stylistic and structural crisis for the group was occasioned by Pet Sounds, a year-long project. This album stands historically as a watershed in the development of the group. In marked contrast to all the earlier Beach Boy albums, a host of studio musicians aug­mented the group. While this is normal procedure for pop and rock recording sessions, the Beach Boys, from their earliest studio dates, were used to producing all their own sounds. So, even before the in­troduction of the compositions themselves, a major extraneous ele­ment entered the concept of the record.

Then there was the conception Brian had of the music itself. It was more symphonic; deeper and more ambitious than anything the group had recorded. It's even been said that some of the executives at Capitol Records, despite their pleas­ure and confidence from an unbroken string of smash sales with previous Beach Boy albums, were very un­easy about the commercial potential of Pet Sounds. Fortunately, this challenge, created by stylistic ma­turity and supported by artistic in­tegrity, was met by industry and commerce. Capitol decided to go ahead and release the record.

In all, production of the album took a full year. During this time, the Beach Boys were in and out of town fulfilling concert tours and personal appearances, and taping at recording sessions whenever time could be sandwiched into the sched­ule. Meanwhile, Brian completely dropped out of the touring bag. He stayed in Los Angeles working over tapes—correcting, editing, dubbing and overdubbing—and planning new music or new arrangements for music already recorded. Then the group would appear for another taping session, returning from wherever it had been.

Onstage, Brian's place was taken over by Bruce Johnston, a Califor­nia bass-player, singer and long­time friend of the group. Inevita­bly, this shift in personnel, accom­plished gracefully and fortuitously, produced a subtle change. This was a radical modification in the basic character of the music. No matter how it might sound onstage, as music performed it was quite clear the Beach Boys were breaking into more exploratory realms with music created by very different principles than those that had become so com­fortable and familiar. The studio and its workings are an inherent part of Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys would find, as would other "studio-oriented" groups, that it takes per­forming skills, technical virtuosity, plus a high capacity for showman­ship to come near carrying off a re­corded Pet Sounds onstage.

With the group onstage or tour­ing much of the time, and Brian in the studio or at home. a sense of separation occurred. Certainly this is what the public came to believe, with the touch of natural malice all gossip holds for us. Fans—espe­cially those who had not been fol­lowing the group's musical devel­opment—became almost perversely fascinated with the image of Brian Wilson, who seemed a lonely, iso­lated creative genius, a counterpart to the romantically tinctured image of Beethoven.

Particularly in England, Beach Boy fans began to eat this up. The illusion did not correspond to real­ity, although it was not totally false. There was that full-page ad in a British music publication of­fering "Holiday wishes from the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson." This sort of thing did tend to pro­ject the idea of a growing split. The notion, however, was based on es­sentially false premises; i.e., that Brian no longer really considered himself a Beach Boy, that he had set himself outside—and above—the group. That was not where Brian was at.

Within the group, there was ap­parently never any question about their underlying solidarity. Dra­matic and conclusive evidence of this is manifested in the project that followed Pet Sounds: the cre­ation, recording, production, and release of a tune called "Good Vi­brations."

"Good Vibrations" is among the greatest single recordings ever pro­duced in the field of popular music. Brian Wilson worked over the tapes and the scores throughout the spring and summer of 1966, polish­ing and refining until the early-fall release date. This meant full-time effort for well over half a year to produce one 45-rpm disc. If there is any one "secret" to the Beach Boys' success—apart from natural talent —it is that they all work very hard.

Also their heads are straight. Some very nice things were happening to the group now. Along with millions of the under-30 gen­eration, they joined in the quietly revolutionary processes of self-dis­covery that may well reveal the mid-1960's as the beginning of a great historical movement. On the more apparent social level, which is but a counterpart to the explora­tions of inner space, they have ac­cepted the human potential for freedom, openness, love. Moreover, they are applying self-discovery to the real world in new and radical ways, to relations with other hu­man beings and, first of all, to themselves. One may question the relative efficacy of various means by which these insights are gained ; but there will be little dispute—among people under 30, or among spiritual teen-agers—that such a revolution is, in fact, under way, and that it is one of the most im­portant and pervasive facts of our cultural existence.

Brian's brother Carl once said, "We're only part of a world-wide pop movement in which millions of people have a part to play. . . . We are simply the front men for what's happening."

This movement is much of what "Good Vibrations" is about. The immediate source of the phrase was Brian's mother. One day she was telling him about a feeling that there was something like vibra­tions between people. These did not correspond to specific words, nor even to articulated thoughts; they might suggest, rather, another, non­verbal medium of communication altogether.

The original track of the song, though comparatively simple in form, was already close to the final version's melodic line, except that the whole idea of a melodic line is shattered by that time. Instead, "Good Vibrations" projects its mu­sical structure, from which melodic elements emerge like pieces of a mosaic. That ultimate master was assembled very much like a mosaic, too. The group was still traveling in and out of town during this period. It was definitely Brian's mu­sical mentality that held the strings controlling the creative surges and subtle refinements, bal­ancing to a definitive sense of po­etic continuity.

What makes "Good Vibrations" one of the most significant releases of the 1960's, over and above its im­portance in the Beach Boy's evolu­tion, is the monumentally ambitious symphonic structure in the context of a pop tune. A failure here would appear ludicrous, but Brian Wil­son's success in producing "Good Vibrations" lifts pop music to the full dignity of classical repertoire. The recording breaks into an area of musical thought anticipated per­haps only by Phil Spector, or, much earlier, Stan Kenton.

"Good Vibrations" is one of the first and finest examples of non­linear, nonfinite, nonstatic, instant, total, integrated mosaic-type or­ganization. In Marshall McLuhan's term, it is cool, requiring the lis­tener to enter into its world of sound, to participate as a party in an aesthetic event and to supply for himself all the connections and transitions prerequisite to instantaneous total comprehension. It is also a masterpiece of technical production and engineering.

After the release of this single, the group felt primed for a massive attempt to create a complete album of music reaching out to the tech­nical, conceptual and aesthetic ex­tremes of "Good. Vibrations"—a new album realizing the epitome of pop sound.

The follow-up single to "Good Vibrations" was "Heroes and Vil­lains." Again there was an extra­neous element penetrating and po­tentially unsettling the tight group-relationship of the Beach Boys—the collaboration (however cordial it was) between Brian and Van Dyke Parks. After some time spent working closely together—Parks mostly on the lyrics—the rather tentative entente split up, though on a friendly basis. An objective evaluation of "Heroes and Villains" is difficult if only because "Good Vibrations" is a tough act to follow.

The character of the next album, Smiley Smile, began to emerge. "Heroes and Villains" was the first cut on side A and "Good Vibra­tions" led off side B. The completed album, rather than representing an all-out attack upon aesthetic ideals beyond these previous singles, was resolved into a somewhat more re­alistic attempt at consolidation of the possibilities and directions they opened up.

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The production processes of Smiley Smile contrast markedly with those of Pet Sounds. Instead of setting himself even further apart from the group, Brian suc­ceeded in bringing the other mem­bers into the various levels of cre­ation and production. Thus he helped to renew for the Beach Boys those tight internal bonds which now transcended ties of family, formal friendship, even the years of artistic and commercial success. These were bonds that meant something a little different—and something much, much larger.

Since Smiley Smile, all efforts by the Beach Boys have been genu­ine group productions. The printed credit, "Produced by the Beach Boys," instead of "Produced by Brian Wilson," are just incidental objective points of reference for the truth they represent. Both the single, "Heroes and Villains," and the album Smiley Smile were is­sued on the Beach Boys' own label, Brother Records. After these two releases appropriate arrangements were made with Capitol, and the group returned to their previous label ; but the Brother Records spirit remained intact.

Activities of the various mem­bers of the Beach Boys bear this out. Mike Love, who had been writ­ing songs with Brian for some time, has gotten even further into production—especially in the last two albums. Now both Dennis and Carl have been devoting time to writing and producing records. Dennis had been an undercover composer before, coming off like Admiral of the Fleet with his thirty-eight-foot Chris Craft; now he spends most of his time with Brother Records, and with new interests: photography and movies. Carl is already actively involved in producing a new album for Brother Records, featuring two wild musicians appropriately named Thelibius and Zarathustra. Al Jar­dine has also entered record pro­duction, concentrating on "unusual" projects, such as informative and educational LP's. Meanwhile, Bruce Johnston is developing as a single, producing and performing his own music on Brother Records.

It would be misleading to inter­pret these events as a diaspora of the Beach Boys, however, because there is also an important new so­lidifying factor. Between Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, the group was on tour in Europe. In Paris, where they performed at the Palais Challot for UNICEF, the Beach Boys also came into contact with Transcendental Meditation. To­gether with the Beatles they en­joyed a lengthy session with Maha­rishi Mahesh Yogi. Brian had been into meditation for about a year, but this experience for the rest of the group established (even rees­tablished) a new and significant basis for each one's doing his own thing—but, at the same time, being closer together than ever be­fore.

In contrast to Pet Sounds, the more challenging musical content of Smiley Smile reflects changes taking place on personal levels. No longer can it be heard as the ego-extension of any one group-mem­ber. And despite the almost full year dedicated to preparation of the album—overlapping the labori­ous period spent on "Heroes and Villains" with Van Dyke Parks—the Beach Boys themselves once again did almost all the actual playing, accounting for the al­bum's adventurousness and tightly coordinated sensibility.

Throughout Smiley Smile the Beach Boys were hooked on a health kick. This meant about ten laps around the big backyard at Brian's place before each recording session. There was a jar of wild honey in Brian's house. "Hey, this would make a great title for an al­bum !" A friend of the group, Arny Geller, spotted the cover: an Old stained-glass window with a bee and flowers, in Brian's living room. This good-humored attitude of easy spontaneity seems to carry right through the entire Wild Hon­ey album—the follow-up to Smiley Smile.

Stylistically, Wild Honey reap­proaches the earlier Beach Boys "sound." The important functional innovation is the element of im­provisation. The arrangements, al­though sometimes strikingly deli­cate and complex, are much less studied than for either of the two preceding albums. Witness, for in­stance, the lightness of "Country Air," a song indirectly resulting from Brian's sensitivity to smog. Even better is a witty cut from the B side, "I'd Love Just Once to See You," which went from concept to master in a single day.

The whole Wild Honey album was conceived essentially as fun, but fun in the extraordinary sense suggested perhaps by the Buddhist notion of Om; the Cosmic Chortle, constantly roc'ng the universe. After all, not everything truly se­rious has an obligation to be down­right glum as well.

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Wild Honey closes one circle of regeneration. They seem to have said to one another, "Let's do real Beach Boy music, because that's what we are, the Beach Boys." Go­ing along with this attitude was the decision to record all tracks in the warmth and friendliness of Brian's home (which, by the way, has an ample complement of the most sophisticated studio equip­ment anyway).

There was no suggestion of the melancholy, romantic artist hang-up at any stage in the production of the album. No pretensions, no articulated sense of "reaching," as if to attempt some superhuman, nigh demonic feat, such as the (curiously antihuman) ideal of a totally perfect, pristine work of art. Smiley Smile came as close as anything the Beach Boys have done to achieving this ideal. It may be, however, that it is simply impossi­ble to make a complete album on the sustained level of "Good Vibra­tions." It might be like wanting to turn a haiku into a four-hundred ­page novel, or like serving a com­plete meal out of sherry and smoked oysters. For the belligerent and de­manding critic then, Smiley Smile might constitute a failure. But what incredible successes it con­tains!

The underlying choice Brian Wil­son had to confront sometime dur­ing the Smiley Smile year involved the full, beautiful meaning of hu­man relationships in the real world, and its antithesis—real loneliness—resulting from dedica­tion to either the chimera or the high inspiration of ideal art.

Thus, on a level much closer to where Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys are really at, Smiley Smile may be interpreted as an act of great humility. Maybe that vision of an ideal art was ac­tually hovering there, for an in­stant, with the possibility of the ultimate record within reach. But if this required the abrogation (in­stead of the fuller realization) of humanity, then asking the ques­tion, "Why should it be done, any­way?" is not necessarily a declara­tion of weakness. On the contrary, it may very well suggest the strength and wisdom of coming to terms with the temptations of ego-oriented ambitions, understanding them, accepting them (for they are real, too), but never submitting completely to them. From this most recent solution, perhaps im­plied ever since Pet Sounds, the reintegration and revitalization of the Beach Boys was realized. Wild Honey is the sweet product of this realization. Or, like the flowing riv­er, always changing, yet always managing to remain essentially the same. . . .

Kurt von Meier

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This article appeared in the August, 1968 issue of Eye, a 102-page, large format magazine (10.5" wide x 13" high) which was published by the Hearst Corporation for two years.

Helen Gurley Brown, of Cosmopolitan fame, was the Supervising Editor. 

There appears to have been some confusion about when this article would be published, and terms of payment, as noted in the letter from Kurt below. 

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