Monday, February 6, 2023

This Day in Pop Music History (Carl Wilson, Beach Boys' Glue to Brother Brian’s Genius, Dies)

Feb. 6, 1998— Carl Wilson, the youngest of three brothers who formed the nucleus of the Beach Boys—and the one who kept the band together when his siblings spiraled into mental illness, substance abuse and family feuding—died at age 51 of lung cancer in Los Angeles.

As chief songwriter and studio mastermind, Brian Wilson has always been rightly seen as the group’s genius (as I myself acknowledged in a prior post on the making of the band's masterpiece, Pet Sounds).

But Carl made his own distinct creative contributions from the beginning—and, when Brian stopped touring in the mid-Sixties because of a nervous breakdown, and Dennis Wilson grew ever more wild and dangerous in pursuing women, alcohol and drugs, Carl took on a larger role in the studio and on the road, functioning as the group’s de facto leader.

None of this could have been easy. But Carl also had to maintain the Beach Boys’ sense of experimentation while keeping in the fold lead singer and cousin Mike Love, whose unwillingness to stray far from the band’s original surf sound and subject matter increasingly threatened to turn the group into a nostalgia act.

From the start, Brian knew that Carl, four and a half years younger, was open to new sounds, learning how to play guitar from imitating Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley chords and, in the mid-Sixties, learning the 12-string Rickenbacker as well.

As Brian’s mastery in the studio increased, his confidence in his kid brother’s harmonies grew, and he featured Carl more and more on lead vocals, including two of the Beach Boys’ seminal songs in their most musically innovative period, “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.”

Still only 14 years old when the band’s first hit, “Surfin’,” climbed the charts in 1961, Carl would be all of 21 when Brian’s collapse during the Smiley Smile sessions thrust him into the role of studio leader, too.

The Beach Boys’ turmoil in this period was a microcosm of what the nation was also experiencing at this time: generational conflict (the Wilsons’ abusive father Murry sold publishing rights to their songs for what turned out to be a comparative pittance); flirtation with Eastern religions (Love visited the Indian ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi); drugs; violence (Dennis even briefly shared his home with Charles Manson); and Vietnam (Carl filed for conscientious objector status).

Yet the group was being written off as hopelessly square, as musical tastes turned sharply towards harder rock.

Carl was not without his own problems, particularly as he hit his 30s, including drugs, alcohol and a painful divorce. But he displayed a resilience that his older brothers lacked.

In the process, he not only overcome his own issues, but spent much time trying to release Brian from the clutches of his psychiatrist-Svengali, Dr. Eugene Landy, and served as an emotional anchor for his nieces and nephews when their fathers fell deeper into personal difficulties. (Dennis would die in a drowning accident in 1983.)

Brian’s waning presence in the band was much discussed—overwhelmingly to its detriment—in the post-Smiley Smile period. But in many ways that criticism was unfair. Much of the Beach Boys’ most interesting work—including mainstays of their live shows for nearly the next half-century—was recorded in this time, including “Darlin,’” “Sail on Sailor,” "Friends," and two particular favorites of mine featuring Carl on lead vocals, “Wild Honey” and “Long Promised Road.”

It might have been, though, that Carl’s most significant contribution during these years of critical and popular neglect was just to keep the band together as a touring unit. Though the band would never again have the sustained chart success it had experienced in the early to mid Sixties, audiences and critics would come around again to see them as seminal influences in popular music.

There were times, particularly in the early Eighties, when the internal strains of leading so many dysfunctional band members wore on Carl. 

In 1980, annoyed at the group’s lack of rehearsal time and its choice of material, he quit and released two solo albums. Their commercial failure, and the other band members’ vow to change, led him to rejoin two years later—though, for the next decade and a half, he increasingly yielded to Love on the Beach Boys’ musical direction.

The Beach Boys have continued to perform up to the present, but they have become increasingly riven into Love and anti-Love factions. Something irreplaceable died with Carl 25 years ago—an amazingly sweet, pure voice that reflected the singer’s gentle spirit and soul.

As friend and songwriting collaborator Robert White Johnson said after in an interview for The Vinyl Dialogues blog:

“I don’t think Carl ever got the accolades that he deserved for his musical contributions, instincts and abilities. If it hadn’t been for him, the Beach Boys would have died a long time ago. He kept it together, he kept it going. He was the heartbeat, he kept it real, vocally and artistically. He was a true inspiration to me, even with his regard to his humanity. It doesn’t take me much to get teary-eyed thinking about him. I was honored to be his friend.”

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