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Not the usual heroes and villains....
on 29 March 2012
The Beach Boys produced the most achingly beautiful harmonies, in the history of rock, but, off -( and occasionally even on) stage, they fought like proverbial cats in a bag. At the centre of it all sat Brian Wilson, the bewildered, and often bewildering , prodigy, who led them to fame and whose story provides the focal point for Peter Ames Carlin's engrossing, often lyrical, book.
Wilson's life almost defies belief. A gifted, partially deaf, young songwriter -producer who took the music of the 1960s to such heights that even the Beatles were awestruck, he followed the Beach Boys' masterpieces, `Pet Sounds,' and `Good Vibrations', with a spectacular dive into substance abuse and mental illness brought about, in part, by his failure to complete his `Teenage symphony to God', `Smile'. From what might have been a commonplace tale of rock n'roll implosion, however, came redemption. After thirty years in his own personal wilderness, Brian Wilson staged an astonishing return, putting his myriad demons (including chronic stage fright) to rest with triumphant live performances, throughout the first decade of the new century, and beyond. And he even completed 'Smile'.
It is the stuff of legend, and like many legends, it has gathered a concretion of half-truths and clichés. To his credit, Peter Ames Carlin resists the temptation to fall back on well-worn anecdotal material and approaches his subject with scrupulous fairness. The abusive behaviour of the Wilson family patriarch, Murry, is mentioned, but not vicariously dwelt upon. Likewise, Mike Love, so often depicted as the pantomime villain of the Beach Boys, is depicted with occasional, albeit archly knowing, sympathy. We learn that Dennis Wilson was a charismatic alcoholic, with the soul of an artist- so no surprises, there. On the other hand, Carl Wilson, usually `the angel' of the Beach Boys emerges, for a change, with a selection of all-too human failings. But then, marshalling a band frequently spun into chaos by an unpredictable big brother would have tried the patience of a saint. Brian Wilson, at his worst, could be infuriating, eccentric, occasionally violent, and surprisingly manipulative, and, in Catch a Wave, we are not spared this. We are also, however, swept along with the sheer beauty of the music, and the nebulous, but beguiling concept of the American dream.
On occasions, the author's research is flawed, with some statements that even a non-historian can deflate. (For example, Carl Wilson's eyes were blue, not brown. Check any photograph. ) Although this raises niggling suspicions about the overall credibility of the facts, in the end it fails to distract from a haunting account of one of rock's most enigmatic figures, delivered, throughout , with fairness, love and mercy.