Peter Carlin began researching and writing his new book with the hope of “ignoring a lot of the gothic effluvia and focusing on what makes Brian Wilson tick. Because he’s all about music and he’s always been all about music.”
The result, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Rodale Books), may well be the definitive work about Wilson and The Beach Boys.
Carlin spent hours with the mercurial Wilson while the songwriter put the finishing touches on Smile, the album project he’d abandoned in 1967. The author also talked to many of Wilson’s childhood friends, getting them on the record for the first time.
In an interview, Carlin said he wanted to give readers “not only a cultural understanding of where Brian’s music fits into the larger arc of American history, but also, where did it come from?”
Here’s what else the author had to say.
NUVO: Is it a sad irony that the group that probably made the happiest music ever has gone through so much misery and hardship?
Carlin: No, because misery and hardship is a part of all those songs. The reason the song title “Catch a Wave” became the title of the book is because that’s a song that’s an evangelical piece about surfing and how groovy it is. But every verse has something really dangerous happening in it. Catching a wave is this transformative thing that you can do, but on the other hand, there’s that warning in the first verse: “Don’t treat it like a toy because it can kill you.”
Again and again in all those songs, they warn you about how dangerous this world is. “I Get Around” is this anthem to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but there’s still that allusion to the bad guys. Our heroes get around together, so the bad guys leave them alone. But they’re out there.
People think about The Beach Boys as the creators of dreamy love songs, but just make a list of the first lines of lyrics in all of his love songs. “Wendy, Wendy, what went wrong?” Or “Help Me, Rhonda”: “Since she put me down, I been out doin’ in my head.” “She Knows Me Too Well” is “Sometimes I have a weird way of showing my love.” It’s not a world where things are perfect. They’re utopian, but you don’t become a utopian because the world where you currently live is a nice place.
NUVO: There’s a thread in comments throughout the book where people say Brian is either so coached or so incoherent that you’ll never arrive at the truth. Did you feel like you were getting the truth?
Carlin: Brian is this very visceral, very mercurial guy, and there are times when you get the sense that he’s really feeling what he’s saying. And he’ll tell you what’s on his mind. The thing is, what’s on his mind changes from minute to minute because it’s what he’s feeling at any given moment. He’s not one of these guys who thinks through what’s going on.
So if you’re sitting with him and you ask what his favorite Beach Boys record is and he tells you it’s 15 Big Ones, probably at that moment that is his favorite Beach Boys record, and maybe he’s thinking about where he was when he made it. Maybe he’s thinking about how he felt on a particular day about a particular song, or the pleasure that went along with creating one track — even though that’s a totally mediocre record and shouldn’t be in the same breath as Pet Sounds or Smile or the vast majority of The Beach Boys’ records.
There are a lot of times when he wants to get past you and out of the room. He may be saying anything he can say to get you out of the room. He’s this extraordinarily passive-aggressive guy.
NUVO: There’s a great passage in the book about Brian ignoring his collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, when he started to work on Smile, then getting in touch with Parks when he decides he needs him. Why does he handle relationships that way?
Carlin: This is somebody who came from an enormously troubled family where love and affection were never expressed in a way you would construe as positive, and his coping mechanism, I think, has always been to keep people at arm’s length — except for when in the moment, for whatever reason, he’s feeling close to them.
NUVO: You heard lots of Smile — many, many hours more than what the public finally got to hear. How did they do? Did they get the final version right?
Carlin: I was astonished the first time I heard it. I got an MP3 of the first London shows when they premiered it. It was a scary moment when I was sitting back after it loaded onto my hard drive and I was ready to hear it because it could just suck. For me, it had to have been 30-plus years of fantasizing about how groovy this record would be if it had finally been finished and put together. And I was thinking: What’s it going to be like? Is it going to expand upon the legend, or is it going to undermine the myth? I was stunned by how well it hung together and how close it was before he had abandoned it in ’67.
NUVO: Finally, if everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A., would everybody be surfin’ like Californ-ia?
Carlin: They already do and they already are. That’s the American way, when you’re talking on a spiritual level.