Looking back on my childhood, few bands evoke the warm feelings and nostalgia that I associate with the Beach Boys. Being a child of the 1980s, this may seem like an exaggeration, or an anachronism. But it is true. The Beach Boys were still hip in my youth. They had just scored a #1 single with “Kokomo” in 1988, and they toured credibly with 3 original members. The band gamely appeared in Disney World parades, and on ABC sitcoms like “Full House”. Everyone still thought “Surfin’ USA” and “Good Vibrations” were respectable songs years before The Beatles hit their mid-90s resurgence in popularity. One of my classmates from elementary school, Stephanie W., once told me, “when I went to see The Beach Boys in concert when I was in 4th grade, I felt like the coolest kid in school.”
I distinctly remember the day when I was in 5th grade when we bought our first CD player, a six-disc changer at the now-defunct Lechmere’s department store. While I wasted my parents offer of one CD on the Aladdin soundtrack, my brother chose a Beach Boys greatest hits disc, and soon we were listening to “Sloop John B.” and “I Get Around” in all its pristine digital glory. We saw them in concert on Halloween night, 1997, in Albany’s Pepsi Arena, on a double bill with Chicago. They put on a good show, but Carl Wilson, the last Wilson brother still affiliated with the band, wasn’t on stage. Although the band promised he’d be back soon, they knew full well that he was dying from lung cancer. By that time the following year, Carl was gone and Al Jardine left the band, making the Beach Boys little more than lead vocalist Mike Love’s cover band, playing an increasingly dreary itinerary of casinos, racetracks, and small theatres in Schenectady-like towns. No number of encores playing “Fun, Fun, Fun” could mask the reality that the beach party was over.
This seemed like a sorry, but inevitable, final chapter to a truly legendary band that pushed the boundaries of pop music. The group’s association with summertime and sun belied decades of acrimony and poisoned relations between band members, all the more tragic because its five original members were kin. They had known each other since infancy, and these bonds tied together brothers Brian Wilson (bass, keyboards), Dennis Wilson (drums), and Carl Wilson (guitar), their cousin Mike Love (lead vocals), and family friend Al Jardine (guitar, bass). They sang songs about surfing and GTO cars, and by all rights, these should have become as outdated and obsolete as similar fad-songs like “Short Shorts”, or “Pink Shoe Laces”, or “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” But with their immaculate harmonies and Wilson’s budding talents as an arranger, the songs transcended the local surfing craze, and in time, addressed the gorgeous existential themes of “God Only Knows” and “In My Room”, or the staggering surrealism of “Heroes and Villains.” Nobody before or since has made teenage angst sound so profound, so beautiful. For a band that reached artistic parity with The Beatles during their Revolver-era zenith, it makes their catastrophic artistic and personal collapse from the mid-1960s onward all the more tragic.
If you believe that environment is destiny, then their fate should not be surprising. The band was a byproduct of the unprecedented 1950s and 1960s Sun Belt prosperity, centered squarely in their southern Californian base of operations. Not everyone, after all, can afford a surfboard, nor afford to live within a short drive of the coast, nor afford to buy an expensive array of instruments. While the Beach Boys are rightly seen as California’s ambassadors to the nation, they soon demonstrated the darker side of the Sun Belt– the litigiousness, the selfishness, the drug use, the infidelity, the excess, the insincere emphasis on family– these were all no less the product of the self-entitled Golden State environs of their youth. You can’t blame it entirely on the counterculture– the me-first sense of acquisition that guided the Sun Belt during these decades played as great a role in their downfall.
Collectively, these influences took the band into a nosedive. Dennis Wilson hung out with bad influence after bad influence, even chillaxing with Charlie Manson and his Family prior to the Sharon Tate murder. He died in 1983 from a drowning accident that was almost certainly drug and drink-related. Brian Wilson spent the 1960s thru the 1980s grappling with psychological illness that kept him composing in sandboxes and disconnected from reality. Mike Love took up transcendental meditation, joined The Beatles in Rishikesh, but still behaved like the greatest jackass in rock history. Love sued Brian Wilson for leaving his name off of some of the early hits. Love then sued Al Jardine for touring with a group called “The Beach Boys’ Family and Friends” after he left the group. Even as Brian Wilson recovered a hard-won lucidity and sobriety, I despaired of this band becoming anything more than rock and roll’s most dysfunctional family not named Osborne.
So, I was surprised as anyone when the surviving Beach Boys decided to put the past aside, team up, and tour to commemorate the band’s 50th (!) anniversary. How can one approach a milestone like that without appreciating its enormity? 50 years of age seems a dreadfully long time, let alone a 50th anniversary. So, it was with great joy that I watched the band perform “Good Vibrations” on the Grammys and blow each of the contemporary artists out of the water. Will this amity last? Who can say, but for now, let us appreciate this happy reunion, this rare circumstance where the California dream has become the California reality. Good vibrations, indeed.