Chapter Three: It’s so Sad to Watch a Sweet Thing Die

While the band was on tour, Brian Wilson was in the studio in late 1966 working on his most ambitious project yet, SMiLE, which he once called his ‘teenage symphony to God’. The song cycle was written using the modular method he developed for Good Vibrations with surrealistic, comi-tragic lyrics by Van Dyke Parks recounting the founding of America, from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, interspersed with Brian’s oddball humour (songs devoted to ‘Vegetables’ and his ‘Wind Chimes’, for example). But Wilson abandoned what would have been the Beach Boys’ Sgt Pepper on the brink of completion, plagued by inner turmoil, adverse reactions to LSD, pressure from his overbearing father and some members of the group, and a legal dispute with Capitol Records.

At the age of just twenty-four, after four phenomenally productive years, he became a virtual recluse, rarely moving from his bedroom to join the other Beach Boys in the studio they’d built for him at his home. The years 1967–73 witnessed the group at their most collaborative, making a sequence of underrated, commercially unsuccessful albums, before succumbing to nostalgically reprising their old hits. By then Brian’s life was dominated by a lethal mix of severe substance abuse, undiagnosed mental illness, extreme obesity and unpredictable behaviour. His life may have been saved by an unorthodox psychiatrist who ended up controlling everything he did for several years. His final, full contribution to the Beach Boys was a strange, child-like and beguiling collection of songs titled The Beach Boys Love You, 1977 (original title: Brian Wilson Loves You), that took in such topics as the solar system, a roller skating girl and talk show host Johnny Carson.

In the last decade or so Brian Wilson has shaken off many of his old demons, begun a new family, toured and recorded with a new band and committed himself to philanthropic causes (he personally telephoned each individual who gave more than $100 to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and matched their donations). He stunned fans in 2005 by announcing the resurrection of SMiLE, rock’s holy grail, debuting it live at the Royal Festival Hall and recording it anew with old collaborator Van Dyke Parks. It is the sweeter, sadder, more introspective side to his sound, coupled with his extraordinary production work on Pet Sounds and SMiLE which continues to inspire young musicians.

This room is the most biographical in the exhibition, though its subject – as in Allen Ruppersberg’s Where’s Al?, 1972 – is as often as not missing from the action, his place occupied instead by rumour and myth.

Notes

Halcion Sleep 1994, is a self-portrait of artist and musician Rodney Graham asleep in the back of a car in native Vancouver, under the influence of the eponymous prescription drug. Rodney’s next album is titled Mike Love.

Jim Shaw’s The Beach Boys Weekend 1988 is a comic book transcription of Wavelength 1966, a landmark Structuralist film by Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow. The series it belongs to, My Mirage, narrates the highs and lows of an American baby-boomer through the decades, in works of the exact same size in various media.