Carl Wilson, 1946-1998

Published February 13, 1998 6:24PM (EST)

As a Beach Boy, Carl Dean Wilson didn't make for good copy. Still doesn't,
actually: In the wake of his death on Feb. 6 -- of lung cancer at
51 -- you could see the obituaries reaching for something interesting to say.
"Lead guitarist and founding member ..." they'd begin, and then the usual
onslaught of Beach Boys clichis would fire up. Surf rock. Crazy brother
Brian. Drowned brother Dennis. Great in the early '60s but musically
irrelevant after "Good Vibrations." (After all, no Beach Boys songs written
after 1966 were used in TV ads, so they couldn't have been any good,
right?) History, when it chooses to remember Carl Wilson, will most likely
footnote him as a minor player in the swirling psychodrama that was the
band he helped create.

So here's your good copy, then: Without Carl, the Beach Boys wouldn't have
mattered nearly as much as they did. Brian was the pop songwriting genius,
but it was Carl who made the band rock; his guitar work was the engine under
the hood of "409," "Shut Down," "Surf City" and a dozen other classics. An
obsessive fan of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Dick Dale, he paid homage
to his heroes, but his guitar style strove to emulate their swing and beat,
not copy or dilute it as so many lesser bands have, and still do. If it's
possible to listen to the Beach Boys' hits today with an open mind,
ignoring how much they've been overlicensed and multimarketed, their
power can still stop you cold. The band's music always preached a
California mythology of innocence and hope, which many have written off as
forced and empty, just "good-time music." But when Carl hits the guitar
break on "Surfin' U.S.A." or sings lead on "Good Vibrations," that myth
still sounds real and approachable. A statue should be built in the man's honor if only for singing lead on "God Only Knows."

Carl's post-"Good Vibrations" work went a long way toward debunking
conventional wisdom about the band's creative decline. While it's true that
the band never did match the impact of "Pet Sounds" and those early
singles, with the bulk of their '70s and '80s output plagued with
mediocrity, Carl didn't give up the good fight as quickly as the pundits
did. Listen to the bright, ethereal feel of his production work on 1967's
"Wild Honey" and 1969's "20/20" -- both highly underrated albums -- and he
emerges as a musician who'd learned to stop thinking about the pop charts.
The harsh, demanding vocal on "Wild Honey," the plaintive soul of "I Can
Hear Music" and "Darlin'," and a striking vocal on Stevie Wonder's "I Was
Made to Love Her" -- all were proof that he was consistently striving to
prove the Beach Boys' artistic worth.

He was still striving for that, actually, when I saw one of his final
performances with the Beach Boys last summer. It was another one of the
group's sad, formulaic nostalgia trips, and I'm still not sure why I went;
perhaps I was naively hoping that some of the beauty I grew up hearing on
their records would magically reappear in 1997. For the most part, it
didn't: There was something supremely distressing about watching the band members'
preteen relatives coming onstage and singing along with "Help Me Rhonda,"
a tune that's nothing if not a desperate plea for empty sex. It was Carl,
though, who provided the positive moments that I remember. Obviously weak
and sitting down for most of the set, his voice was rough and jagged. But
given the glossy sheen of the music the rest of the group and hired hands
were pumping out, the coarseness of his vocals were, ironically, a saving
grace. Playing the band's last truly great song, 1974's "Sail on Sailor,"
solo acoustic, he sang with an earnestness and fervor that suggested he
wasn't going to surrender to anything -- to his health, to the scoured-clean
sound of the rest of the night's songs, to anyone who said his best days
were behind him. And if his death does indeed signal the end of the Beach
Boys -- as well it should, since it's impossible to imagine the band with nary a
Wilson -- it's worth noting that Carl left still believing in the world the
band sang about. One that can turn on a Chuck Berry hook alone. One
filled with love and innocence, where redemption is as close as the nearest

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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