The Beach Boys' Crazy Summer

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

He heard voices, did drugs, and fell apart. Can the Beach Boys' reunion tour help put Brian Wilson back together again?

Brian Wilson, the lumbering savant who wrote, produced, and sang an outlandish number of immortal pop songs back in the 1960s with his band, The Beach Boys, is swiveling in a chair, belly out, arms dangling, next to his faux-grand piano at the cavernous Burbank, Calif., studio where he and the rest of the group's surviving members are rehearsing for their much-ballyhooed 50th-anniversary reunion tour, which is set to start in three days. At 24, Wilson shelved what would have been his most avant-garde album, Smile, and retreated for decades into a dusky haze of drug abuse and mental illness; now, 45 years later, he has reemerged, stable but still somewhat screwy, to give the whole sun-and-surf thing a final go.

Before that can happen, though, the reconstituted Beach Boys have to learn how to sing "That's Why God Made the Radio," the first new A-side that Wilson has written for the band since 1980. And so they have gathered, once again, around his piano. I'd like to imagine that this is how it was when they first accustomed their vocal cords to, say, "California Girls." Except it's not, exactly: back then, Wilson was the maestro, conducting each singer as his falsetto floated skyward and his fingers pecked out the accompaniment. Now he stares at a teleprompter and sings when he's told to sing, ceding his bench to one member of the 10-man backing band that will buffer the Beach Boys in concert and looking on as another orchestrates the harmonies and handles the loftier notes. At first, the blend is rough: Wilson strains to hit the high point of the hook; frontman Mike Love and guitarist Al Jardine miss their cues. But after a few passes the stray voices begin to mesh. They begin to sound like the Beach Boys. Close your eyes, shutting out Wilson's swoosh of silver hair and Love's four golden rings, and 1965 isn't such a stretch.

Or it isn't until someone's iPhone rings. Jardine's. He turns away from the piano and presses the phone to his ear. "I'm going to have to call you back, because--wait, what?" He shakes his head, then hangs up. "Dick Clark just passed away," he says. The room begins to murmur; people cover their mouths with their hands.

As each Beach Boy absorbs the news, I watch Wilson--always the conduit, the live wire, the pulsing limbic system of the Beach Boys. At first, he says nothing. Then I overhear him talking to Jardine. "We're 70 f--king years old," he says. "You'll be 70 in September. I'll be 70 in June. I'm worried about being 70."

"It's still a few months off," Jardine says.

"That's true," Wilson mutters. He pauses for a few seconds, looking away from his bandmate. "I want to know how did we get here?" he finally says. "How did we ever f--king get here? That's what I want to know."

It's not a bad question. I have other questions, too, which is why I flew to Los Angeles to meet the Beach Boys in person, then continued on to concerts in New Orleans and New York, then spent weeks listening to their new album, That's Why God Made the Radio (out June 5?). Why did we care enough about the Beach Boys to buy more than 100 million of their records? Why do we still care enough to snap up $70 million in reunion-tour tickets? Should we still care? Or is nostalgia all that's left? Also: what is it like to be America's first 50-year-old rock-and-roll band? Is it morbid, or is it inspiring? Cathartic or embarrassing? Or is it something else entirely?

But "how did we ever f--king get here?"--that's the place to start. As a lifelong Beach Boys fan, I've lost count of the number of times someone has asked me, "What's wrong with Brian Wilson?" The suspicious eyes. The slack expression. The mirthless laugh. The slurred speech. They tend to assume he's had a stroke.

I usually respond by reciting Wilson's clinical diagnosis: he suffers from schizoaffective disorder--sometimes, he hears voices--and mild manic depression. …