Perfect Sound Forever

Carl's Deal

Carl Wilson tribute by Steve Cooper (March 1998)

Life is a beach.

Let's see... four-fifths of the original Temptations are deceased. One half of the original Small Faces have gone on. Two-fifths of the original Byrds are dead (and David Crosby hasn't been looking that good lately). And, now, Beach Boy Carl Wilson has joined his brother Dennis in that great 24-track studio in the sky. These are sobering times for us sixties-era boomers. Our icons are falling nearly as fast as our arches. One day John Denver's head is bobbing around in the Pacific and the next day Sonny Bono is doing a George of the Jungle on a ski slope. Sobering times, indeed.

Beach Boys aren't supposed to die. They are supposed to exist into eternity, clad in vertical broad-striped shirts, waxing their surfboards, and planning the evening's campfire-lit beer blast on the warm, white sand. As such accomplished flatterers of the sun (in shimmering four-part harmony), the sun should always smile upon the Beach Boys. Ironic that it hasn't.

I would recount the problems of Beach Boy leading light Brian Wilson here, but I'll spare you that oft-told yarn. What I will say is this: it is ironic (there's that word again) that Brian, the troubled, coddled, destined-to-die-young genius of the Boys Beachward, has outlived his less-talented, younger, caregiver brothers, Dennis and Carl. I can imagine Dennis and Carl somewhere in the heavens shaking their heads and saying "Man, if we'd known Brian was going to survive us, we wouldda told the fat crybaby to shut the hell up." And I can further imagine Dennis and Carl knowing that most Beach Boys fans (myself included) are relieved that the most-talented Wilson brother is still with us.

Poor Carl. Not as handsome as Dennis nor as inspired as Brian. Always the mediator, the "other" Wilson brother, the underappreciated glue that held it all together. Steady Carl. After Brian checked his brains at the door in the late-sixties, it was Carl who led the Beach Boys on their remaining 25-year journey, touring the highways and low-ways of America, Europe, and beyond. It was Carl who prevented fellow Beach Boy Mike Love from turning a vital, rock and roll institution into a schmoozy, wink-at-the-girls lounge act. It was Carl who pleaded with brother Dennis and held his hand as he sank further and further into drinking and drugging. It was Carl who made the treks to see the reclusive Brian--to shake him into writing enough new material, always just barely enough new material, for the Beach Boys to go on. And despite all his efforts, it was Carl who knew that it would always be, in the hearts and minds of their fans, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Life is a beach and then you die.

But, come, let us praise Carl Wilson, even as we bury him. After Brian, Carl Wilson was "the singer" of the Beach Boys. Oh, to be sure, Mike Love took the lead on quite a few vocals, and gave "the Boys" that unmistakable California stamp with his pronunciation of "girls" as "gurrls." However, when a composition required a really gorgeous voice to put it over the top, it was Carl that they turned to. His "angelic" (the word most often used to describe his voice) singing propelled "God Only Knows" to the top of the charts and made it the standout cut on an album full of standout cuts, Pet Sounds. Even when Carl wasn't singing lead, his was the most prominent voice in the background harmonies so key to the Beach Boys' sound.

And Carl was a picker. His mix of ebullient Chuck Berry licks in a frat-rock setting has become the standard for beach band lead guitarists. In a band long on vocals and short on instrumentation, Carl's guitar was crucial. It was the heartbeat, the metronome.

Maybe Carl's deal wasn't such a bad deal, after all. He was the giver of the group and, if to give is to be blessed, Carl was the most blessed. This is summed up most ably by Beach Boys publicist Alyson Dutch: "Carl was a deeply spiritual human being who had an incredibly positive outlook on life. He had an amazing support system. His wife, Gina, was on tour with him, on every date (singing engagement) this year. His sons said he was the perfect father who was there for their needs." "Steady" Carl was there for his band's needs, his fan's needs, and his family's needs. After that, what more can I say?

Thanks for all you gave, Carl. Even if life isn't a beach, you made it feel like one.

Many thanks to Sherri Skanes for her help