Kent Crowley makes an excellent argument for the genius of Carl Wilson, youngest brother of Beach Boys' auteur Brian and Beach Boys' avatar Dennis, in the new book Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys. Could Carl have been regarded on the same level that Brian is now? Through twists of birth order, health choices and a type B personality, it was never meant to be.
Carl clearly had all the tools that Brian did, but as a typical younger sibling, didn't need or discover his talents until his older brother burnt out and no longer led the group. This is true of Dennis as well, as he reaped the benefits of Brian's creativity, and didn't blossom as a solo artist until late in his life. The children of Murry and Audree Wilson were abundantly talented, but it was Brian's birthright to carry on the family business. Quiet Carl observed, learned, kept the peace, and kept the show on the road as circumstances progressed beyond bizarre, in what must be recognized as one of the most dysfunctional families ever to grace the earth.
As Crowley tells it, Carl's year's between the ages of 14 and 21 are simply unfathomable to mere mortals. Starting with family harmony lessons, the formation of a band, their meteoric rise, the desire and ability to live past being forgotten one hit wonders, becoming the band leader on world tours, lawsuits against the Federal Government, marriage, kids, his brother's drug use and instability, placating a jealous father, and, well, it goes on. All this while remaining in his brother's shadow, perhaps out of family duty or simply because it was quieter there. While the insanity continued, Carl kept on like a trooper, finally finding his own voice and happiness, before dying of lung cancer. Wow, an amazing life, but is it worthy of a hagiography?
Crowley is a solid writer; he's done his research, and turns Carl's story into a nuclear diary. The description of the early sixties SoCal surf music scene/fad is vividly formed and populated with characters who would become music legends. The band's story is so often focused on Brian's studio monkery, that we forget that the Beach Boys toured constantly, and Carl was a mere teenage witness to every manner of shenanigan, of the backstage and business variety. The pressures of the draft, the family arguments, the crooked arrangements, the press attention... Crowley empathically conveys the huge burden placed on the patient young man that everyone looked to for stability.
I want to give one particular appreciation for Crowley's tome. Murry Wilson, in every Beach Boys book I have ever read, comes across as a ruthless, vindictive, child abusing tyrant, who couldn't stand his children's success, and was a terrible business manager who sold the publishing catalog for peanuts. I still believe all this to be true, but it's interesting to hear that there was another side to Murry, a man who left his blue collar business to pursue his musical passion, and immersed himself in the songwriters' trade, learning the craft and making connections that would help the Beach Boys success. As seen through Carl's eyes and told by Crowley, Murray almost seems human. Almost.
It's not all great though. Crowley repeats factoids constantly, sometimes in the space of a few paragraphs, making them seem like filler. Or, perhaps there just aren't enough new nuggets out there to mine. Another problem is that 90 percent of the book covers the first half of Carl's life, and his post Beach Boys solo era gets a quick overview. But, let's face it, that era of his life just wasn't as interesting. Finally, it's impossible to tell Carl's story apart from the Beach Boys' legend, so you'll have to decide which facets of this version don't jibe with the many, many other books out there.
I truly appreciate this biography. I don't think it will change the world's view of Carl Wilson, but it informed mine. Yet the question remains: If Carl hadn't been born in Brian's shadow, would he be the Wilson brother of note, or, was it because of his brother's encouragement and guidance that Carl became more than a footnote.