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Beach Gents

Good ole vibrations from the Beach Boys this summer

When Carl Wilson died on February 6, 1998, it was the first time the Beach Boys' future as a touring band was ever in doubt. Though Brian Wilson had eschewed the rigors of the road and high-decibel live performances in favor of composing and producing, and had not performed regularly with the Beach Boys since a Houston gig in '64, his absence on stage was never that devastating. In the beginning, the group was hot enough commercially and artistically to get by. That Johnston could adeptly pick up Brian's vocal parts and that Brian was about to hit his creative apex with Pet Sounds only helped create greater interest. The Beach Boys also survived the death of Dennis Wilson, whose performances of "Lady" and "You Are So Beautiful" were concert highlights. But as gifted a writer and magnetic a performer as Dennis was, his life was out of control at the time of his death in '83, and he was at best unreliable.

Carl Wilson was different. He assumed the leadership role when brother Brian wouldn't and eventually couldn't. Carl Wilson wrote some of the most powerful songs in the '70s, and it's his voice on "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations" that makes the biggest statements. When Carl Wilson pursued a solo career in the early '80s, his angelic voice and commanding stage presence were sorely missed by the remaining cast. "He was a fabulous character," says Johnston. "He had a very calming effect on a lot of his friends. What we miss is an incredible, cool bandleader. It was really fun to have someone make sure everyone doesn't invent new vocal parts. Every night I used to go back and stand by the drums for the first two verses of 'God Only Knows,' just so I could listen and watch it. That voice was a fabulous, fabulous voice."

Carl Wilson's death has not ended the Beach Boys, at least not the touring band. Though the group was tacit about its future plans for several months after his death and only sporadically performed in '98, Johnston says there was never any question the Beach Boys would continue in some form. "Why wouldn't you?" he says. "Why would you stop because one person dies? That does not compute. I don't think the Rolling Stones stopped when Brian Jones died. We applied the Dennis Wilson theory. We went from Dennis's press conference, after he died, right into the studio two hours later. There's something bigger than any of us, and that's the songs. The music is the star here."

"When you go to see the Beach Boys, you're going to get a history lesson," says Johnston. "You're going to get surf, girls, cars, album tracks like 'Hushabye' and 'Wendy' and lots of hits. Then you'll get the Pet Sounds era. We might add 'Heroes and Villains.' It's kind of like having a real big house, but you still have furniture in the attic that you swap off to other parts of the house. We're just figuring out what we're doing."

As for future plans, Johnston says a television miniseries about the Beach Boys is in the works, and A&E is working on a Biography documentary on Brian Wilson. Johnston expresses a desire to work with Brian Wilson again, but, while there have been talks with Wilson about that, no one has initiated contact. Brian Wilson's next move is always uncertain. But Johnston hopes the Beach Boys can do something, while at the same time not sacrifice who and what the band is about.

"You have to kind of appreciate your legacy," Johnston says, "and it's still nice to kind of go around and run around the track. You do what you do at the time you do it, and you have to mature with your maturity and groove with it. You don't want to be pathetic. You don't want to keep reinventing yourself like Madonna. I think Madonna's really pathetic. She has this very cool little voice and some clever stuff, but she just keeps reinventing herself. For what? You have to put the music and the art first. I think the spotlight is your reward for doing something really great, not for just being outrageous. That's not art."

The Beach Boys will perform Friday, April 16, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place. Call (713)629-3700 for ticket information and showtime.

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