Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys
By Kent Crowley
Jawbone Press, 288 pp., $19.95
Imagine being Carl Wilson.
You are the youngest of three brothers who anchor one of the most successful rock bands in the world. Yet one of them is a tortured genius with mental issues whose compositions the group relies on. And the other is a wild child who makes questionable friends (like, oh, a budding singer-songwriter named Charles Manson). And both drink and drug a bit too much.
So often, it’s left to you to hold the group together. And it’s not lightly that brother Brian — the tortured genius — refers to you as the “Rock Gibraltar” of the group. And did we mention that you were all of 16 years old when he said that?
In Long Promised Road, author Crowley (Surf Beat! Rock & Roll’s Forgotten Revolution) attempt to finally give due to Carl Wilson for his contributions to the band, both musically and otherwise. He argues that singer/guitarist with the angelic voice that elevated both “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” became the group’s de facto leader and live musical director as his brothers sank into their demons, keeping the band’s fortunes alive in an ever-changing musical landscape.
He also offers that Carl Wilson was a far better and inventive guitar player than perhaps he was able to show within the framework of the increasingly symphonic and piano-based sound of the band. Particularly around the era of Pet Sounds.
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And Crowley also aims to take down the cherished myths that the Wilsons' father, Murray, was always a horrid tyrant; that the Beach Boys were not merely Brian’s musical puppets; and that the studio musicians know as the Wrecking Crew were not solely responsible for the band’s studio music.
It’s a tall order to fill – particularly as the band’s career evolves over the decades from their early surf/cars/girls music to something much more mature to musical flailings and finally the mostly-nostalgia-laden “America’s Band.” Through it all, it’s Carl who is given the task (whether he wanted it or not) of keeping things together, especially in leading the Beach Boys on the concert stage.
And Crowley makes that role painstakingly clear. However, the book’s major weak spot is that – even after ingesting the whole thing – the reader is still left not really getting to know Carl Wilson himself.
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The facts are there about what Carl did. And there are others talking about Carl. But there’s a big hole left in really relaying what Carl was like or what he thought and felt. He's sometimes on offstage presence in his own story.
And while there is an inherent gap in writing about someone who is no longer around (Wilson died in 1998 from lung cancer), there needed to be more of Carl Wilson himself in the narrative. Or at least more quotes from interviews he may have given over the decades.
Still, Long Promised Road — which takes it title from a song Carl co-wrote with lyricist Jack Rieley for the Beach Boys, his first eve songwriting credit — sheds some much overdue light on this Wilson brother. Carl, while very much overshadowed by the stories of his siblings, was nonetheless absolutely crucial to the band which he helped keep afloat on some stormy seas.