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Beach Boys - Brian Wilson (Surfs Up in the South Bay)

What's the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Hawthorne? The airport? The Museum of Flying? perhaps Robert F. Kennedy Hospital. How about surfing? While Hawthorne may not be a beach community per se, it is the proud hometown of the legendary rock band that made surf music a household term across the USA and beyond. The Beach Boys have now been entertaining audiences for 40 years and it all got started in Hawthorne.

The group was formed in the late 1950s by Brian Wilson, his younger brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and buddy Al Jardine. Immediately, they distinguished themselves with their trademark layered harmonies and by the time the elder Wilson graduated from Hawthorne High School, the Beach Boys were already on a roll.

Capitalizing on the surf craze (though never having ridden a board himself), Wilson crafted a slew of theme hits, such as "Surfing USA", "Surfer Girl", "Surfin Safari" and "Catch a Wave". The Beach Boys released an astonishing seven albums on Capital Records in their first two years with the company and had amassed over two dozen top forty hits by the year 1966.

The band could easily have rested on its laurels, churning out predictable hits ad infinitum about surfing, girls, and cars. However, Wilson was creatively restless and sought to propel the Beach Boys to another level of sophistication. Over the last few albums, he had become a true studio wizard and even began producing the group's records. Partially inspired by the Beatles' landmark "Rubber Soul" album of 1965, Wilson collaborated with lyricist Tony Asher to compose the material that would make up the historic "Pet Sounds" album. The record contained a series of quirky, melancholic masterpieces of pop.

The songs effectively depicted the thoughts and feelings of a young man attempting to find his way in a complicated world. The release of "Pet Sounds" came as a shock to the music world with its sheer inventiveness, melodic brilliance and incorporating of ahead-of-its-time studio techniques. It is considered one of the greatest achievements in modern musical history, inspiring the like of Paul McCartney to produce the "Sgt. Pepper" album. Despite hits like "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and "God Only Knows", "Pet Sounds" did not fare as well commercially as previous Beach Boy's releases. However, it did secure Brian Wilson's place in the pop music pantheon as a musical genius.

Unfortunately, the pressures of maintaining this level of artistry were a bit much to bear. Wilson's attempt to top "Pet Sounds" culminated in the aborted "Smile" project of 1967. The sessions from that ill-fated record did yield the tune "Good Vibrations", considered by many as the Beach Boys' single finest moment on vinyl. Several other songs surfaced on subsequent albums, but Wilson and the Beach Boys were never the same again. By the early '70s, Wilson's songwriting contributions had dwindled to a bare minimum and he eventually dropped out of the band and into seclusion.

The Beach Boys continued to tour throughout the '70s and '80s, with Wilson only making an occasional appearance. During this infamous period, he struggled with drugs, endured profound depression and watch his weight balloon uncontrollably. He reportedly did not even leave his bedroom for several years at one point. In the '80s, with the assistance of psychiatrist Eugene Landy, Wilson began to emerge from his funk. Landy became his caretaker, carefully orchestrating Wilson's every move and dictating career decisions. The controversial psychiatrist's role as a Svengali-type was frequently brought into question.

In 1988, Wilson released his first solo album (and first complete collection of new material in two decades). It was co-produced by Landy, was well-received by critics and even produced a minor hit in the tune "Love and Mercy." Over the past decade, Wilson has gradually regained his health, his independence and his creative spirit. Landy is thankfully no longer in the picture, but Wilson has found happiness via his marriage in 1995 to Melinda Ledbetter. The two now live in a Beverly Hills mansion with their two daughters, Daria and Delanie. That same year, Wilson also collaborated with one of his old songwriting partners, Van Dyke Parks, on the "Orange Crate Art" album. Then, in 1998, he released his second solo record, "Imagination," which harkened back stylistically to "Pet Sounds".

In 1999, Wilson took a major plunge and embarked on his first-ever solo tour. Severe stage fright had led to his absence from live shows with the Beach Boys, so it was only natural that the first few gigs would be nerve-wracking. With a little time and confidence, Wilson is finally getting used to performing before a live audience again and even enjoying it.

Is there a chance Wilson will re-unite with the Beach Boys in the future? The prospects are slim, but not altogether impossible. The band continues to perform live, though it rarely records anymore. The tragic deaths of Dennis (drowning) and Carl Wilson (cancer) have irrevocably damaged a crucial core of the band. In addition, there has been some bad blood between Mike Love and Wilson in recent years, though the latter expressed some intrigue at the idea of playing with his old cohorts again. With a new Millennium about to be unwrapped, some good vibrations wouldn't hurt anyone.

From an article dated; December 29, 2000 in the Hawthorne Lawndale Press Tribune

            
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