It’s always a crass feeling when you have to condense your feelings about an artist down to a few sentences because they have passed away. But the fact is I’ve been thinking about Carl Wilson since first reading that he was suffering from cancer sometime last year. And somehow it’s not that hard to bring it down to one moment that summs up what his voice and music have meant to me. It’s an obvious moment perhaps nine out of ten fans would choose, which I guess qualifies it as his greatest legacy: his vocal on „God Only Knows“ from the 1966 album Pet Sounds.
I recently promised Hinter-Net a long-winded examination of the 4 CD box set version of Pet Sounds released late last year. I started it and it turned out to be too personal and sentimental to be of interest for non-fanatics, a situation that certainly won’t change now that another of its co-creators has died. The difference is that I hope non-fans will at least tolerate a little sentimentality at this time.
Notice that I did say co-creator, which some Beach Boys scholar-fans would disagree with. Obviously Brian Wilson is the primary creator of Pet Sounds and all of the other music the Boys made in the 60’s, but the idea that it was only his work was made up by people who can’t accept what the Beach Boys became after Brian stopped working with them regularly at the end of the 60’s. Whatever bad things Mike Love brought to the Beach Boys, the commercialism and patriotism and revivalism and so on, it has to be said that he played a huge role in some great music.
The same must be said of Carl, except that he didn’t bring anything bad to the Beach Boys. He was largely responsible for the pro-ecology, socially aware stance the band took in the early 70’s, when they made several brilliant albums (Surf’s Up, Holland) without Brian’s full involvement. He integrated the Beach Boys by bringing in Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin in 1972. This was without question the best version of the Beach Boys not to include Brian, and had it lasted the Boys might have remained a relevant, creative force for many more years.
This early ’70’s period was Carl’s musical high point. He had enjoyed a big worldwide hit in 1969 with his vocal and producvtion of the Phil Spector song „I Can Hear Music,“ and with that confidence he contributed many excellent songs to Beach Boys albums. At the top of this list would be „Long Promised Road“ from Surf’s Up and „The Trader“ from Holland. Never forget that the Beach Boys included three brothers and by taking over leadership of the band from an unwilling Brian, Carl was not only changing the structure of a band but also a family. He handled this responsibility well and the Beach Boys‘ artistic decline is directly connected to his decrease in authority in the group. In some ways this was an even tougher loss for the Beach Boys than Brian. The group recorded at least several albums of great music without Brian’s leadership, but then almost nothing after Carl’s turn at the helm ended. Most of the fine moments the Boys did manage in the late ’70’s and ’80’s were Carl’s songs such as „Where I Belong“ and „Maybe I Don’t Know“ from the underrated self-titled album of 1985.
But „God Only Knows“ stands above. The box set includes with version of Brian singing one of his greatest songs himself. As a longtime Carl fan I approached this with no fear- I knew that not even Brian could match the angelic intensity that Carl achieves in his vocal. I stand by that conclusion; although Brian’s take is fascinating and great to have, Carl defined the song. When I hear it now I don’t cry because he’s dead, I cried to the song before when he was alive. Not every time, of course; only those times when Carl’s voice makes me believe in the perfect love lyricist Tony Asher wrote about. Almost every time.