Friday, May 1, 2009

You need a mess of help to stand alone

If you have a curiosity about the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, you've probably heard the name Jack Rieley before. Rieley had a brief fling as manager, collaborator and creative consultant for the troubled band in the early 70s, and gets both the credit and the blame for attempting to upgrade their image for the post-hippie counterculture, shepherding the group through three albums, Surf's Up, So Tough/Carl And The Passions, and Holland. Surf's Up was far and away the best of the three, while the other two were messy but interesting, and all three were the last attempt by the band at creating something weighty and relevant before settling into the tug-of-war between safe nostalgia and drug-drenched naivete that followed. (The former, represented by Mike Love, winning out while Brian Wilson eventually triumphed as a solo artist basically paying tribute to his own illustrious past. Sadly, his two brilliant brothers didn't last long enough to savor the moment. Oh, what Carl would have done with the reconstructed Smile album!)

Anyway, Rieley has not been served well by history. His contributions have been belittled as superficial manipulations of a clueless band, shallow gestures to ingratiate them with the political Zeitgeist of the day. Well, there might be some truth to that, but reading his own words on the preserved mailing list exchanges below, one gets another picture: one of a true fan, perhaps one of the most passionate Beach Boys fans ever, who had the guts to convince them, for at least a few years, that they had more to offer than they had been giving, and it was time for them to take the role as one of the great bands of the rock era that was alive and relevant to the time they were in here and now. Maybe that was a ludicrous idea. Considering Mike Love's response to Rieley's challenge was to pen "Student Demonstration Time", maybe this band was too square a peg for such a round hole. But Love also managed to come up with "Don't Go Near The Water" (a good song that's hit the Ear Candle Radio playlist more than once), and "California Saga" has its moments too. (For me as a kid hearing these records and knowing zilch about what went on behind the scenes, it seemed perfectly appropriate for the sun-and-surf-loving Beach Boys to be writing about ecology...still does, really.) Certainly, the group was on to something that could have gone further, if they had had the courage to see it through. The failure of the Rieley era sealed the fate of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson even more surely than the capsizing of the Smile project.

If anything, Rieley's greatest gift to the band was his strong support and cultivation of Carl Wilson: appointing him the band's musical director, helping him write songs (the three they co-wrote are some of the best things the band ever did in the 70s), and enlisting his help to finish the work that Brian could not; it was Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley that made the song "Surf's Up" happen, and "Surf's Up" is to the Beach Boys what "A Day In The Life" was to the Beatles: a huge once-in-a-lifetime achievement that stands outside the rest of their catalog. So if Rieley had done nothing but sifted through the Smile tapes and goaded the Beach Boys into making something presentable out of "Surf's Up", that would be enough.

But Rieley is the forgotten man in the Beach Boys story, and his own silence has contributed to that. That, and his own lyrics for songs by all three Wilson brothers, which aimed for Van Dyke Parks surrealism, sometimes piled on the metaphors to the point of sounding creaky and overwrought on songs like "Steamboat". But we don't come to the Beach Boys for lyrics, do we? Rieley's lyrics, for all their hippie-babble tendencies, were eminently singable (and never as embarrassing as Mike Love's efforts). "Feel Flows", a virtual Carl Wilson solo recording (aside from Charles Lloyd's sax and flute overdubs), turns Rieley's word salad into something truly cosmic, and is the best thing either of them ever did.

Here is a rare opportunity to get a bit of the story in the elusive Rieley's own words. For a brief while, he contributed some thoughts and memories to an online Beach Boys mailing list, and it's interesting to read the story from his perspective. Jack Rieley is nothing if not highly opinionated, and gushes with praise for anyone with the last name Wilson and does not hide his disdain for the other members of the band. He doesn't go into it much here, but another factor in the equation was Rieley's sexuality. Being openly gay while Mike Love made no bones about his homophobia was never going to bode well for a long-term business and creative relationship with such a conflicted and dysfunctional family-based rock band. (Meanwhile, Davis has insisted while watching live Beach Boys footage that Mike Love is totally gay himself based on his there may be some defensive closet-case projection involved. I have also read that Love gay-baited Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas when he tried to collaborate with the Beach Boys years later; clearly Love's got some issues) Rieley did the smart thing and moved on, and since then, while book after book on the troubled Brian and his relatives/bandmates has come out over the years, he has kept his own counsel. But here, he spills his guts ever so briefly, and we get another side of the story:

Jack Rieley, Part 1

Jack Rieley, Part 2

It's worth a read, as is the O'Hagan story, which provides a portrait of how fiercely committed to lameness the Beach Boys became by the '90s, as O'Hagan points the finger at producer Joe Thomas (an ex-wrestler and "adult contemporary" label owner who worked with both the group and Brian Wilson solo) as a specialist in "right-wing country artists" who was given control because Brian's wife liked him. Apparently, you can't blame Mike Love for every wrong move the band makes, tempting as it is. Oddly, Bruce Johnston comes across much better here than in Rieley's account.

Key Rieley quote (trying to explain why the Beach Boys could not achieve the critical credibility and commercial success that the Beatles did):

The Beatles were focused, strategic, professional and well led during the years of their mounting ascendancy in critical and commercial acclaim. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the creators, spoke the same "line" as did George Harrison and Ringo Starr. There was true career direction, which the group followed carefully.

During that same period The Beach Boys were divided, unprofessional and horrendously led. Brian Wilson, the creator, had the respect of his brothers but not of the others in his band nor of their manager. The brothers spoke one "line" while Love, Jardine, an emerging Johnston and Murry Wilson spouted another. There was no career direction to speak of and chaos reigned.

A thought-provoking explanation of why some bands "work" and some don't. It's food for thought, monsters.


IanSchultz said...

Another really interesting untold story in rock is The Clash II, The guitarist wrote a book and from all accounts it's brilliant. It tells about how bat shit crazy Joe Strummer became and Bernie Rhodes took a certain line about him by The Specials too heart.

It's called "Out of Control : The Last days of The Clash"

I need to pick it up sometime, shame they were never willing to discuss it at any length during Joe's life.

p.s for the record... The Beach Boys were much better than The Beatles.

J Neo Marvin said...

Bernie Rhodes took a certain line about him by The Specials too heart. You mean he started brandishing guns?

You can tell that some weirdness was going on, because Joe Strummer seemed to spend the following decade or more absolutely shell-shocked.

If I were that guitarist, I would be royally pissed that I joined an established band, and then wasn't even allowed to play on the album.

"Better" is such a nebulous concept. (That's coming from the POV of a 51-year-old, mind you. I was just as adamant in my teens and twenties.) But what Rieley's driving at in that quote isn't which band was better so much as which band had a sense of their own identity and which band shot themselves in the foot every time.

IanSchultz said...

No Joe was shell-shocked for a like a decade and going to raves probably didn't help his mental state but saying that... The Clash II did write a couple good songs and Joe did some good soundtrack stuff in the 10 years before his career got back on track.

J Neo Marvin said...

I'm really getting into the "Walker" soundtrack now. And I was fortunate enough to see the Pogues at the Fillmore when Joe played with them.

IanSchultz said...

Also, the few good songs by The Clash II is weighted down by horrible versions of old Clash

IanSchultz said...

Walker is a really interesting film, very underrated (Criterion did a great special edition)...
Very funny and pathetic interview with Alex Cox reading the reviews of Walker and than burning them...