Beach Boys fans have been waiting a long time for Carl Wilson to get his due. The youngest of the Wilson brothers and perpetually overshadowed in the band’s narrative by his troubled older brothers, Carl is still revered, even years after his death, for his angelic demeanor and singing voice. But while Brian and Dennis Wilson have been the subjects of many profiles and a number of biographies, no one has given the same consideration to Carl.
Kent Crowley’s Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul Of The Beach Boys, The Biography could be the book to change all that. Unfortunately… it isn’t.
Although Carl Wilson was thrust into the spotlight as a young teenager and remained there the rest of his life, he was fiercely protective of his privacy, and it appears that his surviving family members are determined to honor that privacy. Crowley relies mostly on archival material, such as old Beach Boys interviews and previously published biographies about other band members; his primary sources are interviews with former Beach Boys sidemen like Chris Farmer and Gary Griffin (misspelled throughout as “Griffith”), who offer glimpses into Carl as the Beach Boys’ bandleader, but not much in the way of Carl as person. The Carl Wilson who emerges from these pages is the Carl that Beach Boys fans already know and love: a natural caretaker and Papa Bear figure who (in his mother’s words) was “born 30”: a chubby and awkward kid who reluctantly put aside childhood games to harmonize with his brothers, and suddenly found himself in the role of a rock star and guitar hero; a man who saw music and family as intertwined.
We see brief glimpses of a Carl Wilson beyond the familiar tropes, and they’re interesting enough to make a reader wish for more. There are clues pointing toward a lifelong spiritual quest: his interest in Transcendental Meditation and EST, a few quotes about his view of God as a protector and his spiritual view of the environment, and a mention of his ordination as a minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. Crowley writes about Carl’s penchant for fashion and style, which led to intra-band trends such as Jay Sebring pompadours and white guitars, and which occasionally manifested itself in flamboyant ways (see: Carl’s 1970s penchant for Nudie suits).
Carl’s interest in new trends extended beyond fashion and into music. Along with his friend David Marks, Carl brought R&B, rock, and blues influences to the Beach Boys, and found ways to mesh those styles with the sounds Brian and the rest of the band were creating. Crowley describes Carl as a guitar pioneer, whose combination of surf and big-band jazz guitar styles set the Beach Boys apart from other vocal harmony groups, just as their vocal harmonies set them apart from other surf bands. Carl was the first Beach Boy to become a fan of the Beatles, the one to discover and bring The Sunrays to his father’s attention, the one to discover and sign future Beach Boys collaborators The Flame. Within the Beach Boys, Carl was Brian’s biggest supporter as the eldest Wilson brother worked on Pet Sounds.
The book touches all too briefly on the few controversies in which Carl was involved: his conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, the infamous “two mai tais and a Valium” incident in which he appeared onstage while inebriated, and ongoing substance abuse issues that, while never quite as serious as his brothers’ issues, could still be worth exploring.
Crowley is at his strongest when writing about Carl’s musical accomplishments, with and apart from the Beach Boys. As early as 1962, Carl was emerging as a leader in the band. Wilson patriarch Murry relied on Carl to inform him when fellow band members broke Murry’s strict rules. Brian leaned on Carl (and cousin Mike Love) as the leaders on tour, and when Brian quit touring to focus on composing and recording, Carl became Brian’s first point of contact from the studio and the link between Brian and the touring band. While Mike was the flashy showman onstage, Carl directed the music, and even Mike deferred to Carl, who could keep the other band members in line with just a simple “stink eye” facial expression and a few well chosen words.
As the health of the other Wilson brothers deteriorated, Carl shouldered even more responsibility. On the road, he struggled with Dennis’s growing substance abuse problems, and in the studio, he took on Brian’s former roles of songwriter and producer, as well as taking on more lead vocals and becoming a proficient keyboard player. Crowley depicts Carl as “probably the most technologically proficient of the band,” and describes his various guitars and other gear in loving detail — it’s possible that the Fender Showman amplifier gets more ink in the book than either of Carl’s wives or children do.
It’s that personal side of Carl Wilson that’s missing throughout the book, and when a book uses the word “soul” in its title, it’s hard to forgive that absence.
Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys is available on Amazon.