"Well, we've made it this far, haven't we?" said Carl Wilson by way of greeting Feb.6, 1995, a bashful smile rising on his round, bearded face. "And most of us, thank God, are still here," he softly added, as he gazed around at family and friends in the small banquet room of the Bel Air Hotel during the wedding reception for his brother Brian and his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter. Moments before, a plainly nervous Carl had given the toast to the newlyweds. With that public task behind him, the diffident, self-described "baby brother" of the Beach Boys felt he could now enjoy the rest of the celebration. Three years later to the day, Carl died at age 51, due to complications from lung and brain cancer. In December 1997, Carl and Brian lost their mother, Audree, dead at 80 of heart and kidney failure. Brother Dennis drowned in 1983, and their father, Murray, expired from a heart attack in 1973. Carl is survived by his second wife, Gina (Dean Martin's daughter), and his two grown sons, Jonah, 28, and Justyn, 26, from his first marriage to Annie Hinsche. Also carrying on the family name are Brian; Melinda; their two adopted daughters, Daria and Delanie; Brian's daughters with his first wife, Marilyn Rovell, Carnie and Wendy; Dennis' five kids. "Who would have guessed," commented one close associate after Carl's funeral, "that Brian, after all his problems, would be the last Wilson brother still standing?"
And who would have supposed, after a lifetime of running interference, serving as mediator and peacemaker, and continually providing all-purpose aid and comfort to his charismatic brothers, Carl Dean Wilson, born Dec.21, 1946, would arguably find himself the least-lauded of the Wilson siblings at the core of the Beach Boys' California saga?
In this writer's dozens of conversations with Carl over the last 20-plus years, he was customarily the person who described the point-to-point logistics of the Beach Boys record-making. This occurred because it often fell to Brian and Dennis' baby brother to keep the music on track in every qualitative sense during the most troubled years of his brethren's lives. It was Carl whom Brian entrusted the lead vocal for "God Only Knows," the paternoster of Brian's 1966 compositional masterpiece, "Pet Sounds." Likewise, Carl sang the verses on "Good Vibrations" and some of the best songs on the 1967 "Smiley Smile" album assembled in the wake of abortive "Smile" sessions, including "With Me Tonight" and "Wonderful." Carl also helmed the vocals on the title track of the 1967 "Wild Honey" album, cut largely in Brian's house, as well as the record's top 20 hit, "Darlin'," and Carl sang a heartfelt homage to Stevie Wonder on the R&B-flavored record's cover of Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Her."
Excellent later albums like "Surf's Up" (1971), "Holland" (1973), and the under-appreciated "Carl And The Passions--So Tough" (1972) would probably never have been completed without Carl's determination to keep the faltering Boys cohesive through his distinctive singing and collaborative songwriting ("Long Promised Road," "Feel Flows," "All This Is That," "The Trader," "Leaving This Town," etc.). Carl also incorporated his proteges, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar of South African band the Flame, into the group and assumed overall executive control of the production chores Brian had piloted.
Sadly, much of Carl's best later work is difficult or impossible to find in stores, particularly the exceptional 1985 Caribou/Columbia album simply titled "The Beach Boys," which Carl steered to completion in the aftermath of Dennis' tragic dimise and Brian's slow recovery from substance abuse and psychological suffering.
Like "Wild Honey" and the out-of-print opus "Sunflower," "The Beach Boys" combined R&B shadings with a quantum leap in technical innovation and refinement. One of Carl's heroes, Wonder, lent a new song, "I Do Love You," to the project, with Carl singing a lovely lead duet with Al Jardine on the cut. A digital recording/remixing process utilizing Sony's PCM 3324 and 1610 hardware brought a dramatic new clarity to the Boys' vocal and instrumental matrix.
Most significant for Carl was the emotional depth of the material he penned for "The Beach Boys" with writing colleagues Myrna Smith Schilling, Robert White Johnson, and the production team of Steve Levine and Julian Lindsay: "Maybe I Don't Know," "It's Gettin' Late," and the openly autobiographical "Where I Belong." The latter two songs were the first the Beach Boys laid down for the album during sessions in June 1984 in London. Composed two years after Carl's October 1982 resolution of his divorce from his first wife, "Where I Belong" was an ode to impossible longings. While it presaged the solace he would find in his 1987 marriage to Gina, it also displayed Carl's decision to come to grips with his enduring sense of isolation in the Beach Boys' familial structure and ethos. As such, it carried a poignancy in the group's canon on par with Brian's abject "Caroline, No."
As Carl sang on "Where I Belong" while poised over the Yamaha DX1 keyboards that are the chief coloration beyond the basilica-sized canopy of swelling harmonies: "I've spent my whole life drifting / Towards an elusive sun / I would have wandered forever / If your breeze hadn't come / And you could just be my anchor / You are my Northern Star / That navigates me home...Loving you is right where I belong."
Carl was one of the first members of the Beach Boys to play a musical instrument, getting his initial guitar lessons in the back room of an accordion studio. Dropping the prim instruction because, in his words, "I just wanted to rock!," he later developed his Chuck Berry inspired technique through informal study with John Maus of the Walker Bros. ("Make It Easy On Yourself," "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine [Anymore]"). In our initial meeting in 1976 at Brother Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., Carl spent an entire afternoon chatting about his childhood, his difficulty in school ("I always hated it; I got terrible grades"), and the escape music provided-ed--including a late-blooming love for classical composers like Antonin Dvorak. But he also had a lingering sense of conflicted loyalties due to the closeness he felt toward his headstrong father, Murry, who was the Beach Boys' manager until an exasperated Brian fired him.
"He had a good [machinery-leasing] business; he gave it up for us," said Carl of his parent. "Brian said, 'Dad, please help us.' But it was difficult to work with your dad, him being and authority figure and all. Especially when Brian started to really stretch and flex. He and Dad would disagree on things." Carl noted sheepishly, "Actually, I'm the one he always had the good relationship with. For Dennis, who was in the middle, agewise, it was tough. And Brian was kinda pushed because he was the firstborn, but I was the baby. At any rate, oh God," said Carl, his eyes suddenly shining with emotion, "sometimes I wish my dad was here." Yet after Murry was gone, Carl became the kindly authority figure his family had previously lacked, the baby brother who never fit in somehow providing others with a sense of belonging.
"Great music is timeless, and experiential," Carl concluded. "I'll put on the '[From The] New World's symphony by Dvorak, and, during certain sections of it, it's really all right being alive at that time. I think one to the things people like about the Beach Boys is that , for some, it's really great being alive during the time they're listening to Beach Boys' records."