Surf’s Up

Peter Ames Carlin ‘85 publishes a critically acclaimed biography of Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys.


Peter Ames Carlin ‘85 publishes a critically acclaimed biography of Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys.

by Eric Meyer

It’s a long way from the fabled sun-drenched beaches of Southern California to an office in overcast Portland, where Peter Ames Carlin BA ‘85 discusses Brian Wilson, the mercurial subject of Carlin’s recent book. Carlin speaks with authority about the cultural and artistic importance of the genius who wrote, produced, played, and sang on all of the Beach Boys’ best-known songs.

Carlin, who majored in English, credits John Callahan, Odell Professor of Humanities, for sparking his interest in identifying connections between popular and classical art forms. As a student, Carlin noticed a link between the folk ballad “Stagger Lee” and the Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler.” Callahan encouraged him to pursue the idea, which led to an in-depth study project.

Following graduation, Carlin found himself in the offices of Portland’s daily newspaper, the Oregonian, and soon realized that he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He started as a copy aide, then began contributing freelance stories, receiving assignments with progressively more responsibility. Today, he is the paper’s television critic and occasionally contributes concert, book, and movie reviews as well.

In 1996, Carlin went east to write for People magazine. Although he enjoyed living in New York City, he and his wife always planned to return to Portland, where they wanted to raise their daughter and two sons. They moved back in 2000.

Writing a book about Brian Wilson was something that Carlin “always wanted to do,” and after interviewing Wilson for a magazine profile in 1998, he saw the genesis of a longer work. Publishers were initially cool to the project, believing that the story had been told. But Carlin felt that none of the other books about Wilson and the Beach Boys “had really gotten it right.”

Everything changed in 2004, when Wilson released Smile, an album he had abandoned some 37 years earlier. Back in 1967, Smile was to be the crowning achievement of Wilson’s career, a psychedelic masterwork that would rival its contemporary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But the reluctance of the other Beach Boys to embrace Brian’s musical experiments, as well as his own emotional problems and drug abuse, led to the album’s demise. Smile seemed doomed to be known as rock’s most famous unfinished work. But when Wilson rerecorded the album from scratch with a new band nearly four decades later–and released it to rave reviews–Peter Ames Carlin was ready. The result was Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.

Writing about Brian Wilson is a risky enterprise, because he’s a notorious eccentric–a man who wrote evocative surfing songs but was afraid to go in the ocean; who could celebrate the drag strip brilliantly in a three-minute single but knew little about cars; who created a musical universe of beaches, sunshine, and fun but was excruciatingly shy. Most writers become fixated on these contradictions and overlook the more important aspect of the story, the one Carlin wanted to move front and center: the music. It frustrated Carlin that people listened to Wilson’s songs superficially, missing the “fundamental American notions” and darker themes that lurked beneath their shimmering surfaces. As Carlin observes, the Beach Boys’ songs are “not about utopia but about the striving for utopia.” In that regard, he perceives a thread connecting Wilson not only to other composers such as George Gershwin and Stephen Foster but also to other quintessentially American artists such as Mark Twain and Herman Melville.

In Catch a Wave, Carlin maintains an admirable balance between recognizing Brian Wilson as a significant figure in American musical history and acknowledging that he remains a troubled human being. In his own encounters with the musician, Carlin has observed, intriguingly, that Wilson “uses the words ‘love’ and ‘fear’ almost interchangeably.” The single thing Carlin most hopes to impart to readers about Brian Wilson, however, is that he is an important American artist.

Carlin is now happily settled back into life as a journalist. “You end up hurting yourself” when you write a book, in terms of the difficulty of the project and the sacrifice of time away from family; financial reward is not enough. If Carlin wades into those waters again, it will be only for something that matters deeply to him, something so important that “I have no option but to write it.” In the meantime, those who admire the music of Brian Wilson and appreciate fine writing can be grateful that Peter Ames Carlin was willing to put himself through it at least once.

Eric Meyer is a longtime fan of the Beach Boys, especially Brian Wilson.