No. 8 – Vernal Equinox – spring 2004
Author’s note: This is the final version of an article that previously appeared in abbreviated form on the REHinnercircle list and in REHupa.
Pop Music/Pop Lit:
Brian Wilson and Robert E. Howard
Edgar Allen Poe is the king
of fantasy/horror literature. Elvis Aron Presley is the king of pop/rock music.
H. P. Lovecraft is Bob Dylan. J. R. R. Tolkein is the Beatles.
Robert E. Howard is Brian Wilson.
I suppose the first objection will be that Brian Wilson didn't commit suicide. Shouldn't Bob be Phil Ochs, Jim Morrison, or even Brian Jones? No. Brian Wilson created a sub-genre of pop music based on the modern myths of California and thus created sun and surf music. Bob Howard created a sub-genre of fantasy literature based on the ancient myths of Europe and thus created sword and sorcery fiction.
Brian and Bob were similar in several ways. Brian Wilson like Bob Howard had a love/hate relationship with his father. Murray Wilson and Isaac Howard were both hard taskmasters who believed in their son's talent. Murray rode Brian so hard that it led to his withdraw from touring with the Beach Boys and his later emotional breakdown. Bob would argue with his father over issues regarding his mother. Bob felt the hardships of his life with intense emotion and his withdraw from life was more permanent. Brian was also physically similar to Bob. Both were interested in sports in their youth and were strapping good-looking young men, although later in life they tended toward weight gain. Both Brian and Bob (to a lesser extent) sought escape from their lives by experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Howard writes often of beer drinking and binges and even tells of a (presumably one-time) experience of swiping some drugs from his father’s medicine bag. Brian, of course, abused drugs to the point of his near collapse and death.
Brian's art, like Bob's, was pastiched into irrelevance by his closest associates. Brian's fellow Beach Boys are usually slammed for their reluctance to follow Brian's vision. Carl Wilson always loved his brother but he also could be reluctant and critical of Brian's evolution. Mike Love was Brian’s chief critic. He would constantly berate Brian into changing lyrics to fit more in tune with the "fun times" images that were a staple of “sun and surf” music. Mike was especially displeased with Brian’s collaborations with Van Dyke Parks and lyrics like “columnated ruins domino” were especially vexing to him. L. Sprague de Camp took over Bob's Conan character and treated Bob's work in a similar fashion. Sprague thought “sword & sorcery” to be an escapist genre suited only for "fun times." Sprague’s pastiches were patterned after Howard more formulaic stories. In pure monetary terms it is hard to argue with either man's vision. "Barbara Ann" from the Beach Boy's "Party" LP was a bigger hit than (a Brian Wilson solo-effort) "Caroline, No" from the Beach Boy's "Pet Sounds" LP. The debacle of "Smile" and the huge success of "Endless Summer" gave support to Mike Love's view that the Beach Boys could make the most money catering to the retro version of Brian Wilson's art. Similarly the success of the Lancer series taught De Camp that his view of Howard's art was what the fans wanted.
Things have a way of
changing though. Brian stayed alive and has slowly reemerged from his shell and
has garnered the respect of his contemporaries. "Pet Sounds" is
routinely picked as the number one or number two LP of all time by rock critics
and musicians. And now Brian is
touring the world with his final version of “Smile” soon to be available on CD
after all these many years. Howard fans kept the torch of "Howard
only" text burning and now after all these many years can see the fruit of
their labor with the books published by Wandering Star. Fan and pro appreciation of these books
are a matter of record. Hardcore
fan perseverance was essential for the resurrection of both Brian and Bob.
Sometimes the hardcore fan can be part of the
problem with gaining respect for the genre though. It has become routine for pro-Brian critics to slam sun and
surf music while giving Brian his due.
A local paper in a blurb for a New Year’s Eve concert had a critic
saying, “[…] the current incarnation of the band is kind of a cruel joke. Their latest publicity photo features a
rather smug-looking Mike Love surrounded by seven guys […] it’s probably safe
to say that none of them has the last name Wilson […] don’t get your hopes up
for any of that Pet Sounds magic.”
Similarly pro-Bob critics of sword & sorcery will slam the genre
while giving Bob his due. This
attitude appeals to the short sighted fan who intentionally forgets hits like
“Disney Girls” and “Kokomo” where Bruce Johnston and Mike Love shine and novels
like “The Road of Kings” where Karl Edward Wagner shines and of course the
extremely popular Robert Jordan books.
The analogy of Brian to Bob and the pastichers to the rest of the Beach
Boys certainly fits. Carl Wilson and Mike Love have that weird likable and
unlikable spirit of love, respect, jealousy, and envy that L. Sprague de Camp
often showed. Al Jardine is Bjorn Nyberg. Nyberg wrote the likable "The
Return of Conan" and Al planted the original idea to perform the likable
cover version of "Sloop John B." The Brian Wilson replacements Glen
Campbell and Bruce Johnston are akin to Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Jordan.
They are talented individuals who had successes of their own. Dennis Wilson is Lin Carter. Dennis was
a capable talent on his own overshadowed by his collaborators. His solo work
shows a greater talent that he was allowed to display with his collaborative
work. Dennis was the “real” Beach
Boy. He actually surfed, sailed,
and lived the free and easy life that was sung about in the hits. Lin Carter, whatever you may think of
his writing ability, definitely had a genuine enthusiasm for fantasy
literature. Lin at least tried to
copy and study the greats. David
Marks, Blondie Chaplin, and the rest are Andy Offutt, Roland Green, and the
Brian and the Beach Boys' last great hit together was "Good Vibrations." There were other hits afterward but “Good Vibrations” and the failed effort of “Smile” was a turning point. This recording was contemporary with the "peace and love" movement and had Brian remained stable and his fellow Beach Boys more in tune with Brian's developing artistic vision the Beach Boys might have remained a driving force in popular music. Similarly Bob Howard was one of the big three of Weird Tales, had he not committed suicide and developed as a writer he almost certainly would have continued to be a driving force in fantasy literature. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys backed out of the Monterey Pop Festival and their music was critically lost for decades. Bob Howard backed out of life and his writing was critically lost for decades. Without Brian at full capacity but with Mike Love playing a leading role the Beach Boys were still a highly successful touring band albeit trading on the ghosts and dreams of nostalgia. After Howard’s suicide De Camp became the man on the spot for Conan and formulaic pastiches trading on the memories of better stories became the rule.
De Camp and Love were, respectively Bob and Brian’s biggest fans, they set the tone for Conan and The Beach Boys. The Beach Boys' stamina (and admittedly, their weakness without Brian) undoubtedly helped Brian's critical reevaluation and reemergence. De Camp played a similar role for Bob Howard. The Beach Boys music needed to be played and performed even without Brian. It helped keep the memories alive and solidified their role in popular culture. The Conan pastiches did the same. De Camp and Love had their faults but both are an integral part of the continuing re-emergence and re-evaluation of Bob Howard and Brian Wilson’s art.