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From vibrations to visions

A brilliant Beach Boy, a California clique, and Marley's 'Exodus' animate a trio of books

Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson
By Peter Ames Carlin
Rodale, 336 pp., $25.95

Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends
By Barney Hoskyns
Wiley, 324 pp., illustrated, $25.95

The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century
By Vivien Goldman
Three Rivers , 325 pp., illustrated, $14.95

Reviewing ``The Beach Boys Love You" for Circus magazine in 1977, Lester Bangs described the album's makers, with growling respect, as ``a diseased bunch of [expletive]s if ever there was one." Even Bangs, a prophet among rock journalists, could scarcely have known how right he was. The diseasedness of the Beach Boys -- presaged in the almost-rotten sweetness of the early hits, blossoming through the vertiginous harmonies and the grinning, insensate lyrics, veering across in the lethal cello pulse at the coda of ``Good Vibrations" -- had to some extent been contained or quarantined by 1977, but Peter Ames Carlin's excellent ``Catch a Wave" leaves no doubt as to its virulence.

To begin with, there was Murry: Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Dennis , and Carl, uncle to Mike Love, a hard-charging '50s suit-and-tie guy much in the mold of the Robert Crumb character Whiteman. Pursuing his version of the American dream as if avenging some ancient grievance, Murry was a brute. ``He liked to give all of us the Vulcan nerve pinch," one childhood friend of the Wilson boys tells Carlin, ``and bring us to our knees. And he'd be making this sinister laugh while he did it."

Another remembers the booming patriarch simply as ``bad news." But he had an ear: It was Murry, an on-the-side songwriter himself (one of his tunes made it onto Lawrence Welk's weekly radio show) , who licked his music-crazy boys into shape, and browbeat his eldest son , Brian, into the production of genius pop songs. ``He was like our coach," Brian would say. ``He scared me so much that I actually got scared into making good records."

Brian, of course, would develop into the brother who binged and mumbled and listened to the Ronettes ' ``Be My Baby" at top volume for days on end. But there were other strands of sickness floating about. Errant surf god Dennis became the vector through which Charles Manson laid his finger on the Boys: Impressed equally by Manson's musical talent and his gaggle of sexually enslaved hippie chicks, the ever-loving Dennis acted as the apprentice songwriter's entree into the LA music business. ( In 1968 the Beach Boys recorded a Manson song , ``Never Learn Not to Love.")

Carlin, with Brian as his focus, takes all of this on. He does a fine job, writing in a style flexible enough to accommodate the highs (many) and the lows (even more) of the Beach Boys ' music, from the moments when Brian went innocently ``wandering out past all the traditional pop boundaries" to the grisly aesthetic defeats of the later records.

The Rosetta stone of Brian 's career is the lost Beach Boys album ``Smile," his ``teenage symphony to God" recorded in 1966-67 but sabotaged before release by intra band opposition. (Brian released his own re recorded version in 2004.) Its failure to emerge made a mistranslated nonsense of much of what would follow.

Even unreleased, though, ``Smile" would have a significant half-life: As Barney Hoskyns 's illuminating ``Hotel California" begins, Brian's ``Smile" collaborator Van Dyke Parks is licking his wounds after the collapse of the project, and the album's ``complex orchestral psychedelia" is reverberating through the Los Angeles music industry.

``Hotel California" is a rock 'n' roll creation myth, an account of the beginnings, middles , and some of the endings of what we now refer to as ``classic rock." From their yucca-covered Olympus in LA's Laurel Canyon, the gods, taking the form of bedenimed folk-rockers, descended: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Jackson Browne , and others.

They walked among us, acquired drug habits, made piles of money with David Geffen, and turned the '60s into the '70s. The gauzy afternoons amid the high chaparral, the diaphanous strummings, the poetry -- soon it was all cash and carnality, and a sort of shriveling of the imagination. The Eagles made `` `Desperado,' a concept album," Hoskyns writes, ``based around the rather specious concept that rock stars were modern-day outlaws."

Hoskyns, once a young hothead at Britain's New Musical Express, banging out weekly endorsements of the Birthday Party and Killing Joke, has transformed himself over the past decade into one of the premier historian/folklorists of the LA music scene. Hazy days in California haven't dulled his pen: The young Mitchell has ``big teeth and Cubist cheekbones" ; Neil Young's guitar playing is ``instinctual, primitive, spat-out." The story of Gene Clark, the lost Byrd, runs through ``Hotel California" like a steady statement of theme, and Clark's beautiful, doomed 1974 album ``No Other" will probably never be written about better.

Taking a deep left turn now, we head into the territory of ``The Book of Exodus," Vivien Goldman's exegesis of the 1977 Bob Marley album. Bass lines boom, Bibles are brandished, and apocalyptic clouds of marijuana-smoke cover the land. Marley and his Wailers recorded ``Exodus" in London after a botched attempt on his life caused him to quit his native Jamaica, and Goldman explores with great care the personal and political context in which the music was made.

She also plunges into the perennial meaning of ``Exodus" itself, talking to rabbis in London, Islamic professors in New York City, and Rastafarian wise men in Kingston, Jamaica. She talks to the family of Ernest Gold, who wrote the theme to Otto Preminger's movie ``Exodus," the piano motif of which was incorporated by Marley into the title track of his album. She does her homework, in short, and the result is a stimulating and atmospheric hybrid of a book, in which the spirit of Marley -- only four years from death but doing the dance ``that seemed as if he was juggling a soccer ball with his knees" -- is strong.

James Parker is the author of ``Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins." He lives in Brookline.

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