This may have been, as the trades predicted, the bitchinest summer ever for the Beach Boys, what with their new album, their tour, and Brian Wilson finally getting out of bed. But as far as I'm concerned these last four months have been one endless bummer. I couldn't seem to come up with a new handle to their venerable rock legend. Let's face it, the Beach Boys are probably the most thoroughly written about, mythicized, analyzed, agonized over and deeply probed pop group in America. And this summer especially we've had Beach Boys up the ass: dozens of heavy feature articles in major magazines and newspapers; a dazzling, hour-long TV documentary; a three-month concert tour of stadiums and fairgrounds throughout the United States and Canada; release of 15 Big Ones, the first album of new Beach Boys material in 42 months, in honor of the 15 years they've miraculously played, strayed, prayed and stayed together; and a scholarly sounding paperback entitled The Beach Boys: Southern California Pastoral, in which Cal State professor Bruce Golden puts the guys right up there with Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Milton as masters of the pastoral form.
Well, why not, it's a great legend, and just like nearly everything the Beach Boys ever recorded, I can never stop listening to it. Mainly it's about Brian Wilson, the partially deaf boy wonder turned mad genius who tuned his one good ear into the drone of middle-class America and heard the lost chord of God. Until it drove him nuts, and finally silent.
So in June, when the word started spreading that Brian was ready to talk for the first time in half a decade, I flew down to Los Angeles to conduct an official Rolling Stone interview. But it didn't work out exactly. Brian was ready to talk, all right, just as he was ready to walk or ready to start dressing himself; but there could be no definitive Brian Wilson interview because Brian Wilson was not yet definitively himself. Therefore I also talked to the other Beach Boys and to Brian's mother, his wife and his shrink. Plus in late 1971 I'd interviewed Brian's father Murry, while he was still alive, and I threw a little of that in somewhere.
The raw material, I think, is pretty good — some really touching stories, some laughs, hopefully some answers. But focusing it, as I mentioned, was a bitch. First I tried a musical analysis thing, portraying the Beach Boys as "primitivists" like contemporary composer Carl Orff. Both Orff and the Beach Boys ignored the virtuosic contrivances of established music and returned to the common, simple rhythms and harmonies of the people. They both orchestrated this folk element with layers of brilliant tonal color and ambiance to produce a music of incredible spiritual purity. I mentioned this to the Beach Boys and none of them had ever heard of Carl Orff. Which in a way, I thought, reinforced my theory but also sort of soured me on it.
Finally, in late September, I returned to Los Angeles at the suggestion of Brian's shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy. He wanted me to see Brian's progress since June. That day disturbed me a great deal, but it did provide an update and ultimately a focus for the story. For this in one sense is a story of gurus, of old and new methods of personal growth in the promised land called California. Brian's father was a guru of sorts, a frustrated songwriter and ruthlessly aggressive man who heard in his three sons the music he could never articulate himself, who as their manager drove them to such heights of success they eventually fired him. Then Brian took over as guru to the group, teaching the others his genius art of composing and producing, teaching them so well that when he eventually ascended to his bedroom, they could carry on his work with the public hardly noticing. Later came the Beach Boys' professional gurus — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM and Dr. Landy of Dr. Landy.
I've no idea which method works best and I really don't care. But if you're seeking peace of mind and body, positive energy and a little spiritual glue, let me strongly recommend adding some Beach Boys music to your day, perhaps when you get up and just before dinner. It'll give you something.
She's so gosh darn cute, the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her short platinum hair, you wish they all could be California girls like Audree Wilson, mother of Carl, Dennis and Brian and den mother to the Beach Boys since their first days in Hawthorne, California. More amazing, she was the wife of Murry Wilson, by all reports an extremely difficult man, as work-driven as she was playful, as rough as she was easy. A small, quiet, funny woman surrounded by fighting men, she spent much of her time and understanding bridging gaps and soothing wounds. Now the old man has died and the young ones have long since moved away to grow old themselves; so Audree sits alone these days in an elegant, hillside home above Hollywood, with the view and the pool and the shiny Jag in the driveway, and tries to adjust to the strange new peace that plagues her every hour.
AUDREE: The way it really started, Brian, he started singing when he was just a little bitty guy, three years old. He'd sing right on key. He loved to hear me play the piano, he loved the chords. And he'd say, "Play that chord again."
Brian just always had this incredibly marvelous talent. The other boys were a little slower, they were kinda like slow bloomers. Brian started writing arrangements when he was around 14. He loved the Four Freshmen — I know you've read that over and over — and he would make these incredible arrangements, sorta like them but he'd add what he wanted. And we'd sing the first two parts on the tape recorder, then play it back and sing the other two parts with it. That was great fun.
Did he ever lake formal piano lessons or anything like that?
AUDREE: Brian took accordion lessons, on one of those little baby accordions, for six weeks. And the teacher said, "I don't think he's reading. He just hears it once and plays the whole thing through perfectly." Anyway, at the end of six weeks he was supposed to buy a large accordion, but we couldn't afford it. And that's all the training he ever had.
Brian is deaf in one ear. Was he born that way?
AUDREE: We don't really know. Brian thinks it happened when he was around ten. Some kid down the street really whacked him in the ear. However, it's a damaged ninth nerve, so he could have been born that way; it's called the ninth nerve and there's nothing they can do about that. I think it makes him more incredible.
The way he arranges, produces and records — the ambiance and total sound — is something that two ears can really appreciate. He's never heard that and I guess he never will.
AUDREE: Ah, he hears. [Audree laughs in amazement.] He doesn't maybe hear like we do, but he does.
So when did your sons start to record?
AUDREE: My husband was in the machinery business, big lathes from England, and the people from whom he imported them were here to visit us. And we took them to Mexico City. When we left, the refrigerator was completely stocked and we gave the boys enough money to buy whatever else they needed. We came back and here they had gone out and rented a bass, a big standup, as tall as Al for sure, and drums and a microphone. They had used every bit of their food money. And they said, "We want to play something for you." They were very excited about it, and I thought the song was darling — never dreaming anything would happen.
And that song was "Surfin'."
Well, then they signed with Capitol and they started making a lot of hits. How did that change your life at home ?
AUDREE: Well, it was really very hectic. Telephones never ever stopped ringing. And I was doing all of the book work. I was making all the forms for the musicians' union and I was going to the bank and being so careful that all five of them got exactly the same amount to the penny. And I remember cooking dinner and we'd have to leave. I remember dinners not even being eaten because we had to fly out to wherever they had to appear.
How did they handle this success?
AUDREE: Well, being a mother, I thought they handled it so beautifully for being that young. But their father had a strong hand as far as... well, they didn't always listen to him. Later he'd say, "Why didn't you listen to me?" And they'd say, "Well, I guess we were punks."
There was a night during or after the Australia tour when they decided they didn't want their father to manage them.
AUDREE: It destroyed him.
Did you understand why they...
AUDREE: Oh, I understood perfectly. That was a horrible time for me. He was just destroyed by that and yet he wasn't really up to it. He'd already had an ulcer and it was really too much for him; but he loved them so much, he was so overly protective, really. He couldn't let them go. He couldn't stand seeing anyone else handling his kids. Those were terrible days, frankly, and he was angry with me. You always take it out on the closest one. He was angry at the whole world.
What did he say at the time?
AUDREE: Not too much. He stayed in bed a lot.
You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone
Meanwhile, back at the Bel Air mansion, Brian had just gone upstairs for his noontime nap when Dennis Wilson bounded into the living room. Dennis is easily the most infectious Beach Boy, the prettiest, wittiest, most outgoing and independent, the most, say his family, like his father. Not surprisingly, it's gotten him into a lot of trouble over the years, with his dad, his schoolteachers and later with his notorious roommate Charles Manson, to whom he now, bearded and prancing impulsively, bore a striking resemblance. (According to New Musical Express, Dennis told a reporter for England's Rave magazine in 1968, "Fear is nothing but awareness, man... Sometimes the "Wizard" frightens me. The "Wizard" is Charlie Manson, who is another friend of mine, who says he is God and the Devil. He sings, plays and writes poetry and may be another artist for Brother Records.")
As Dennis sat down, Sandy Friedman handed him a local trade paper with the Beach Boys on the cover. He glanced at it for a moment, then shrugged and said, "Come on, you can't read everything you believe." Then he stood up and walked to the center of the room for an important announcement.
DENNIS: I've just made a monumental decision. [Dennis pauses dramatically.] I'm not guilty about masturbation anymore! [Then seriously, folks] I just started my own record company. It's like, I've been in one group my whole life. I always thought if I wasn't a Beach Boy I would fail. [Here Dennis sticks his arms straight out in mock agony.] So I called up my attorney and said, "Hey, get me a record company." But my biggest piece of shit is, I'm gonna do a movie where I'm gonna be a flaming gay boy who wants to be a policeman.
So many positive things are happening in the Beach Boys' career right now. Let me tell you something about the Beach Boys... we had a very normal childhood. Our father beat the shit out of us; his punishments were outrageous. I never saw eye to eye with him, ever. In fact I used to lie to him when I was young. I learned at an early age to be very protective of myself, I played a great mind game.
But one thing about my father — beautiful music would always melt my father's heart. You always wanted to sing for him. Dad was a frustrated songwriter, and I think Brian wrote his music through him.
[Dennis suggests we go to his VW camper in the driveway, where we listen to a cassette of two cuts from his planned solo album. They have kind of a Beach Boys sound to them, but rougher, more rock & roll, like Dennis' voice and temperament. Actually, they sound great. Finally I get up enough nerve to ask him a question that has intimidated me for some time.]
I know this is an unpleasant subject, but it's been a number of years now, and I was wondering if we could discuss your experience with Charles Manson...
[But even before I finish, Dennis is shaking his head.]
DENNIS: No. Never. As long as I live, I'll never talk about that. [He gazes out the windshield of his camper.] I don't know anything, you know? If I did, I would've been up on that witness stand.
[Just then actress Karen Lamm Wilson, Dennis' new wife, drives up in a small sports car. "Gotta go, guys," yells Dennis, bolting from the camper and taking off.]
Inside, Carl, the youngest and most stable Wilson brother, had arrived, sporting, like all the Beach Boys these days, a full, rough beard, and like himself, a workmanlike jumpsuit. He owns a whole closetful of jumpsuits, in a spectrum of colors from gray to brown, and one suspects they are designed to ameliorate the last vestiges of a sweet baby chubbiness. Although he's occasionally made headlines in the past, resisting the draft for years before a federal court granted him C.O. status, his personality is basically shy and quiet. It was Carl who invariably kept his head while all about him were losing theirs, who took charge of stage performances after Brian left the road and who later took over record production when Brian could no longer handle that one.
Why was your father fired as manager?
CARL: My recollection could be kind of foggy on that. I just know it started in Australia — this was around '63 or '64. Brian, and Michael especially, wanted to not have my father involved because he screwed them up with chicks, you know? We'd want to find a girl to be with, the thing on the road, and he was really kind of prudish about it. Also, Brian really disagreed with the way my dad wanted things to sound. And I remember having a conversation with my dad in his bedroom at home. I said, "They really, you know, don't want you to manage the group anymore." When I think about it now, Jesus, that must have really crushed him. After all, he gave up his home and business for us, he was kind of crackers over us, you know?
Would your dad be more likely to confide in you?
CARL: Yeah, we had a great relationship. He was crazy about Brian, but he and Brian drove each other nuts. You know, here Brian is really growing massively musically, right? And his old man's telling him how the records should sound. My dad would say do it faster, and Brian would say no, it's gotta be more laid back, have more feel to it. But he was a great man, very sensitive. I really loved my dad a lot.
It about killed Brian when my dad died. He went to New York; my dad passed away, Brian split. He could not handle it.
He didn't go to the funeral?
CARL: No. That's how come he left, so he wouldn't have to be here and go. I think Brian hung onto that one for quite some time. I think he's okay with it now, maybe.
The area of questioning I find most difficult, it's so personal, is what we might call "Brian's problem."
CARL: Brian's behavior ?
Yeah, well, you once said he went through hell.
CARL: Well... a lot of anguish, a lot of anxiety, frustration, disillusionment. Brian worked really hard for the first seven years and he needed a break. I think he was pretty confused at the time by his environment. He just took a look and saw how fucked up the world was — he's not a dummy — and he said, "The world is so fucked up, I can't stand it; it's unspeakable how fucked up everything is." And I think it really broke his heart.
He's painfully conscious. When it hurts, it hurts; he can't bury it and grow. I mean, he's one of the nerviest people I've ever met. He does exactly what he wants to do. I remember [sits back and laughs] — this is so funny — when we did "Little Honda," Brian wanted me to get this real distorted guitar sound, real fuzzy. "This guitar sounds like shit," I said. "Brian, I hate this." And he goes, "Would you fucking do it? Just do it." When I heard it, I felt like an asshole. It sounded really hot. That was before fuzz became a big deal.
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