In 1976, on Jeffrey Foskett’s 20th birthday, he and a fellow Beach Boys fan drove up and down Bellagio Road in Los Angeles looking for Brian Wilson’s home. After about an hour, they found it, decorated with a psychedelic stained-glass window depicting honeybees and flowers (seen on the cover of 1967’s Wild Honey) and guarded by a white picket fence.
“Brian opened the front door and said, ‘Come on in,'” Foskett recalls. “He had no idea who we were and I was in awe. There was a bass guitar laying around, a piano in the living room. He just started playing music.” Wilson’s then-wife Marilyn made them lunch. When they left later that day, Wilson told Foskett they’d keep in touch.
Within a few years, Foskett would become part of the Beach Boys’ universe — playing guitar and touring with Wilson, Mike Love, and the band itself, hitting the velvety falsetto notes on songs like “Don’t Worry Baby.” Earlier this year, after being diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, Foskett scaled back his touring with the band. But amid his health struggles, Foskett has released a new solo album, Voices. Featuring covers of classics ranging from Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” to the Beach Boys’ own “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the record is likely to be his final album. “It’s very difficult to call it that,” he told Rolling Stone via phone in November. “My voice is my instrument.” During the conversation, he opened up about his illness, the inspiration behind Voices, and how he went from Beach Boys fan to core collaborator.
What drew you to cover these particular songs?
I was working extensively last year on various studio projects. With the Beach Boys we probably did 165 live dates. And I would say 90 percent of the days that I wasn’t touring, I was in the studio. This producer, Nick Patrick, he gets together with the Royal Philharmonic in London. He puts the orchestra on different records, and he was doing the second Roy Orbison edition and the only Buddy Holly edition and said, “Would you be able to supplement the background vocals on these?”
I didn’t realize at that point that I had cancer. It turns out, I was battling this cancer most of last year, so my voice was very rough. The guy that was producing said, “Why don’t you just sing songs that you know, to warm your voice up?” I just started singing songs that I’ve always wanted to record. That’s why I did the Dylan song and that’s why I did the Jimmy Webb song. That’s why I did the Buddy Holly tune. I mean, these are all songs of mine that are my favorites. I still have a list that I want to do if my voice ever cooperates again of other songs, but these are the ones I just happened to play. He simply recorded that and he came back to me later and said, “Some of the vocals are really good. We can turn those into records pretty easily.”
Why is the version of “Twelve Thirty” by the Mamas and the Papas just nine seconds long?
That’s an interesting question. There’s a film, I don’t think it’s been released yet, it’s a documentary on the life of Henry Diltz. And Jeff Larson wrote a song about Laurel Canyon, and so as part of the background vocals, I did that as a joke. It’s in the movie, and that’s the only part of the song that I did, unfortunately, because I really love that record. I wish I would have cut the entire thing. That’s always been my favorite Mamas and the Papas song.
Are there any other tracks that strongly resonate with you?
Michael Love was very gracious to let me use those Beach Boys songs. Thank goodness I had those in the can from … I don’t know why I sang those songs, I think they may have been used on a TV show or for his record or something.
I really love that Association track, “Everything That Touches You.” Terry Kirkman is a friend of mine. And he’s the guy that wrote the song and he was the lead singer in the Association and it was the follow-up, the next song he wrote after the song “Cherish.” I really love it; it has so many harmonies.
How about “Feeling Just the Way I Do” by Cecilio and Kapono?
That song is really special to me. Cecilio and Kapono were kind of like the Hawaiian Loggins and Messina. They cut their record [1974’s self-titled] in North Hollywood and the very first live show on the mainland was at UC Santa Barbara and I happened to be going to UC Santa Barbara. A friend of mine, who was from Hawaii, saw they were coming and said, “You have to go see these two guys with me. They’re unbelievable.” And boy am I glad he took me over there.
So on my lunch break, I went to a little cafeteria area where they were set up. There’s Lee Sklar and Russell Kunkel on drums and Craig Doerge on keyboards. I couldn’t believe it. And then Cecilio and Kapono. And they sang their entire record for our lunch hour. The very first song I heard live by them was that song. I went up to Henry [Kapono] and I said, “I’m gonna cut that song some day.” That was 1974. So 45 years later, here I am cutting the song. And he’s singing on it with me, which is even better.
Can you describe how you went from being a Beach Boys fan to joining the backing band?
Months passed [after meeting Brian] and I was living in Santa Barbara at the time. Michael [Love] came into a restaurant where I was performing with my band. The restaurant was called the 1129, because it was on 1129 State Street. And he was there with a gal having dinner and I said, “Oh, man, I’m such fan of yours. Can you watch our band?” In those days of course, you could smoke cigarettes anywhere in the restaurants. He said, “Well, I don’t smoke and I don’t drink alcohol, so sorry I’m not going to make it out.” I didn’t really have two nickels to rub together at that point in my life, but I did have a tab at that restaurant because I took it out of my paycheck. So I bought his dinner, which was probably three weeks worth of paychecks. And he came back to say thank you and stayed for an entire set and he said, “Gosh, you guys sound really good. I’m going to be a solo record and a tour, would you be interested in being my backup band?” So we did the Endless Summer Beach Band, as it was called. We backed Mike on his Looking Back With Love record.
And from there, Carl decided that he wanted to do a solo record. So he left the band, so Michael said, “Do you want to come out and play with us while Carl’s gone?” And then two months later Carl came back and I assumed that I would be gone. We had a big rehearsal at the Beach Boys’ building on Lincoln Boulevard. We got out four songs and Carl stopped it. I remember this very clearly. He said, “First of all. I’m not responsible for anyone’s personal financial situation. I’m responsible to make this band sound as good as it can sound. So there will be some changes made.” And everybody left with their tails between their legs, thinking that no one was coming back. So fortunately Dennis [Wilson] pulled me aside and said, “You’re good man, you’re in the band, don’t worry.” I felt really good about that.
You left the band in 1990. How did you come back into the fold?
In 1990, I took a break at the request of Michael and Carl. I was actually doing a lot of work in the Japanese market, writing my own songs. I was making really good money as a solo artist, and I released six or eight original albums over there. They were using them in commercials and TV shows. I did very well.
And then one day I got a call from either Melinda Wilson or Elliot Lott, the Beach Boys’ [tour] manager [in 1998]. [They] said, “Brian is going to be accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and Carnie and Wendy [Wilson] are signing with him, and they need a guitar player that knows the material and can sing. Would you be interested in doing that?” I said absolutely. We did “In My Room” and another song off the then-unreleased Brian album called Imagination; it was called “Lay Down Burden.” The place went nuts hearing Brian sing, because he had been out of the public eye for some time. So then I walked the Wilsons back to their limo and Melinda said, “Could you come up to the house?” They said, “We would like to go out on tour with this album, but we just don’t know how to go about putting a band together. Would you be interested in helping us?” And I said yeah, absolutely.
She said, “We saw a really cool band as a tribute to Brian.” And it turns out it was the Wondermints guys. I agreed to meet with Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko at a Starbucks on Sunset. I said, “The Wilsons are considering having you guys be in Brian’s band.” And I could tell by talking to them that they knew way more than I knew. And I couldn’t believe that, because I thought I was the biggest Beach Boys fan. Our first show was March 9th, 1999, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. We booked two or three shows just to see if Brian would do well in front of a live audience. And the fans ate it up. I ended up doing 15 years with Brian. And he’s still out there and I still love him.
How did you begin playing with Mike Love?
In 2012, everybody smoked a peace pipe and we did the Beach Boys’ 50th-anniversary tour. We did 75 or so shows with that, and I’d never had more fun in my whole life than doing that tour. That was the most fun tour I’d ever been on, and I’ve been on a lot of tours. And then the following year, Brian and Jeff Beck got together and did the Brian and Jeff Beck tour. And that was the most stressful tour I’d ever been on. So I went from the most fun to the most stressful. And I thought, “Well, I just don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
So I left Brian in 2014, and the last performance I ever did with him was at the Gibson Showroom [on] January 20th. This fellow that is the Gibson rep in Hollywood, his name is Peter Leinheiser. He called and said, “I’ve got Jimmy Webb, Kris Kristofferson, the guys from America. A couple of other big names. Do you think Brian would come down?” And it was simply acoustic, there were no amplifiers or anything. He and I sang “God Only Knows.” We sat around and talked in a big room, all the artists. And then Gerry Beckley from America and I walked to our cars together. And I said, “Well, you just saw me do my last performance with Brian Wilson.” And so the very next day, he called me and he said, “Were you serious about Brian?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Good, ‘cause I need you to sub for me. I haven’t had a day off in 40 years.” So for a couple of months, I went out and played as Gerry Beckley in America.
I think Michael Love saw me — we must have done a show with him or he heard about that. He said, “You’re not with Brian?” I said no. A couple days later my phone rang and he said, “Why don’t you come to my house and have lunch?” He has several houses in California and this was at his house in Rancho Santa Fe, which is a very exclusive part of San Diego. I was living in Palm Springs at the time, so it wasn’t that far of a drive. So I drove over there. And he said, “You know, we’re thinking about making some changes in the band, would you consider coming back in?” We worked on a couple different details and I was back in the Beach Boys. I stayed with them. I still consider myself part of the band. I just don’t play all the time. Because of my new affliction, if you will.
You’ve never really had a dull moment at all in your career.
God’s been really great to me.
You recently played six shows with the Beach Boys and a few on the White Album tour. What was that like?
I did one on Memorial Day, one when they played with Ringo’s All Starr Band. They did two shows in Chicago at Ravinia, which is the venue there. They played a private party in New York, so I did that. It hasn’t been six consecutive shows. It was just six shows in between my treatments. I have to fly to Houston every 11 days.
On the White Album tour, I just flew out to the Northeast because they were doing five or six shows in the 10 days that I had off. Everybody on that tour is a friend of mine, including the guy that owns it, Toby Ludwig, and he said, “Man, we want you as many shows as you want to do. Just come out and do them.” So I just I sat in, I wasn’t that integral a part, obviously. But it was sure fun doing it, because the White Album is the White Album. I get to play with Todd Rundgren and Christopher Cross and Micky Dolenz and Jason Scheff and Joey Molland; they each did two or three songs from their own catalog. Getting to play “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me” with Todd was pretty spectacular.
What can you tell us about the current state of your health?
Anaplastic thyroid cancer is vastly different than thyroid cancer. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the grimmest of grim as far as prognosis. When you’re diagnosed, people typically live, at the outside, five months. That’s why it was so extremely vital that I get on this trial that I’m on in Houston. I went to a very prominent, private university in Palo Alto, California. And they gave me until May to live. And I insisted that they refer me to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
And these people now say, “If you stay with us, we’ll keep you around for years.” I mean, it’s tough. The drugs don’t feel good and you have to be in Houston every 11 days, but the doctors there and the minds there are constantly learning and doing new things. They literally are keeping me alive.