I was well into adulthood before I could listen to the Beach Boys. And by listen, I mean listen. Because it’s easy to just listen to the Beach Boys, the songs are just too catchy not to, even in passing. But for the longest time, I kept them in the background. I couldn’t receive it front and center. I know now I was afraid. I was too immature. I had a feeling what would happen if I did listen. And I’m glad it happened when it did.
I think it was “Sloop John B” that did it. A traditional West Indies folk song, it’s been covered by everybody at some point: the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Dick Dale. None of them, though, used “Sloop” as building block to help create a new idiom of American pop music—one that would spawn generations of admirers and aspirers, many of whom would expand its reach, but none of whom would ever quite match their inspiration—that was left to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
The story goes that the band’s resident folkie, Al Jardine, brought the Kingston Trio version to Wilson one day in 1965. He wasn’t too impressed. Jardine shuffled it around a little bit, opened it up with some minor keys, gave Wilson some room to operate, and went away.
A day later, Wilson called Jardine back with the new arrangement: a miniature pocket symphony, if you will, of ascending and descending harmonies, vocal bass lines, multi-tracking, odd-but-effective instrumentation. It was a stunning little outrider on the turf Wilson had been stealthily probing and would soon start breaking wide open.
Why don’t you let me go home … let me go home … I feel so broke up I wanna go home.
This time I listened—and I heard. I heard the longing, the precognitive heartbreak, the dread that the monster in the other room will soon rise to break this reverie. I heard these things weighing down every soaring, sailing composition like gravity. But it wasn’t just these things, which were well known to me by then. I heard, too, the music’s butterfly wings flapping against all that gravity. It was as if Wilson was saying, of course we know how this will end, but until then we have “Sloop John B,” we have “In My Room,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” “Heroes and Villains.” Until then, we have life. And when I finally listened it was Brian Wilson’s insistent belief in that life that made me cry. He wasn’t just Dennis and Carl’s older brother, for a few minutes he was mine, too.
• • •
Bruce Johnston is driving home to Santa Barbara in pouring rain and talking on the phone, giving a play by play of the scenery as it goes by. He’s 69 now, and I’m worried he’s actually driving his own car while talking on the phone. But I don’t ask. The guy surfs his favorite Santa Barbara breaks everyday, though he jokes about getting banned from the Ranch for crashing the private breaks. In other words, he still gets around just fine.
Johnston replaced Glen Campbell in a touring iteration of the Beach Boys in 1965 and more or less stayed with the band through various fits and starts (finding time to write “I Write the Songs” for Barry Manilow, not to mention “Disney Girls” for the Beach Boys). When we speak, he is coming off the high of the reunited Beach Boys absolutely crushing the 2012 Grammys with a goose-bumpy performance of “Good Vibrations.” It was fun to sit with my 18- and 21-year-old in-laws and watch their jaws drop, just as Lady Gaga’s did, at the first unmistakable Theramin riff and stay on the floor through the psychedelic harmonies bridging into the song’s joyous finish. It was a lesson.
“That’s the first time the Beach Boys ever played the Grammys,” Johnston says. “It’s great to be playing with Al [Jardine] and Mike [Love] and even David Marks. You know, he left the band when he was 16. You’ll hear him doing authentic surf guitar without trying. It’s like they defrosted him from 1963.”
Johnston says the 50th Anniversary reunion tour and the album coming out on June 5 have put the band in a good place, almost like walking through an afterlife glow while still having plenty of life left.
“It grows without trying. We are now in forever land,” he says. “No matter what goes on, what we’ve done will still show up on radio, Pandora, on a commercial. We’re really lucky; we’re not unlike Disney. People are always going to know it. I love topping off the tank with more music.
“It’s great to see this family thing come back,” he adds, “seeing a little of that at this end of life.”
• • •
The Wilsons came from Kansas, like a lot of people who moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest and northern plains, in the 1920s. And, they were poor. Legend has the family sleeping in a tent on the beach. Murry Wilson eventually became a machinist and earned enough money to start a family and a home in the modest South Bay burg of Hawthorne. As has been well documented, Murry was an abusive boor to Brian and his younger brothers Dennis and Carl. His alcoholic mother Audree, Brian has said, offered no safe harbor. As the oldest, Brian absorbed the brunt of it and felt the impotent sting of trying (and failing) to protect his siblings.
Murry may have been a miserable father, but he was also a frustrated musician who noticed Brian had, for lack of a better analogy, a sort of photographic ear for melodies. He could hum entire tunes before he could walk. Murry encouraged the boys to sing and play music. They did, and in the process, the emotionally mute brothers developed a language through which they could speak to each other and communicate with the world.
Brian Wilson was a huge George Gershwin fan and has said that “Rhapsody in Blue” is a “very special piece of music that God gave to me.” By the time the brothers formed the band in 1961 they had begun forming a musical language from bits and pieces of the Great American songbook, the four-part harmonies of the barbershop quartet revival from their childhood days, and also the rhythm and blues of Chuck Berry and Little Richard that defined rock ’n’ roll in the mid-to-late ’50s.
With songs about hot rods, endless summers, California girls and surfing, it wasn’t long before the Beach Boys were a metaphor for a metaphor, the sunny faces of California, which itself was the sunny face of a manifest destiny running out of room and steam. But in California, thank God, the future was still so bright we had to wear shades.
At first, the Beach Boys’ music was the canvas onto which we cast our last strokes of innocence, our final pleas for good vibrations. Of course, it was all a conceit and it was all too much to bear—for the Beach Boys, for California and most of all for Brian Wilson. When the sun went down, there was still an alcoholic mother, an abusive father and their pending divorce to reconcile. For every “Surfin’ USA,” there was an “In My Room”; for every “Little Deuce Coupe,” there was a “The Warmth of the Sun.”
Growing up isn’t easy. Choices grow exponentially in number and complexity. Mansons start bumming your trip. Brothers start fighting among themselves. Money happens. Lawsuits feel inevitable, and then happen. God dies, or maybe he doesn’t, but we sure will soon enough. Summer isn’t so endless anymore. What do you do?
If you’re Brian Wilson, you retreat into the only safe place, the studio, and you show how it can all fit. You crack open this thing called pop, or rock ’n’ roll, or whatever, so there can be room for all the messy contradictions, the heartache, the love, the beauty, California and America, the truth and the lies.
You make “Sloop John B” and “Good Vibrations,” and “God Only Knows” and then you go on to make “Cabin Essence” and “Heroes and Villains” and “Surf’s Up.” You make pocket symphonies so it can all fit. You create the language you needed and the sound is like thousands of butterfly wings pulling sailboats across the sky, shadows on the sun—the tune of boys becoming men. And then, finally, you go home, knowing nothing else except that you’ve changed things forever.
• • •
Decades and years later, you have that rare, second chance to enjoy what you’ve done. The new album coming out June 5 is called That’s Why God Made The Radio. I love it. The joke is we all know why God made the radio. It’s so the Beach Boys could talk to him, so they could pull sailboats across the sky. Damn, they’ll make you believe. All you have to do is listen.