In 1967, rock became a billion-dollar baby, and I added a section to my column about the machinations of the recording industry. I called it “Weird Scenes in the Gold Mine,” a phrase I’d borrowed from the Doors song “The End.” The beast had begun its feast, Cuisinarting everything it couldn’t digest. But there were still outposts of local musical sensibility. I never got to see the studios in Muscle Shoals or Memphis, but I did make it to Detroit, where the greatest factory of black music was located. This was Motown, the biggest black-owned record label in the sixties, and also the only major black company in entertainment. The label’s founder, Berry Gordy, had plucked a lot of his acts from the city’s housing projects. This gave Motown a rich connection with the doo-wop and girl-group traditions, apparent in the funkiness under its sleek sound. But its presentation of the female body was more conservative than in most black acts—the singers wore gowns, and they were likelier to sway than to shake their booties. These elaborate moves were assembled in one of the many tiny rooms where the Motown sound was made. It was the oddest operation I’d ever come across.
When I got out of the cab on Grand Boulevard I thought I was on the wrong street. All I could see was a row of small private houses. But there was a whole finishing school inside, including a choreography room, a costume department (where the Supremes were given their prom-night look), and of course the recording studios, all contained in a series of connected basement spaces. It was warrenlike—there was a rumor that Motown used a hole in the ceiling as an echo chamber. I never got to see that, but during my visit I watched Harvey Fuqua, a veteran producer, work the studio console while the Four Tops recorded a song. I think it was “Seven Rooms of Gloom,” but I may be confusing that title with the cramped feeling of the place. When I recall my visit to Motown I see creaky floors and narrow passageways. It reminded me of the writers’ floor at the Voice.
I figured it was only a matter of time before Motown closed up shop in Detroit and moved to L.A. (It did, in 1972.) All the major labels had offices there, and the city offered state-of-the-art studios. It was where you had to go in order to meet the new crop of producers, who were young, hip, and sometimes part of the band. The most eccentric of them was Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys.
They weren’t exactly darlings of the rock press. Their songs were considered simple-minded and certainly not blues based—hence, not manly enough to be serious rock. But I loved the Beach Boys, even in their earliest incarnation as architects of surf music. To my ears, their car-crazed optimism was the realization of Chuck Berry’s American dream. I don’t think you can beat “Fun, fun, fun (till your daddy takes the T-bird away)” when it comes to the poetics of hedonism. This was a fantasy, of course, and a banal one at that. But then Brian Wilson dropped acid and began to create remarkable elegiac songs, with barber-shop harmonies gone psychedelic. I watched the Beach Boys’ evolution with awe.
“Good Vibrations,” their mega-hit of 1966, was as complex as anything the Beatles thought up a year later on Sgt. Pepper. It had a multiple melody and a musical palette that included the first use in rock of the theremin, an electronic instrument whose spooky sound had mainly appeared in horror films. When you play Beach Boys tunes from that era it’s hard to believe that the arrangements weren’t MIDI generated, but of course such programs didn’t exist then. Wilson used the recording technology of the time to maximum effect, but he also played with found sounds. To apply a critical term I didn’t know at the time, he was a rock auteur.
In the fall of 1967 I wrote a piece for the Times on the Beach Boys’ latest album, Smiley Smile. I was struck by its fragile melodies and their relationship to sacred music; those familiar ride-the-curl voices, now “hushed with wonder,” reminded me of the Fauré Requiem, but they were utterly American. I was listening to proof of my belief that pop could produce a mass culture that was at once accessible and profound.
I don’t think my editor at the Times bought the Fauré comparison, but he agreed to pay my expenses so I could travel west, and I guess Brian Wilson was impressed by my piece, because he invited me to his home in Bel Air. Judith came along, and we stayed at L.A.’s hippest hotel, the Chateau Marmont, with its Spanish-colonial lobby and windows that actually opened. Our room had a view of Laurel Canyon, but if we craned our necks we could see the Sunset Strip. It was quite a contrast— on one side verdant slopes and on the other a barren avenue with billboards the size of drive-in movie screens. Everything about L.A. seemed incongruous to me, so the interview with Brian fit right in.
His wife, Marilyn, answered the door. One look at her and I could tell that she was another strong Jewish woman with an introverted artist for a husband. Pointing to a limo sitting on the lawn, she said, wearily, “He’s hiding.” I’d heard about that car—it had once belonged to John Lennon, and Brian bought it as a totem of the group toward which he felt the most competitive. He was determined to beat the Beatles at their elevated game, so he’d teamed up with Van Dyke Parks, a member of the L.A. pop avant-garde whose style encompassed everything from Stephen Foster to blank verse. To this remarkable range Parks added a wry affection for the Disneyesque. The open harmonies and quirky touches of the Beach Boys brought out the whimsy of his lyrics, as in:
I know that you’ll feel better
When you send us in your letter
And tell us the name of your . . . favorite vegetable
Little of what Parks wrote made linear sense, but his lyrics were enchanting, and I championed his solo album, Song Cycle. That was when I realized how far my critical taste could stray from the judgment of the record racks. The album was a flop—even rock had its limits when it came to free-form obscurity.
Parks never got very far as a songwriter, but he did co-author the most legendary sixties record that never was. This was Smile, Brian Wilson’s uncompleted “teenage symphony to God.” A reconstructed version was released in 2011, but it's not the original and I can only imagine what that work would have been like if he had ever finished it. But he blew deadline after deadline, and the final product, Smiley Smile, was a truncated version of what he intended. The most ambitious piece—a suite based on the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water— was missing. Later I would hear that Brian had destroyed the master tapes. A fire had broken out not far from the recording studio, and he became convinced that the music would cause things to burst into flame. This was the story that made the rounds, but it seems that he didn’t actually trash the masters; he only said he had, perhaps to avoid admitting that he was uneasy about the work. At the time I accepted his original explanation, because it sounded like something he was capable of.
Brian’s emotional state, which was fragile to begin with, had deteriorated under the pressure from his record label. It must have seemed to him that he would never again be able to produce a hit. I didn’t know anything about that when we met; he kept the details hidden from me. But his instability was evident, and, I think, directly related to his audacity as a producer. He was capable of creating moment of sheer tonal whimsey, pellucid choral interludes (“Wind Chimes”), and cartoony riffs as twisted as the stuff in comix. (Give “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter,” aka “W. Woodpecker Symphony” a listen and you’ll hear the origins of Animal Collective.)
I’ve read monographs on the Beach Boys that describe Wilson as a self-conscious artist, fully aware of musical history. That wasn’t my impression. He came across as a typical rock autodidact, deeply insecure about his creative instincts, terrified that the songs he was working on were too arty to sell. As a result of this ambivalence, he never realized his full potential as a composer. In the light of electronica and minimalism, you can see how advanced his ideas were, but they remain bursts of inspiration from a mind that couldn’t mobilize itself into a whole. This was the major tragedy of rock in the sixties. It set out to shatter the boundaries of high and mass culture, but there was a line, invisible yet rigid, between violating musical conventions and making truly popular music. Anyone who couldn’t walk that line was doomed to a respectful rejection, and a few albums with disappointing sales usually meant silence. The market was a fickle mistress. (What else is new?) You needed a strong ego to read the public’s taste, and an even stronger one to resist it. Dylan succeeded because he was supremely willful, and the Beatles would have succeeded at anything. But the California performers I admired—and sometimes loved—were deeply insecure. They yearned for fame, as only needy people can, but they also wanted to make art, and when both of those impulses couldn’t be achieved they recoiled in a ball of frantic confusion.
I walked over to the limo where Brian’s wife, Marilyn, said he’d be waiting. The windows were tinted brown. Down it rolled, and there was Brian, eyeing me with suspicion. I flashed him my biggest grin. “Meet you in the tent,” he said warily.
The structure in question stood in his spacious living room. It had a very Arabian Nights vibe. I remember rugs, an oil lamp, and a hookah, or maybe it was just a joint. We got stoned; I’m certain of that. I pressed him to agree that his music resembled Fauré’s—I wanted to prove my point to the Times. He looked like I had pulled a knife on him. “I never heard of that guy,” he muttered. I switched gears, asking about those dazzling harmonies. Where did they come from? “Barbershop,” he replied. Yes, of course, the traditional heartland style, but hadn’t barbershop originally been a black form? And what about Chuck Berry? Wasn’t Brian actually producing a grand synthesis of American pop styles? I was tempted to point this out, but then I remembered that another reporter had been careless enough to ask about the black roots of his music. Brian’s response, as the reporter related it to me, was: “We’re white and we sing white.”
The Beach Boys were mostly a family affair, and the Wilson boys were sons of the great migration west from Oklahoma to escape the Dust Bowl. So the author of “Fun, Fun, Fun” was a spawn of The Grapes of Wrath, the first generation in his clan to take security for granted. It struck me as moving, even poignant, that Brian had crafted the icon of the blithe surfer, since he was a chubby introvert who never went near a board, preferring the safety of his room. But I understood his fixation. Surfers were the Apollos of SoCal. When I saw them on the beach, perfectly tanned, or when I watched them twirling in the waves, I grasped the transcendental element in surf music. It was all about freedom from the rules of life, the whole of your being concentrated in the act of shooting the tube. For several years after that trip to L.A. I subscribed to Surfer magazine, and I practiced the Atlantic Ocean version of the sport, though only with my body and on rather tame waves. With my voice muffled by the water I would shout a line from “Surf City.” To me, this was the ultimate fantasy of plenty: “two girls for every boy,” except I sang it as “Two girls for every goy.”
Fortunately, Brian has survived the schizoid tendencies that seemed close to the surface when I met him. He’s still performing and writing songs. But it was his emotional battle and the intersection of that struggle with the acid-dosed aesthetic of the sixties that produced his most astonishing music. He was hardly the only rocker torn between the warring gods of art and popularity—merely the most erratic. He needed critical validation even as he rejected it. I suspect that was why, at the end of our rather inconclusive chat, he invited me to join the band for a photo shoot in Palm Springs. Judith and Marilyn came along for the ride, and quite a ride it was.
When I think of that weekend I flash on Brian running around the desert with his wife trying to corral him, shouting, “Pick up your pants.” He was high; so was I. (We’d stopped along the way to pick up some weed from one of the Byrds.) We ate lunch at a coffee shop that was playing Muzak versions of Beach Boys songs. Then we hopped on a funicular that took us from the desert to a mountaintop, where the baked sand changed to snow. Everyone rolled around in it, including Dennis Wilson, who, not a half hour earlier, had been frolicking among the cacti. At some point during that excursion, Dennis hit on Judith. He was too stoned to succeed—she claims. I wouldn’t have objected. It was the sixties; possessiveness was a cardinal sin. And winning the admiration of a Beach Boy was a dream come true for her. She’d grown up in a household where playing Hindemith on the stereo was prime-time entertainment, but she was a secret Beach Boys fan, just like me.
By the end of the day I’d forgotten why we were in Palm Springs. But I can still picture Dennis’s face as I saw it at night, in the green neon glow that suffused the porch of our motel. It made me feel like I was trapped inside a lime Life Saver. Southern California lighting in those days was a bad trip in itself, and the tikis that graced many courtyards put me in mind of umbrella drinks. But for Dennis this emerald excess was just another jewel in the pleasure dome. With his well-shaped jaw and sandy hair, he was the all-American member of the group, the only Wilson brother who wasn’t chubby and, as far as I know, the only Beach Boy who had actually ridden a wave.
Dennis had a soulful side, but it was hidden behind a well-developed set of sybaritic impulses. He never made it past the age of thirty-nine. In 1983, after a day of heavy drinking, he drowned while swimming in a marina. It wasn’t exactly a shock. I still hadn’t forgotten the trip from Palm Springs back to L.A., with Dennis at the wheel. “Whoa!” he said, clearly still high. “The road is doing these weird things.” I thought, If I survive this I promise never to do drugs again.
Excerpted from "Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s" by Richard Goldstein. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Copyright 2015 by Richard Goldstein. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.