I got high with the Beach Boys: "If I survive this I promise never to do drugs again"

I was a young critic. He was a young rock auteur. One day he called to meet. First, we needed pot from the Byrds

Published April 26, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

The rock and roll band the Beach Boys shown in London, Nov. 1966. Clockwise from left: Dennis Wilson, Allen Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Mike Love, and Carl Wilson.  (AP Photo)  (AP)
The rock and roll band the Beach Boys shown in London, Nov. 1966. Clockwise from left: Dennis Wilson, Allen Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Mike Love, and Carl Wilson. (AP Photo) (AP)

Excerpted from "Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s"

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.

By Richard Goldstein

Richard Goldstein was the first widely read rock critic, with a column called "Pop Eye" that ran in the Village Voice from 1966 to 1968. The column allowed me to meet most of the major rock stars of the 1960s, and to know some of them quite well, including Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. I also knew and hung out with Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and other cultural figures of the time. After the end of the '60s I began to write about feminism, sexual liberation, and identity politics, tracing the connections between these areas and social and political trends in a series of features and columns for the Voice. I also wrote for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Vogue, among other venues. In the 1980s I became an activist for lgbt rights, and I won a GLAAD award as Columnist of the Year. I have written recently for The Nation, The Guardian, Harpers, The Atlantic (online), the London Spectator, and other publications.

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Beach Boys Beatles Books Brian Wilson Byrds Dennis Wilson Music Van Dyke Parks