For many years, David Marks, a founding member of The Beach Boys, was a mere footnote in music history, a forgotten figure relegated to an obscure answer in a rock trivia game. A childhood friend and neighbor of the Wilsons—Brian, Dennis and Carl—Marks was a key figure during the formative years. Along with Carl Wilson, he is responsible for creating the group’s trademark surf guitar sound that powered so many of their classic early hits.
In recent years, Marks has returned to the fold, taking part in last year’s wildly successful 50th anniversary trek.
This year, Marks and fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine are touring with Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck (click here for more information on the tour).
As part of our new Beach Boys theme issue, enjoy a lengthy interview with David Marks below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You lived across the street from the Wilsons in Hawthorne, California. Tell us about the area and the environment inside the Wilson home.
David Marks: The neighborhood bordered between Hawthorne and Inglewood at Kornblum Avenue. I lived directly across the street from the Wilsons. We both had corner houses. My side of the street was a new tract home development and all the houses were exactly the same in terms of floor plan. On the Wilson side, that neighborhood had been there for quite a while. It was run down. There were no sidewalks. The houses were older and the Wilsons lived in a pretty small, modest two-bedroom home. The boys all shared a bedroom. When they got older, Brian started sleeping in the den more and more, which was a converted garage they had turned into a music room. They had a Hammond B-3 organ, an upright piano and a little hi-fi in there.
RCM: Describe the household dynamic.
David Marks: It wasn’t Leave It To Beaver (laughs). It wasn’t Tobacco Road either. It appeared to be a poor household although Murry (Wilson) was successful selling two or three huge machines a year, industrial drill presses and lathes. They were like as a big as a car. He would import them from England and sell those to maintain the household. They weren’t rich by any means. The outward appearance of the household was happy. The boys were always running around doing something and Murry was on the phone and Audree was wearing the apron in the kitchen. It was pretty typical, actually.
There was nothing really unusual about it except people probably don’t imagine the Wilsons crammed in a tiny two-bedroom house in a poor neighborhood.
There was one bunk bed and one cot in the bedroom and it was always a mess. Clothes all over the place. They didn’t really have any material possessions to speak of other than the instruments in the music room. All the stuff that you hear about Murry being a prick, for me it was an average normal household. My dad was a prick too and all the dads in the neighborhood were pricks. The school of parenting for that generation is what I’m describing. It was okay to smack your kid, especially my Dad who was Italian; if you say something out of line you get smacked. If you cause problems you get a beating with a strap.
When I first moved into the neighborhood I was seven years old. Carl and Dennis immediately adopted me. I mostly hung out with Dennis. Dennis was very adventurous and would always recruit me to go out with him. He’d always be up to some sort of mischief. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was ten years old and got one for Christmas. When the guitar thing happened Carl and I began to spend more time together.
RCM: You used to sneak over to the Wilsons’ home and watch Brian practice.
David Marks: I would always be busting in at the house over there every day. Sometimes there wasn’t anyone at home except for Brian and he would be playing the piano and I was fascinated by what he was doing so I would kind of spy on him through a window and watch him in the music room. I watched him quite a few times when he was working out harmonies. He was studying The Four Freshmen.
His method was to play the same three or four notes over and over again on the stereo. When he had it in his head he would take it over to the piano and sing it. Carl and I used the same method Brian did to learn guitar parts by Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy.
As we were unveiling the statue at the Hawthorne landmark a few years ago, I sheepishly confessed to Brian that as a kid I used to spy on him when he was at the piano working out arrangements. He half smiled and said he knew and that it was okay I was there watching.
I always felt like I was kind of on the outside as far as the Beach Boys go so when Brian told me it was okay with him that I was part of that private musical world of his it finally dawned on me that I spent a lot of time needlessly feeling excluded from those guys.
It really helped me embrace my past and got me into the right frame of mind to work with Jon on my book.
RCM: How did you come to join The Beach Boys?
David Marks: Joining the Beach Boys is kind of an elusive thing because I had been involved with the Wilsons’ musical endeavors as soon as I moved in across the street. The music evolved and I was just normally there every day. The Beach Boys band slowly evolved, it wasn’t an overnight thing. It was like one day Brian was playing the piano and he heard Carl and I playing guitar and he recruited us to play along with what he was playing on piano, which turned out to be Surfer Girl. So he had us doing that little strumming thing on Surfer Girl, he was intrigued that Carl and I were so into Chuck Berry.
The surf instrumental thing was a big thing for us and Carl and I were really into that. Brian wanted to incorporate the reverb unit, big Fender guitar sound that was happening at the time.
RCM: It’s amazing to realize that in early 1962 The Beach Boys were playing small gigs and less than a year later in October of 1962 you were performing onstage at The Hollywood Bowl.
David Marks: Early on, we had a played a couple of local things and played a party at Milton Berle’s house for his daughter’s birthday. Gigging back then was very exciting. Brian had already gone in and experimented in the studio. He was using different people. His mom was even involved in one of the sessions. He did the session for Surfin’ and Luau with Al and that was getting airplay locally in L.A.
In the meantime, Al split. He got a job at an aircraft company. He really wanted to do folk music and he wasn’t into the direction that the Beach Boys were going with the electric sound. They had shopped the acoustic stuff that Brian had done at Candix around to all the labels and nobody was interested. With the incorporation of our electric guitars we did some new demos of Surfin’ Safari, 409 and Lonely Sea and that’s what got Capitol interested in the band, that electric sound. Of course they still had their doubts because they didn’t think surfing was gonna catch on. I think it was the hot rod songs that really made the band go national. As for playing at the Hollywood Bowl,
try to imagine yourself at 13 or 14 and you’re just having fun playing and not really thinking that much about it. Then all of a sudden you hear your song on the radio and it’s going national and you’re getting called for all these jobs. Our heads were spinning. It just happened so fast and it was really exciting.
We immediately adapted to it.
RCM: Did this sudden success seem unreal to you or were you feeling this is what should be happening, like ‘we’re gonna be big stars!’?
David Marks: Yeah, exactly. When we walked out on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl it felt like a natural thing. We were excited and proud but we felt like we belonged there. It wasn’t humbling because we were arrogant (laughs).
We had the world by the balls. So when we walked out on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl we were like, “here we are everybody!”
RCM: Did you sense Brian was special back then?
David Marks: Brian was special in that he had leadership qualities from the very beginning. He always recruited the neighborhood kids to play football and do crazy stuff. Everybody looked up to him. When he heard a song in his head he immediately had to get it out. That’s where his genius lies. He was able to manifest the music he heard in his head. He would threaten us if we didn’t help him sing (laughs). “I’m gonna punch you out if you don’t stay here and sing!” We’d say, “But Brian we wanna go out and ride the go-karts” (laughs). Lucky for us that he forced us to stay there and do music. When he started getting successful with his songwriting, he focused entirely on the music. He did exhibit special qualities ever since he was very young.
RCM: How different is the Brian of 1962 to the Brian of 2013?
David Marks: Not very different. He was distracted and with all kind of psychological stuff but Brian was always inside there through all of it. When we were together on the roof of Capitol Records he was his old self, messing with people. Funny and lucid. An older version but basically the same person.
RCM: The innocent image of The Beach Boys collided with the stark reality of life on the road.
David Marks: We were presented with various temptations and opportunities to be naughty and we took them. We were rowdy kids in the neighborhood before we were the Beach Boys, nothing was gonna change us. It just opened up the door for us to be even more mischievous. When you’re a young teenager and you’re making lots of money, there are a lot of opportunities to drink. There were no drugs around but we did drink. There weren’t really a lot of groupies. Most of the kids that came to the shows were little girls.
Our road manger was the instigator to that one experience with Carl, me, Mike and Dennis going to the hotel with the prostitute. Mike and Dennis dragged Carl and I because they probably thought it was funny, (laughs) ‘cause we were both virgins. But that’s innocent too. That was something that happened 45 years ago. It would have been abnormal for a hit rock and roll band on the road not to have done something like that.
Dennis and Mike were always on the prowl for chicks. They had an apartment together in Manhattan Beach after the band’s first tour. They had their little competition of who could score the most chicks and Dennis won. (laughs) He was quite the charmer. He looked like a movie star and had the personality to go with it.
In those days the tours were grueling. It wasn’t like you jumped into a limo and went to a 5 star hotel and then do your 90 minutes. You had to rent a U-haul truck and a Chevy station wagon and drive 500 miles and you stayed at crappy motels and then you played 4 hours. You did three of four 45 minute sets at the high school dance. For the most part it was really hard work and the accommodations sucked. It wasn’t that glamorous.
RCM: Did Mike Love always seem like an old soul to you? David Marks:
When we had our first national hit with Surfin’ Safari Mike was already married and he was already bald and he had a kid. So he was an old man already, 21, 22 years old. He was the old man of the group.
RCM: Wasn’t Mike constantly on you about writing to your folks while you were on the road?
David Marks: On the road we were pretty much unsupervised. Murry ended up hiring a guy who was just as bad as us. I kind of suspect that my father took Mike aside and said, “You’re the oldest, take care of him.” Mike was on me about getting up to go to the gigs and write home to my parents. He looked after me and literally saved my life one time in Hawaii and metaphorically after that. We were sitting on a balcony after a show and we were in a hotel three stories up. I was drunk and we were talking to some girls. I was sitting on the actual railing and I went backwards over the railing and he grabbed my ankle and pulled me back up. It would have been disastrous; I probably would have died. When I was in the gutter in the late Nineties he recruited me to go back and play on the road with The Beach Boys.
But even before that through the years he would call and ask me if I was doing alright. The fact that he called out of the blue through the years was impressive. Anyway, Mike kept bothering me to write a letter home to my parents so one day I sat down with the hotel stationary and wrote this letter detailing every woman and drink I had on the tour.
It was filthy, everything you wouldn’t want your parents to know. When Mike read it I never really saw him laugh that hard ever before or since. (laughs) I said to him with a straight face (speaks in innocent voice) “Here’s a note I wrote home to my parents, do you wanna read it?” He started reading it and went down on his knees laughing. He didn’t expect it at all and the irony of it was most of it was true.