Behind the Curtain: Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the Magic of Music-Connected Memories

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For his latest Behind the Curtain entry, rock and roll writer Steve Rosen recounts a memorable afternoon with one of his heroes — Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. 

I was just a little rockhead, not yet a teenager but I was mesmerized, transfixed and had mad love for the Beach Boys. It was somewhere around 1965 and every time I turned on my little transistor radio “California Girls” or Help Me, Rhonda” was playing and I’d be sent into audio ecstasy. I turned on that radio a lot, a green Sony TR-63 [I think that’s what it was] with a brown leatherette case. I carried it with me all day long after school, sitting on the front porch of our little house in Culver City, CA and then taking it to bed and keeping it turned on while I slept. I’d wake up intermittently during the night and if a Beach Boys song was playing, I’d let loose a tiny peal of unadulterated joy.

I can’t tell you why. I can tell you I loved the twang of the guitars and all the voices singing together and the covers of the albums depicting surfers and the band hanging out with impeccably tanned and beautiful girls. That was part of it, but it wasn’t just about the music. The love of music is never about just the music.

Thinking about it now, I might call it music-connected memories. I mean, why do we love the bands we love? Is it solely about the melodies and guitar riffs and lyrics? I don’t think so. I think it’s what was happening to us at the time we heard that music. If you gush over Iron Maiden or Radiohead or Zeppelin or Taylor Swift, chances are when you heard those artists it happened at some moment in your life that profoundly impacted you. Maybe you heard a certain song on your first day of high school or on your 13th birthday or you just moved to a new city or had your first date or our friends were digging certain bands and turned you onto them.

Even if you weren’t acutely aware of what was happening around you — and most of the time you’re not — things were going on that colored the way you heard that music. Music-connected memories. At least that’s my bullshit theory.

And for a 12-year old kid, memories were being made every day and each one was hot-wired into the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. My mom Gerry and my dad Hal were young and happy and though there wasn’t much money around — there never was — life was pretty great. I remember my mom playing with her astonishing stamp collection — she collected from all over the world — or doing mosaics with cut-glass tiles or enameling earrings while my dad taught me how to throw a baseball out in our backyard. The Beach Boys playing in my ear, there was the memory of my dog Stubby — so named because he was sans tail — running around the linoleum floor in our den and the sound of his little toenails click clacking on the tile. That was a sound as perfect as any Beach Boys riff and one I remember to this day.

I can recall learning how to ride a bike, taking off on my first solo excursion and though I was only going around the block — in a circle — I got lost. I cried. I was scared to death but I had brought my transistor with me and had it looped around the handlebars and I swear a Beach Boys song came on and maybe it was “Surfin’ U.S.A.” or “I Get Around” or “Fun Fun Fun.” I don’t know but what I do know is the panic subsided a bit and though I had been fearful of falling over — I still didn’t feel completely balanced — and not being able to re-mount the bike, that anxiety floated away as the song washed over me and I finally made it around the block into the waiting and anxious arms of my parents, who were standing in the driveway nervously awaiting my return.

The Beach Boys were there for me. There was no sadness or depression or insecurity when I heard one of their songs and believe me, I had more than my share of those things. From the moment I walked through the doors of my first grade classroom at El Marino Elementary School, I suffered the mighty weight of self-doubt. Even at that early age, I felt removed and apart from all the other kids who were interacting with one another and running around the playground and raising their hands when the teacher asked a question.

I never raised my hand. I was alone and isolated from everyone for those six years of elementary school. I always thought I was breathing different air than everybody else. However, the moment school was over I’d return home, run giddily into the bedroom I shared with my younger brother Michael, retrieve the radio and turn it on. If a Beach Boys song was playing, I’d be elevated and the neuroses I previously felt would temporarily dissolve.

Such was the healing power of Brian Wilson. He was the genius behind the band, and whenever I heard one of his songs I was lifted from the doldrums. Rather than making myself insane with worry over whether Toni, the most beautiful blonde girl in my sixth grade class, even knew my name, I could pretend she not only knew my name but liked me and even talked to me when I was listening to a Brian Wilson song. All things were possible.

I could even believe I was like one of the characters in his songs, a surfer with impossibly sun-bleached hair, tanned, and most importantly, a babe magnet. I was none of those things. The closest I’d ever gotten to surfing was buying surfer magazines, cutting out the little ads for the surfboard makers — Dewey Weber, Jacobs, Hobie, Moselle [actually based in Culver City]— and taping them to the inside of my notebook. Oh, did that make me unpopular. Guys who did surf laughed at me and mocked me for doing that but for 2:46 while listening to “California Girls,” I was shooting the curl on the biggest, baddest waves in the Pacific Ocean. It was tubular.

These are what I meant by music-connected memories, and if any of you reading this take a quick second to think about it, you’ll see how the music you love resonated with you because it was tied to intense moments in your own lives.

Follow me as I fast forward through time some 30+ years. My adulation of the Beach Boys had never diminished and if anything had only grown. Brian Wilson was releasing Imagination, his third solo album. I so desperately wanted to interview him but knew I never could. Not because I couldn’t arrange the interview, which may or may not have happened, but because I didn’t think I’d be able to actually form words while sitting in the same space as him. In previous stories here, I’ve written about meeting certain musicians and feeling scared to death. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore and a lot of others were my heroes. I worshipped them. As a guitarist, I would play their songs in cover bands. I listened to their albums — the transistor finally gave way to a little portable record player — over and over.

But meeting Brian Wilson? Holy hell! That was awe on an entirely different level. That was off-the-charts reverence and veneration. I’ve just spilled my guts out for 1,400 words about what the Beach Boys meant to me and how they provided a lifeline when I was drowning in the ennui and challenges of teenagerdom. Brian was a touchstone for all things positive.

I’m not trying to sound overly dramatic here or maudlin or gushy but through the songs he wrote, I was able to find solace and some small sense of self-respect.

So please try and imagine having those memories and perceptions locked in your brain for the better part of your life and then finally meeting the person who engendered those feelings. Would you run forward at full speed to embrace him/her? Throw your arms around this individual and explain what he/she meant to you? Could you do that? Could you do that without carrying the fear you would say something wrong or even worse, stupid?

I couldn’t. All I could think about was sitting there with Brian, making some inane comment and having him respond with, “You ugly little f*****.” I mean, I knew he wouldn’t use those exact words, of course, but he wouldn’t have to. All he’d have to say was, “What a stupid question” and I’d be thrown into a paroxysm of insecurity. I didn’t know if I could deal with that. The idea of the person who gave me self-confidence when I was a little boy now cutting my heart out because I came across as foolish would simply immobilize me. I knew that.

Still, the possibility I would let this moment slip through my fingers never really took hold. If I allowed this opportunity to pass, I would be forever looking in the rear-view mirror for something that might have been.

I pursued Brian and received a fax [anybody remember them?]telling me the interview was set for Tuesday afternoon, June 2nd, 1998. I was to meet the publicist at Brian’s record company offices in Beverly Hills, who would then drive me to his home. I drove down to the posh address, met the publicist and climbed into her Corolla. As she chauffeured me, I told her how much I loved the Beach Boys and what I thought of Brian Wilson. She nodded and grinned.

Imagine my astonishment then when she laid down the ground rules for the interview, a set of directives she mentioned several times.

  • Do not talk to Brian about his deceased brothers [Dennis had drowned on December 28th, 1983 but Carl had passed only four months earlier on February 6th, 1998].

 

  • Do not agitate Brian. Should he become aggravated, immediately desist with that line of questioning.

 

  • Be careful talking to him about the Beach Boys.

Are you serious? Really? At first I thought she was saying those things just to put me at ease, but when I glanced sideways at her and saw the no bullshit look on her face, I almost burst out laughing. I knew she was only doing her gig but did she honestly believe my stupidity or callousness was such that I might actually say these things?

Had my desire to meet Wilson not been so all-consuming, I would have told her to turn the Corolla around and take me back to my car. Forget the interview. Which is what made my conversation with Brian all the more miraculous. Not only would he talk about his brothers — through no prompting of my own — but he couldn’t elaborate enough on the Beach Boys and how much he loved their music.

We pulled up to his house at the nexus of Beverly Glen and Mulholland, a pristine and secluded neighborhood dotted with over-sized homes, over-watered front lawns and a general feeling of insiders and outsiders.

I honestly don’t remember much about the home. It was big and sumptuous and there may have been gold records on the walls, but I don’t know. Brian was introduced to me and I shook his hand — his shake was gentle and tentative — and we took our seats. I pulled out my cassette player and plugged in the stereo microphone, inserted a cassette and prayed silently to the heavens that I’d done everything right. I was working on auto-pilot and I could barely breathe and never in my life had I ever wanted an interview to be conducted so flawlessly and perfect.

I knew I had to talk to him about the Imagination album though all I really cared about — as I’m sure you can understand — was the Beach Boys. From question one, Brian spoke in short, clipped sentences, which were sometimes only two or three words. He did answer every question and never grew anxious or frustrated as the publicist suggested. Even when she’d appear in a doorway and surreptitiously flash me the code sign, which meant “Wrap this up in five minutes,” I conspicuously ignored her and kept talking. So did Brian.

At one point, I asked him about the ethereal intro to “California Girls.” Brian Wilson — THE Brian Wilson, the man I revered so deeply — responded, “Good question.” I grinned so wide my teeth hurt. “Good question,” he said. What more in life did I need?

There was no way I was walking out of there without referencing “Good Vibrations,” even though I knew he’d been queried about the song a million times. Not only did he find new wrinkles in the telling but he actually sang a few lines out loud. I swear to you at that moment I had to turn my head because a tear dripped down my eye. I didn’t want him to see that.

We talked about Imagination, the Beach Boys, where his life had been and where he thought it might be going. I sensed he was tiring and drew the conversation to a close. Yes, of course, I wish I could have sat there for hours delving into the intricacies of his songs; his abusive father; life after the Beach Boys and all that other stuff.

More importantly, I wanted to tell him how he saved me from myself. I wanted to say how every time I heard one of his miraculous songs, I was carried back to memories of my mom and dad and Stubby doing a toenail tap-dance on the linoleum floor in our den and how his music made me feel just a little bit bigger and stronger than I really was. All that stuff.

But I never did. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I would have sounded like some nerdy 13-year old numbskull pouring his pathetic heart out and I didn’t have the confidence — there’s that word again — to do that.

Brian Wilson - Imagination

I wrapped up our conversation. Maybe you’re waiting to hear if this had been the perfect interview I so hoped it would be. I could lie to you and say it was, but it wasn’t. I needed more time, as I’d mentioned earlier, but even given that, I would have walked away feeling unfulfilled. Though Brian was only 56 when we met, he had endured a lifetime of personal wars and these internal battles had impacted and affected the man sitting before me.

From the time he was small, his father, Murry, attacked him both emotionally and physically. On top of that, in 1969, Murry sold all of the Beach Boys’ songs — without Brian’s knowledge — for $700,000 [in 2019, that catalog was appraised at somewhere around $70,000,000]. Traumatized by his monstrous parent, the young Wilson would succumb to drug addiction, self-isolation and even suicidal thinking, which ultimately led to institutionalization.

Strange to think, then, that the person sitting across from me that day 22 years ago had experienced such horror in his life and was still capable of writing some of the most uplifting and inspirational songs ever composed. Maybe the only way he could have created “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” and dozens of other diamonds was precisely because he had endured nightmarish things. In the writing, came the exorcism of them.

So, no, it wasn’t a perfect interview by any stretch of the imagination but I think or would desperately like to believe that Brian Wilson dug the moment. I really hope so. I repacked my cassette player, punched the plastic tabs from the tape so it couldn’t be recorded over — which I’ve done, and that’s a misery all its own — and rose to take my leave. I shook his hand for a second time, and maybe it was all in my head but I thought he gripped it a little more firmly than our first shake. I had him sign the Imagination CD [I wanted him to sign a Beach Boys album but for some idiotic reason, I hadn’t brought one] and walked out the door.

As I was leaving, I turned around and caught his eye. Wordlessly he said, “They tell you things about me. From time to time I am afraid of the questions. I run from the reality of them. But I liked you and I think you liked me. Was I who you thought I would be?”

Oh, yes. You were everything. My mom, my dad, my dog, my first guitar. You were hope. You were magic.

You were Brian Wilson.

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