Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

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Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

In 1966, Brian Wilson entered the studio to compose Smile, a Beach Boys album that he believed would change the band, and perhaps the face of popular music, forever. What happened next became legend.

By Jules Siegel

The Atavist Magazine, No. 08


Jules Siegel (1935-2012) was a writer and graphic designer whose work appeared over the years in Playboy, Best American Short Stories, Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles, and many other publications. His articles about Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon, and other prominent Americans are primary (and often unique) sources of information based on his personal acquaintance and extensive direct interviews with the subjects. He was also active in the field of book art, with works in the Artist Books Collection of the Museum of Modern Art and other institutional and private collections.

Cover Illustration: John R. Drury

Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Brian Wilson Photos: Michael Ochs and Ray Avery/Redferns, used with permission from Getty Images

The Smile Sessions Box Set, released by EMI Music, includes five CDs, two LPs, and two seven-inch singles of remastered Smile recordings, along with an incredible collection of archival material related to Smile. It is available in record stores and online.

Smile session music and conversation outtakes were originally recorded by the Beach Boys for Capitol Records and Brother Records. The video clip of Brian Wilson playing portions of “Surf’s Up” is from “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution” appeared on CBS News in 1967.



Published in October 2011. Design updated in 2021.

This article originally ran in Cheetah magazine in 1967.

1.

It was just another day of greatness at Gold Star Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. In the morning four long-haired kids had knocked out two hours of sound for a record plugger who was trying to curry favor with a disc jockey friend of theirs in San Jose. Nobody knew it at the moment, but out of that two hours there were about three minutes that would hit the top of the charts in a few weeks, and the record plugger, the disc jockey and the kids would all be hailed as geniuses, but geniuses with a very small g.

Now, however, in the very same studio a Genius with a very large capital G was going to produce a hit. There was no doubt it would be a hit because this Genius was Brian Wilson. In four years of recording for Capitol Records, he and his group, the Beach Boys, had made surfing music a national craze, sold 16 million singles and earned gold records for 10 of their 12 albums.

Not only was Brian going to produce a hit, but also, one gathered, he was going to show everybody in the music business exactly where it was at; and where it was at, it seemed, was that Brian Wilson was not merely a Genius—which is to say a steady commercial success—but rather, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, a GENIUS—which is to say a steady commercial success and hip besides.

Until now, though, there were not too many hip people who would have considered Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys hip, even though he had produced one very hip record, “Good Vibrations,” which had sold more than a million copies, and a super-hip album, Pet Sounds, which didn’t do very well at all—by previous Beach Boys sales standards. Among the hip people he was still on trial, and the question discussed earnestly among the recognized authorities on what is and what is not hip was whether or not Brian Wilson was hip, semi-hip or square.

But walking into the control room with the answers to all questions such as this was Brian Wilson himself, wearing a competition-stripe surfer’s T-shirt, tight white duck pants, pale green bowling shoes and a red plastic fireman’s helmet.

Everybody was wearing identical red plastic toy fireman’s helmets. Brian’s cousin and production assistant, Steve Korthoff was wearing one; his wife, Marilyn, and her sister, Diane Rovelle—Brian’s secretary—were also wearing them, and so was a once dignified writer from The Saturday Evening Post who had been following Brian around for two months.

Out in the studio, the musicians for the session were unpacking their instruments. In sport shirts and slacks, they looked like insurance salesmen and used-car dealers, except for one blond female percussionist who might have been stamped out by a special machine that supplied plastic mannequin housewives for detergent commercials.

Controlled, a little bored after 20 years or so of nicely paid anonymity, these were the professionals of the popular music business, hired guns who did their jobs expertly and efficiently and then went home to the suburbs. If you wanted swing, they gave you swing. A little movie-track lushness? Fine, here comes movie-track lushness. Now it’s rock and roll? Perfect rock and roll, down the chute.

“Steve,” Brian called out, “where are the rest of those fire hats? I want everybody to wear fire hats. We’ve really got to get into this thing.” Out to the Rolls-Royce went Steve and within a few minutes all of the musicians were wearing fire hats, silly grins beginning to crack their professional dignity.

“All right, let’s go,” said Brian. Then, using a variety of techniques ranging from vocal demonstration to actually playing the instruments, he taught each musician his part. A gigantic fire howled out of the massive studio speakers in a pounding crash of pictorial music that summoned up visions of roaring, windstorm flames, falling timbers, mournful sirens and sweating firemen, building into a peak and crackling off into fading embers as a single drum turned into a collapsing wall and the fire-engine cellos dissolved and disappeared.

“When did he write this?” asked an astonished pop music producer who had wandered into the studio. “This is really fantastic! Man, this is unbelievable! How long has he been working on it?”

“About an hour,” answered one of Brian’s friends.

“I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe what I’m hearing,” said the producer and fell into a stone glazed silence as the fire music began again.

For the next three hours, Brian Wilson recorded and re-recorded, take after take, changing the sound balance, adding echo, experimenting with a sound effects track of a real fire.

“Let me hear that again.” “Drums, I think you’re a little slow in that last part. Let’s get right on it.” “That was really good. Now, one more time, the whole thing.” “All right, let me hear the cellos alone.” “Great. Really great. Now let’s do it!”

With 23 takes on tape and the entire operation responding to his touch like the black knobs on the control board, sweat glistening down his long, reddish hair onto his freckled face, the control room a litter of dead cigarette butts, Chicken Delight boxes, crumpled napkins, Coke bottles and all the accumulated trash of the physical end of the creative process, Brian stood at the board as the four speakers blasted the music into the room.

For the 24th time, the drum crashed and the sound effects crackle faded and stopped.

“Thank you,” said Brian into the control room mic. “Let me hear that back.” Feet shifting, his body still, eyes closed, head moving seal-like to his music, he stood under the speakers and listened. “Let me hear that one more time.” Again the fire roared. “Everybody come out and listen to this,” Brian said to the musicians. They came into the room and listened to what they had made.

“What do you think?” Brian asked.

“It’s incredible, incredible,” whispered one of the musicians, a man in his fifties wearing a Hawaiian shirt and iridescent trousers and pointed black Italian shoes. “Absolutely incredible.”

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”

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Brian Wilson, wearing a fireman’s helmet, directs a cameraman in a scene from a 1968 Beach Boys movie. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

2.

As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.

“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still a fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”

A person who thinks of himself as understanding would probably interpret this episode as an example of perhaps too-excessive artistic perfectionism. One with psychiatric inclinations would hear all this stuff about someone who actually believed music could cause fires and start using words such as “neurosis” and maybe even “psychosis.” A true student of spoken hip, however, would say “hang-up,” which covers all of the above.

As far as Brian’s pretensions toward hipness are concerned, no label could do him worse harm. In the hip world, there is a widespread idea that really hip people don’t have hang-ups, which gives rise to the unspoken rule (unspoken because there is also the widespread idea that really hip people don’t make any rules) that no one who wants to be thought of as hip ever reveals his hang-ups, except maybe to his guru, and in the strictest of privacy.

In any case, whatever his talent, Brian Wilson’s attempt to win a hip following and reputation foundered for many months in an obsessive cycle of creation and destruction that threatened not only his career and his future but also his marriage, his friendships, his relationship with the Beach Boys and, some of his closest friends worried, his mind.

For a boy who used to be known in adolescence as a lover of sweets, the whole thing must have begun to taste very sour; yet, this particular phase of Brian’s drive toward whatever his goal of supreme success might be began on a rising tide that at first looked as if it would carry him and the Beach Boys beyond the Beatles, who had started just about the same time they did, into the number-one position in the international pop music fame-and-power competition.

“About a year ago I had what I consider a very religious experience,” Wilson told Los Angeles writer Tom Nolan in 1966. “I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose. And I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can’t teach you or tell you what I learned from taking it, but I consider it a very religious experience.”

A short time after his LSD experience, Wilson began work on the record that was to establish him right along with the Beatles as one of the most important innovators in modern popular music. It was called “Good Vibrations,” and it took more than six months, 90 hours of tape and 11 complete versions before a three-minute-and-thirty-five-second final master tape satisfied him. Among the instruments on “Good Vibrations” was an electronic device called a theremin, which had its debut in the soundtrack of the movie Spellbound, back in the forties. To some people, “Good Vibrations” was considerably crazier than Gregory Peck had been in the movie, but to others Brian Wilson’s new record, along with his somewhat earlier LP release Pet Sounds, marked the beginning of a new era in pop music.

“They’ve Found the New Sound at Last!” shrieked the headline over a London Sunday Express review as “Good Vibrations” hit the English charts at number six and leaped to number one the following week. Within a few weeks, the Beach Boys had pushed the Beatles out of first place in England’s New Musical Express’ annual poll. In America, “Good Vibrations” sold nearly 400,000 copies in four days before reaching number one several weeks later and earning a gold record within another month when it hit the one-million sale mark.

In America, where there is none of the Beach Boys’ California mystique that adds a special touch of romance to their records and appearances in Europe and England, the news had not really reached all of the people whose opinion can turn popularity into fashionability. With the exception of a professor of show business (right, professor of show business; in California such a thing is not considered unusual) who turned up one night to interview Brian, and a few young writers (such as the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy!, and Lawrence Dietz of New York magazine), not too many opinion makers were prepared to accept the Beach Boys into the mainstream of the culture industry.

 “Listen man,” said San Francisco music critic Ralph Gleason, who had only recently graduated from jazz into Bob Dylan and was apparently not yet ready for any more violent twists, “I recognize the L.A. hype when I hear it. I know all about the Beach Boys and I think I liked them better before, if only for sociological reasons, if you understand what I mean.”

“As for the Beach Boys,” an editor of The Saturday Evening Post chided his writer, who had filed the world’s longest Western Union telegram of a story, “I want you to understand that as an individual you can feel that Brian Wilson is the greatest musician of our time, and maybe the greatest human being, but as a reporter you have got to maintain your objectivity.”

“They want me to put him down,” the writer complained. “That’s their idea of objectivity—the put-down.”

“It has to do with this idea that it’s not hip to be sincere,” he continued, “and they really want to be hip. What they don’t understand is that last year hip was sardonic—camp, they called it. This year hip is sincere.

“When somebody as corny as Brian Wilson starts singing right out front about God and I start writing it—very sincerely, you understand—it puts them very uptight.

“I think it’s because it reminds them of all those terribly sincere hymns and sermons they used to have to listen to in church when they were kids in Iowa or Ohio.

“Who knows? Maybe they’re right. I mean, who needs all this goddamn intense sincerity all the time?”

What all this meant, of course, was that everybody agreed that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were still too square. It would take more than “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds to erase three-and-a-half years of “Little Deuce Coupe”—a lot more if you counted in those J. C. Penney–style custom-tailored, candy-striped sport shirts they insisted on wearing on stage.

3.

Brian, however, had not yet heard the news, it appeared, and was steadily going about the business of trying to become hip. The Beach Boys, who have toured without him ever since he broke down during one particularly wearing trip, were now in England and Europe, phoning back daily reports of enthusiastic fan hysteria—screaming little girls tearing at their flesh, wild press conferences, private chats with the Rolling Stones. Washed in the heat of a kind of attention they had never received in the United States even at the height of their commercial success, three Beach Boys—Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl, and his cousin, Mike Love—walked into a London Rolls-Royce showroom and bought four Phantom VII limousines, one for each of them and a fourth for Brian. Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, the Beach Boys who are not corporate members of the Beach Boys’ enterprises, sent their best regards and bought themselves some new clothing.

“I think this London thing has really helped,” said Brian with satisfaction after he had made the color selection on his $32,000 toy—a ducal-burgundy lacquered status symbol ordinarily reserved for heads of state. “That’s just what the boys needed, a little attention to jack up their confidence.” Then, learning that he wouldn’t be able to have his new car for three months, he went out and bought an interim Rolls-Royce for $20,000 from Mamas and Papas producer Lou Adler, taking possession of the automobile just in time to meet his group at the airport as they returned home.

“It’s a great environment for conducting business,” he explained as his friend and former road manager, Terry Sachen, hastily pressed into service as interim chauffeur for the interim Rolls-Royce, informally uniformed in his usual fringed deer-skins and moccasins, drove the car through Hollywood and to one of Brian’s favorite eating places, the Pioneer Chicken drive-in on Sunset Boulevard.

“This car is really out of sight,” said Brian, filling up on fried shrimp in the basket. “Next time we go up to Capitol, I’m going to drive up in my Rolls-Royce limo. You’ve got to do those things with a little style. It’s not just an ordinary visit that way—it’s an arrival, right? Wow! That’s really great—an arrival, in my limo. It’ll blow their minds!”

Whether or not the interim Rolls-Royce actually ever blew the minds of the hard-nosed executives who run Capitol Records is something to speculate on, but no one in the record industry with a sense of history could have failed to note that this very same limousine had once belonged to John Lennon; and in the closing months of 1966, with the Beach Boys home in Los Angeles, Brian rode the “Good Vibrations” high, driving forward in bursts of enormous energy that seemed destined before long to earn him the throne of the international empire of pop music still ruled by John Lennon and the Beatles.

At the time, it looked as if the Beatles were ready to step down. Their summer concerts in America had been only moderately successful at best, compared to earlier years. There were 10,000 empty seats at Shea Stadium in New York and 11 lonely fans at the airport in Seattle. Mass media, underground press, music-industry trade papers and the fan magazines were filled with fears that the Beatles were finished, that the group was breaking up. Lennon was off acting in a movie; McCartney was walking around London alone, said to be carrying a giant torch for his sometime girlfriend, Jane Asher; George Harrison was getting deeper and deeper into a mystical Indian thing under the instruction of sitar master Ravi Shankar; and Ringo was collecting material for a Beatles museum.

In Los Angeles, Brian Wilson was riding around in the Rolls-Royce that had once belonged to John Lennon, pouring a deluge of new sounds onto miles of stereo tape in three different recording studios booked day and night for him in month-solid blocks, holding court nightly at his $240,000 Beverly Hills Babylonian-modern home, and, after guests left, sitting at his grand piano until dawn, writing new material.

The work in progress was an album called Smile.

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The Beach Boys in Los Angeles, 1967. Clockwise from top left: Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Mike Love. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Wilson in the studio, 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

4.

“I’m writing a teenage symphony to God,” Brian told dinner guests on an October evening. He then played for them the collection of black acetate trial records that lay piled on the floor of his red-imitation-velvet-wallpapered bedroom with its leopard-print bedspread. In the bathroom, above the washbasin, there was a plastic color picture of Jesus Christ with trick-effect eyes that appeared to open and close when you moved your head. Sophisticate newcomers pointed it out to each other and laughed slyly, almost hoping to find a Keane painting among decorations ranging from lava lamps to a department store rack of dozens of dolls, each still in its plastic bubble container, the whole display trembling like a space-age Christmas tree to the music flowing out into the living room.

Brian shuffled through the acetates, most of which were unlabeled, identifying each by subtle differences in the patterns of the grooves. He had played them so often he knew the special look of each record the way you know the key to your front door by the shape of its teeth. Most were instrumental tracks, cut while the Beach Boys were in Europe, and for these Brian supplied the vocal in a high sound that seemed to come out of his head rather than his throat as he somehow managed to create complicated four- and five-part harmonies with only his own voice.

“Rock, rock, Plymouth rock and roll over,” Brian sang. “Bicycle rider, see what you done done to the church of the native American Indian… Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfields. … Who ran the Iron Horse? … Out in the farmyard the cook is chopping lumber; out in the barnyard the chickens do their number. … Bicycle rider see what you done done…”

A panorama of American history filled the room as the music shifted from theme to theme; the tinkling harpsichord sounds of the bicycle rider pushed sad Indian sounds across the continent; the Iron Horse pounded across the plains in a wide-open rolling rhythm that summoned up visions of the Old West; civilized chickens bobbed up and down in a tiny ballet of comic barnyard melody; the inexorable bicycle music, cold and charming as an infinitely talented music box, reappeared and faded away.

Like medieval choirboys, the voices of the Beach Boys pealed out in wordless prayer from the last acetate, thirty seconds of chorale that reached upward to the vaulted stone ceilings of an empty cathedral lit by thousands of tiny votive candles melting at last into one small, pure pool that whispered a universal amen in a sigh without words.

Brian’s private radio show was finished. In the dining room a candlelit table with a dark blue cloth was set for ten persons. In the kitchen, Marilyn Wilson was trying to get the meal organized and served, aided and hindered by the chattering suggestions of the guests’ wives and girlfriends. When everyone was seated and waiting for the food, Brian tapped his knife idly on a white china plate.

“Listen to that,” he said. “That’s really great!” Everybody listened as Brian played the plate. “Come on, let’s get something going here,” he ordered. “Michael—do this. David—you do this.” A plate-and-spoon musicale began to develop as each guest played a distinctly different technique, rhythm and melody under Brian’s enthusiastic direction.

“That’s absolutely unbelievable!” said Brian. “Isn’t that unbelievable? That’s so unbelievable I’m going to put it on the album. Michael, I want you to get a sound system up here tomorrow and I want everyone to be here tomorrow night. We’re going to get this on tape.” Brian Wilson’s plate-and-spoon musicale never did reach the public, but only because he forgot about it. Other sounds equally strange have found their way onto his records. On Pet Sounds, for example, on some tracks there is an odd, soft, hollow percussion effect that most musicians assume is some kind of electronically transmuted drum sound—a conga drum played with a stick perhaps, or an Indian tom-tom. Actually, it’s drummer Hal Blaine playing the bottom of a plastic jug that once contained Sparklettes spring water. And, of course, at the end of the record there is the strangely affecting track of a train roaring through a lonely railroad crossing as a bell clangs and Brian’s dog, Banana, a beagle, and Louie, a dark brown Weimaraner, bark after it.

More significant, perhaps, to those who that night heard the original instrumental tracks for both Smile and the Beach Boys’ new single, “Heroes and Villains,” is that entire sequences of extraordinary power and beauty are missing in the finished version of the single, and will undoubtedly be missing as well from Smile—victims of Brian’s obsessive tinkering and, more importantly, sacrifices to the same strange combination of superstitious fear and God-like conviction of his own power he displayed when he destroyed the fire music.

The night of the dining table concerto, it was the God-like confidence Brian must have been feeling as he put his guests on his trip, but the fear was soon to take over. At his house that night, he had assembled a new set of players to introduce into his life game, each of whom was to perform a specific role in the grander game he was playing with the world.

Earlier in the summer, Brian had hired Van Dyke Parks, a super-sophisticated young songwriter and composer, to collaborate with him on the lyrics for Smile. With Van Dyke working for him, he had a fighting chance against John Lennon, whose literary skill and Liverpudlian wit had been one of the most important factors in making the Beatles the darlings of the hip intelligentsia.

With that flank covered, Brian was ready to deal with some of the other problems of trying to become hip, the most important of which was how he was going to get in touch with some really hip people. In effect, the dinner party at the house was his first hip social event, and the star of the evening, so far as Brian was concerned, was Van Dyke Parks’s manager, David Anderle, who showed up with a whole group of very hip people.

Elegant, cool and impossibly cunning, Anderle was an artist who somehow found himself in the record business as an executive for MGM Records, where he had earned himself a reputation as a genius by purportedly thinking up the million-dollar movie-TV-record offer that briefly lured Bob Dylan to MGM from Columbia until everybody had a change of heart and Dylan decided to go back home to Columbia.

Anderle had skipped back and forth between painting and the record business, with mixed results in both. Right now he was doing a little personal management and thinking about painting a lot. His appeal to Brian was simple: everybody recognized David Anderle as one of the hippest people in Los Angeles. In fact, he was something like the mayor of hipness as far as some people were concerned. And not only that, he was a genius.

Within six weeks, he was working for the Beach Boys; everything that Brian wanted seemed at last to be in reach. Like a magic genie, David Anderle produced miracles for him. A new Beach Boys record company was set up, Brother Records, with David Anderle at its head and, simultaneously, the Beach Boys sued Capitol Records in a move to force a renegotiation of their contract with the company.

The house was full of underground press writers. Anderle’s friend Michael Vosse was on the Brother Records payroll out scouting TV contacts and performing other odd jobs. Another of Anderle’s friends was writing the story on Brian for The Saturday Evening Post and a film crew from CBS TV was up at the house for a documentary to be narrated by Leonard Bernstein. The Beach Boys were having meetings once or twice a week with teams of experts briefing them on corporate policy, drawing complicated chalk patterns as they described the millions of dollars everyone was going to earn out of all this.

As 1967 opened it seemed as though Brian and the Beach Boys were assured of a new world of success; yet something was going wrong. As the corporate activity reached a peak of intensity, Brian was becoming less and less productive and more and more erratic. Smile, which was to have been released for the Christmas season, remained unfinished. “Heroes and Villains,” which was virtually complete, remained in the can, as Brian kept working out new little pieces and then scrapping them.

Van Dyke Parks had left and come back and would leave again, tired of being constantly dominated by Brian. Marilyn Wilson was having headaches and Dennis Wilson was leaving his wife. Session after session was canceled. One night a studio full of violinists waited while Brian tried to decide whether or not the vibrations were friendly or hostile. The answer was hostile and the session was canceled, at a cost of some $3,000. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Even the Post story fell through.

5.

Brian seemed to be filled with secret fear. One night at the house, it began to surface. Marilyn sat nervously painting her fingernails as Brian stalked up and down, his face tight and his eyes small and red.

“What’s the matter, Brian? You’re really strung out,” a friend asked.

“Yeah, I’m really strung out. Look, I mean I really feel strange. A really strange thing happened to me tonight. Did you see this picture, Seconds?”

“No, but I know what it’s about; I read the book.”

“Look, come into the kitchen; I really have to talk about this.” In the kitchen they sat down in the black-and-white houndstooth-check wallpapered dinette area. A striped window shade clashed with the checks and the whole room vibrated like some kind of op art painting. Ordinarily, Brian wouldn’t sit for more than a minute in it, but now he seemed to be unaware of anything except what he wanted to say.

“I walked into that movie,” he said in a tense, high-pitched voice, “and the first thing that happened was a voice from the screen said ‘Hello, Mr. Wilson.’ It completely blew my mind. You’ve got to admit that’s pretty spooky, right?”

 “Maybe.”

“That’s not all. Then the whole thing was there. I mean my whole life. Birth and death and rebirth. The whole thing. Even the beach was in it, a whole thing about the beach. It was my whole life right there on the screen.”

“It’s just a coincidence, man. What are you getting all excited about?”

“Well, what if it isn’t a coincidence? What if it’s real? You know there’s mind gangsters these days. There could be mind gangsters, couldn’t there? I mean look at Spector, he could be involved in it, couldn’t he? He’s going into films. How hard would it be for him to set up something like that?”

“Brian, Phil Spector is not about to make a million-dollar movie just to scare you. Come on, stop trying to be so dramatic.”

“All right, all right. I was just a little bit nervous about it.”

Brian said, after some more back-and-forth about the possibility that Phil Spector, the record producer, had somehow influenced the making of Seconds to disturb Brian Wilson’s tranquility. “I just had to get it out of my system. You can see where something like that could scare someone, can’t you?”

They went into Brian’s den, a small room papered in psychedelic orange, blue, yellow and red wall fabric with rounded corners. At the end of the room there was a jukebox filled with Beach Boys singles and Phil Spector hits. Brian punched a button and Spector’s “Be My Baby” began to pour out at top volume.

“Spector has always been a big thing with me, you know. I mean I heard that song three and a half years ago and I knew that it was between him and me. I knew exactly where he was at and now I’ve gone beyond him. You can understand how that movie might get someone upset under those circumstances, can’t you?”

Brian sat down at his desk and began to draw a little diagram on a piece of printed stationery with his name at the top in the kind of large fat script printers of charitable-dinner journals use when the customer asks for a hand-lettered look. With a felt-tip pen, Brian drew a close approximation of a growth curve. “Spector started the whole thing,” he said, dividing the curve into periods. “He was the first one to use the studio. But I’ve gone beyond him now. I’m doing the spiritual sound, a white spiritual sound. Religious music. Did you hear the Beatles album? Religious, right? That’s the whole movement. That’s where I’m going. It’s going to scare a lot of people.

“Yeah,” Brian said, hitting his fist on the desk with a slap that sent the parakeets in the large cage facing him squalling and whistling. “Yeah,” he said and smiled for the first time all evening. “That’s where I’m going and it’s going to scare a lot of people when I get there.”

As the year drew deeper into winter, Brian’s rate of activity grew more and more frantic, but nothing seemed to be accomplished. He tore the house apart and half redecorated it. One section of the living room was filled with a full-size Arabian tent, and the dining room, where the grand piano stood, was filled with sand to a depth of a foot or so and draped with nursery curtains. He had had his windows stained gray and put a sauna bath in the bedroom. He battled with his father and complained that his brothers weren’t trying hard enough. He accused Mike Love of making too much money.

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Phil Spector (foreground, with vest) with Brian Wilson and other members of the Beach Boys and Righteous Brothers, at Gold Star Studios in 1965. (Photo by Ray Avery/Redferns)

6.

One by one, he canceled out the friends he had collected, sometimes for the strangest reasons. An acquaintance of several months who thought he had become extremely close with Brian showed up at a record session and found a guard barring the door. Michael Vosse came out to explain.

“Hey man, this is really terrible,” said Vosse, smiling under a broad-brimmed straw hat. “It’s not you, it’s your chick. Brian says she’s a witch and she’s messing with his brain so bad by ESP that he can’t work. It’s like the Spector thing. You know how he is. Say, I’m really sorry.” A couple of months later, Vosse was gone. Then, in the late spring, Anderle left. The game was over.

Several months later, the last move in Brian’s attempt to win the hip community was played out. On July 15, the Beach Boys were scheduled to appear at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a kind of summit of rock music with the emphasis on love, flowers and youth. Although Brian was a member of the board of this nonprofit event, the Beach Boys canceled their commitment to perform. The official reason was that their negotiations with Capitol Records were at a crucial stage and they had to get “Heroes and Villains” out right away. The second official reason was that Carl, who had been arrested for refusing to report for induction into the Army (he was later cleared in court), was so upset that he wouldn’t be able to sing.

Whatever the merit in these reasons, the real one may have been closer to something Monterey board member John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas suggested: “Brian was afraid that the hippies from San Francisco would think the Beach Boys were square and boo them.”

But maybe Brian was right. “Those candy-striped shirts just wouldn’t have made it at Monterey, man,” said David Anderle.

Whatever the case, at the end of the summer, “Heroes and Villains” was released in sharply edited form and Smile was reported to be on its way. In the meantime, however, the Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and John Lennon was riding about London in a bright yellow Phantom VII Rolls-Royce painted with flowers on the sides and his zodiac symbol on the top. In Life magazine, Paul McCartney came out openly for LSD and in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco George Harrison walked through the streets blessing the hippies. Ringo was still collecting material for a Beatles museum. However good Smile might turn out to be, it seemed somehow that once more the Beatles had outdistanced the Beach Boys.

Back during that wonderful period in the fall of 1966 when everybody seemed to be his friend and plans were being laid for Brother Records and all kinds of fine things, Brian had gone on a brief visit to Michigan to hear a Beach Boys concert. The evening of his return, each of his friends and important acquaintances received a call asking everyone to please come to the airport to meet Brian, it was very important. When they gathered at the airport, Brian had a photographer on hand to take a series of group pictures. For a long time, a huge mounted blow-up of the best of the photographs hung on the living room wall, with some 30 people staring out—everyone from Van Dyke Parks and David Anderle to Michael Vosse and Terry Sachen. In the foreground was The Saturday Evening Post writer looking sourly out at the world.

The picture is no longer on Brian’s wall and most of the people in it are no longer his friends. One by one each of them has either stepped out of the picture or been forced out of it. The whole cycle has returned to its beginning. Brian, who started out in Hawthorne, California, with his two brothers and a cousin, once more has surrounded himself with relatives. The house in Beverly Hills is empty. Brian and Marilyn are living in their new Spanish Mission estate in Bel-Air, cheek by jowl with the Mamas and Papas’ Cass Elliott.

What remains, of course, is “Heroes and Villains.” And there is also a spectacular peak, a song called “Surf’s Up” that Brian recorded for the first time in December in Columbia Records Studio A for a CBS TV pop music documentary. Earlier in the evening the film crew had covered a Beach Boys vocal session that had gone very badly. Now, at midnight, the Beach Boys had gone home and Brian was sitting in the back of his car, smoking a joint.

In the dark car, he breathed heavily, his hands in his lap, eyes staring nowhere.

“All right,” he said at last. “Let’s just sit here and see if we can get into something positive, but without any words. Let’s just get into something quiet and positive on a nonverbal level.” There was a long silence.

“OK, let’s go,” he said, and then, quickly, he was in the studio rehearsing, spotlighted in the center of the huge dark room, the cameramen moving about him invisibly outside the light.

“Let’s do it,” he announced, and the tape began to roll. In the control room no one moved.

7.

David Oppenheim, the TV producer, fortyish, handsome, usually studiously detached and professional, lay on the floor, hands behind his head, eyes closed. For three minutes and 27 seconds, Wilson played with delicate intensity, speaking moodily through the piano. Then he was finished. Oppenheim, whose last documentary had been a study of Stravinsky, lay motionless.

“That’s it,” Wilson said as the tape continued to whirl. The mood broke. As if awakening from heavy sleep the people stirred and shook their heads.

“I’d like to hear that,” Wilson said. As his music replayed, he sang the lyrics in a high, almost falsetto voice, the cameras on him every second.

“The diamond necklace played the pawn,” Wilson sang. “A blind class aristocracy, back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.

“Columnated ruins domino,” his voice reached upward; the piano faltered a set of falling chords.

In a slow series of impressionistic images the song moved to its ending:

I heard the word:
Wonderful thing!
A children’s song!

On the last word Brian’s voice rose and fell, like the ending of that prayer chorale he had played so many months before.

“That’s really special,” someone said.

“Special, that’s right,” said Wilson quietly. “Van Dyke and I really kind of thought we had done something special when we finished that one.” He went back into the studio, put on the earphones and sang the song again for his audience in the control room, for the revolving tape recorder and for the cameras that relentlessly followed as he struggled to make manifest what still only existed as a perfect, incommunicable sound in his head.

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Brian and Marilyn Wilson, 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

8.

At home, as the black acetate dub turned on his bedroom hi-fi set, Wilson tried to explain the words.

“It’s a man at a concert,” he said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life—‘Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.’”

“The music begins to take over. ‘Columnated ruins domino.’ Empires, ideas, lives, institutions—everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes.

“He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything. ‘The music hall a costly bow.’ Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is.

“‘Canvas the town and brush the backdrop.’ He’s off in his vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he’s creating it like a dream. ‘Dove-nested towers.’ Europe, a long time ago. ‘The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.’ The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing.

“Then there’s the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea. ‘While at port adieu or die.’ Ships in the harbor, battling it out. A kind of Roman empire thing.

“‘A choke of grief.’ At his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life, because he can’t even cry for the suffering in the world, for his own suffering.

“And then, hope. ‘Surf ’s up! . . . Come about hard and join the once and often spring you gave.’ Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood.

“‘I heard the word’—of God; ‘Wonderful thing’—the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? ‘A children’s song!’ And then there’s the song itself, the song of children, the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding the love from us, but always letting us find it again, like a mother singing to her children.”

The record was over. Wilson went into the kitchen and squirted Reddi-wip direct from the can into his mouth, made himself a chocolate Great Shake, and ate a couple of candy bars.

“Of course that’s a very intellectual explanation,” he said. “But maybe sometimes you have to do an intellectual thing. If they don’t get the words, they’ll get the music. You can get hung up in words, you know. Maybe they work; I don’t know.” He fidgeted with a telescope.

“This thing is so bad,” he complained. “So Mickey Mouse. It just won’t work smoothly. I was really freaked out on astronomy when I was a kid. Baseball, too. I guess I went through a lot of phases. A lot of changes, too. But you can really get into things through the stars. And swimming. A lot of swimming. It’s physical; really Zen, right? The whole spiritual thing is very physical. Swimming really does it sometimes.” He sprawled on the couch and continued in a very small voice.

“So that’s what I’m doing. Spiritual music.”

“Brian,” Marilyn called as she came into the room wearing a quilted bathrobe, “do you want me to get you anything, honey? I’m going to sleep.”

“No, Mar,” he answered, rising to kiss his wife good night. “You go on to bed. I want to work for a while.”

“C’mon kids,” Marilyn yelled to the dogs as she padded off to bed. “Time for bed. Louie! Banana! Come to bed. Good night, Brian. Good night, everybody.”

Wilson paced. He went to the piano and began to play. His guests moved toward the door. From the piano, his feet shuffling in the sand, he called a perfunctory goodbye and continued to play, a melody beginning to take shape. Outside, the piano spoke from the house. Brian Wilson’s guests stood for a moment, listening. As they got into their car, the melancholy piano moaned.

“Here’s one that’s really outasight from the fantabulous Beach Boys!” screamed a local early morning Top 40 deejay from the car radio on the way home, a little hysterical as usual, his voice drowning out the sobbing introduction to the song.

“We’re sending this one out for Bob and Carol in Pomona. They’ve been going steady now for six months. Happy six months, kids, and dig! ‘Good Vibrations’! The Beach Boys! Outasight!”