Epiphany at Zuma Beach Or Brian Wilson hallucinates me
By David Dalton


After Pet Sounds Brian Wilson became the mad genius of the Beach Boys, a prodigy who had miraculously emerged out of the surf and car culture of southern California. He was an American kind of prodigy, a tinkerer and visionary like Edison, someone who could spin magic out of thin, sweetened air. He was as self-effacing, childlike, and bemused as Huck Finn—and utterly devoid of the aggressive hipsterism of other late sixties idols. Brian actually had little interest in cars or surfing—these were Dennis's domain. When I once asked him about surfing he advised me to "Stay away from that stuff. It's dangerous."

It was July 1967 the Summer of Love on Zuma Beach, California, that I first met Brian Wilson during one of those loony episodes mystical bond as mistaken identity that could only have happened in that year. A group of select photographers had been invited to the beach for the afternoon to shoot the Beach Boys. I had managed to wangle myself an invitation from their press agent, the sublime and subversive Derek Taylor.

It was a singular occasion because this was the first time Brian Wilson had been photographed or seen since he had entered his mad genius phase which had began with the genesis of Pet Sounds. Brian had done much of the astounding production work on the album while the rest of the group was away on tour. You could call their previous LP, Summer Days, a conceptual album if you accepted Mike Love's definition that it was "a concept of different feelings you have in the summer." But Pet Sounds was a veritable gesamtkunstwerk. Roll over, Wagner, tell Stockhausen the news! When Pet Sounds came out in 1966, everyone was stunned. So subtle and hypnotic was it that it seemed to emanate from some intercortical place inside your brain.

Before Pet Sounds Brian had been simply a Boy Wonder with a flair for writing pop songs that accelerated like hot rods. By ingeniously fusing Chuck Berry's guitar onto Four Freshman harmonies he had created the Beach Boys' custom sound. He was brilliant, everybody conceded that, but before Pet Sounds no one outside of his brothers and intimates guessed that there was anything strange or out of the ordinary about Brian. And maybe there wasn't. Then along came fame and drugs. Now he was in upper realms of inspired eccentricity. One of those possessed geniuses who repair to mountain retreats and ivory towers to recreate the world out of their own fevered brains. In Brian's case his sonic laboratory was on Bellagio Drive in Bel Air where he planned to create his own "teenage symphonies to God."

What the Surf Said

We had come to Zuma Beach to capture a rare event, the young genius at play. As we approached, we could see Brian's head bobbing in the waves. A French photographer aptly compared it to the recently published photographs of Mao Zedong swimming in the Yellow River. So here was Brian—a very large Brian—swimming, paddling, walking on the sand. The Beach Boys all except Brian were assuming traditional Beach Boy poses. You know, like the ones on the album covers. Tan, blond boys all in a line carrying a surf board, in front of a woody station wagon, on a sailboat. Essentially a California Buick commercial. But Brian was not cooperating.

He was off by himself being a genius. Nothing on earth could persuade him to join the Beach Boy pyramid now being constructed down the beach—Al Jardine and Carl Wilson on the shoulders of Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. With that infinitely sweet vacant look of his, he ignored all imploring cries to join the contrived fun. There wasn't anything defiant or rebellious about this. Brian was just being Brian. There were Japanese photographers smothered in so many Nikons it looked like samurai armor. There were earnest Germans with sun umbrellas, New York sharp shooters, and French existentialists seizing the decisive moment. Except there weren't any decisive moments. Brian just wouldn't play with the others. If there'd been a Christmas tree he wouldn't have sat under it with the other children. Frustrating as it was, we understood. We were in the presence of genius. Brian was a genius and this is what geniuses do.

Would the Buddha have sat under the Bodhi tree for a photo opportunity? "Work with me, here, Govinda. A little more profile, gimme that inscrutable smile thing. Good. Hold it!" So we put up with it, shooting whatever we could. I felt Brian and I were kin in some indefinable way. I had listened to Pet Sounds under controlled substances and thought I had divined its kabbalistic core. I sensed that I alone could reach him. I approached him gingerly, as one would to address the Dalai Lama. And then something amazing happened. Instead of picking up a sea shell and turning away to examine it as he had done with the other photographers, Brian beamed at me. I felt, at that moment, blessed. Perhaps he did recognize some affinity with me. I had tuned into the Buddha/Brian wavelength. Brian looked like an American Buddha—benign, unruffled, inscrutable and I wanted to catch that quality. I asked him to sit on the shoreline with his back to the ocean so the waves would break around his head like a cloud-halo in a Tibetan tanka. This he did without a moment's hesitation. Brian understood symbolism. The world was fast becoming transparent, and surf for him had by now transubstantiated into a mystic essence. In "Surf’s Up" waves represented, he said, "the eternal now," a Heraclitan analog for the ceaseless lapping of a hallucinated present on an ever-receding consciousness.

Whatever pose I asked him to assume, he carried it out with great earnestness. With touching concern he would ask if he was doing a good job. "Is this what you want? Am I doin’ okay?" It was beyond my wildest dreams. It was beginning to seriously enrage the other paparazzi. How far could I go with this? To capture the cosmic and surreal quality of the moment I asked Brian if I could photograph him reflected in the hubcap of his Rolls Royce (on getting to the parking lot we decided that the chrome fender of a fifties Buick would make a cooler mirror). As if partaking in some bizarre ceremony he bowed down with great solemnity and put his face next to the shiny convex surface. Looking at Brian’s abruptly curved reflection (and my own spidery crouching shape) through the camera viewfinder it was as if we were in some haunted hyperspace.

What was this strange power I exerted over him? He behaved as if my requests were part of some magic test from a folk tale where the king has to recognize the humble stranger as a celestial messenger. At this point Brian suggested we go back to his place for some grass and peanut butter sandwiches. This seemed like a good idea to me. The throng of photographers on the beach was stunned. On the way back, Dennis driving like a maniac caught up with us. Through the window of their Rolls Royce, Carl and Bruce Johnston began throwing handfuls of jellybeans across the space between us. The red-yellow-blue-purple candies seemed to float in slow motion between the two cars (okay, we’d already had a few puffs of Honduran sinsemilla). In the intoxication of the moment I sensed another transcendental allegory basking on the banks of the Ganges. It was over the top, but at that instant it seemed to perfectly capture the mood. Absurdly, this scene— jellybeans hovering between two Rolls Royces—brought to mind Shiva throwing flower petals from his chariot and watching them turn into butterflies.

Oceanic State of Mind

The house at Bellagio Drive was a sprawling low-slung California mansion that reminded me of a small ocean liner. The state-of-the-art recording studio was at one end of the house and, like a sort of engine room-cum-bridge, it seemed to pull the rest of the house along in its wake. The year before in a moment of inspiration Brian had had the outside of the house painted bright purple to match his vibrational pitch at the time. His neighbors were horrified. They claimed it was adversely affecting property values and made him repaint it. Inside, shag carpeting, color TV with the sound off, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles spinning on the turntable. There was the white grand piano, but the legendary sandbox in which Brian wiggled his toes while he composed was gone. Apparently the cats had misunderstood its purpose. On a glass coffee table was a veritable pyramid of joints all rolled by the in-house joint roller. He'd been a flack in the publicity department of Capitol records and now he had this job: rolling doobies for the Beach Boys.

Their drug of choice was Redi Whip. You know, the kind that comes in spray cans. You turn the can upside down, press the button and inhale the fumes out of the nozzle. It gave you a crazy little buzz—the propellant was nitrous oxide. There were piles of garbage bags filled with empty Redi Whip cans. Periodically there was talk about donating the cans to some institution—the whipped cream was still in them. Then again, several hundred cans with the nitrous oxide sucked out of them might arouse suspicion.

In this "Doris Day of rock groups" (Bruce Johnston's phrase) Dennis was decidedly the hippest—he was a recognizable type, a kind of surfer delinquent. At first encounter he also seemed the most normal member of the group. This turned out to be a serious misreading. A couple of years later when I moved into the house in Beverly Glen where he and Barbara lived I discovered him to be a perfect maniac. It was Dennis after all who brought Charles Manson round. But that's another story. For the moment Dennis seemed affable and cool. I passed him a joint. He sniffed it the way a dog might do, holding the scent in his nostrils. Abruptly he pushed it away and very matter-of-factly said: "When I smoke grass with someone, I don't know whether to kiss them or run screaming out of the room." Looking into his now-swirling eyes I didn't know which one would have been scarier. There was something of a werewolf about Dennis. In the last couple of years before he died with his long white hair and haunted face he actually began to resemble the doomed Lawrence Talbot on a full moon.

Delirium As Mistaken Identity

Brian was (apparently) oblivious of everything swirling around him. He walked about his house with a child’s cassette player in the shape of a yellow plastic duck, swinging it by the handle like a toddler. On it he played only one song, the Ronette's "Be My Baby" (and only the first four notes of that). "Be My Baby" was one of Phil Spector's classic productions and Brian studied it like an adept memorizing the Koran. He had about twenty copies of it on tape. He'd play it in the studio, in the car, out at the pool. Brian worshipped Phil Spector, who by this time had become a paranoid recluse and was seen by mortals even less frequently than Brian. People reported sightings of Phil on Sunset Strip the way you'd spot an alien landing. Clearly Brian was following in Spector's footsteps. The difference was there was something dark and gothic about Phil. Brian, however strange, could never be described as sinister.

Over and over again Brian would play those four Masonic notes. Boom boom-boom pow! Boom boom-boom pow! Boom boom-boom pow! They followed him wherever he went like the leitmotif of a character in an opera. They possessed for Brian an almost mystical significance. He saw them as some sort of cosmic code. He felt that through this sonic key he had unlocked a universal mystery, as if all sounds participated in some mysterium tremendum, a sort of pre-verbal language that intimately links humans, animals and inanimate things.

"Know what's weird about this?" Brian asked in his ingenuous way, playing those four pantocratic notes for the twentieth time. "It's the same sound a carpenter makes when he's hammering in a nail, a bird sings when it gets on its branch, or a baby makes when she shakes her rattle. Didja ever notice that?" A little sheepishly, I admitted I hadn't. Given the mystical affinity between us, I felt I shouldn’t have missed this cosmic clue.

Brian is deep. He really is. A little like Andy Warhol, he affected a sort of feeble-minded precociousness that acted as a protection. Once, when Brian and Marilyn were away I stayed in his house. In the bedroom I found a box full of tapes. I assumed they were studio demos or reference tracks and threw one on the tape machine. It was the strangest thing. All the tapes were of Brian talking into a tape recorder. Hour after hour of stoned ramblings on the meaning of life, color vibrations, fate, death, vegetarianism and Phil Spector.

"C'mon upstairs," said Brian conspiratorially, "I want to show you something." In the master bedroom was a very expensive automatic baby swing that would rock back and forth at different speeds to different lullabies. It was the only thing in the house that didn't play "Be My Baby." It didn't need to, it was a present from Phil Spector. Brian pointed it out to me knowingly. Okay, I understood the mystic significance of those four notes, but what could I possibly read into a baby swing? What did it mean? That Phil had bestowed his mana on Brian's child? I could see Brian was waiting for me to acknowledge something. But what? Was I meant now to reveal who I really was? But who was I? I was speechless. The clues were everywhere, but I'd missed them. In almost a whisper he said: "Phil, what are you doing here?" All right, now I was seriously freaked. Phil? It's true I had a scraggly little beard and mustache at the time, but reader, I don't remotely resemble Phil Spector. Brian was clearly getting a wee bit paranoid himself. He thought Phil Spector had disguised himself as a rock photographer to find out what Brian was up to in the studio. So my entree into the sanctum sanctorum of the Beach Boys had not been based on some mystical bonding of souls but on a case of mistaken identity (or maybe not).

By this point Brian was seeing Phil Spectors all over the place —especially where he wasn’t. It was as if Phil’s absence had created an entity so pervasive and ubiquitous that he had become as menacing and spectral as his name. Brian came out of the John Frankenheimer movie Sounds in the scaly grip of twin demons. He imagined that the hallucinated (and unlikely) pairing of Phil Spector and John Frankenheimer had plotted to "mess with my head." In his terror the wildly oscillating Brian had cast himself as a psychotic phantom running down the sun-drenched sidewalks of Sunset Strip from his own pursuing shadow.

A year and a half later, after Altamont, I came back for another visit. After the gotterdammerung of the late sixties the idea of escaping back into Brian’s magic kingdom was very appealing. So I came back to L.A. and spent several months hanging out with the Beach Boys while they cut their album Sunflower. The times had changed, the cosmic finger had writ and having writ moved on. Brian and I now bonded over new varieties of peanut butter. I spent a lot of time with him that winter, but nothing afterwards ever approached my goofy epiphany at Zuma Beach.