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
Finnand utterly devoid of the aggressive hipsterism
of other late sixties idols. Brian actually had little
interest in cars or surfingthese 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."
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 Briana very large
Brianswimming, 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
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 beachAl
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
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 Buddhabenign,
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
"Surfs 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 Brians
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, wed 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 Roycesbrought to mind Shiva throwing flower
petals from his chariot and watching them turn into butterflies.
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
buzzthe 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 institutionthe 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 hippesthe 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.
As Mistaken Identity
Brian was (apparently)
oblivious of everything swirling around him. He walked
about his house with a childs 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 shouldnt 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
"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 wasnt. It was as if Phils 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 Brians 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.