Just as we were enduring week after blazing week of drought and conflagration and hell-worthy heat in our part of the world, along came that venerable American band The Beach Boys to remind us that an endless summer can also be a wonderful thing. Their disc That’s Why God Made the Radio debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard magazine album charts in June, a distinction that doesn’t mean as much as it would’ve 10 years ago but remains impressive—especially for a group that launched the CD as part of its 50th anniversary celebration.
The term “anniversary,” however, is slightly misleading. The Beach Boys did indeed score their first Top 20 record, “Surfin’ Safari,” in 1962. But the band had peeled apart not long after the 1998 death of founding member Carl Wilson, its remaining originators bobbing in a sea of recrimination and legal maneuvering.
After Carl Wilson died, “we disintegrated,” original Beach Boy Al Jardine told me in 2001, when I interviewed him for the Tulsa World. “We just fell apart, because we had these divergent points of view, and I got really fed up with just singing the hits.”
Mike Love, however, apparently enjoyed singing the hits. A cousin of the Wilsons who was on board from the beginning, Love—depending upon your point of view—was either a ruthless capitalist bent on leaching every cent he could out of The Beach Boys’ reputation, or a man who saw his life’s work as bringing joy to fans by giving them what they wanted to hear. He and the charismatic Bruce Johnston—an early replacement for Brian Wilson, the troubled genius who stopped touring full-time with the band members around Christmas of 1964—carried on under The Beach Boys name, hiring other musicians to replace the originals. Brian, who became, improbably, the last Wilson brother standing (Dennis, the group’s drummer, had drowned in 1983), went out on the road with his own backing group and continued to write and record. And Jardine, the only original member not related to the Wilsons, ginned up Family and Friends, a group specializing in lesser-performed Beach Boys tunes. Family and Friends swelled to 11 members and included, at one time, Brian’s daughters Wendy and Carnie Wilson (of the pop trio Wilson Phillips) as well as Jardine’s own sons.
To celebrate their five decades as the leading musical purveyors of California dreams, however, the scattered Boys temporarily reunited this year, adding guitarist David Marks, a one-time neighbor of the Wilsons who spent much of 1962 and ’63 filling in for Jardine before the latter returned permanently to the fold. The 50th Anniversary disc they created together, That’s Why God Made the Radio, is in many ways a classic Beach Boys record, balanced between optimism and resignation, joy and loss, longing and escape. As the songs play, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the quintet standing there in the sand, older guys now, three-quarters of their lives behind them, watching the sun go down over the rippling Pacific—and still exhorting us to not only remember what it was like when we, and they, were young, but to get out there and do it again, dammit, until we can’t do it any more. Do not go gently, they’re telling us, into that good surf, that bitchin’ sunset over the sea.
As has been the case for a half-century, that message isn’t just aimed at their fellow Californians. It also resonates with those of us who were once landlocked Okie kids, surfing only on the waves of golden daydreams inside our heads—to a Beach Boys soundtrack, of course.
You’ve been thinking ‘bout some things we used to do
Thinking ‘bout when life was still in front of you
Back where you belong, our favorite song
Won’t you listen
— from “From There to Back Again” by Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas
I’d like to think that I was the first kid who ran the halls of Chelsea High School sporting a medallion depicting St. Christopher, the patron saint of surfers, on a chain around my neck. But I’m pretty sure that honor goes instead to my pal Don Elgin, a more cosmopolitan and traveled guy than I. The year would’ve been 1962, when I was 13 and Don 14, both of us entranced by the images conjured up by “Surfin’ Safari” and its ode-to-cars flip side, “409.” Those two songs, committed to vinyl in a studio some 1,600 miles away from our map-dot Oklahoma town, reflected the themes that would occupy The Beach Boys throughout their early hitmaking years: surfing and hot rods.
Given our environment, it’s probably natural that Don and I responded to the California group’s first two hits by creating agrarian parodies. His dad was the agriculture teacher at Chelsea High, and Don, even though he was a town kid, had an intimate knowledge of the ag curriculum and farm work in general. One of the things Mr. Elgin’s students, invariably male, had to do during the course of the school year was learn how to castrate, or cut, hogs. Since there was always a rancher in the area who needed this job done and was happy to have someone, even a kid, do it for free, the students all got hands-on training, whether they wanted it or not. They’d drive or be driven to the a farm in one of the school’s pickups—we called them ag rods—dive into their task under Mr. Elgin’s laconic supervision, and get back in time for their next classes—a bit blood-spattered or pale, perhaps, but intact, unlike the hogs they’d just visited.
Out of that ritualistic experience came one of our parodies, “Cuttin’ Safari,”
“Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out / We’re gonna take Ag Rod Three,” went the first verse. “We’ll be workin’ all day and workin’ all night / Them boars are tough, you see.”
And the chorus: “Come on Johnny, do it right / Or else he’s gonna bleed all night / Come on, put that ring on tight / Or else he’s gonna fight, fight, fight.”
The alternate lyrics we crafted for “409” were far less unseemly, beginning with “she’s real fine, my big red sow” and ending with “my four-legged, dual- eared, curly-tailed big red sow.”
I guess those ham-handed—so to speak—lyrics were, at least in part, our way of relating to something foreign and mysterious and lovely we’d heard in that music from a faraway shore, outside our experiences but inside our heads.
And after school let out that year, with “Surfin’ Safari” riding high on the airwaves, I headed for California, the place of its birth.
* * *
Feel the music in the air
Find a song to take us there
It’s paradise when I
Lift up my antennae
Receiving your signal like a prayer
Like a prayer
— from “That’s Why God Made the Radio” by Brian Wilson, Jim Peterik, Larry Millasand Joe Thomas
The Lord has long figured into Beach Boys songs; 1966’s “God Only Knows” is one of the first, if not the first, rock’n’ roll hit to carry the name of the deity in its title. Nine years later, in 1975, Bruce Johnston elucidated The Beach Boys’ God in his composition “I Write the Songs.” The hit version, of course, was recorded by Barry Manilow, but Johnston has often performed the number at Beach Boys shows, making it clear what the song is all about. Introducing it during an early ‘80s show at the Oral Roberts University Mabee Center, for instance, he said, “I understand there are some of you out there who believe in God.”
For The Beach Boys, God is the font of creative energy, of music, of wonder and awe. And that goes a long way toward explaining why Brian Wilson and his collaborators didn’t call the new song “That’s Why God Made the iPod.” While it’s possible to be mildly surprised when a random tune pops up on your MP3 player, you’re not going to be all that awe stricken, since you’re the one who programmed it in the first place. However, in the days before corporations gobbled up stations and hired consultants that made playlists from Pomona to Poughkeepsie as predictable as a McDonald’s menu, the radio could bring the thrill of discovery, a joyful sense of wonder. I was born into the first transistor-radio generation, one of the millions of baby-boomer kids who spent time with that little earpiece jammed into the canal of my left ear as I slowly and carefully thumbed the tuner, eagerly hoping to pull in something I’d never heard before.
It happened more often than you might think. Back in the ‘50s, for instance, the men who would become Tulsa’s premiere generation of rock ‘n’ rollers all seemed to stumble together upon a trailblazing African-American deejay named Frank Berry, whose local program gave them their first exposure to the gut-punch of rhythm and blues records. There were also the flame throwing stations lying just across the Mexican border, whose powerful transmitters were out of the reach of FCC regulations and therefore able to blow everything from Wolfman Jack’s eclectic show to an evangelist selling autographed pictures of Jesus Christ into our ears.
And as my mother and brother and I took the three-day car trip from Chelsea to L.A., in ’62, the local Top 40 stations and songs that wove in and out of our lives as we rolled along kept subtly shifting, changing like a slowly turned kaleidoscope. And then, suddenly, we were rolling into paradise.
Or so it seemed to my 13-year-old self. Magic was in the California air, mingled with the smell of salt water and set to a Beach Boys melody. We stayed with my aunt and uncle in the Los Angeles suburb of Sepulveda, in the San Fernando Valley, and everybody around seemed to be in the business of making dreams. My cousin was a child actor who’d just guested as a bully in what would turn out to be a memorable episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the kid next door was doing a Bactine commercial, and his folks radiated show-biz—one was a film editor at Universal, the other the daughter of Valentine Davies, writer of Miracle on 34th Street. We went to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, I saw Bob Hope at a book signing. I visited Marineland of the Pacific and the beach. I bought baseball cards out of vending machines. Our uncle took us to Chavez Ravine in his souped-up Jeep to see the Dodgers play. (I think we saw Don Drysdale pitch; my brother maintains it was Koufax.) I got to meet my first movie love, a beautiful little girl my own age named Susan Gordon. Everywhere, fun and excitement and exotic adventure exploded around us. For a short and golden time, I was living in a Beach Boys song.
Inspired, I decided I would create a series of books about a pair of teenaged crime fighters in California called the Catalinas. The first adventure had to do with a boy from Atlantis who could bore through the earth. That’s about as far as I got, but the impulse was pure—an attempt to grab at all the wonder that swirled around me and get some of it down on paper. I suppose it’s the same yearning that causes collectors to catch butterflies and pin them to a board.
My brother still maintains that 1962 was not only the best year in our lives, but also the best year America will see during our lifetimes. And one of the greatest things ‘62 gave us was The Beach Boys, whose music created a longing in kids across the country to surf and drag and love in a place where the sun never sat and the girls stood tantalizingly on a far shore, smiling right at you with guileless, tanned faces and luminous eyes.
* * *
After it’s all been said
The music spinning in our head
Can’t forget the feeling of
The magic of that summer in love
Oh, I wanna take you there
Do you wanna turn back the pages
Memories and photographs
The world has changed
And yet the game is still the same
— from “Isn’t It Time” by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Jim Peterik, Larry Millas and Joe Thomas
Earlier in the day, my older son, Jonathan, had fallen off the top of his car and roughed up the back of his hand in a horseplay-related incident at Chel- sea High, where he was a third-generation student. It was another, much later summer, and he was going with me to see The Beach Boys at Drillers Stadium that evening.
The date was August 9, 2000, only a couple of years after Carl Wilson’s death and the subsequent departure of Al Jardine. Several days earlier, I’d done a phone interview with Bruce Johnston, a man who always appeared to be in unflaggingly good spirits. I made a point of asking him about the other six musicians that he and Love had taken on as Beach Boys, and he not only seemed eager to talk about them, but also grateful I had asked. “These are all guys we’ve known for a long time,” he emphasized, noting that some had been appearing with the band in supporting roles since the ‘60s and ‘70s. When the interview was complete, he asked me to come backstage before the show and say hello.
A couple of hours before showtime, The Beach Boys were set up in one of the big rooms in the depths of the stadium, hidden from the arriving crowd. Love and Johnston stood just inside the door, chatting with backstage visitors; the rest of the band sat unobtrusively on a sofa and chairs some distance away.
I’d met both Johnston and Love before, and Jonathan and I were greeted warmly as I handed them a copy of my story. Johnston told Jonathan a joke:
Q: Why did the Siamese twins move to England?
A: So the other one could drive.
He also took us back to meet the other guys in the band. I’d made sure to mention each of them in the article, and they appeared to be genuinely appreciative, as did Johnston. When the line of sponsors came by for the meet ‘n’ greet, he stuck his arm out and stopped Jonathan and me from leaving. We stayed, watching Love and Johnston greet the VIPs with a smoothness honed over decades, and later, we visited with them until it was time to leave.
Here is as good a place as any to note that to some hardcore Beach Boys fans, Mike Love is the devil incarnate—or at least he was then. Every great act has people who feel passionately about it, but I’ve long wondered, given the sunny nature of much of The Beach Boys’ oeuvre, why some of their followers are among the pissiest and most unforgiving of any I’ve encountered. After Carl Wilson’s death, much of their ire was focused on Love, the most commercially minded of the group, largely because of the well-publicized enmity between Love and Brian Wilson, who was considered a tortured saint, a pedestaled genius clawed at by rabble. I still remember an email I got, excoriating me for “participating in Mike Love’s charade” by writing the World story.
Maybe my correspondent had a point. But sitting there in the outdoor stands on a windless August night in Tulsa, with “I Can Hear Music”—perhaps my favorite Beach Boys hit—sailing through our heads into the stars, it was difficult to see and hear this concert as anything but a full-throttle celebration. The voice of guitarist Adrian Baker, soaring into the ether with lyrics originally sung by the late Carl Wilson, captured the tune and brought it back, making it sound fresh and beautiful and boyish all over again.
As we were driving home, Jonathan told me, in a proud and confidential way, “Mike Love looked at my hand and told me to put Vitamin E on it. Can we get some on the way back?”
* * *
I’m not gonna stress, not gonna worry
Doing our best, no need to hurry
Lookin’ ahead with anticipation
Making each day a new celebration
Seems like it could go on forever
Long as we can all stay together
— from “Spring Vacation” by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Joe Thomas
There was a time, of course, when many Oklahomans were not invited to share in California’s dream. One of the few negative things I remember about our 1962 family trip West was getting stopped on the freeway by an officer who, noting our Oklahoma license tag, stuck his head in the driver’s side window and asked my mother, “Did you come out here to work?”
She was steamed about that query for days— probably because she had come to California to work in the early ‘40s. Her treatment hadn’t exactly been Joadesque, but, after two decades, she still had a chip on her shoulder the size of a manhole cover when it came to Californians and Okies.
As a movie buff and John Steinbeck aficionado who once decided not to relocate to the West Coast (as was being planned for me), after a viewing of The Grapes of Wrath, I somehow separated the magic realm of The Beach Boys from the pool-room fellahs and their corporate overlords who dealt the Joad family so much grief. But with the release of That’s Why God Made the Radio, I’ve come around to thinking that the music of The Beach Boys and the protagonists of the great novel and equally great movie have a lot in common. For both, optimism and fatalism take turns pinning the other to the mat. On the new disc, for instance, a buoyant song like “Spring Vacation” is counterbalanced by the astringently sad “Summer’s Gone.” It’s the way The Beach Boys have long approached their art. People love and remember upbeat celebratory numbers like “I Get Around” and “Do It Again,” but there are also the achingly melancholic offerings like “Girl Don’t Tell Me” and “Caroline, No,” the latter perhaps the most heartbreaking rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded.
Also, as suggested by the “Spring Vacation” lyrics, “staying together” is of primary importance for The Beach Boys as well as the Joads – although neither, ultimately, can hold onto their families as life rolls on. The Joads disintegrate on the way to the Promised Land; The Beach Boys separate after Carl Wilson’s death.
But for both groups, the dissolution of the family, whether literal or metaphorical, forces them into a greater reality—a universality of humankind, a sharing of the spirit, and, ultimately, a commitment to making sure that spirit continues to survive.
Maybe that’s what That’s Why God Made the Radio is all about. Maybe, taking a cue from Tom Joad, they’re saying, “Keep looking for us, you old baby-boomers. Look for us in the surf, whenever kids are laughing at the sand that squeezes between their toes, while old surfers paddle out to catch what might be their last wave. Look for us in your hometown, in the faces of old friends, in the smiles of your children and grandchildren, in the shining gift of each new day. Remember us, and remember yourselves, and feel again a time when summers shimmered before your eyes, full of joy and wonder, no matter where you came from or where you went. Hold on, and keep going, and do it again for as long as you can. We’ll be with you all the way.”
It’s a sermon, I guess. And a sermon deserves a benediction.
May the God who writes the songs, who made the radio, who only knows, continue to make his face shine like the California sun on The Beach Boys, and may they continue to reflect that warmth to us every one, clear to Oklahoma and beyond, washing over us like a new song from a distant shore.
After all, that’s why God made the radio. Amen.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 19. Sept. 15, 2012.