THE LIFE OF BRIAN: Hello Surfing, Goodbye God



EDITOR’S NOTE: It was 50 years ago yesterday that The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. To mark this auspicious occasion we are posting this teaser of the greatest story ever written about Brian Wilson during that period. Enjoy.

CHEETAH MAGAZINE, 1967: 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 disk 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 disk 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,” Brian Eating Recordwhich had sold more than a million copies, and a super-hit 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. Brian Eating RecordWe’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.

Brian Eating Record

“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.”

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. MORE

JULES SIEGEL: Although Turrentine correctly reports that the Saturday Evening Post killed my story, it was later published Brian Eating Recordin Cheetah magazine, October, 1967, as “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!–the Religious Conversion of the Beach Boys.” It’s been anthologized in at least four books, most recently in Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles.

Without any false humility, I can say that I was one of the people who invented rock journalism. Journalists such as Al Aronowitz, Richard Goldstein and I were among the first to write about rock in mainstream media without being condescending or demeaning. Nonetheless, I never thought of “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” as rock journalism. It was a pretty far-out piece even for regular journalism at the time. I don’t think many celebrity pieces before or since have ever gotten that close to a subject and been written about it.

Brian was quite upset about it. I heard that the Beach Boys were still complaining about it a few years later in Tom Nolan’s Rolling Stone interview. Maybe now he’s got some more distance on it and can see that “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” was a principal force in creating the myth of Smile. I know that others did write about it at the time, but some of them talked to me first. Other than David Oppenheimer, I was the only one in the major media who took Brian seriously, and even David talked with me at great length while he was making his documentary.

In reading over my story 37 years later, I see some rather awkward moments. At the time, Saturday Evening Post writers did not usually mention themselves in stories. I wanted to do this story exactly as I would have written a short story or a segment of a novel. In order to get around my adherence to the convention of impersonality, I had to describe myself as a “Saturday Evening Post writer” and a “friend.” Both were true, but these days I would just use “I” or “me.” Some of the writing is a little too self-consciously jazzy, but I was young then.

Despite these minor flaws, I’m still very happy with the story, and I am even happier that Brian has finally achieved his dream. He was a giant then and he is a giant now. All of us who struggle against the mainstream currents can take heart in this outcome. For once, a good guy wins. God bless Brian Wilson! God bless all artists who try and fail, and try again and fail again, ad infinitum, but never give up. MORE