- Historic Sites
Brian Wilson’s Wave
For the brilliant songwriter behind the Beach Boys, the endless summer gave way to a very hard winter. Now he is back, with a work that wants to be no less than a musical history of the American dream.
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
George Wilson’s son, William Henry, migrated to Hutchinson, Kansas, where he gave up farming in order to open a plumbing-supply company. Then, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, he headed off for what Stephen Foster, whose melancholic life and timeless body of work bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Brian Wilson, had called “the land of glittering dreams/Where the yellow dust and diamonds, boys/Are found in all thy streams.” In 1904 William Wilson bought 10 acres of vineyard in Escondido, a rural village southeast of Los Angeles. This particular dream lasted a little over a year. The work was harder than he expected, and he missed his friends back home. But his son, William Coral (“Buddy”) Wilson moved back to the Golden State in the early 1920s. However, he was forced to scratch out a living as an oil-field steamfitter. This disappointment, coupled with the pressure of supporting a wife and eight children on blue-collar earnings, would come to darken Buddy’s eyes and harden his heart. And the pain would ripple out to his children.
Buddy’s second-oldest son, Murry, born in 1917, inherited his father’s ambition, along with a family passion for music. He dreamed of becoming a professional songwriter, but as a high school graduate in the depths of the Depression, he was realist enough to pursue a career in local industry. He hustled his way into lower management at the Southern California Gas Company. Later he got a job with Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Married in 1938 to Audree Korthof, a sweet-natured baker’s daughter, he settled in Hawthorne, a modest suburb on the southwest fringe of Los Angeles, a few years later.
Murry and Audree’s first child, Brian, came in June 1942. He was sensitive, tall, athletic, and friendly, with a preternatural ear for melody and harmony. His father said that 11 months into his life he could hum a note-perfect “Marine Corps Hymn.” At five, he was spending hours listening to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue . His brother Dennis, born in 1944, had blond hair, freckles, and a restless, prankish energy; his neighbors called him Dennis the Menace. Carl, the youngest, came at the end of 1946. Soft-eyed and pudgy, he had a feathery voice and a sweet, accommodating personality to match.
Along with his father’s ambition, Murry Wilson had inherited Buddy’s self-pitying rage. After losing an eye in an industrial accident at Goodyear, he turned his discontent on his sons, taunting them mercilessly, demanding impossible levels of perfection in school, on the baseball diamond, in keeping the house tidy, and he was quick to assert his authority with his fists. When physical violence seemed to lose its efficacy, he would pluck out his artificial eye and force the children to stare into the empty socket.
Even as adults, Brian, Dennis, and Carl had trouble assessing the emotional effect their father had had on them. “In some ways I was very afraid of my dad,” Brian told me in 1998. “In other ways I loved him, because he knew where it was at. He scared me so much I actually got scared into making good records.” But Murry may have had a more brutally damaging effect on his son’s ability to make music, for the architect of so much intricately crafted songs is deaf in one ear, and Brian links his lifelong disability to a blow delivered by his father just before his third birthday.
The loss did nothing to diminish the boy’s appetite for music. Singing and playing became the teenage Brian’s most potent form of expression and most reliable avenue of escape. He spent hours alone in his bedroom, electrified by the rhythms of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, or riding the harmonies of the Four Freshmen. He could toss off graceful melodies and then arrange multipart vocal arrangements. Later he’d get Audree and Carl to sing with him while he perfected the blend.
Dennis would sing too, if you could ever manage to make him sit still long enough. More often the Wilsons’ middle son preferred going to the beach, drawn to the surfers who were beginning to take over L.A.’s shoreline. In the summer of 1961, when he heard Brian musing about writing some rock ’n’ roll and putting together a band to play at dances, Dennis offered a suggestion: “Why don’t you write a song about surfing?”
As Brian mused about starting a band, Dennis asked, “Why don’t you write a song about surfing?”
That was the beginning. Brian’s first thought was to call his cousin Mike Love. A year older than Brian, Mike was a tall, sharp-tongued jock whose indifference to school had left him, after graduating in 1959, with no real prospects for college or a career. He’d been thrown out of his parents’ home after they learned that he’d gotten a girl pregnant. Convinced that the fastest, easiest road to economic security led through the entertainment mills of Hollywood, he was only too glad to merge his own pop ambitions with those of his talented cousin. Working together one summer afternoon, the boys composed a shuffling R & B—style song they called, simply, “Surfin’.” It pivoted on a chanted chorus that echoed the thoughts of every teenage surfer in Southern California: “Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me/Now surf! Surf with me!”