I was 13 when I went to my first rock concert, a 1966 show by the Beach Boys at the long-gone Bayfront Arena in St. Petersburg. After the last song, one of my friends dashed up on the empty stage and nabbed the paper cup left behind by dreamboat drummer Dennis Wilson. We cut it up and shared the relic, swooning at the notion that his lips had touched it.
That puts me squarely in the target demographic for William McKeen's new book, Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles. I know the joke: If you remember the '60s, you weren't really there. But this cultural history of the L.A. music scene in that decade will fire up your I-love-that-song synapses, and much more.
The '60s were a golden age for popular music as three great fountains of sound set the whole world dancing: the British Invasion, Motown and California. McKeen's book focuses on California, specifically L.A. He has written extensively about music, including books about the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and his deep knowledge informs this lively, engaging book. McKeen, formerly head of the journalism department at the University of Florida, now chairs the journalism department at Boston University.
The title of Everybody Had an Ocean — a line borrowed from the Beach Boys' sunny 1963 anthem Surfin' USA — points to the biography of the group that the book is built around. The subtitle cues us to a darker theme: the association of the Beach Boys and many other L.A. music industry folks with murderous cult leader and frustrated singer-songwriter Charles Manson.
When the Beach Boys began charting hits in the early '60s, they weren't the only group making surf music. But, McKeen notes, they stood out for a reason other than the genetically golden harmonies of Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl:
"Most rock 'n' roll artists, up to that point, had been subject to the whims of Svengali-like record producers or music business executives serving as masterminds behind the scenes, telling the young artists what to record, how to record it, and what musicians to use on the recording.
"The Beach Boys were among the first to have its Svengali as a member of the band. Dennis once said of his older brother, 'Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys.' "
Brian's musical genius and single-minded obsession with expressing it made the Beach Boys one of the dominant bands in American music of the era — and it also led to blood-sport infighting by the group and Brian's descent into mental illness. McKeen details it all, arcing from the Wilson brothers' brutal childhood and their early lesson that singing could save them from their father's beatings, to stardom and its temptations, and then to assorted disasters.
McKeen doesn't stop with the Beach Boys, though. The book is a flow chart of connections within the L.A. music scene across a decade. Much of it fans will be familiar with: the blossoming and battles of such bands as the Byrds, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield and the Mamas and the Papas, all indelibly identified with Los Angeles. McKeen recounts how Brian idolized legendary producer Phil Spector, and how Spector both mentored and mistreated him.
There are surprises, too. The great soul singer Sam Cooke recorded some of his early hits, including You Send Me, at L.A.'s Keen Records. Dylan's former backup group the Band, after conceiving their epic Music From Big Pink in upstate New York, migrated from that rustic setting to make the iconic roots-rock album The Band in the pool house of a Los Angeles home they rented from Sammy Davis Jr.
The book also gives plenty of props to a group of musicians few people know by name, but who had as much influence on '60s music as anyone: the Wrecking Crew. These studio musicians, a shifting group of about two dozen consummate pros, played countless sessions on records by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. They brought to life Spector's great conception, the Wall of Sound, on records like Be My Baby and You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', and they became Brian's go-to players for Beach Boys songs like California Girls and Good Vibrations, increasingly recorded in his home studio while the other band members were touring, awaiting only vocal tracks (and sometimes he did those himself).
The L.A. scene always had a dark side, notably mind-boggling levels of substance abuse and sexual intrigue. But when Charles Manson got out of prison (not for the first time) in 1967 and discovered the blooming hippie subculture, he was a predator surrounded by prey.
The book's first chapter describes how Dennis Wilson, a renowned horndog, picked up a couple of hitchhiking young women one day and, after a night of sex at his Sunset Boulevard estate, invited them to make themselves at home. When he returned from a recording session, he found his house full of naked people, and at the door, a "little man was acting as if he was lord of the manor."
Dennis instinctively recoiled from the "craziness jellied in the man's eyes," but then Manson knelt down and kissed Dennis' tennis shoes. Flowing through the fun, fun, fun of Everybody Had an Ocean is the undertow that leads to the murders of nine people in 1969, murders born of Manson's delusional, violent rage at being denied the kind of success the Beach Boys and others had achieved.
McKeen's coda is a chapter on where the main players are now. Some still make music — all the members of fractious Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, for example, and original Beach Boy Mike Love — while others don't: Joni Mitchell, felled by a brain aneurysm, and Spector, serving time for murder. A long list are dead, including Carl and Dennis Wilson. But Brian, restored to a certain equilibrium, still performs and garners honors. And Manson and many of his "girls" live on behind bars.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles
By William McKeen
Chicago Review Press, 422 pages, $26.99
Times Festival of Reading
William McKeen will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.