“Brian Wilson did not sing of who he was – he sang about who he wished he might someday become…he believed he had no choice but to trust in the power of improvisation. The impossible hope that runs through this story like a river, bending, swerving, and nearly reversing itself over the course of five generations, is that California could eventually expand to become more than a mere destination, that the land of sun would finally fulfill its unreal promise as Improvisation Rewarded – the short cuts of heart songs alchemized into the intricate accomplishment of a sonata.”
“The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience” by Timothy White (1994)
I can chart my love for the Beach Boys back to the summer of 1985 when I was twelve. I say that not to brag because I know that, as soon as you reveal the year you started loving the band, someone is sure to say that they’ve loved them for 80 years or since before they were born. I mention this to support the fact that information on the band was more difficult to come by when I discovered them in the 1980’s. Information in general, actually, was harder to come by in the Eighties. One of my first memories of the band is of seeing them on Solid Gold and calling my local oldies station to ask which of the band had recently died.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s. Still loving the Boys, my only real resource for the group’s story was the Steven Gaines book from 1986, Heroes and Villains, a book reported to be sensational, if entertaining. Then came Brian Wilson’s “autobiography”, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, in 1991, a book so…wrong that it can barely be called a resource. Then, in 1996, I bought Brian’s album collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, Orange Crate Art. As part of the layout for this CD was a photo I thought incongruous. It was on the part of the jacket that sits behind the CD; you have to take the compact disc case apart to read the caption. “The Wilson grape ranch in the Hog’s Back foothills, Escondido, California, 1904. Courtesy Timothy White from the book The Nearest Faraway Place“. I was dumbfounded. What is this book, I asked, and why on earth does it contain a picture of some field taken at the turn of the last century, decades before Daddy took the T-Bird away? Needless to say, I went on the hunt, hoping to have the chasm in my knowledge of the Beach Boys filled. I ordered the book and drove with my wife to a neighbouring town to pick it up. After reading it, I exhaled and gently put it down, knowing immediately I had never read anything like it.
Timothy White was a senior editor at Rolling Stone before moving to Billboard where he was editor-in-chief until 2002 when he died of a heart attack at the painfully young age of 50. What his intention was with The Nearest Faraway Place was to discourse on the complete spectrum of the American Dream as it related to westward migration in the early days of the 20th century. He successfully attempts to analyze the Golden State as the land of promise and to see it through the lens of the Wilson clan. The scope of the research he did for this book is nothing short of staggering. It may only take up the first 60-odd pages but White begins his book with a detailed family history of the Wilsons, their beginnings in Kansas and the discontent and family troubles that lead to a move to California.
“The further one was from the fabled locale, the greater its charms in the imaginations of the freshly smitten.”– White pinpoints a basic tenet; no one is more enamoured with California than those who live far away from it. I can attest.
While the California of the time may be a “backwater extraordinaire”, the governing bodies began to employ boosterism and Southern California’s weather – “an eerie wonderment of balanced grace” – and its verdant fields were heavily promoted. The author uses the grandparents of the Wilson boys – Buddy, Edith and their children – as examples of pioneer-types moving across country to a land of opportunity. Significantly for those who know something of the Wilson family story, Buddy is painted as extremely remote and as having no “genuine intimacy with another human being”. Buddy and Edith’s children, then, White relates, are doomed to inherit this “legacy of pain”. It is reported that Buddy savagely beat his kids and therefore the die is cast for his son, Murry Wilson. Murry is described as the family’s “desperate hope” as he is not only industrious but creative. He meets and marries Audree Korthof and they have three children who will be the instruments of Murry’s ambition; they are his “captive resource”.
A similar legacy is described for Mike Love. Love and his siblings are said to lack “the typically tranquilized gaze of the contented Californian” but instead had eyes that were “disconcertingly cold”. Additionally – and quite tellingly – the Love father, Milton, is said to have inspired guile in his children. Guile is defined as “sly, cunning intelligence”.
The wonderful thing about this book on the Beach Boys, though, is that it doesn’t concern itself only with the band’s story, as I’ve already made clear. Along the way, Timothy White touches on the many, many things that emerged during this era that helped make Southern California a singularly enchanting locality. Some of the things he mentions that may be peripheral to the Boys’ story but that still are a part of their milieu include; the bungalow, hot rods, Disneyland, LA radio station KFWB, go-carts, stereo/hi-fi, the hula hoop, Barbie, Phil Spector, garages, Jan & Dean and Liberty Records, Dick Dale and surf music and Leo Fender. The author takes appropriate time to describe the nascent surfing scene on the west coast and details players like Greg Noll, Bruce Brown and John Severson and the rise of his Surfer Magazine. Additionally White shares the origin stories of Capitol Records and their studios, Gidget, Rat Fink, skateboarding, lysergic acid and even compact discs. White aptly describes all these players – from Buddy Wilson to Herb Alpert – as “a great latticework”.
“The unadorned evidence was that the Beach Boys were the prime vocal unit of their generation and among the most resourceful in the chronicles of American songcraft.”– In referencing the treasure trove of music that saw the light of day on the Beach Boys’ 1992 box set, White sums up the group’s legacy in appropriate terms.
So, White uses the Wilson family and the Beach Boys as his core story but also relates many things tangential which is a means to fully describe the miasma of Southern California at this time, how all these things jelled. Even things seemingly on the edge of relevance like jazz; cool jazz, the Pacific Jazz record label and the jazz club scene in LA.
I was particularly struck by White’s description of the early days of pop record making on the west coast. White suggests that the whole Los Angeles music scene was spearheaded by the success of Hollywood High’s Ricky Nelson. It was Phil Spector and his colleagues, though, that showed young Brian and Mike that hits need not come from the Brill Building in New York or other music factories. They could – like with Jan & Dean – be made in garages with just family on hand. Interesting too when Brian’s “raw material” – what he was experiencing in his own life – is described as “youth, puppy love, mobility, pop music, franchised ambition and entrepreneurial guile”. This sounded to me like the very essence of the California Dream.
The Beach Boys’ ascent is described ably by White and – considering the ground work he’s laid – incidents that occur during the group’s heyday will cause us to recall what we’ve read in earlier pages. For instance, as Murry Wilson’s behaviour as he ages is described, the reader realizes he simply became his father, Buddy. White is to be commended though for also highlighting Murry’s good deeds where his kids and, later, their group are concerned. He quotes many players in the Beach Boys’ orbit that confirm how hard Murry worked for the band. But it’s a sad tale. Late in 1964, Brian has his oft-described breakdown on the airplane and has his mother pick him up at the airport and take him to his childhood home. While Brian and Audree sit quietly, White laments that “Murry’s inability to see the Boys’ success through their excited eyes sabotaged many of the professional glories he had once assured the Boys they would find so gratifying when they achieved popular recognition”. Audree, for her part, has no answers for Brian’s brokenhearted queries regarding the state of his world. She, too, has memories and “shattered expectations”. At times in the book like this, the reader can’t help but recall all that the author has taught about the Wilson family’s “legacy of pain”.
“They had sold their lifestyle and its surfing metaphors to America the same way Southern California and its golden pioneer allegories had been bartered to their forebears…”– In the 1960’s, The Beach Boys promoted and sold a certain lifestyle the same way Southern California had been advertised at the start of the century.
Timothy White’s years as a rock critic are on display in his descriptions of the music scene of the 1960’s. He charts the relationship between the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Byrds that started with Rubber Soul. In fact, White’s description of the music of the second half of the Sixties serves as a road map directing the reader through a pivotal time. He still takes time to describe societal changes occurring concurrently that were curtailing the fun, fun, fun, including the rise of the war in Vietnam and an increase in road fatalities that hurt the car culture and resulted in Ralph Nader’s push for seat belt laws. White describes the relationships within the band, the relative commercial failure of Pet Sounds, thanks in part to the American rock press who had already dismissed the band, how the underwhelming reception of the excellent 1970 album Sunflower dictated the course of the 1970’s and the saga of Dr. Eugene Landy’s involvement with the band.
“(Brian suffered from) an absence of unconditional love – love that had no contingencies, no hooks, no fine print, no exploitation in the subclauses.”– The always articulate Van Dyke Parks on the cause of Brian’s troubles.
To give you an idea of the research White conducted for The Nearest Faraway Place, let’s consider these examples of the info he dug up to share. Brian Wilson’s maternal great-grandfather married his second wife on “a slate-gray Tuesday, December 17, 1889” while a stiff wind blew. The ceremony was officiated by one Rev. A.F. Irwin. In the 1920’s, a distant cousin of Buddy Wilson owned a store on North Main Street in Hutchinson, Kansas that stocked the latest Columbia records. Audree Wilson’s father worked as a travel agent, night watchman, machinist, ad salesman, delivery man, clerk and driver for the Phoenix Laundry. It’s amazing work that allowed White to uncover these facts.
Other examples of White’s efforts are seen in the books he used to write his tale. First of all, his bibliography is 15 pages long. The books deal with topics that range from citrus fruit, aeronautical history, Fender guitars, surfing, architecture, beach party movies, democracy in America, automobiles, the Barbie doll, railway history, plants native to California, car clubs, Kansas history, west coast jazz, California orange box labels, photography, Disney, Goodyear and LSD. Those of us who fancy ourselves writers may be intimidated by White’s achievement here.
“The aim of this book has been to gain a greater understanding of Brian’s, Dennis’s, and the other Beach Boys’ personal development, of its deeply felt expression in their music, and of these matters’ unique collateral relationship to the social and historical milieu from which the Beach Boys sprang.”
The reader gets a swelling, dramatic feeling as White draws this substantial book to a close. He mentions that his research of and contact with various distant relatives – some as far-flung as Högsby Parish, Småland, Sweden – of the Wilson brothers revealed that many never knew of their connection to the Beach Boys. White relates the deaths of many of the players in his saga and of their resting in Fairlawn Cemetery, Hutchinson and of the suffering of many of them from chronic depression. A legacy of pain, indeed.
It’s a fascinating thing to contemplate in the study of people like the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley, for example. For all the joy they gave to millions, they acquired little of it for themselves. For a unique study of the whole of Southern California culture as seen through the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, look no further than Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place. Get your copy at AbeBooks.