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Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson Excerpt from Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson

by Peter Ames Carlin



Chapter 1

Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' original songwriter, producer, and visionary, is in his sixties now, a man of age and wealth and almost no discernible interest in the world as it existed before him, particularly with regard to his family and their own journey across the continent to the golden coast where he was born. "We never talked about that stuff," Brian says. It is the spring of 2004, and he's in one of his favorite restaurants, a bustling hillside deli in a mall down the street from his home on the crest of Beverly Hills. "That's the one thing they never did, never talked about our ancestors at all." Now, it's hard to know if Brian is saying this because it's true or because he just doesn't remember any such conversations. Or, more likely, he just doesn't want to address the issue. He's an intimidating man, both for all he's achieved in his life and for all he's suffered along the way. And given the remove of his celebrity and his psychic torment, it's hard to separate the humor from the horror in his eyes when he does recall something his father did like to say.

"Kick some ass!" Brian is smiling now, in his silly, sad way. "Exactly, that's what my dad said. Kick ass! Kick ass!"

Murry Wilson was a big guy with a big personality and even bigger dreams of glory. That he would attain them through the work of his sons was a source of great pride and outrage from the old man. "My relationship with my dad was very unique," Brian says. "In some ways I was very afraid of him. In other ways I loved him because he knew where it was at. He had that competitive spirit which really blew my mind."

"Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around." That's the story of Brian's life. But also the story of his brothers, his cousin and friends, and all of the ancestors whose ambitions, fears, hopes, and determination delivered them to this land beneath the unyielding sun. California, here we come. Right back where they started from. "Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world."

As described by Timothy White in his intricately researched The Nearest Faraway Place, the story of the Wilsons in America begins in the late eighteenth century, when the first Wilson to venture to the New World settled in New York. The first American-born family member, named Henry Wilson, was born in 1804 and eventually moved west to Meigs County, Ohio, where he worked as a stonemason. His son, named George Washington Wilson in the spirit of the times, was born in 1820, and he and his family farmed a plot of rich, river-fed land in Meigs County for more than six decades until his own son, William Henry Wilson, decided to pursue fortune west to the wide-open plains of Hutchinson, Kansas. So west they went, with patriarch George in tow, settling onto a large, if relatively arid, farm that William Henry soon abandoned in order to go into the industrial plumbing business. Contracts to work on the state's new reformatory system, along with the many opportunities afforded by the modernizing world around them, provided a decent working-class living and a solidly built clapboard bungalow on one of Hutchinson's nice residential streets. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, William Henry began to think again of chasing fortune into the western horizon.

California! At the dawn of the new century, this was the setting of every ambitious man's dreams. The real estate flyers papering the town painted in the details, describing the valley soil as every bit as rich and fertile as the sun was warm and the breezes gentle. Thus inspired, William Henry scraped together the cash to buy, sight unseen, ten acres of prime farmland in the southern California village of Escondido. William Henry loaded up his wife, kids, and even his eighty-five-year-old father into the family jalopy; they arrived in 1904 and spent the year laboring on their new vineyard. And though the sun did indeed shine, and the water flowed as promised, and the vines did erupt with fat, juicy fruit, the farming was every bit as hard as it had been back in Kansas, and the money not nearly as vast as previously anticipated. By 1905, William and family were back in the plumbing business in Kansas. Still, memories of the California sun and the dreams of ease and fortune that had once stirred William Henry's soul came to rest in the imagination of his teenaged son, William Coral "Buddy" Wilson. As the boy grew, so too did his visions of the golden future that awaited him in the Golden State.

Dark-eyed, heavy-browed, and thick-featured, Buddy Wilson took off for California in 1914. Then in his early twenties, the young man -- already married to Edith Shtole and the father of a child or two -- fairly seethed with ambition. Surely, he imagined, a man with his drive and appetite could find an untapped stream of gold somewhere in that rich, open economic frontier. Leaving his family back in Hutchinson, Buddy would spend months at a time searching for his place in the sun, looking increasingly in the oil fields of the southern coast. Guys could make a fortune if they latched onto the right rig, and so Buddy used his plumbing skills as his entrée, working as a steamfitter on the pipes that channeled the gushers out of the ground and into the pockets of the rich men whose example he was desperate to follow.

But Buddy would never join them in the gilded halls of the powerful. Moody and scattered, plagued by searing headaches and a self-destructive thirst for whiskey, Buddy wandered from job to job to long stretches of unemployment, which he passed grumbling into a glass in a dim barroom. When Edith and the kids finally joined him in 1921, taking the train to the elegant-sounding village of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, he couldn't afford to lease an apartment in town. Instead, the family spent their first two months living in a snug eight-by-eight-foot tent with all the other squatters on the beach.

Edith took a job pressing clothes for a garment manufacturer, and eventually the family moved to a small home on an unpaved road in Inglewood where the eight Wilson kids attended school, worked weekend jobs, and marched the thin line dictated by their sour father and stern, demanding mother. Escape, such as it was, came in the occasional afternoon bike rides to the open, breezy expanse of Hermosa Beach.

Escape was a necessity for Buddy Wilson's kids. Buddy, now in middle age and resigned to his life of small prospects and severely limited horizons, had long felt his ambition curdle into resentment. Often awash in alcohol and self-pity, Buddy's bile regularly boiled over into violence, directed most often at Edith. But he could also turn his fists on his children, once beating the school-aged Charles so savagely (for mistakenly shattering his glasses) that Murry, then a teenager, had to come to his brother's rescue, shoving the old man out of the house until he sobered up. And this wasn't the only time Murry had come to blows with his father. Increasingly, the family's second-oldest boy found himself thrust into the role of his mother's protector, raising his own fists against the father he loved but who seemed unable to love him or anyone else in the family.

As in most abusive families, the physical and psychic violence that ruled their home became an unacknowledged presence, a force that both dominated their lives and forced them into silence. But if they couldn't talk about their problems, the Wilsons could always sing their way to a kind of amity. Indeed, group sings had been a Wilson family tradition dating back to Kansas and beyond, as an eighty-seven-year-old Charles Wilson (an uncle to Brian, Dennis, and Carl) would tell Timothy White, describing nights on the Kansas plains when "we'd have shows on Saturday nights, with three of the oldest brothers on guitars and mandolins. This was at home, with the windows open to the street, and people would stop and listen."

Even Buddy, a man with no discernible instincts toward paternal tenderness, loved to sing with his kids. He'd long since come to admire the sound of his own tenor voice anchoring the family blend. But even more important, weaving his voice together with those of his wife and kids was as close as Buddy could get to actual emotional intimacy with his family. And perhaps this was why Murry, the son who had come to be the family's last line of defense against their drunk, vicious father, came to love music so very much. He taught himself to play guitar, too, and he picked up piano from his big sister. And when the living room radio picked up broadcasts from the elegant nightclubs of Hollywood or downtown Los Angeles, Murry sat in front of the speaker and soaked it in, his face glowing happily. What he was hearing was an entirely new vision of the world. Here, life was filled with luxury and ease; a place where careers could be made and fortunes earned, all by the grace of a clever new song. Sitting in front of the radio, aloft on the arc of a pretty melody, Murry Wilson had come to realize something: More than anything else in the world, he wanted to be a songwriter.

But if Murry could be just as dreamy as the next aspiring pop star, he was also a realist who had grown up knowing exactly how important -- and difficult -- it could be to buy the bare essentials of day-to-day life. He was a mediocre student at George Washington High School, but the rock-jawed youngster left school in 1935 armed with a steely resolve to find work. And though the rest of the nation was still mired in the teeth of the Depression, Murry landed a job as a clerk with the Southern California Gas Company. He was still employed there when he met and, in 1938, married Audree Korthof, the sweet-natured daughter of a stern, hard-working baker who had moved his family west from Minnesota when Audree was a schoolgirl. Murry and his new wife settled in southern Los Angeles, reveling for a time in Murry's ascendance from the gas company office trenches to a junior administrative post. When Audree became pregnant in the fall of 1941, Murry's determination to succeed and to outdo the sad, bitter legacy of his father only grew more intense. The couple's first son, Brian Douglas Wilson, was born on June 20, 1942, bearing the same blue eyes, dark hair, and prominent brow that had followed the family across the generations.

Murry and Audree welcomed two more boys into their family in the next four years -- the fair-haired Dennis Carl Wilson coming in late 1944 and Carl Dean Wilson, another dark-featured boy, at the end of 1946. Moving his family to a modern, if cozy, two-bedroom ranch house on West 119th Street in the blue-collar suburb of Hawthorne, Murry rolled his sleeves up over his bulky forearms and set to scratching out his own slice of the postwar economic boom. He'd already made some progress, jumping to a junior administration job at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company just after Brian's birth and then, just as the war ended, to a foreman's position in the manufacturing plant of AiResearch, an aeronautics company that made parts for Seattle-based Boeing Aircraft's growing line of civilian and military airplanes.

By the end of World War II, the South Bay revolved around the thriving aerospace industry. Borne up by the dual demands of a rapidly expanding civilian airline market and the just-as-rapidly-growing tension with the Soviet Union, aeronautics presented opportunities for hardworking men that were seemingly as limitless as their own aspirations. But while Murry's timing was spot-on, and he was a tireless worker with a penchant for big ideas, nothing came easily for him. A gruesome accident at Goodyear cost him his left eye, and that twist of fate only emphasized an aggressive-to-bellicose personality that tended to alienate him from co-workers and superiors alike. Stalled on the lower rungs of management and increasingly frustrated with his flat career arc, Murry descended into dark moods all too reminiscent of his own father's. Still, unwilling to resign himself entirely to the old man's fate, he scraped together as much cash as he could and opened his own business, an industrial equipment rental outfit he called A.B.L.E. (Always Better Lasting Equipment) Machinery. From that point on, Murry Wilson would be his own boss. The arrangement suited him just fine.

So in the mornings Murry would dress in his pressed white shirts and skinny tie knotted just so, his horn-rimmed glasses perched on his thick, bulldog's face, his suit jacket straining against the prominent belly and muscular shoulders that testified both to his appetite for work and for the rewards awaiting a man at the end of his day. Steering his Ford down the quiet, sun-washed streets of mid-1950s Hawthorne, he'd see a hundred houses just like the one he shared with Audree and his three boys: small but neat, with a lush lawn and a wide driveway for the late-model Ford, Buick, or Chevy, its tail fins gleaming in the cool morning light.

These were the cars of men who were determined to get somewhere in their lives. Like Murry, many of Hawthorne's men were either born in the Midwest or were the children of men and women who had made the westward trek sometime in the first few decades of the twentieth century. "It was like a little Midwestern town that just got moved right there to eighty acres of  land," recalls Robin Hood, who grew up a few blocks from the Wilsons. "There were a lot of farmers from Kansas and Missouri, a lot of Dust Bowl-era folks who settled in with their big, extended families. Nobody was rich, but we didn't know it."

But their parents certainly did. And if one belief held the community together, it was the one about the transformative potential of hard work. No matter where you came from, no matter what your people used to be or what anyone expected you to become, in a working-class West Coast town like Hawthorne -- which had been a stretch of empty coastal flats and swamp a generation ago -- you could work your way into being anything or anyone you felt like being. This belief is liberating, of course, but it's also evidence of internal currents that can give the pursuit an undertone of desperation. As Joan Didion would write, the California of this era was a place "in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."

Eventually the Baby Boom generation would turn the very edge of the continent into its own proving ground. But the impulse that propelled them there, that restless need for deliverance and the intuitive belief that it could be divined by your own hands somewhere out past the wild fringe of the western horizon, was the same one that had dragged their families across the American frontier and into the dreamy, bustling, sun-glazed cities they had built for themselves. And this was where Murry's sons, Brian, Dennis, and Carl, came to understand their father's need for them to kick the world in the ass. He wanted so much for them. He wanted so much for himself. In the worst possible way, you might say.

Reprinted from: Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin  © 2006 Rodale Inc. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at www.rodalestore.com.