The Beach Boys and Mythic California
Megan Branch, Intern
Since the minute I first stepped onto one of California’s gleaming beaches, or drove from LA to San Diego with the windows down, I have been wishing, hoping, and dreaming that one day I’ll wake up and discover that I’ve become a “California girl,” (no matter how hip or stylish an East Coast girl may be). Like many people from my generation and several before me, my picture of California as an idyllic haven for surfer dudes, beach bunnies, and all that is blond and tan relied heavily on the music of the Beach Boys. In his new book, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, University of Southern California professor Kevin Starr writes about California in the years directly after World War II—about the hot rods, surfing, and romance that were at the center of the Silent Generation’s high school years—and about the creation of an idealized California. In the excerpt below we learn a little bit about The Beach Boys.
…Music offered an outlet. Over the Labor Day weekend of 1961, four Silents—brothers Brian and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine—using rented instruments, recorded a demonstration tape in the Wilson home at 3701 West 119th Street in the suburban community of Hawthorne in southern Los Angeles County, while their parents were visiting Mexico City. The name of the song, written primarily by Brian Wilson, was “Surfin’.” Thereby was launched, however tentatively, one of the most important mythic brandings of Southern California since the creation of the orange crate label: a branding that would put youth, Silent and Boomer alike, and a youth-oriented culture of surfing, beach life, cruising, parties, school, and romance, at the forefront of the California identity via the records and albums and live performances of the Beach Boys, as they would soon be known.
The Beach Boys were at once typical of the generation coming of age in 1950s Southern California and naturally talented as musical performers. This combination of generational experience with musical genius and performance virtuosity—energized by dream-wish and fantasy—conferred on the Beach Boys an iconic power that rendered their songs compelling distillations of imaginative experience. Before it was over—before, that is, the creativity of the Beach Boys peaked and they were turned into a non-stop nostalgia machine—their songs proved capable of distilling on a subliminal level that dream of youth, that sense of being young on the Coast of Dreams, emanating from high school yearbooks.
The Beach Boys were suburban, raised in a white middle-class suburb near the ocean. They attended the local high schools and junior college, worshipped at the local Presbyterian church, learned to sing there and at school, to play their instruments (initially) on a most rudimentary basis, and, in Brian Wilson’s case, to become mesmerized by harmonic singing, whether from J. S. Bach or, his favorites, the Hi-Lo’s and the Four Freshmen. Dennis Wilson surfed, the only Wilson brother to do so, and Brian played baseball for Hawthorne High, where he had a girlfriend, Judy Bowles, and where the brothers performed on special school occasions, as documented, among other places, in the 1960 Hawthorne High yearbook, El Camino. All this suggested an idealized, or at the least normal, suburban experience from this period, were it not for the fact that the boys’ father, Kansas-born Murry Gage Wilson, a semi-failed middle manager (Southern California Gas, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, where he lost an eye in an industrial accident) was a sadist who verbally, psychologically, and physically abused his offspring (Brian later claimed that a blow from his father left him deaf in one ear) in the midst of their Leave It to Beaver life in a way that would in a later era bring down the wrath of the district attorney’s office, should it ever be reported. For the Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine, the very deficiencies of life in Hawthorne—centered for the Wilson boys on their abusive father—intensified through reverse compensation in the musical narrative they were developing as, initially, the Pendletones (named after the shirt) in high school and junior college, their actualized daydream of young Californians singing in harmony of life in a world that resembled their own, only better.
It was Dennis Wilson, the only true surfer in the group, who first suggested to Brian, “Hey, surfing’s getting really big. You guys ought to write a song about it,” which prompted Brian and his cousin Mike Love to write “Surfin’.” Behind that simple suggestion was not only the genesis of the Beach Boys’ first record to make the Los Angeles charts (number 33 as of 29 December 1961) but a connection to a place and an activity poised for take-off. When Candix Records folded shortly after the release of Surfin’,” the Beach Boys and their father, who acted as their agent, never wanting to relinquish any control over the boys, opened negotiations with Capitol Records. The boys’ first 45 from Capitol had “Surfin’ Safari” on one side and on the other “409,” a hot rod song co-authored by Brian Wilson, and here was achieved a connection to another teenage obsession: hot rods, cruising, dragging the main. Based in common experience, the preoccupations of these and later songs—surfing (“Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfer Girl,”), cars (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “I Get Around,” “Don’t Worry, Baby”), school (“Be True to Your School,”), teenage romance (“Wendy,” “Help Me Rhonda”)—upgraded such themes into near mythological status as Beach Boys songs became the anthems and icons of Southern California life among the young, broadcast nationally to the teenagers of America, drawing them into life on the Day-Glo shores of the sundown sea.
Growing up in such an environment, seeking themes for their songs, the Beach Boys could not help but mythologize a landscape and way of life that was already so surreal, so proto-mythic, in its setting. Cars and the beach, surfing, the California Girl, all this fused in the alembic of youth: Here was a way of life, an iconography, already half-released into the chords and multiple tracks of a new sound. The songs of the Beach Boys upgraded an overnight place into national identity by connecting its myth to young America and inviting young America to buy into the dream, to find its own Southern California, if only within itself, wherever radios were playing and whatever cars were cruising down whatever streets…