Most of what I write on here has to do with my professional life as a writer, but this one’s a little different–more autobiographical. Historical, even, since it goes way back into the early 1960s, before many of my readers were even born.
The first record I ever bought with my own money–my first “grown-up” record–was an album called Beach Boys Concert. It was 1964, so I was nine years old, and already a huge fan of the Beach Boys. The album cover promised four pages of photos inside, but it turned out that I’d bought the version intended for overseas sales, because we were living in France at the time, and that version didn’t have the photo pages that the US version boasted. I was bummed, but it was the music that mattered (such as could be heard over the horde of screaming fans, which was what rock audiences did in those days).
My love for their music never faded. If anything, it grew and matured as I did. They put out the great Pet Sounds album in 1966. Two of my favorite albums of theirs, Surf’s Up and Holland, came out in 1971 and 1973, respectively. 1973, coincidentally enough, is the year that I moved from Germany, where my family lived at the time, to California–a state I had never even visited. Why did I go there? Why was the only college I even applied to in California?
Because that’s where the Beach Boys were from, and what they sang about.
I wound up in San Jose, CA–not on the ocean, but not that far from it. Just over the mountains was Santa Cruz. Up the peninsula was San Francisco, with the Pacific Ocean lapping at its shores.
Of course, the Beach Boys weren’t, and aren’t, my only musical interest. In the realm of California surf music, though, only one duo–Jan and Dean–came close, and they never achieved what the Beach Boys did with the genius of their later albums. They might have, had Jan Berry not suffered a near-fatal accident that left him with aphasia, but he did.
While living in San Jose, I saw a Jan & Dean Fan Club address on one of their old albums, and decided to write to it, as a lark, to say I wanted to join the fan club. I got a chatty letter back from Dean Torrence’s sister, who said the fan club no longer existed, but she was glad that I was a fan, and so on. We exchanged a few letters, and then she wrote to tell me that Dean was going to be performing in Santa Cruz with contemporary surf band Papa Doo Run Run, and that if I could get to the show she’d get me backstage to meet Dean.
It turned out to be a complicated day, because Eric Clapton was also playing a show that day, in Palo Alto. I didn’t have a driver’s license or a car. I went to that show with friends, one of whom then drove me to Santa Cruz on his way to his parents’ home in Salinas, and dropped me off. I went to the venue, asked for Dean, and he came out and met me and took me backstage. He introduced me to the band, and the other special guest–Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who’d joined the band in 1964 or 65. Bruce became the first Beach Boy I ever met.
While chatting with Dean before the show, he told me that he didn’t have a sister–that the letters to fans were written by his mother, who thought that pretending to be a sister, and therefore closer to the fans’ ages, would seem less weird. He was a little embarrassed about the whole thing, I think, but he was a genial guy and I enjoyed our time together. It was after the show that things got weird.
My plan had been to head to the Santa Cruz Greyhound bus station right after the concert and catch a late bus back to San Jose. But the concert went longer than expected, and when I got there, it was past midnight and the bus station was closed. I didn’t have money for a hotel room, or a credit card. No place to stay, no way to get home.
What you have to know about Santa Cruz at that time is that, in the 1970s, it was known as the “Murder Capital of the World,” largely because three prominent killers were active around the same time–Edmund Kemper, Herbert Mullin, and John Linley Frazier. I knew its reputation, so spending a night on the streets of Santa Cruz seemed a little frightening. Also, though it had been a warm day, Santa Cruz is a coastal town and after the sun goes down it gets cold. I wandered the streets, trying not to be noticed by police, because I also didn’t want to be picked up for vagrancy. For a while I huddled in a phone booth with newspapers wrapped around me as a makeshift (and largely useless) blanket. But I survived, I wasn’t murdered, and I caught the first bus out of town the next morning, with some stories to tell.
Backtracking a bit, the first time (I think) that I saw the Beach Boys live was on May 1, 1971, when they played at a rally preceding the May Day anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington D.C. I was there with my brother Michael and around 40,000 of our closest friends. I can’t remember who else played that day–as a longstanding Beach Boys fan, they were the act that captured my interest the most.
Edited on October 6: Adding a new concert because I remembered this one. May 24, 1975, The Beach Boys and Chicago headlined the first of Bay Area promoter Bill Graham’s 1975 “Day on the Green” shows, at the Oakland Coliseum. Also on the bill, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and some kid named Bob Seger. The Beach Boys and Chicago toured together a lot that summer, because Chicago had just had a huge hit record with “Wishing You Were Here,” on which Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and Al Jardine sang backup. The two bands came onstage together for that song during the concert, which was pretty magical. And crowded.
The next time (again, I think–I’ve seen so many concerts that sometimes they run together) that I saw them was on May 28, 1978, when they played at another “Day on the Green” show. On the bill with them were the Norton Buffalo Stampede, Elvin Bishop, and Linda Ronstadt with special guest Dolly Parton. An incredible day of music. Here are some pictures from that one.
In 1983, I moved down to San Diego to manage the Hunter’s Books store on Prospect Street in La Jolla (a town that features prominently in the hit song “Surfin’ USA”). One day in 1991, while promoting his since-discredited autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Brian Wilson came to the store, signed books, and chatted for about a half hour. Second–and most important–Beach Boy met. I still have a signed first edition of the book, as well as a signed Pet Sounds CD insert, from that day. I keep the insert in a shadowbox with a tambourine that Brian signed and authenticated as having been used in the Pet Sounds recording sessions.
These days, Brian tours as Brian Wilson, albeit in the band with him is original Beach Boy Al Jardine and a later addition, the insanely talented Blondie Chaplin. More about that later. Marcy and I saw them back on July 9, 2016, when they were touring for the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds.
Speaking of shadowboxes, I finally saw Jan & Dean live (together again, at last) on March 6, 2004. I have an autographed toy car package from that show, which is in a box with a ticket from the show, a couple of their 45s, and a photo I took there. Sadly, it was the last J&D show ever, because Jan Berry died 20 days later, following a seizure at his home in Los Angeles.
All of this is leading up to September 22, 2023, when the Beach Boys came to town. These days, the Beach Boys are really the Mike Love Band. Bruce Johnston is the only other semi-original Beach Boy with the band (so more of them tour with Brian than with Mike). Still, the musicians performing with Mike were terrific, especially drummer Jon Bolton, who’s a wonderful maniac. I went with our daughter Frances, who, at 19, has become enamored of the Beach Boys entirely on her own, unaffected by my enthusiasm. She had never seen them, and I probably would’ve waited for Brian to come back around rather than going to a Mike Love concert.
But because it might be my last official Beach Boys concert (Mike’s 82 years old), and I was feeling sentimental, I dressed in the closest I could come to matching what the band wore on the Beach Boys Concert album cover. Surprisingly, Frances wasn’t ashamed to be seen with me. I didn’t meet Mike, but I did get a fist-bump from him on the stage (we were second-row center).
Will I ever see the Beach Boys live again? Seems unlikely, but you never know. Will I go to my grave still loving their music, their spirit, the songwriting genius of Brian Wilson? Absolutely. And I’ll be forever glad that their music brought me to California–which, even though I left it 19 years ago, is still a special and magical place to me, with all its flaws.