50 years ago, a surf culture phenomenon started right here along our coast with five beach boys from Hawthorne providing the soundtrack. Native Kirk Silsbee remembers the music that got the South Bay, Southern California and, ultimately, the entire nation harmonizing
- Written byKirk Silsbee
You have to look for it. Nothing on 120th Street gives an indication as you drive along the south side of the Hawthorne Airport. But turn onto Kornblum and travel the short distance past the neatly appointed houses, and you can’t miss it. A monument celebrates Hawthorne’s greatest gift to the world of music and culture. 3701 West 119th street no longer exists (it was bulldozed to make way for the 105 Freeway, which roars overhead on the high embankment behind it), but the placement is close enough to the little tract house where Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson lived and gestated one of the most popular and enduring sounds in all of pop music. Fifty years ago this year, the Beach Boys were born.
The structure is symmetrical, with a venerable air to it, and constructed of square terra-cotta bricks. A cream-colored bas-relief of five figures toting a long board recalls the iconic Surfer Girl album cover. Even with the representational inset and the printed dedications on the expertly set bricks, California Registered Historical Landmark No. 6041 looks like nothing so much as a grand outdoor barbecue. Perhaps that’s fitting. The Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love, and revolving members David Marks and Al Jardine were all from working class families.
They were products of the surf-obsessed youth culture of the early ‘60s South Bay, and they came to define surf music. It was an instrumental genre when they recorded their first single “Surfin’” for the tiny Candix label in 1961. With Brian’s gift for vocal arrangement, the group’s ability to blend intricate harmonies, and the songs of Brian and his collaborators, the Beach Boys added a vocal component to surf sounds. It wouldn’t be long before they transcended the style via Brian’s exploding artistic vision.
Anyone who heard “Good Vibrations” pouring out of a car radio in 1966 knew that the Beach Boys had signaled a sea change in pop music—in song form, sound, arrangement. Taking the success and artistic growth of the Beatles as his own personal challenge, Brian became the ultimate pop music auteur: he conceived the songs, arranged them, conducted the studio band, taught the vocals to the Beach Boys, and stretched the capabilities of the studio itself to conform to his vision. The Beatles had three fine songwriters and a seasoned producer who shaped their music; the Beach Boys had Brian Wilson. His writing and producing soared, yielding the landmark Pet Sounds and SMiLE albums.
The Beach Boys as a group are no more, pulled apart by death, lawsuits and alternate musical trajectories. Though the music has become part of the world’s collective soundtrack, it carries the seeds of the South Bay experience of the late 1950s and ‘60s.
The post-war economy boomed and created a solid, upwardly mobile middle class in Southern California. From Palos Verdes to Torrance to Gardena to the beach cities to Hawthorne to Inglewood—all South Bay neighborhoods had at least one surfer on every block. A few enterprising young men made boards in their parents’ garages. Everybody knew someone with a backyard swimming pool. Night parties in backyards bathed by colored flood lamps, illuminated by tiki torches against palm trees, gave an aura of suburban exotica. Shaping boards in the garage was no more exotic than junior high kids carving tiny tikis, which they varnished and strung with rawhide.
As with any subculture, there was a uniform: Levi’s cords, a Towncraft T-shirt, an unbuttoned Pendleton with a St. Christopher medal, or maybe a windbreaker. (Capitol Records executive Nik Venet changed the name of the Pendletones to the Beach Boys when he signed the group.) Footwear, when worn, was Converse or Purcell tennis shoes–take your pick. Girls wore shifts in the summer. Mike Love would sing: “You may think a dress can’t do very much … with a slit up the side you can’t resist that touch.”
Every high school showed surfing movies, heralded by testosterone-splashed handbills that promised waterlogged cinematic thrills: Spinning Boards, Out of Control, Slippery When Wet, Men Who Ride Mountains, The Angry Sea, and the like. Admission was usually $1.25, and a free board giveaway was always part of the evening. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium became the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre of surf cinema, the site of many a premier showing.
Music was always a part of the Wilson household. Their father Murry was a published songwriter, and the piano was where Brian worked out chord progressions. His love of group harmony was granted an epiphany when he heard the Four Freshmen on his mother’s car radio one day. This was vocal harmony Valhalla, and Brian resolved to achieve it. He looked for Freshmen records at Lishon’s Music in the Crenshaw-Imperial Shopping Center. (After the initial Beach Boys success, he would have new Freshmen releases messengered down to Hawthorne from the Capitol Tower.) Extended family get-togethers allowed him to add the voices of cousin Mike Love and his mother Audrey.
Unlike the Wilsons, Love lived in Los Angeles and attended Dorsey High. Wilson-Love harmony gained a degree of polish at the Angeles Vista Presbyterian Church youth nights when his cousins joined Mike. The Wilsons were never a particularly religious family, and the Angeles Vista experience showed Brian something of the spiritual power of music.
Murray and Audrey went to Mexico for a business trip on Labor Day weekend 1961. The Wilson boys took their $250 food allowance and rented instruments at Hogan’s House of Music on Hawthorne Boulevard in Lawndale. With Al Jardine and Mike joining in on some songs Brian had been working on, the band was born that weekend.
The surf music milieu that the Pendletones entered was ruled by Dick Dale, king of the surf guitar. He held court at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, where the Beach Boys eventually played. But instrumentally formidable South Bay bands like the Journeymen, the Bel-Airs, the Challengers and the Vibrants could be heard at Alondra Park in Lawndale, the Revelaire Club in Redondo, Darby Park in Inglewood, and Live Oak Rec Center in Manhattan. Ferocious Long Beach instrumental bands like the Illusions and the Pyramids made the Pendletones think twice about playing in that town.
Love lived close to the Wich Stand, the drive-in Googie coffee shop at Slauson and Overhill that drew kids from all over the South Bay. The parking lot was a magnet for custom car buffs, comparing metal flake paint jobs and pin-striping amidst vanilla Cokes and French fries doused in gravy.
Wendy Weatherford, a Hollywood girl, spent time with the Wilsons; she briefly dated Dennis. She shares the possible inspiration for an enduring Beach Boys hit, a friend from Encino: “My girlfriend, Pam Shine, was the girl that Brian wrote `Fun, Fun, Fun’ for. She was a really heavy girl, and when she laughed, the whole room just shook. I think Pam used to go to the Wich Stand. She used to pick me up and we’d drive down Sepulveda—this was before the 405—to Hawthorne and hang out with those guys. Dennis was a little wild, but he could also be sweet.”
Paradox was always part of the Beach Boys’ alchemy. While their gorgeous sounds and sunny lyrics—of endless summers, sun-kissed girls on the beach and perfect waves—painted Southern California as a Promised Land of youth, the Wilson boys grew up in a less than ideal home. Murry was a tyrannical patriarch who doled out corporal punishment the way Brian parceled out vocal parts. A two-by-four to the head removed Brian’s hearing in one ear. One of the greatest pop auteurs of American music has never been able to hear stereo.
The Wilson boys handled the serial beatings differently. Brian retreated inward and constructed an idyllic interior world full of music. Second-born Carl put on a brave, sunny face and put his energy into the guitar. (His sweet voice would come to be the lead that Brian heard in his head when he wrote.) Young Dennis, full of energy and self-assurance, went to El Porto Beach in El Segundo and learned to surf and to the San Fernando Valley Speedway to watch the hot cars. It was Dennis who brought the first-hand surf and hotrod knowledge to Brian.
Chuck Britz, who engineered their Capitol recordings, reflected in 1999 on Brian’s command of the studio and the musicians: “He doesn’t go into a studio dumb; he knows what he wants to hear. He may not know how to tell you how he wants it. But after a while of listening to the parts that each one starts playing, he says, ‘Wait, wait, wait … let me hear that again. That sounds good—play that right there.’ Out of 17 musicians on the 17th time—he’d have a band.”
The beauty and subtle power of the music beckoned people from all over the world to California. One was native New Yorker David Leaf, who came here in 1975. Now a screenwriter and award-winning documentarian, he was a youth who was beguiled by both the music and the paradox. Leaf would work closely with Brian for many years. His liner note annotation of the Capitol Records Beach Boys reissues of the early 1990s is loaded with insight and cogent analysis of the music and the personalities that made it. “Ultimately,” says Leaf, “what drew me in so deeply wasn’t just the music but Brian Wilson’s artistic life. The powerful combination of his soaring falsetto and melodic, harmonic magic—in direct contrast to his troubled journey—was what pulled me west. Hearing the little-known `Til I Die’ in 1971 was a defining moment for me, as were later deep cuts like `Still I Dream Of It,’ `Love & Mercy’ and earlier classics like `Our Prayer,’ `God Only Knows,’ `In My Room,’ and `The Warmth of the Sun.’”
Leaf continues: “Like the best art, the music speaks to our yearnings, our deepest dreams. My dime store analysis is that perhaps the magnificence of the harmonies spoke to the lack of it in Brian’s own life. And that in the mid-1960s, the depth and beauty of the music he was producing increased in almost direct opposition to the troubles he experienced—culminating in the 1966 trilogy he produced: Pet Sounds, `Good Vibrations’ and SMiLE. If that had been all he’d ever done, he’d be worthy of the Pantheon.”
In 1998, Mike would reflect on the root of Brian’s genius and his mastering of the Freshmen arrangements. “He’d sit at the piano,” Love recalled, “and would deal all the parts. He would teach me the bass part; he would sing the melody or the high falsetto part. He had all the parts in his head—and they were hard parts; they were moving all over the place. It was all you could do to learn your own part, but he’d have four of them in his head. That always kind of blew my mind—that Brian had the capacity to hear all those parts simultaneously and be able to deal them to different individuals who had that range. He was quite gifted.”
The pressures of writing and producing took Brian out of the performing arena in 1964. His interior world imploded in 1967, and the SMiLE album was held from release. After the artistic triumphs of “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds, he descended into a long period of personal anguish. He saw the passing of his brothers and his mother and emerged from it as a performer. Brian took Pet Sounds—never performed in its totality until 2001—to concert halls around the world. SMiLE followed in 2005. Brian Wilson has proved to be the last man standing.
The bricks on the monument note the names of its donors and dedications: So. Cal Woodie Club, Mike Love Fan Club, Hawthorne High’s cougartown.com. Four adjacent bricks at the top read: THE SOUND BORN HERE / CHANGED THE WORLD / FOREVER / EVA & DAVID LEAF.
You have to look for it, but it’s still there.
The Hawthorne monument near the home site where the Wilson brothers grew up.
Dr. James O’Connell has owned and operated a private practice in the South Bay for 35 years, providing patients general medical and surgical dermatology.