Forget His Name

When Charles Manson was a boy, his mother traded him for a pitcher of beer. He was fetched home by an uncle and returned to his mother, who merely shrugged. She was a prostitute and a small-time thief who passed trade secrets to her son.

Charles Manson

Manson was jailed for the first time at 13, for burglary. By the time he was in his early 30s, he’d already spent half his life behind bars.

As he was being released from California’s Terminal Island prison in 1967, he panicked and asked the jailer not to turn him out into the world. The guard laughed, but Manson was serious. Prison was the only real home he’d known.

When the lifelong con man hit the streets, much had changed since 1960, the year he had last tasted freedom. It was the Summer of Love and Manson drifted to San Francisco, epicenter of America’s cultural revolution.

This is an earlier version of what became an essay for The Conversation. To read that piece, click on the logo above.

There he found docile flower children — easy marks, even for an inept crook. He adopted the hirsute look of the tribe, recycled some of the Scientology babble he’d picked up in the joint, and started building a “family” of followers drunk on his flattery. He preyed on lost and damaged young women — wounded birds — and made them think they were beautiful, as long as they followed him.

He sought fame. He deserved fame, he reasoned, and he needed to make the world notice him. “His followers had no idea that Charlie was obsessed with becoming famous,” biographer Jeff Guinn wrote. “He told them that his goal, his mission, really, was to teach the world a better way to live through his songs.”

He figured the fastest route to fame was through music. He knew a few chords and could reasonably mimic the peace, love and flowers ethos in his lyrics. If he looked the part and acted the part, he could bask in the fame he felt he was owed.

Dennis Wilson

He brought his “family” of damaged goods to Los Angeles and sent his women to scout for men who could either help Charlie find fame or money. While hitchhiking one day, a couple of the girls found an easy mark: the big-hearted, generous and sex-obsessed drummer for the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson. He picked them up, took them home for milk, cookies and sex, then left for a recording session. When Dennis returned home in the middle of the night, the girls were still there, along with Charlie Manson and 15 other young women, all mostly nude. For a sex junkie like Dennis, it was paradise.

Manson saw Dennis — and his Beach Boy brothers Brian and Carl — as his entrée to the music business and international fame. Although the group’s star was dimming  by the late ’60s — they were no longer the hip boy band they had once been — it was at least a moccasin in the music industry’s door. Through his time as Dennis Wilson’s roommate, Charlie had gotten to know record producer Terry Melcher, Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Young and Frank Zappa.

Click on Manson’s guitar to go to the iTunes playlist for my book ‘Everybody Had an Ocean,’ which features Manson singing ‘Look at Your Game, Girl.’

Convinced he would make Charlie — whom he called the Wizard — into a star, Dennis urged his brothers to record the fledgling singer at the Beach Boys studio in Brian Wilson’s home. Wherever Charlie went, of course, his “family” followed. Marilyn Wilson, married to Brian at the time, had the bathrooms fumigated after every session, fearing the filthy girls were spreading disease. (And they were, though not the kind that showed up on toilet seats. Dennis ended up footing, for the Manson women, what was jokingly referred to as the largest gonorrhea bill in history.

When Dennis’s efforts bore no fruit, Manson glommed onto Melcher, who had produced the Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Melcher and Wilson introduced Manson to L.A.’s music society, largely through lavish parties at the estate on Cielo Drive that Melcher shared with actress Candace Bergen. At Cass Elliot’s parties, Manson played whirling dervish on the dance floor, entertaining all with his spastic monkey moves.

The Beach Boys’ 1969 album, ’20/20′ featured a song called ‘Never Learn Not to Love,’ which Dennis Wilson adapted from Manson’s song ‘Cease to Exist.’

When Neil Young heard Charlie sing his compositions during a drop-in at Dennis Wilson’s house, he called Mo Ostin, president of Warner-Reprise Records, to urge the boss to give the guy a listen. Young warned him that Charlie was a little out there and spewed songs more than sang him. But still, Young insisted there was something there.

And there was. Manson’s voice was good enough that he had a reasonable expectation of getting a recording contract. His original compositions were good enough to be recorded: The Beach Boys adapted one of his songs into something called “Never Learn Not to Love,” which they performed on the supremely wholesome “Mike Douglas Show.”

Manson’s lyrics, unfortunately, were mostly honky gibberish, bad enough to justify Ostin’s rejection and for Melcher to tell Charlie he couldn’t get him the record contract he so desperately wanted.

But it was too late to stop now. Charlie had drunk from the trough of fame. He mingled with rock stars and thought he was entitled to be a rock star.

The American Dream used to be described thus: Come to America with nothing and, with the great freedoms and opportunity offered by the country, exit life with prosperity. It has also been described as simply the ideal of freedom — of living in a free and robust society, with nothing to impede people but an open road.

At some point, this changed. In the post-war world of abundant leisure and instant gratification, an ethos of opportunity, hard work and the gradual accumulation of wealth fell away, replaced by a longing for instant fame and fortune. Perhaps it was a result of the conspicuous wealth so visible on the new medium of television. Maybe these new celebrities burned so much brighter because their images slipped through the cathode ray into millions of American homes, turning the house into the new movie theater.

Either way, for millions today, the American Dream is simply the delirious pursuit of fame. Ask a school child what he wants and it’s simply to be famous — by any means necessary.

Charlie Manson was an early avatar for this new concept of the American Dream. He sought fame at any cost. He tried to achieve celebrity through music and, when he didn’t reach that goal, he turned to crime. Sure, he would spend 61 of his 83 years in prison. But the cameras rolled, the papers were printed, the books were sold. No one would ever forget his name.

Terry Melcher and Candace Bergen lived at 10050 Cielo Drive before Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski moved in.


Manson achieved his goal, becoming so famous that his name replaced those of his victims. The crimes became known as the Manson Murders.

Look to the media today to see Manson’s ideological descendants, thirsting for fame at any cost. Some don’t just risk humiliation, they court it. Remember the early rounds of “American Idol” with jarringly dreadful performances giving the reprehensible “singers” their 15 seconds of fame?

Other, more deadly offspring, could be the boys who shoot up schools and coffee shops and prayer-group meetings. They might be dead, they might have left a trail of destruction in their wake and they aren’t mourned. But like Manson, they are remembered. That’s certainly more than most failed con men can claim.

Unfortunately, Manson achieved his goal: fame. Perhaps the best way to honor his victims is to forget his name.

Recommended reading: I don’t reference it in this piece, but I’d like to mention a great book by Ed Sanders called The Family (Dutton, 1971). This was one of the most important books in my life — not because of Manson, but because it made me want to be a writer. I know the book has had the same effect on a lot of other people. Of course, any dive into literature about Manson includes Helter Skelter (WW Norton, 1974) by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Jeff Guinn’s biography, Manson (Simon and Schuster, 2013) is superb.

In every leaf that trembles

Dylan on stage in 1980 — Fred Tackett at left, Tim Drummond at right.

I finally gave in and bought the new archival set from Bob Dylan.

If you’re not familiar with his Bootleg Series —  since 1991, Dylan has released a multi-disc collection every other year or so that explores the songs left off his classic albums.

In many cases, this stuff left off is not only just as good as the material on the original releases, it is in some cases — “Blind Willie McTell” and “Series of Dreams” come to mind —  superior to songs on  the official releases.

Dylan at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Photo by Baron Wolman.

About four volumes back, he began releasing deluxe editions of the Bootleg Series. He did Another Self Portrait (Volume 10, if you’re keeping score) devoted to what had been regarded as a leading candidate for his worst album. This was 1970’s Self Portrait. Greil Marcus’s review of the album in Rolling Stone famously began, “What is this shit?”

Another Self Portrait turned out to be a fascinating rediscovery of the work and was on heavy rotation in my home. There was the standard two-disc Bootleg Series release, but the record label tested the waters with a deluxe version that featured two more discs, including the first official U.S. release of Dylan’s 1969 show with the Band at the Isle of Wight. Dylan, that perverse imp, skipped Woodstock — which was in his ‘hood — and performed  in Great Britain instead.)

The next Bootleg Series release was a full exploration of his Basement Tapes period with the Band (then still known alternately as the Hawks, the Crackers or the Honkies.). Over the six discs of The Basement Tapes Complete, we heard every belch, wheeze and fart and listened to great musicians drilling to the core of American music. It was one of the best purchases I’d ever made. If you got the two-disc abridgment for the casual fan, you really missed out.

With three of his great backing singers

Whoa! Bob was just getting started.

Then came The Cutting Edge (The Bootleg Series, Volume 12), which covered the titanic 14-month period that produced Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The Cutting Edge offered a fascinating look at Dylan’s creative process.

One whole disc was devoted to “Like a Rolling Stone.” The four tracks were separated, so you could hear just Michael Bloomfield’s guitar on one track, Dylan’s voice and harmonica on one, the rhythm section on the other, and the keyboards on the fourth. Man, was that instructive.

Again, The Cutting Edge was available in a two-disc set, but for the Full Bob Experience, you needed the six disc deluxe edition to appreciate the angry majesty of that music.

With Clyde King

I’d long wished the Bootleg Series would explore the most controversial period of his career, the so-called gospel years of 1979-1981. During this time, he released Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. I’d heard bootlegs of his performances with the gospel band — real bootlegs, not these official releases — and been in awe of the performances. If ever a period needed review, this was it.

Despite the huge commercial hit he took from an audience that turned away from him for being “too preachy,” Dylan never really renounced his new Christian faith. If anything, he appeared to have found some sort of accommodation between Judaism and Christianity. He just stopped being so overt in his songs. (But the Bible had always played a role in his music. John Wesley Harding, from 1967, was heavily steeped in Christian imagery and lyricism. Scratch dozens of Bob Dylan lyrics and you’ll find Christian references underneath.)

So I was happy to hear that The Bootleg Series, Volume 13 would be devoted to those years. But Holy Shit (and I do mean holy) — then I learned the price tag for the deluxe edition: $174.

With Tim Drummond

I looked over the track list and saw multiple versions of some of his gospel songs — “Slow Train,” “Gotta Serve Somebody” — and convinced myself I’d be able to get by with the two-disc set for the casual fan.

Jesus, was I wrong.

The two-disc set merely whet my appetite. And then God — or somebody — dropped a couple of unexpected freelance checks in my mailbox and so I justified buying the nine-disc deluxe edition of Trouble No More. (Plus, God had dropped the price by $50.)

I’m here to tell you that it was money well spent. This music is impassioned and hypnotic. Dylan sings with such finesse and fire and has surrounded himself with a hugely talented set of musicians. This comes as no surprise. He’d always done that. But these players are largely unheralded in rock history — Fred Tackett on guitar, Tim Drummond on bass — though a few of the players (Spooner Oldham and Jim Keltner) are better known and there are superstar players (Mike Bloomfield and Carlos Santana) on occasion.

But it’s Dylan’s show and no one overshadows him. Well, maybe his backing singers do.

Some fans were put off by Dylan’s sermons between songs. None of these are preserved on the live recordings featured in “Trouble No More.”

Dylan was led to Christianity, in part, by the women he employed to sing behind him: Clyde King, Regina Harris, Mona Lisa Young and Carolyn Dennis, who became his second wife and mother to his daughter Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. (He dedicated his 1990 nursery-rhyme album, Under the Red Sky to her: “For Gabby Goo Goo.”)

These gifted singers push Dylan to do some of his best singing on record. We learn — again — about his creative process through the multiple and vastly changed version of some of his songs.

And it was a fertile period for him as a writer. Much of Trouble No More consists of songs he’s never officially released. I’ve had “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” on bootleg for years, and it’s the kind of song and performance that made me long for a complete exploration of this period of his career. I should have never balked at the price of this set.

Click on the cover to order.

I’ve been playing this non-stop for the couple of weeks that I’ve had it and when I’m not around my stereo, it still plays in my skull. I can’t get enough.

It’s great to hear the various versions of not just “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody,” but also radically different takes (with different lyrics) for some of his greatest songs, “Caribbean Wind” and (especially) “Every Grain of Sand.”

What beautiful lyrics:

I don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand 
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand
(C) 1981 Special Rider Music


Bob: I’ll never doubt you again. Go ahead and put the deluxe edition of Volumes 14, 15, 16 and 17 on order.

Click on the covers below to order deluxe editions of the most recent volumes in the Bootleg Series.

The human face in Houston


This comes from my old pal Ruth Baxter, who is in the middle of it all in Houston.

I was going to contribute a number of sage observations this morning, but my computer froze, and I took that as a sign. So, as succinctly as I can put it, this catastrophe has put the human faces back on our fellow human beings — all kinds of people from all over the country and the world live in this city, and people from all over have come here to help. If you are not part of the effort to help people, and to see the humanity you share with your brothers and sisters, please stop and re-think your strategy. I’m talking in all directions, folks. Love one another. I saw this young guy from Alto, Texas, which is in the Hill Country. He and some friends saw the mess on television, collected a half-dozen boats and hauled them over here … 200 miles or so. Just to help. This guy had to be a Trump voter — accent so thick, so West Texas …  But these guys and hundreds like them are getting people out — black people, poor people, non-English speakers.  They’re saving all these lives. If they hated these folks, they’d just let them die, wouldn’t they? I just wanted you to remember that.


Choosing love

From the children of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

We were alerted to a video of a young man in Charlottesville, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, spewing hatred and bile. He was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of Johnny Cash, our father. We were sickened by the association.

Johnny Cash was a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice. He received humanitarian awards from, among others, the Jewish National Fund, B’nai Brith, and the United Nations. He championed the rights of Native Americans, protested the war in Vietnam, was a voice for the poor, the struggling and the disenfranchised, and an advocate for the rights of prisoners. Along with our sister Rosanne, he was on the advisory board of an organization solely devoted to preventing gun violence among children.

His pacifism and inclusive patriotism were two of his most defining characteristics. He would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred.

The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our great society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII. Several men in the extended Cash family were among those who served with honor.

Our dad told each of us, over and over throughout our lives, “Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.”

We do not judge race, color, sexual orientation or creed. We value the capacity for love and the impulse towards kindness. We respect diversity, and cherish our shared humanity. We recognize the suffering of other human beings, and remain committed to our natural instinct for compassion and service.

To any who claim supremacy over other human beings, to any who believe in racial or religious hierarchy: we are not you. Our father, as a person, icon, or symbol, is not you. We ask that the Cash name be kept far away from destructive and hateful ideology. We Choose Love.”

Rosanne Cash
Kathy Cash
Cindy Cash
Tara Cash
John Carter Cash
August 16, 2017

“Not one of us can rest, be happy, be at home, be at peace with ourselves, until we end hatred and division.” – Rep. John Lewis

Thanks to Alan Levy for sharing this with me.

Saving journalism, one newsroom at a time

This fall marks my 40th year as a college teacher. One of the great things about this technology is that it allows me to keep in touch with so many former students. It’s like an illustrated rolodex of my life.

How are you doing? (I’m OK — still rolling with the punches.)

The Alligator newsroom

I approach this milestone with gratitude for having known so many dedicated people. I hope the classes we shared were worthwhile.

“Was it good for you?” (It was for me.)

But I also realize that some of your greatest learning was committed outside of the classroom. So I salute all of you who learned how to be journalists at the
College Heights Herald, the Oklahoma Daily, the Independent Florida Alligator or the Daily Free Press. Working for a campus newspaper is a tremendous experience.

It should come as no surprise that what we do is under attack. People who have committed their lives to keeping news flowing through these arteries of information are being vilified. We’re not enemies of the people. As I’ve always maintained, we’re the heroes, not the villains.

So keeping a student-run press free and independent is vital.
With Evan Katz in the Oklahoma Daily newsroom, 1985

I bring up all of this because I have been asked to alert you to a fund-raising drive for the Independent Florida Alligator. I spent 24 of these 40 years at the University of Florida, and I might be able to reach some people who might not be reached otherwise. (By the way: I’ll also happily try to help raise money for the Herald, the Daily or the FreeP. Ask, and I will do everything I can.)

If you were in my journalism history class — whether at Western Kentucky, Oklahoma, Florida or Boston — you probably heard me read attorney Andrew Hamilton’s statement at the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735: “You see I labor under the weight of many years, and am borne down with great infirmities of body; yet old and weak as I am, I should think it my duty, if required, to go to the utmost part of the land where my service could be of any use in assisting to quench the flame of prosecutions upon information, set on foot by the government….”

(This Hamilton was not the subject of the musical. That was the other guy.)

And, considering we are in a death battle for the continued existence of free speech, this quote from Thomas Paine’s
American Crisis — always a class favorite — comes to mind: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. ‘Tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Some Alligator staffers at a McKeen Christmas party, circa 1988. Left to right, Frank Fernandez, Juan Borras, Jeff Gardenour and Carl Herzog.

I present a statement below relating directly to the fund-raising drive for the Alligator. I urge you to give and, in every way you can, to support the journalism in its myriad forms. To quote Tom Paine again, a little earlier in that same paragraph: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

The major forces behind this fund-raising effort are David Dahl of the Boston Globe, Rick Hirsch of the Miami Herald and Aaron Sharockman of Politifact.

Read David Dahl’s note below. If you’re from Western or OU or BU, maybe use what they have done as a model for other fund-raising efforts. We need to stick together.


From David Dahl:

I’m writing to fill you in on the Alligator.

As you might have heard, a group of alums and current staffers are working to steady the finances of the beloved college paper and steer it toward a solid future in the digital world.

They’ve expanded the
Alligator board to include Miami Herald Managing Editor Rick Hirsch and Politifact Executive Director Aaron Sharockman; decided to go down to publishing three days a week; and are now turning to our many alums and friends of the Alligator to raise money.

If you’re a friend with me on Facebook, you’re probably quite familiar with the importance of the
Alligator as a training ground for young professionals in journalism, advertising and public relations. You may well have benefited yourself by working there.

Now it’s time to give back. You can make a tax deductible donation to Campus Communications, the 501(c)3 that runs the
Alligator. The Alligator and its core group of supporters are trying to raise $250,000 by next spring to offset the costs of student stipends and advance college journalism.

Yes, that’s a lot of money, already hundreds of alumni and friends of the Alligator have indicated they are willing to help reach that goal.

To donate, you can use the Pay Pal link in the upper right hand corner of the Alligator’s site,

If you want more information about the Alligator, you can also fill out an online form to get on a mailing list. The address to sign up is:

And of course if you have any questions or wish to discuss this directly, feel free to write for further information.

Thanks very much for your consideration. We need your help!

Travels with Charley (and Jack and Travis)

On the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. Travis, at left, set the timer for the picture and stood on a rock so he’d appear to be tallest. (He nearly is, even without help.) Then there’s Charley and me and Jack.

There was a time when I questioned my sanity. It came as I contemplated a plan I’d had in motion for a year: taking my three adolescent boys on a road trip through Scotland, England and Ireland.

I would be the sole adult. I used the term ‘adult’ loosely, since the person-of-age here is me — not always the most practical guy in the world.

We flew into Edinburgh, rented a car, drove around Scotland and England, then flew to Dublin, rented another car — a nice BMW — and drove around Ireland.

Nice, simple trip. No real plan. Pure serendipity.

Here’s a brief scene from inside the car:

Aside from learning to drive on the other side of the road, everything went pretty well.

The trip  is done now and I think the three weeks we spent together will loom large with me for the rest of my life. I’m not ready to write about it yet; I’m still digesting. But I will post some photographs here today and will post comments (and other pictures) now and again.

It was a long trip — perhaps a bit too long, we all agreed, but could not imagine doing it in less.

Charley at Blarney Castle

It was not hearts-and-flowers the whole time, either. There were some difficult moments.

But you know how … years after you’ve lived a certain day, you come to realize that that day was one of the important ones. That on that day, everything was right and you know why you were here on the earth. I’ve had that feeling before, when I took my Highway 61 trip, and I had it on this trip.

This was time I will always treasure with Jack, Travis and Charley.

So, for now — here are some pictures.

The boys with the stoned Beatles on the Liverpool docks.
The view from Stirling Castle.
It was hard not to have ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ playing in my head at all times.
With Travis and Charley at the Tower of London
Now when I hear ‘my heart’s in the highlands,’ I know what they’re talking about. This was on the way to the Isle of Skye.
Jack on the Liverpool dock
With the boys at Stonehenge
Crows at Stonehenge
With Jack
Charley roamin’ in the gloamin’.
Charley and Travis engaging in silliness. For some reason, they don’t often smile when their pictures are taken. It’s a McKeen Family trait.
Jack with another roadside attraction in Scotland.
American icons, painted on the walls of an underpass in London.
This made it all worthwhile

The morning watering

I was tending to my flowers this morning and was struck by how beautiful they looked holding the beads of water. Thought I’d share this small moment, which has that intimate vibe of Smile, not the towering grandiosity of Sgt. Pepper.

Out of the sandbox

The Boys at Zuma Beach, 1967. Left to right, Carl Wilson, Alan Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Dennis Wilson.

At the beginning of 1967, Brian Wilson was on top of the pyramid.

In the previous year, he’d made Pet Sounds, one of the most influential albums in recorded history, then produced a stunning, shimmering song called “Good Vibrations.” With Brian Wilson as producer-arranger-composer, the Beach Boys had become America’s pre-eminent rock band.

The word was that Brian Wilson was a genius and that he was to American music what Magellan was to world travel.

Most of this ‘genius’ speculation was based on Brian’s work-in-progress, an album to be called Smile that would serve as his “teen-age symphony to God.” Brian’s idiosyncratic music, paired with the intense and playful lyrics of Van Dyke Parks, were the stuff of rock-critic legend. Reporters chronicling the making of Smile gorged on Brian’s eccentricities, including his filling his dining room with sand, so he could move his piano into the room and wiggle his toes as he composed.

As I say: at the beginning of 1967, he was on the top of the pyramid. By the end of the year, he’d tumbled from those staggering heights.

Brian Wilson

Lots of reasons, but the one that seems to have earned the most favor over the years: The Beatles surpassed him. The British group produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and left the Beach Boys in their stellar wake. Since Sgt. Pepper strove for — and achieved — grandiosity, Brian probably thought Smile — with its celebration of small moments of joy — might not stand up.

Whatever the case, he cancelled the album after Pepper‘s release and withdrew the band from the Monterrey International Pop Festival. Those two events are seen as crippling the Beach Boys as a significant rock’n’roll band.

(Though tragically unhip in America, they remained revered in Great Britain, where they were arguably more popular than the Beatles.)

To recover, other members of the band coaxed Brian back to life on the ground. They built a studio in Brian’s house and cocooned him, which kept him away from the great studios — Western Recorders or Gold Star — and the session players history has dubbed the Wrecking Crew.

‘Smiley Smile,’ released September 1967
‘Wild Honey,’ released December 1967

Instead, Carl Wilson helped his big brother to make “music to cool out by.” The other members pitched in. If their musicianship was not at the level of the session pros in the Wrecking Crew, then so be it. They worked toward a simpler sound. For some reason, Brian had his piano detuned, so it sounded like the kind of thing you’d heard when friends got together in the basement after a few beers.

In place of Smile, the Beach Boys produced Smiley Smile in September 1967 and Wild Honey in December 1967. And ‘produced’ is a key word there. The earlier Beach Boys albums bore the ‘Produced by BRIAN WILSON’ credit. Now the jacket said, ‘Produced by THE BEACH BOYS.’

This music was the antithesis of Sgt. Pepper or The Notorious Byrd Brothers or anything by Jimi Hendrix (who sealed the doom of the band’s hipness with his “may you never hear surf music again” hidden lyric on “Third Stone from the Sun”). As Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said of 1967, all the artists were trying to out-weird each other.

The Beach Boys had done weird, with Smile, and found it not to be suitable.

Click on the image for the remastered “Darlin’ ” from “Sunshine Tomorrow.”

They never tried to be something they were not. And what they were was three brothers and a cousin from the suburbs. So the heavy intellectual stuff and pomposity didn’t fit well. Years ago, a writer put it nicely. Wish I could remember his name or the correct phrasing, but it was something like “We are a confounding country. We can put a man on the moon but we can’t stop people from wearing spandex pants to the mall. The Beach Boys will drive you crazy that way too.”

In short, you’ve got to be willing to take the goofy with the great.

When Smiley Smile came out, it was largely panned, though it’s an excellent album. But since it was the ‘Instead of Smile‘ album, it was held to an impossible standard. As Carl Wilson said, “It was a bunt instead of a grand slam.”

A mock cover of the never-released pseudo-live album, “Lei’d in Hawaii.”

The recorded-in-the-living-room vibe gave Smiley Smile a wholly original sound. After a live album in Hawaii was discovered to have been poorly recorded, the Beach Boys took this new homegrown work ethic into a studio where they tried to fix the live album with some live-in-studio recordings. They abandoned that project and instead went back to the living room and made Wild Honey, the closest thing the group ever recorded to a rhythm and blues album.

This has always marked the beginning of my favorite period in Beach Boys music. When the mass audience and the new ruling class of rock intelligentsia looked elsewhere, the Beach Boys made music for themselves. This wonderful era is now chronicled in the two-disc history 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow (come on boys, pick a title).

What we have in Sunshine Tomorrow isn’t a collection of snippets and scraps. Producer Mark Linnett has taken these old pieces and put together a new piece of work — not just a document of a creative period in the band’s life, but something that stands up today. This is a glorious album.

‘Sunshine Tomorrow’ features 65 tracks over two discs.

Linnett sets the stage by starting with Wild Honey in a new stereo mix. He then works through some session outtakes and live performances. As brilliant as that is — and Wild Honey has some of the best Beach Boys songs ever — it’s the Smiley Smile sessions that provide some of the great delights.

Wisely, Linnett leaves off “Good Vibrations” (Brian didn’t want it on the original album anyway) and he uses the backing tracks of “Heroes and Villains,” instead of the vocal, which would have contained those wonderful but overwhelming lyrics. Linnett eases into the Smiley Smile material with revelatory backing tracks, gradually building to the wonderfully weird and stoned-out “Wind Chimes,” “Cool, Cool Water,” “Vegetables” and “Little Pad.”

From there, Linnett goes into the faux-concert album as the scaled-back homegrown Beach Boys recreate their Hawaii setlist from the poorly-taped concerts on Oahu. (Brian had come out of performing retirement to join the band on stage.) These quiet versions of “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda” and “Surfer Girl” are wonderful reinterpretations.

The five performing Beach Boys in 1967. Left to right, Carl Wilson, Alan Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Bruce Johnston (Brian’s stage replacement) and Mike Love.

If I never hear “Surfer Girl” again, I’d be okay. But here, it’s done in a laid-back style that renders it a whole new song. Mike Love loses his usual braggadocio and “California Girls” becomes a gentle lament. (Love’s singing throughout is reserved. He pulls back on the usual swaggering bullshit and sings with tenderness.) Alan Jardine changes the perspective of “Help Me, Rhonda,” turning the story around, so it’s more of a “Help You, Rhonda” now. They sound remarkably like the Ramones doing “Beat on the Brat.”

The real surprise is the concert-in-the-studio version of “You’re So Good to Me,” from the 1965 album Summer Days. Brian Wilson’s new arrangement is much richer than the shrill chant from two years (and a lifetime) before. If only the music business still revolved around singles, this would be a good one.

The group also does some then-current songs by other groups: “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “The Letter” and “Game of Love.” The combined Carl-Brian-Mike shared lead vocal on “The Letter” is particularly fun. (By the way, the set ends with a thrilling a cappella “Surfer Girl.”)

This was a great period for the group and to hear them and marks Carl Wilson’s emergence. Though in retrospect we can see he had the best solo voice, he was not eager to sing lead vocals. He carried “Pom Pom Play Girl,” but it was “Girl, Don’t Tell Me” from 1965 that he considered his first lead. Then big brother entrusted him with “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” If that doesn’t demonstrate trust and respect, I’ll eat my Volkswagen.

Baby brother Carl Wilson not only moved into the front-man role for the Beach Boys in 1967, he began his long career of trying to hold the group together.

Carl is all over Wild Honey and his love of rhythm and blues comes out in his unrestrained, fluid vocals. He does a tremendous cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” (listen for the you-son-of-a-bitch hidden lyric) and “Darlin'” is irresistible.

As McGuinn said, everyone was trying to out-weird each other, but the Beach Boys were hanging out in Brian’s living room, singing rhythm and blues around that deliberately detuned piano. The slightly off sound of the music — and the overall dominance of the piano — gives the music of this era a resonance.

Who knew that the Beach Boys would be the harbingers of what would start happening that very month Wild Honey was released.

Tired of the grandiose bullshit (he thought Sgt. Pepper was a piece of crap), Bob Dylan came out of his 18-month seclusion and produced the quiet masterpiece, John Wesley Harding. It was Dylan’s way of grabbing rock’n’roll by the lapels and saying, “Pull yourself together!”

Soon, the Beatles were cutting out all of the studio gimmickry and promising to ‘get back.’ Meanwhile,  the Byrds and the Band were discovering what today we call roots music and Americana.

In a way, the Beach Boys were there first.


Going off the cliff


Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis

If anything good has come out of our culture in the last 18 months, maybe it’s that us Clueless White Guys are beginning to understand the problem.

To many of us, the election of the Pussygrabber in Chief was like sticking our heads in a sink full of ice cubes. And not long before that, there was that viral video showing a woman walking around the Five Boroughs getting catcalled by everything male.

As a Clueless White Guy, I’ve got to tell you how much those two events affected me. When I saw the catcalling video, I asked my adult daughters if that’s really what it was like to be a woman. Yes, they said, and worse.

And then that vile, groping guy got elected president.

This is all heavy on my mind as I read Becky Aikman’s new book, Off the Cliff. Aikman tells the story of the making of Thelma & Louise, and all of the behind-the-scenes battles to get the story on screen.  The story of two renegades from sexual oppression and violence, it was the work of Callie Khouri, who became the first woman in 60 years to win a solo Oscar for screenwriting.

Since the film became such a touchstone of popular culture – 25 years ago now! – it might come as a surprise to Clueless White Guys what a struggle it was to make.

The lead roles were played by women! That’s as rare as frost on a frying pan! A story about women — note plural — that did not cast them in the standard roles of “mom” or “hooker” (or perhaps both at once).

The script was by a woman! Great mother of jabbering Jesus! Since when does that stuff happen?

And, of course, the director was the guy who made Alien. Yes! This makes perfect sense!

Off the Cliff doesn’t tell a story that merely pits women against men. The director, Ridley Scott, is as much of a horndog as the rest of us, but he is drawn to the story and making Thelma & Louise was his education and consciousness raising.

Studio head Alan Ladd Jr. also pushed the film, and we learn how he was the rare executive to move into production films with strong female leads. It was Laddie (as he was called), who suggested to director Scott during that earlier collaboration on Alien, “Say, why don’t we make a woman be the hero?”

Sigourney Weaver, here is your career.

The two stars of the film, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, were not the first choices. It was going to be Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer. Then it was Meryl and Goldie.

Becky Aikman

Sarandon is the hero of the book, both for her principled character as an actor and in the role she played, but also as a mentor to younger artists such as Geena Davis and … well, and nearly everyone else she comes across. She understands the characters and knows the power of the story. And she stands up for Davis when she catches the slightest whiff of exploitation.

And who better than Susan Sarandon to be charged with consciousness raising?

(Offscreen tidbit: George Clooney was turned down for the role that Brad Pitt got. This is the film that made Pitt into a star. Would the cosmos have evolved differently if Clooney had gotten the part? Discuss.)

There are a lot of great making-of-the-film books out there, dating from Lillian Ross’s magnificent Picture (about John Huston’s struggle to make The Red Badge of Courage in 1952). Later entries included John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (about the horrifying Rex Harrison version of Doctor Doolittle), and Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (about turning The Bonfire of the Vanities into a film).

Aikman’s book is one of the best of the making-of subgenre and certainly one of the best books about filmmaking since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

But Off the Cliff is not just a book about making a movie. It’s about the culture that so devalues the contributions of the majority of its citizens. Aikman doesn’t preach; she doesn’t need to. The story is up on the screen.





When I drive, I become a beast. I swear nonstop and call fellow drivers a number of unattractive words. For the good of all humanity — and my blood pressure — I take the train to work. This is the design I proposed for Massachusetts plates a few years back. Sorry to report that the Commonwealth has yet to adopt it.