Friday, April 21, 2017

Book review: Everybody had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles



Review by Kathryn Atwood


Sometimes I feel like Agent Irena Spalko, Cate Blanchett’s character in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when, towards the end of the movie she reveals what has motivated her evil actions throughout the entire film by screaming at the demon heads “I vant to know!” Now I don’t normally scream in libraries, bookstores, or even at my Amazon wish list, but I completely understood Agent Spalko during this scene.

Which is why, apart from certain fiction authors, I generally read (and write) non-fiction. But like Agent Spalko, this thirst for knowledge sometimes gets me more than I bargained for. Case in point: When I saw that my publishers were putting out a book whose cover featured Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, I had to request a review copy. After all, the music of the 1960s was the soundtrack of my childhood and a connection to my slightly older former-garage band husband; I can sing all the songs by heart but he knows exactly who is playing which guitar solo on hundreds of 60s songs.

So I dove into William McKeen's excellent Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mahem in 1960s Los Angeles, ready to fill in the gaps in my understanding of 1960s pop culture history. In some ways it gave me more than I bargained for.


First, the good and the great: Like Wilfrid Sheed’s The House that George Built, McKeen's Everybody Had an Ocean centers on one small cast of characters—in this case, the Wilson brothers—but expands to reveal how they interacted with their universe. The Beach Boys might remain the trunk of this particular tree, but the branches fascinate. Nearly everyone who was somebody in the world of 1960s rock and roll makes an appearance here and the connections are often startling. For instance, Stephen Stills told his friend Peter Torkelson about auditions for a TV series about a rock and roll band. Peter got the part, shortening his last name to Tork. After Joni Mitchell met fellow-Canadian Neil Young in Winnipeg and played “Sugar Mountain” for her, she responded by writing “The Circle Game.” Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas not only had a beautiful voice but a knack for bringing the right people together, in one famous case, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash.


McKeen's writing--which includes a plethora of direct quotes--makes it seem as if he knew these music-makers personally. Although he seems to have been acquainted with Dennis Wilson, one glance at the notes section shows that he relied on an exhaustive bibliography, including many previously conducted interviews. But the inclusion of these direct quotes from the main players brings an exciting immediacy to the narrative.


What I didn’t bargain for was the brain-frying “mayhem” in the book’s subtitle. For instance, part of me wishes I could go back and think of the Beach Boys as those sunny voices singing upbeat songs. But now I know that while the band members could sing in beautiful harmony, their interpersonal relationships rarely reached that state.  It's uncomfortable to realize that Brian Wilson was deaf in one ear, most likely the result of a beating from his abusive father (a man who only calmed down under music’s influence and who adored hearing his boys sing in three-part harmony. You can’t make this stuff up). I wish I could still pretend the voice singing Wouldn’t it be Nice was an earnest young fiancĂ© rather than Brian Wilson fantasizing about his sister-in-law. I especially wish I didn’t know that Charles Manson was once great pals with Dennis Wilson and that the future mass murderer hoped this friendship would open doors to a rock and roll career.


But if I hadn’t read this excellent book, I also wouldn’t know that the first 20 seconds of California Girls was Brian Wilson’s attempt to musically portray a sunrise, or that his girlfriend, hearing him angst about the unattainable beauty of Be My Baby, patted him on the arm and said “Don’t worry baby,” giving him a line he would later make famous in song.


One thing that puzzled me about McKeen's narrative was what I consider to be his gratuitous use of the F-word and similarly coarse language. It certainly shows up enough in the direct quotes but just as often in McKeen's narration. Perhaps he was trying to add a certain seamlessness to the book by telling the story as one of the characters would have. I'm not sure every reader would react similarly but for me it was jarring and eventually tedious.


However, it didn't stop me from reading to the end because all told, this is an entertaining, enlightening read which adds tremendously to the canon of 1960s pop culture.

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