Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Endless Summers With the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys 2012, sounding forever young. All photos of the Beach Boys courtesy of BeachBoys.com

Robin writes: Today, a break from my tour-blogging about French Canada, and a return to something very American.  My friend, writer-director-producer, Steve Latshaw, is a big, big fan of the Beach Boys. (Hey me too!) Steve's an Illinois kid, now living in LA, who has managed to hang on to the sense of wonder he brought with him from the Midwest. So, today, when the Beach Boys released their new album, Steve was in heaven. He had an advance copy and with that in his hand, he said, it was 1976, he was seventeen years old, and he was back in Decatur, Illinois. That's how the Beach Boys worked their magic on him as he tells us in this Guest Blog Post.
By Steve Latshaw

All over the world people who have never even been to the beach, have their own special year that marks their perfect Beach Boys summer. 

These are the times when each of us has discovered the freedom of the open road (or at least borrowed the family car); days of freedom--maybe at the beach, or in my case, a Midwestern lake; nights at the drive-in (movies AND burgers); our first (or second) high school love; and, most of all, the music of the Beach Boys, which seems to underscore just about every activity and emotion we experienced.

Early Beach Boys, wearing those blue-and-white striped shirts they made famous.

For some, it was the summer of 1965, when "California Girls" was on the radio, network TV shows went color, gas was cheap, and that war in Vietnam was just about to heat up.  The Beach Boys were young and fresh and innocent.  And so were we--though after that war, none of us would ever be the same, even those of us too young to fight. 

We watched our brothers and sisters and cousins and fathers go off to a conflict nothing like what we saw in our favorite war movies and come back--if they were lucky enough to come back--changed forever.  It was a time that changed the Beach Boys, too, as they began to go through, what Van Dyke Parks called their own “fire,” with drugs, the aborted "Smile"project, Brian’s partial withdrawal from the band and the fear that they were no longer relevant for their audience.  Some thought they had become, in Beach Boy Bruce Johnston’s words, “surfing Doris Days…”

The Beach Boys as they began to grow up and experience their first growing pains.

For some of us, we jump ahead twenty three years to 1988.  Thanks to their real talent and a Tom Cruise movie called Cocktail, the Beach Boys were back with a number one hit called “Kokomo,” which was all over MTV.

But for the long time fan, like me, the greatest Beach Boys summer was 1976, as the gas crisis hit (even though I could still fill up the family 1970 Kingswood Estate Station Wagon for twenty bucks a tank).  That was the summer "Saturday Night Live" kicked into high gear with an NBC TV Special about the Beach Boys.

At the time, the Boys had been at it for fifteen years and, some thought, they looked it.  But the girls still liked Dennis; Mike was funny and cool; Al was mellow and cool; Carl was just so cool; and, gee, Brian was back!

It was comeback time for the band; we’d worn out our eight-tracks of those eternal "Endless Summer" and "Spirit of America" albums just in time for a brand new hit record by the Boys, produced by Brian Wilson, called "15 Big Ones."

Steve pulling real vinyl out of a real album cover as this teenage fan prepared to put this ancient device for recording music onto what was then known as a "turn table."

So, my buddies Doug Workman, Dave Garriott, and I each bought copies of that album and I made a cassette tape and we cruised all over the roads of Decatur, Illinois that summer in Dave’s convertible 1968 Camaro, singing along to the Boys new radio hits: "It’s OK"; Chuck Berry’s “Rock & Roll Music”; and a couple of great sing-alongs called “Back Home” and “Palisades Park.”  

We turned north one summer night in July, headed for Peoria and an outdoor concert featuring the Beach Boys! We sang along to that new album, and when we turned it off, more Beach Boys hits blasted through the AM radio courtesy of the Big 89, WLS, from Chicago: "Surfin’ USA”; “Fun Fun Fun”; "Help Me Rhonda"; and (Dave’s favorite) “Do It Again.”

Beach Boys on tour, 1976. The blue-and-white-striped shirts are out.

Sometime in the early evening, as the free-spirit warmth of that 1970s sun began to set, the Beach Boys took the stage. Backed by a band equal to any on the road in those days, they exploded through a two-hour set of their biggest and their newest hits.  

We laughed at every bad joke from Mike and sang along with every song.  And Mike, whirling like Mick Jagger, with a little help from drummer Dennis Wilson, whipped us into a rock and roll frenzy with the hits… "Help Me Rhonda"… "I Get Around"… "Good Vibrations"… "Barbara Ann"… "Fun Fun Fun." 

And, as teenagers with hormones raging, we all got big damned lumps in our throats during those beautiful ballads like "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl" because we all had girls we had crushes on (or at least high hopes for).  

This was back in the day when lyrics like this meant something to a teenager: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake-up/In the morning when the day is new… And after having spent the day together/Hold each other close the whole night through.”  

When you’re young and in love those words mean so much to you, especially when tied to a Brian Wilson melody. Maybe when you’re old and in love, too.

Young Steve Latshaw as a teen, headed off somewhere in a vehicle.  The good news? He did grow out of this stage--but never out of his love for the Beach Boys music.

And then it was all over.  Dave and Doug and I looked at each other on that sweltering 1976 summer night, sweat cooling, thanks to a surprise breeze, and all we could talk about were the Beach Boys.  And California. Definitely California. We were all gonna move to Los Angeles. The summer after graduation. We’d live out there and hang with the Beach Boys.

The years passed and though so many dreams faded, the three of us followed ours, the best we could. Dave and Doug ended up taking a party hearty trip to California together, in the summer of 1977.  I stayed at home and ended up going to college, (though it took me nine years to graduate as my primary major was beer.) Dave took over his family’s business and married the prettiest High School teacher in Central Illinois. Doug became an Army Ranger. He’s still serving proudly all these years later. We have kids and grandkids that we love. And thank God, we’re all three still around to laugh and talk about the old days. I love them both with all my heart.

The Beach Boys had their own troubles after 1976. They lost Dennis in 1983--drowned in Marina Del Ray, an adventurous man out of his time, the rock and roll Errol Flynn.  And then Carl died in 1998--hit with two kinds of cancer. The “quiet leader” of the Beach Boys, Carl had kept it all together and maybe kept it inside, too, as we lost him at the too-young-age of 51.  

Through it all the Beach Boys kept going, sometimes releasing more depositions than albums in a seemingly Endless Summer of lawsuits.  At one point, three different factions toured, playing the hits. Mike, Al and Brian each had their own bands. A lot of music, and a lot of fun for the kids who hadn’t heard them on the first go-around.  But for those of us who had been there, it seemed a little sad.

And what about me? The most fanatical Beach Boys fan in Decatur, Illinois?  I finally made it to Southern California in 1995, at age 35, and managed to carve out a successful career as a movie writer and director.  But as I told Dave and Doug, by the time I got out here it seemed like all my heroes were gone. It was like showing up at a family reunion and not recognizing anybody. Going to familiar places and seeing nothing but ghosts. I thought I’d waited too long.

Writer-director Steve Latshaw working and living in Los Angeles at last, in a promo shot from his latest film, Return of the Killer Shrews (2012).

And then 2012 rolls around, and with it, a massive Beach Boys reunion tour.  As I’d always hoped and never dreamed, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson were back together.  Bruce Johnston (Grammy winner for writing “I Write the Songs” for Barry Manilow and a Beach Boy since 1965) and David Marks (he’d played on the first five albums) were joining them. 

Dennis and Carl would be there too--electronically anyway--as the band played live to video performances of two of their most beloved songs. I watched in disbelief as the Beach Boys--the real Beach Boys--hit the road again, garnering rave reviews, selling out huge venues and churning out a spectacular forty-five-song set-list covering every era, every night.   

It was true. No matter what our own special Beach Boys summer was: 1965? 1976? 1988? (“It’s OK” and “Rock & Roll Music” make the cut, for me): we could each go back and remember all of our own Beach Boys summers.  And the band was remembering, too.  

I saw them Saturday, June 2, 2012, at the Hollywood Bowl--a show I watched unfold in (almost) joyous disbelief. Mike and the others seemed almost humbled by the heartfelt responses from the crowd.  I noticed something I hadn’t expected: the smiles on the guys’ faces.  Even Brian.  It looked like just maybe they were enjoying this as much as we were.  

And we were.  During “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room” I couldn’t hear the band singing on stage.  Because all 10,000 voices in that audience were singing along, word for word, note for note, audience harmonies stacked perfectly--like a choir in church. 

Of course, the audience did the same thing on “I Get Around” and” California Girls”--but those songs were more like a hot rod show at Bob’s Big Boy and a walk down Santa Monica pier at sunset.

But there was one more surprise yet to come. Words I never expected to hear: “a forthcoming new Beach Boys album.” What’s more--“a new Beach Boys single…” And then… “a new Beach Boys HIT single.”  My sweet Lord, really?  Twenty-four years after "Kokomo"?  Thirty-six years after "Rock & Roll Music?"  Half a century after "Surfin’ Safari?"

But it’s all true.  It’s all here.  I have it in my hands; I have it in my stereo and I’m stuck in an episode of my favorite TV series from the 1960s: "Time Tunnel."  I’m listening to this record and drifting from beach to beach, sand dune to sand dune … era to era … some of it sounding like "Surfer Girl" or "Summer Days" or "Pet Sounds" tunes ... some of it sounding like "Sunflower" or "Surf’s Up."

And some of it sounding like 2012, especially the deeply reflective and joyous, and sometimes very sad and wistful lyrics. But, as Mike said on stage--it all sounds like 1965, which means you CAN go home again.  The Beach Boys have with their new record, and it is a joy to hear.  And all of it sounds like these guys just strolled back into Sunset Studios in the sixties, cut these songs, drifted into some sort of a time warp, and handed them to us.

The Beach Boys' new album.

I’m not going to do a track by track analysis of the new release. You can do that yourself.  The title song--"That's Why God Made the Radio"--is playing everywhere: tracks like “Isn’t It Time,” ”Spring Vacation” and “Beaches in Mind” celebrate the water, surf, sand and just chilling out.  

“Shelter” is a beautiful Spectorian anthem about the importance of having a place to hide and protect our love.  “The Private Lives of Bill and Sue” contains an infectious acapella break that reminds us that when it comes to rock and roll harmony, there are the Beach Boys, and then everyone else.  And the suite that closes the album--"From There to Back Again," “Pacific Coast Highway,” and “Summer’s Gone,”--are as breathtaking as anything this band ever recorded.

The record is produced by Brian Wilson with Mike Love as executive producer.  With the exception of a brilliant and beautiful, unreleased Mike Love track called “Daybreak Over The Ocean” (featuring background vocals by Mike’s son Christian, who sounds eerily like Carl Wilson), Brian wrote the songs, mostly with Joe Thomas and Mike Love, plus help from Jim Peterik and Jon Bon Jovi.  

It’s an organic family affair: just Mike, Brian, Bruce and Al on vocals, along with thirty-one-year Beach Boys veteran Jeff Foskett singing many of the high parts and vocals that Carl might have sung, his voice blending effortlessly with the rest of the Brothers, Cousins & Friends to make Beach Boys magic.  

Instrumentally, the band is fundamentally Brian’s band, with the addition of Mike’s musical director Scott Totten on guitar.  The amazing John Cowsill handles some of the drumming chores--he’s the closet thing I’ve heard to Dennis Wilson, on record and on stage, since 1980.   And the “lost” Beach Boy, Carl’s fourteen-year-old neighbor David Marks, who played blistering surf lines on the first five albums, is back to finally claim his place in the Beach Boys' sun.  David supplies some incredible guitar work, alternately surf-y and bluesy--Dick Dale meets Robert Cray, if you can imagine something like that.

But it’s the vocals that make it, a sound none of us thought we'd ever hear again in quite this way. Those voices, once again, singing melodies and harmonies so precise and lyrics so wonderfully innocent and so heartbreakingly wise and painful, as if they'd never left our ears. They're back, with one of the finest works of their career, with a real work of emotion and love, with a twinge of nostalgia at the passing years, yet their ever-present bright exuberance--their determination to go down swinging and singing, preferably at the beach.

This record is a chance for all of us to get together--those of us who had our Beach Boys summers and the Boys themselves. A chance to remember. A chance to feel like teenagers again--dreaming of feet in wet sand; sun warming our skin; holding hands with that special person who's perfect love would never leave us. It's also bittersweet--a chance for us to say goodbye, perhaps, one last time. Because, as the lyrics to the final song on this release say: 

“Summer's Gone...
I’m gonna sit and watch the waves
We laugh, we cry
We live then die
And dream about our yesterday.”

Surf’s Up.
P.S. (To Doug and Dave) Your copies are on their way!

Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, California

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