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My Life of Brian (Wilson)

To mark the 60th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ first album, ‘Surfin’ Safari,’ a writer shares a note of appreciation for Brian Wilson

By Steve Uhler

October 5, 2022

Editor’s note: The Beach Boys released ‘Surfin’ Safari’ on October 5, 1962, the first of 29 studio albums and 11 live albums.

Dear Brian,
This thank-you note has been a long time coming, but you know how things go. Time flies and gets blown away like a leaf on a windy day.

Brian Wilson in the studio, 2022 | Credit: PBS American Masters

The first slow dance I ever had was in 1963 when I was 10 years old, with Debbie Lopez, at my elementary school. It was a record party, and when someone put your song “Surfer Girl” on the turntable, I knew it was time to make my move. I still recall how dreamlike it felt, my hand tentatively touching hips not yet fully formed. It was an intoxicating whiff of sweet things to come and made me anxious to grow up. Wouldn’t it be nice.

I didn’t know then that you’d written, arranged and produced that song, as you would so many more to come. All I knew was that it was by a group called The Beach Boys, and it sounded like heaven to me.

How Your Music Made Me Feel

I was raised in California, only miles from where you grew up and just a few short years behind you. How many times I cranked up the AM radio for “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” “I Get Around,” and that incredible mini-pop symphony, “Good Vibrations.” You built a mythical California out of sand; a laid-back Nepenthe bathed in sun, surf, girls on the beach and cars in a paradise utopia which somehow became real and persists to this day.

A few years later as a teenager, experiencing the pangs of my first breakup, you consoled me.

Then you started writing songs about deeper things than surfing, which you couldn’t do anyway. A few years later as a teenager, experiencing the pangs of my first breakup, you consoled me. The day I first heard “God Only Knows,” I was alone in my room and the radio was playing the “Pick of the Day on KRLA.”

That heavenly intro (with the French Horn, harpsichord, accordion and sleigh bells), segueing into the opening verse “I may not always love you …” was brave, honest and unexpected in a pop song. All capped off with that stunning cherry-on-the-cake vocal fade out (“God only knows what I’d be without you . . .”), a transcendent tapestry of interwoven harmonies. I wanted it to last forever. I still do.

By 2000, I was in Austin, Texas, and doing freelance work for the local paper, a world away from California. Somehow, I scammed my way into an interview with you in conjunction with your Pet Sounds Tour — your first live appearance in decades.

We got to chat during a sound check. I got in trouble because I was in a band that had an important gig in town that night that I was expected to publicize, and during a radio interview I told listeners to go see you instead of us. (The band broke up shortly thereafter.)

Meeting Marlie

In 2004, you came through town to perform the legendary “Smile” album in its entirety, and I brought my then four-year-old daughter Marlie to see you. She loved twirling to “Fun, Fun, Fun” but had no idea who you were. I had an intuition that after the show you might ask her about her favorite music group, and coached her to answer, “The Beach Boys.” She looked perplexed but anxious to please. Several times that day I quizzed her: “If Brian asks who your favorite group is, what are you going to say?”

“The Beach Boys, daddy.” By the fourth rehearsal she was getting a little snippy. Sure enough, when she met you that night, you picked her up, sat her on your knee, and asked, “So, Marlie, do you like music?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

As if on cue you asked, “Who’s your favorite group?”

Her eyes lit up. “The Beatles!” You smiled broadly, looked her in the eye and said, “Yeah, me too. They’re a pretty good band.”

The Soundtrack of My Life

Years later, Marlie developed post-traumatic problems due to a major car accident. Like you, she heard voices in her head. I know you’ve been through dark times, struggling over the years with invisible scars, but you keep getting up every day and creating something new. You’ve been candid and open about your fears and depressions, helping to bring mental health into our national conversation, and you’ve never pulled punches. You don’t live in the past, but the past lives in you

Marlie is a young woman with a baby girl of her own, and sometimes I sing “In My Room” to little Indigo as a lullaby.

When I took my daughter to see “Love and Mercy,” the 2014 movie based on your life, she was inspired. She saw someone else who heard voices — and who had the strength to keep evolving and creating and somehow dealing with this crazy mosaic of life.

I wanted to tell you I’m a grandfather now. Marlie is a young woman with a baby girl of her own, and sometimes I sing “In My Room” to little Indigo as a lullaby. She invariably succumbs to the spell. More than any other human being I’ve ever met, you connect to the child within through sound. You’re the only guy I know who says “Golly!” and “Gee!” a lot — and actually means it.

This might seem weird, but it’s true. I grew up in an America that I’m no longer certain even exists anymore, but you always personified the virtues this country means to me when we’re at our best: Family, harmony, empathy, compassion and a sense of childlike wonder that can create beauty out of chaos. And, oh yes, love and mercy.

So, thank you for producing the soundtrack to my life, Brian. Your music runs like a river through the years, connecting cross-currents and tributaries of generations yet to come. It will live forever . . . and won’t that be nice?

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Steve Uhler is a freelance journalist, author, and advocate for active aging, covering the challenges of adjusting to new paradigms in a changing world. He has also interviewed and profiled such diverse figures as music icon Brian Wilson, former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, filmmaker Richard Linklater and 97-year-old Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough. His work has appeared in outlets including Cox Media, ABC News, Kirkus Book Reviews, and numerous newspapers and magazines. Read More

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