Hello from 'Catch a Wave' central
Hi: I'm Peter, the guy who wrote the new book, "Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson", newly published by Rodale and available wherever fine books, and others, are sold.
Michael invited me to check in here on his PS blog and add a thought or two, so here I am. I'll put up a few things in the next little while, much of it drawn from the text of 'CAW.' Which is where we begin today, with a brief extract from the fifth chapter, which recounts the beginnings of the collaboration between Brian and Tony Asher, and something of their creative process.
Much more of the same story -- along with the whole Brian Wilson story, music criticism and cultural analysis -- fills the rest of "Catch A Wave," of which more (reviews! pics! authorial musings!) at peteramescarlin.com.
Oh, and if it turns out that you're an Angeleno, or at least will be among them on Aug 17, I'll be reading from the book at Book Soup on Sunset Blvd at 7 pm that evening.
So here we go....return with me now to the fall of 1965....
BRIAN WENT BACK to his piano, where he could disappear into himself and transform his anxieties and inspiration into music that went beyond anything he’d ever done before. Beyond anything anyone had ever done before. Emotional music; religious music, even. "It all starts with religion," he said in one 1966 interview that went on to connect his sense of faith with the way he could transform his feelings into beautiful sounds. "A lot of the songs are the results of emotional experiences, sadness and pain¼I find it possible to spill melodies, beautiful melodies, in moments of great despair. This is one of the wonderful things about this art form."
But if Brian had one weakness as a songwriter, he felt, it was expressing his feelings verbally. And though his songs almost always revolved around his feelings and ideas, he most often depended upon collaborators to transform his simply-stated notions into lyrics. Better yet, Brian’s collaborators served as a sounding board, not just for his musical ideas, but for all the other whims and fancies that caromed through his mind. And the more he began to think about this new album, the more Brian understood that he would need a new partner to help write the new songs. Someone who was articulate and sensitive, who had nothing to do with his family, or any previous Beach Boys record. Talking one day with Loren Schwartz, Brian was reminded of Tony Asher, a youngish advertising executive he’d seen at the evening parties in his friend’s Hollywood apartment. Interestingly, Asher – who wrote jingles for the Carson-Scott advertising agency, and often recorded them at Western Recorders – had actually introduced Brian to Loren back in January, 1963.
"He was my best friend at Santa Monica High School," Schwartz says. "His mother was Laura LaPlante, a famous silent film actress, and his dad, Irving Asher, was a big movie executive. They lived in a big mansion on Maple Drive, with a real English butler. He played good piano, was a student of modern jazz and arranging and was very clever with words." Indeed, Asher was an urbane, well-to-do bachelor who was well-read and preferred jazz to rock. But if Asher didn’t buy rock records for his collection, he listened to it on the radio and had long since come to appreciate the complexity and power of the Beach Boys’ singles. "When a new song of theirs came on the radio, I’d think: Goddammit, they did it again!" Asher recalls. "I had great respect and admiration for them and for Brian, but I didn’t own any of their albums. I was buying Bill Evans albums."
Perhaps that’s why Brian – who often made his most important decisions based on gut reactions – knew that Asher was exactly the guy he was looking for. He called him at the office one day in December, 1965, explaining that he had an album to make, and needed a new sound for the lyrics. "He said, ‘I want this to be completely different. I don’t want to write with anyone I’ve written with before,’" Asher remembers. Once Asher was confident the voice on the other end was indeed the head Beach Boy and not a friend prank calling him from down the hall, he accepted the collaboration offer on the spot. Securing a three week leave of absence from his bosses at Carson-Scott, Asher packed up some yellow legal pads and pencils and drove up to Brian’s house in Beverly Hills to begin his unexpected, exciting task.
The first assignment was atypical, as it turns out. After showing Asher around his house, Brian took him into his small music room, where he played him an acetate of a finished track he’d recorded for an echoing, circular song titled "In My Childhood." Brian already had a set of lyrics that fit with the tune’s sweet, vaguely melancholy sound and quirky textural effects (a bicycle horn and bell). But he didn’t like his lyrics anymore, and wanted to adapt the tune to another concept. What he had in mind for the new album, Asher recalls, had nothing to do with the Beatles or any kind of rock ‘n’ roll. "Brian had defined it as wanting to write something closer to classical American love songs, like Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hammerstein," he says. Brian asked Asher what his favorite songs were, and when it turned out the Beach Boy hadn’t even heard of the romantic jazz ballad "Stella by Starlight," Asher sat at the piano and played it for him. "He was totally blown away. He hadn’t heard it before, and he loved it."
Brian, in turn, dubbed a tape copy of "In My Childhood," and sent Asher home to write new words. Asher came back the next day with the lyrics to "You Still Believe in Me" sketched out on his yellow legal pad. For reasons he can’t quite remember, Asher felt no doubt that Brian would approve of what he had done. "Ordinarily I’m not that self-confident," he says. "But I guess I’d already learned that he was insecure, too, and he didn’t know what he wanted, either." But Brian knew he liked the new words, and so from that moment their collaboration began in earnest. Most days, Asher would get to Brian’s house at about 10 a.m., only to wait for his partner to roust himself from bed and get something to eat. That could take anywhere from one to three hours, during which they’d start chatting about whatever was on their minds. "We’d have like a two or three-hour conversation that set a mood," Asher explains. "We’d ramble on about whatever: Girls we had dated, relationships we’d had, heartbreak and so on. And that we’d write within that mood. He’d play the piano for a while, and I’d sit with my yellow legal pad sketching out lyrics, and we’d be ignoring each other. Then we’d get together, tinkering with each other’s work."
The idea of young love – particularly the kind that resembled the intense crush he’d once had on Carol Mountain during high school – seemed to obsess Brian. "Those times when you’re young and you’d jump off a bridge for a girl, but then ten days later you’d be thinking the same thing about someone else," Asher says. "We were thinking about back when you’re just beginning to understand what love is, acknowledging that it’s immature, but still universal." Brian clearly fed off of the emotional intensity he recalled from those early relationships, which may be why he didn’t seem to recognize their inherent immaturity, or, for that matter, what his fascination for them said about the state of his grown-up relationship with Marilyn. As Tony recalls: "He was constantly looking at teenage girls. Which wasn’t like a 47-year-old looking at teenagers [Brian was 23]. But he thought they were all the most beautiful girl in the world. And he was married at the time, so it was fairly obvious he was confused about love."
Indeed, when Brian wasn’t rhapsodizing about the random young women he encountered in drive-in restaurants or on the street, he was fantasizing about his own sister-in-law. "He’d stop in the middle of writing a song, or a conversation or whatever, and start going on about Diane, about how innocent, sweet, and beautiful she was. I’d be thinking, huh! Your wife’s in the next room, and you’re talking about her sister!" Other times, he would flash back to Carol Mountain, to the point of tracking his classmate down to her new home, where he would telephone or even appear at odd hours, desperate to re-experience the thrill she gave him in high school. But Mountain, like Brian, was married, setting out on a life that had very little to do with the one she had lived in Hawthorne. This became the subject of another long conversation with Asher, and by the time they were done they had written "Caroline, No," the desolate ballad that would conclude the album.