Unlucky Old Sons
On Brian Wilson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Waves of California, the Melancholy of the Beach Boys, and the Stories the Young Can’t Escape
Hawthorne n 1: California suburb where Brian Wilson, American composer and Beach Boy (b. 1942, just released 10th solo album, That Lucky Old Sun), was raised; 2: Nathaniel (1804–1864) American author
T he Puritans dreamt of the City upon a Hill and came to the New World to build it. Then when it went to hell their sons and sons of sons went west and daughters, too. Get away if you can! The future's there! And beaches, too!
And so, to California, there they went, eventually to Hawthorne, suburb of the City of Angels. It was the last place they could go because the land runs out, the only thing that's left beyond is water, which no one can, unless they're Jesus, walk on, but they tried (on boards) and to degrees they could but then they couldn't. Because as much as anyone tries to ride a wave, a wave can't last forever.
They set out with their modest, pure, angelic wives and found on the other coast the tanned and leggy, long-haired girls, perditious daughters of their deviled dreams. The wives of stalwart colonies, who covered the vanity of hair and clothed themselves in temperate garb, had mostly been obedient, Anne Hutchinson and the Shakers notwithstanding. Though they were deviants, weren't they? Iniquitous. But way out west their malefactress daughters grew then cut their hair (where did their long hair go?), the sons grew theirs and everyone removed their sober clothes. Their children and their children's kids who'd been spared not the rod were scruffy, unwashed, drugged, and had an awful lot of sex. (See Manson, Charles, friend of Wilson brother Dennis, drummer, the cute one.) The daughters, who'd been silent, pure (of, like, or as a Puritan), reported they'd had concourse with the Evil One who'd come to them in bodily form, been sent by others, they accused. They called these others witches (hippies, commies, terrorists) and they were stoned, electrified. They threw them in the water and they drowned. Like surfers who aren't strong enough, or are, except when some great, unexpected wave, a giant maw, swallows them.
Some things, no matter how far apart, occur again the same. They happen the same again and over again. The same except for different and forever.
The witches were condemned to drown.
Like Dennis Wilson drowned. When he was stoned.
O ur Puritan forebears, and some were mine, my mother's mother Doty having traced us back to an indentured servant on the Mayflower, landed on Plymouth Rock, having moved west to start over in the New World, then, having completely fucked over this paradise, moved west again, across the continent, to try again what they failed before and ended in up California, dreaming.
So Hawthorne, writer from the East, and Hawthorne, suburb in the West, are twisted in a Möbius strip, two separate things that are the same, the child and its evil twin.
The City upon a Hill becomes the suburb in the sand.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's great-however-many-grandfather, William Hathorne (no "w" in the old man's name), had been among the first Puritans to immigrate to New England in 1630. His westward move was in a ship and it wasn't easy. There was all of that sickness and puking and death. That leaving behind and forgetting and not forgetting. All of that forever goodbye and never return and always wonder. This William became deputy to the General Court of Massachusetts, speaker of the house, commissioner to the board of the United Colonies of New England, and a renowned Indian Fighter (read: Genocide-r).
William Hathorne also was a judge and, in keeping with the Puritan justice his people had suffered in England but then brought with them because no matter how much you want to, you can never unbecome the thing you want, meted out against evildoers harsh punishments from among the following: Cutting off ears. Boring holes in women's tongues with red-hot irons. Starvation. Dragging naked women through the streets while having them flailed by a constable with a cord-knotted whip thus drawing blood, the desired result known as "stripes." The gallows. Putting into stocks. The pillory. Thumbscrews. Shackles (metal fastenings, usually of a linked pair for the wrists, ankles, or both; see also fetter, manacle; also any thing that keeps one from acting, thinking, or developing as one desires). Public humiliation like having to walk around with the name of your crime written on a board you're wearing around your neck, and the board, being also very heavy, leaving marks on your neck and shoulders when, that is if, you get to take it off. Drowning. (If she floats she's a witch; if she's innocent she drowns. There's water enough for all of us.) Stoning. Stretching on a rack. Ripping off toe- and/or fingernails. Ridicule. Scorn. Throwing feces on. Threatening with dogs. Covering in black hoods. Prodding with electric prods. Waterboarding. Pissing on their holy books. Making them do humiliating sexual things with themselves and with each other while photographing them while photographing ourselves making them do these things, thumbs up, hamming it up, grinning for the camera like a motherfucker—
Wait a second. I'm getting mixed up. They didn't do all of those things back then, did they? Electricity hadn't been invented yet, or photography. They only did some of those things to their fellow countrymen and women. The other things had to wait until, through rational inquiry and scientific progress, we invented them.
B rian Wilson's grandfather William "Buddy" Wilson headed back to California in 1914. (What is it with these grandfathers, Nathaniel's and Brian's, named William? I guess it's a common enough name, my brother's, for example.) I say "back to" California because when he was young, William ("Buddy") had gone to California when his father, also William (Brian's great-grandfather?), tried in 1904 to move the family from Kansas to California in search of a better life, which did not transpire, so the Wilsons then returned to the Midwest where William, not William "Buddy," resumed work as a plumber and then later William (son?) came back. See what I mean about how everyone gets confused with everyone else? Like we're all sort of the same person trying the same things and making the same mistakes again?
Edgar Allan Poe, a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote a story called "William Wilson." Actually, he wrote "William Wilson" twice, once in 1839 and then a variation in 1845. Even a fictional William Wilson gets mixed up with other versions of himself! It gets worse. "William Wilson" ends like this: "In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself."
I am you who destroyed yourself. Your dream will be the death of all your kids.
William Wilson went to California in 1914. He was ambitious, determined, stocky, and a drinker often to the point of violence. He beat his family, particularly his wife. Sometimes his son Murry tried to rescue his mother, coming between her and his father, who then hit him, so then he hit his father back and so on and so forth.
When he grew up, Murry Wilson, Brian's father, was, like his father Buddy (William), ambitious, determined, stocky and, after he married (Audree Korthof in 1938) and became a father, a drinker often to the point of violence. Not against his wife, though, just his sons. His sons were Brian (born 1942, composer, arranger, producer, dreamer, genius), Dennis (born 1944, the drummer, the cute one, the sexy one, the one who fought back most, the one who drowned), and Carl (born 1946, the quiet one, the chubby one, the lead guitar, who took over producing the band when Brian dropped out in the late '60s when he went crazy, and who was dead of cancer in 1998).
I was born in California, too.
Murry had work during the Depression, when a lot of other people didn't, and he was proud of that. He always said if you worked hard enough you would succeed in America. His sons remember him shouting, over and over again and in the vernacular, the Puritan work ethic upon which this great nation was founded: "You've got to get in there and kick ass!" Murry moved up the ranks at the Southern California Gas Company to a post in junior administration. After his sons were born and the Second World War, he moved his family to Hawthorne.
It was a move up. There he got a better job in administration at The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company where, in a perhaps Nathaniel-Hawthorne-not-on-a-good-day metaphor-like accident, he lost his left eye. (Blinded. No perspective. Can't see past the nose on his face. Etc.) Murry left Goodyear—though his sons stayed in its shadow for a while, writing song after song about cars, car tires, laying rubber ("gotta be cool now, power shift here we go")—to start his own business. He called it A.B.L.E., for Always Better Lasting Equipment, a name the Puritans could have dreamt up, as if some divine prescription for the perfectibility of God's chosen children always getting better, as if someday in some New! Improved! beyond, we would be better and forever everlast.
Though Murry pushed his boys, often literally, to get what they wanted, as soon as they started getting it, he resented them. Demeaned them. Then tried to control both what they got and them.
For what Murry had always wanted to do, ever since he was a boy, was write hit songs.
But Puritans do not sing. Or dance. They are both sins.
The dreams of the fathers visit the sons, the envy and failure too.
W illiam Hathorne's son John became, in 1683, a deputy to the General Court in Boston. I don't know if this was before or after the 34-year-old John married a 14-year-old girl, their notions of evildoing somewhat different than ours today. (Poor Jerry Lee Lewis! He might have fared better as a Puritan!) Anyway, John Hathorne (still no "w" in his name), Nathaniel's great-great-grandfather, "inherited," in Nathaniel's words, "the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him," and, we may conclude with confidence, his ancestors. For Nathaniel went on to confess, "I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed."
John Hathorne certainly could have been cursed, having dispensed most gruesome punishments such as—oh Christ, let's not go through all that again. See above if you must. This Hathorne was the one who, during the trials of 1692, condemned Salem witches to the gallows and to drown.
Fulfill your father's dreams and he will envy you to death.
You take your father's sins upon yourself.
A century and some years later, while living at his family home in Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne walked, reclusive and alone, to Gallows Hill, to be among the ghosts of whom his fathers had condemned.
Can you remember things you didn't do but someone else did? Can you get over them for someone else? Can you get over them at all? Can you forgive them?
T he Scarlet Letter: A Romance, published in 1850, was mostly written in 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush. As contemporaries of his were heading west again, where they hoped this time to find if not a spiritual at least a financial paradise, Nathaniel Hawthorne was looking back at what his forebears had done deadly earnest wrong.
The Scarlet Letter was Hawthorne's fourth book for adults (he'd also written for kids) and he was as surprised it did as well as it did. The first edition of 2,500 sold out in 10 days and his publishers had to reprint. In other words, this story of forbidden love was, like a Top 40 radio single, a hit.
In the chapter entitled "The Recognition," Hester Prynne, condemned to wear the scarlet letter "A" on her dress, is leaving prison with her newborn love child. Someone, Hawthorne narrates, "the eldest clergyman of Boston," calls "Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!" and exhorts her to confess, repent, and name the father of her child. This speaker is, like many characters in Hawthorne's work, based on a real person, in this case a leading Puritan divine, John Wilson (1591–1667).
Look, I'm not saying this Wilson was an ancestor of our California-bound Wilsons. On the other hand, don't we all believe, as our Puritan ancestors did, that if we go back far enough, we all go back to the same old Adam and Eve?
B rian and his brothers sang each other to sleep at night, their three-part harmony angelic, sweet, divine. Their father stood outside their bedroom door and listened, misty eyed. He later beat them.
Hawthorne's father died at sea when he was 4, and after that, his sister Elizabeth recalled, Nathaniel loved to read. She remembers her brother at 6 years old sitting in a corner pretending to read his dead father's copy of The Pilgrim's Progress.
Brian said he went deaf in one ear when his father beat him. Half of what he hears he only hears inside his head. But then he said elsewhere that he was born that way. No matter who tells the story, the story changes.
Nathaniel hurt his foot in 1813 and, incapacitated, read even more. He walked with a limp, self-consciously. He wrote to both reveal and hide. From "The Custom House": "It is scarcely decorous... to speak at all, even where we speak impersonally.... Thoughts are often frozen and utterance benumbed... we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil." Half of what he said he only said inside his head.
Though it didn't appear on an album until 1963, the first ballad Brian ever wrote, "Surfer Girl," was inspired by "When You Wish Upon a Star," the song Jiminy Cricket sings to Pinocchio. He composed this song while driving in a car on Hawthorne Boulevard.
After his father died, brought down a social rung, Nathaniel and his mother and sisters lived in his mother's family's many-gabled home. They paid for rent and board and were polite, impermanent, and nervous hangers-on.
Murry bought a professional quality organ so he and Audree could play duets. Though Brian played piano and listened to records, Murry taunted him: no discipline. A jackass. Lazy.
Nathaniel's father turned his back on the traditional and shameful professions of the Hathorne men (judges, soldiers, murderers) by going to sea, and died when he was young. How could Nathaniel not?
B ecause everyone is confused with everyone else. Everyone's sort of the same person making the same mistakes again. Not getting and not getting over it. Not better, though lasting forever, alas. Alas.
W hen he was 14, Brian went to Hawthorne High. He was tall, sweet, a fantastic baseball player. He began spending time at his buddies' houses listening to records and the radio and getting away from Murry.
When he was 16, Nathaniel started a family newspaper called The Spectator, which is what he always was, looking in from the outside.
When he was 16, Brian was singing his own arrangements of the Four Freshmen, Bill Haley, and Elvis with friends at school and brothers and cousins at extended-family gatherings.
Nathaniel went to Bowdoin College because it was near where relatives lived in Maine and was inexpensive. There, though he became friends with future president Franklin Pierce, and a lifelong, cigar-smoking Democrat, he was loath to studying anything that would lead to a conventional profession.
Brian went to Hawthorne High where he gave his first quasi-public performance, then El Camino Junior College where he studied music and psychology until he dropped out. Because one day his little brother Dennis came home talking about surfing, and he decided to write a song about that. A few weekends later, the Wilson parents went to Mexico for a holiday and left the boys with money for food. The brothers and their folk-singing friend, Al Jardine, spent this money, and some lent to them by Al's mom, on renting a mic, an amp, and a stand-up bass. Then, with cousin Mike (evildoer) Love, they spent the weekend rehearsing "Surfin'" in hopes of making a demo tape. When Murry came home, he yelled at them for spending the money the way they did. They begged him to listen to the song, and when he heard it, he thought that they might have a hit and promptly appointed himself their manager. At first they were called "The Pendletones" after their striped shirts.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a natty dresser.
Murry worked hard to create publishing and radio contacts for the band, but he also humiliated and fought with his sons, more physically with Dennis and psychologically, in the studio, with Brian. In 1965 the sons had to fire their father from the band. From "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man" by Brian Wilson, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965:
I'm bugged at my ol' man
'Cause he's makin' me stay in my own room.
Darn my dad...
I wish I could see outside
But he's tacked up boards on my window
Gosh it's dark
The Beach Boys could not, however, fire their father from being their father.
Nathaniel tried to. When he was 21, he changed the spelling of his surname, adding the "w." As if this single letter could separate himself from them. As if a single letter could tell us who you are.
Brian wrote a string of hits. He was the native genius, American music's answer to the sophisticated pop of the British Invasion. Brian and the California sound he created not only rivaled the Beatles, Animals, and Stones (who after all had created their sound by imitating American blues and rockabilly) on the charts, he also gained the admiration of classical composers like Leonard Bernstein. Everyone wanted to work with Brian Wilson in the studio. He treated the studio as an instrument.
Nathaniel's books, a string of hits, were read, reviewed. He was revered at a time when his countrymen were trying to create a particularly American culture (the Hudson River painters, Melville, Whitman, Poe) distinct from the English and European models they'd been handed. Kind of a 19th-century highbrow version of the 20th-century pop-culture response to the British Invasion (the second, twist-and-shouting one, as opposed to the first, guns-and-shooting one). He treated his own, his family's, and our nation's history as Romance. A story we cannot escape. A myth that will not ever have an end.
He saw himself as set apart, an oddity, a wounded boy inside a room, a gabled house, a continent of sons and daughters doomed.
Gosh it's dark...
B rian Wilson kept to his house for years. After the triumph of Pet Sounds (1966), he pulled the plug on what would have been his masterpiece, Smile, and lay in bed. He took a lot of drugs and ate a lot of steaks, ignored his wife and daughters and got fat. Sometimes in bed or at his piano and in his filthy pajamas, he wrote little songs about health food, feeling great, and love. When he did leave his home, he wandered, long-haired, filthy-bearded, unwashed, weird. Everyone thought he was crazy.
Nathaniel Hawthorne kept to his house for years. After graduating from Bowdoin, he returned to ghost-filled Salem, to live in his family home. (Melville later called him "Mr. Noble Melancholy.") He wrote, in isolation, and published anonymously (there was something about his father's name that galled him), and at his own expense, his first novel. About this time he also added the "w" to his name. He soon pulled the plug on his own career by burning every copy of the novel he could find. For the next 10 or so years, he lived reclusively with his mother and sisters, stayed in his room and wrote, tore up what he wrote, and published, anonymously, little stories. When he walked to the graves of people who'd been murdered by his Hathorne (without a "w") forebears, he walked alone. He was evasive, skittish, melancholy, weird. Everyone thought he was crazy.
But maybe it was the world that was crazy then. Midcentury America was not only the land of transcendentalism but also of TM, of spiritualism and the Jesus movement, of mesmerism and the Manson family, Ouija boards and table rapping, good vibrations and animal magnetism. Millennial cults and Back to the Land-ers, the California Gold Rush and the Summer of Love, railroads and rocket ships, Seneca Falls and Ms. magazine, the Civil War and civil rights, assassinations of presidents and Edgar Allan Poe.
He wrote The Scarlet Letter the year of the California Gold Rush. He wrote "The Warmth of the Sun" after the assassination of Kennedy. An elegy, a fantasy. A warning, a regret. He lived beside and walked along the shore of the Atlantic, the Pacific, but couldn't keep his sights out there alone. He looked back where he'd come from and toward the waves his fathers rode, his brothers tried to ride. He walked among the graves his fathers and his brothers filled.
He was an innocent, an always-boy. A skeptic never-boy. Forever wise, forever sad. Forever wanting to forgive and to pretend it wasn't bad and getting worse. Forever going back as if remembering or taking on, undoing what the fathers did, the fathers' sins, our own. He was before and past and utterly in time.
I n 1969 despite the dead he wrote, or rather cowrote, a song:
Time will not wait for me
Time is my destiny...
I can break away from that lonely life
And I can do what I wanna do...
And My world is new...
Where the shackles that have held me down
I'm gonna make a way for each happy day
That's from "Break Away," a happy song credited to B. Wilson and R. Dunbar.
For Hawthorne time was always past and destiny. We are always looking back. What happened? Why? We came from there. How do we get away? Forgive or forgiven? His words were his attempts to break away.
Brian Wilson stayed an innocent. For him, time is, as is for all westward travelers, the future. In the future you can start over again. Despite the "shackles" (remember them?) that have held him as they held his Puritan forebears. But he still hopes, as if one can again or once, "my world is new..."
As if the sins of fathers wash away.
R. Dunbar is short for Reggie Dunbar. Reggie Dunbar was a pseudonym used by Murry, Brian's father.
A son forgives a father's sins.
What mercy has the child for the man.