When the Beach Boys Met the Wizard

Dennis Wilson in 1971 on the set of the film Two-Lane Blacktop. His "friendship" with a pre-Helter Skelter Charles Manson was one of the more bizarre couplings in 1960s Los Angeles.
Dennis Wilson in 1971 on the set of the film Two-Lane Blacktop. His "friendship" with a pre-Helter Skelter Charles Manson was one of the more bizarre couplings in 1960s Los Angeles. Universal Picture/Wiki Commons

Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles
By William McKeen
432 pp.
Chicago Review Press

It was the spring of 1968, and Dennis Wilson was horny.

This was not an unusual state for the Beach Boys drummer. Well, occasional drummer – the more skilled Hal Blaine was often the skin thumper on record lately. But what luck he had this day, picking up two sweet, young and nubile (but somewhat disheveled) hitchhikers.

They gladly hopped into his custom car, and the trio went to his house, where he fucked both of them. Then he was back off to the studio, but not before they mentioned something about really hoping they could introduce him to a friend of theirs. Some guy they called “The Wizard.” “Hang around and make yourselves at home,” he told the girls.

click to enlarge
Book cover courtesy of Chicago Review Press
A few hours later, Wilson was tearing down Sunset Boulevard after yet another endless recording session helmed by his brother Brian. I mean, sure, he was the “genius” of the group, but 20-plus takes of recording the sound of a pencil sharpener for a song with bizarre lyrics called “Even Steven?”

When Wilson came upon his home, there was an odd sight that greeted him: a big yellow school bus parked in front, all the lights on inside, and the unmistakable sounds of a raging party. Perturbed, he stormed in and caught sight of a filthy, longhaired, short guy who reeked of marijuana and body odor.

Dennis Wilson felt eerie in his presence, and scared of the much smaller, scrawnier man. “Are you going to hurt me?” he asked. The man said no and instead dropped to the ground and began kissing Wilson’s feet. One of the girls came over. “This,” she told Wilson, “is Charlie.” And that was all the introduction The Wizard – Charles Manson – needed before the entire home collapsed into one groaning, writhing orgy.

It’s this setting that opens the book by McKeen – chair of the Department of Journalism at Boston University – and which characters create the spine from which he depicts the weirdly intertwining lives of LA musicians in the late ’60s.

The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Jan and Dean, Sam Cooke, Bobby Fuller, Phil Spector, the Doors, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young weave through the pages, and McKeen expertly details their personal and professional interactions amid the time between the Summer of Love and the darkness of the Manson Murders. Combining biography, history and sociology, McKeen paints an accurate and detailed portrait of an industry and a culture with a decidedly southern California bent.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are prevalent, but so are organized crime, murder, racial tensions, the generation gap and musical artistry. And while music journo Barney Hoskyns covered much of the same ground (with a livelier tone) in his books Waiting for the Sun and Hotel California, McKeen’s eye for journalistic writing serves his purpose here.

In the end, of course, Charles Manson did not fulfill his dream of becoming the rock and roll star that he was hoping his friend/meal ticket, Dennis Wilson, could help him achieve. He (and his followers) took a different path. And the story ends with a pretty substantial primer on Helter Skelter. Like a master weaver, McKeen ties together many separate strands here of music, history and…music history.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero