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THE SoCAL SONGBOOK

'California Girls' The Beach Boys | 1965

August 12, 2007|GEOFF BOUCHER

It was late at night and Brian Wilson, who had just taken LSD for the first time, was in the bedroom of his Hollywood apartment with a pillow over his head. He was stricken. He had images of his mother and his father in his mind and, most of all, fear. Then he managed to push all those thoughts aside. He walked downstairs to the piano.

"I was thinking about the music from cowboy movies. And I sat down and started playing it, bum-buhdeeda, bum-buhdeeda. I did that for about an hour. I got these chords going. Then I got this melody, it came pretty fast after that. And the rest was history, right?"

Yes, the rest was history. Wilson, then 22, kept working the keyboard and, turning his thoughts to fashion magazines, he came up with one of the most famous opening lines in pop music. "Well, East Coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear. . . "

The next day, Mike Love came by the apartment on Gardner Street and the pair -- one a troubled auteur, the other the commercial-minded driving force behind the Beach Boys -- took turns building a hit that would define the sun-tanned promise of L.A. as the center of American glamour and youth. "Every other line was his or mine," Wilson said.

Wilson recounted all this a few weeks ago over a cellphone on his way to Laguna Beach. He and his wife and their three children have encamped at a tony resort for the summer, and most days you can find him there sitting stiffly at poolside behind sunglasses and a smile. "We're going down to sit by the water," he explained. "The weather's great out."

Wilson is a beloved and tragic figure in pop, and at the core of his life story is the painful paradox that some of the sunniest music ever recorded came out of man who, mentally and emotionally, spent years of his life squirming in a dark and lonely corner. "California Girls" is part of that paradox. It's a carefree teenage ode to girls; it was also written the night that Wilson said he first heard another voice in his head, one that was threatening and stayed with him for years.

Wilson is enjoying a well-documented career renaissance. He's feeling more confident too. When asked about the accepted lore that it was Love who had written almost all the lyrics to "California Girls," he said that was a fallacy he had let go unchallenged for too long. "I wrote a lot of those lyrics too; it was line for line, back and forth between us. That's what happened."

The basic notion for the lyrics, Wilson said, was his belief that some truths are self-evident. "Everybody loves girls, right? Everybody loves California and the sun. That's what I wanted from the song. And to mention all the parts of the country, that's fun, people will like that."

In the studio, Wilson recalled, he channeled a bit of the sonic feel of "On Broadway," a hit for the Drifters two years earlier.

The music of "Girls," like so many of Wilson's compositions, was equal parts symphony hall and amusement park, 2 1/2 minutes of nuanced musical complexity and beach-blanket simplicity.

The West Coast has the sunshine

And the girls all get so tanned

I dig a French bikini on Hawaii island dolls

By a palm tree in the sand

"Good Vibrations," recorded a year later, may be Wilson's otherworldly masterpiece, but he knew he had a crowd-pleaser the moment the harmonies were finished on "Girls."

"It was special, I knew that would become the theme song of the Beach Boys. It's an anthem. That song went to No. 3 in the country. I think if anything, that song speaks louder than ever. Everyone knows about California girls, and that song is the reason."

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