Columbia, Md. Three hours before showtime, Brian Wilson says: “There is no Rhonda.” Sitting backstage, gathering strength for the evening’s 48-song, 150-minute concert, Wilson was not asked about her, he just volunteered this fact. The other members of the Beach Boys seem mildly surprised to learn that the 1965 song “Help Me, Rhonda” was about no one in particular.
Not that it matters; the sound is everything. Attention must be paid to baby boomer music-cued nostalgia, and no one pays it better than the Beach Boys. They are currently on a 50th-anniversary tour that has more than 60 concerts scheduled and others still being booked. Their new album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” debuted at No. 3 in Billboard’s listing, and with this the Beach Boys topped the Beatles for most weeks on Billboard’s top-10 album chart.
Their band began in 1961 in Hawthorne, in Los Angeles County, when the parents of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson went away for a weekend, leaving the boys with meal money they used to rent instruments and record a song called “Surfin’.” They rode a wave of fascination with California to the top of pop music.
Given California’s dystopian present, it is difficult to recall that the Beach Boys’ appeal derived not just from their astonishing harmonies (which derived from the Four Freshmen) but also from their embodiment of a happy Southern California that beckoned to the rest of the nation. Political scientist James Q. Wilson grew up there and in 1967, the year after the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” he wrote a seminal essay on the political vibrations that produced California’s new governor: “A Guide to Reagan Country.” Wilson’s conclusion was that Ronald Reagan represented the political culture of a region where social structure nurtured individualism.
Southern Californians had, Wilson wrote, “no identities except their personal identities, no obvious group affiliations to make possible any reference to them by collective nouns. I never heard the phrase ‘ethnic group’ until I was in graduate school.” Eastern teenagers had turf. Their Southern California counterparts had cars, the subject of so many Beach Boys songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down,” etc.). They hung out in places reached by car and with lots of parking, particularly drive-in restaurants.
“The Eastern lifestyle,” Wilson wrote, “produced a feeling of territory, the Western lifestyle a feeling of property.” The East was defined less by cold weather than social congestion — apartments in ethnic neighborhoods. Southern Californians lived in single-dwelling homes and had almost no public transportation, so their movements within the city were unconfined to set corridors. Houses and cars — the “Sunday afternoon drive” was often just to look at others’ homes — strengthened, Wilson wrote, “a very conventional and bourgeois sense of property and responsibility.”
When James Watt, Reagan’s secretary of the interior, barred the Beach Boys from playing a Fourth of July concert on the National Mall in 1983 because he thought they attracted “the wrong element,” Reagan invited them to the White House. This was almost a generation after the Beach Boys were dethroned but invigorated by the challenge of the British Invasion, particularly the Beatles.
Brian Wilson has long been troubled by mental illness, but he responded to the challenge of the Beatles album “Rubber Soul” with “Pet Sounds,” including “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney called “the greatest song ever written.” The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” was a response to “Pet Sounds.” Leonard Bernstein called Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ creative engine, “one of today’s most important musicians,” and the Joffrey Ballet danced to Wilson’s music.
Dennis and Carl Wilson died long ago, but today’s band includes three original members — Brian, Al Jardine and Mike Love — plus David Marks, who grew up down the street from the Wilsons, and Bruce Johnston, “the new guy” who first joined the group in 1965. The Beatles dissolved in 1970; the Beach Boys are the first American band to enter a second half-century.
Boomers must be served, so Mick Jagger, who long ago said, “I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45,” is singing it at 68. In 1966, the 31-year-old Elvis Presley asked the Beach Boys for advice about touring; he has been dead for nearly 35 years but they play on, all of them approaching or past 70, singing “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” without a trace of irony. Southern California in their formative years was not zoned for irony.