That review I ran yesterday of Bill Pohlad‘s Love and Mercy reminded me of a brief encounter I had with Brian Wilson in ’74. I was living in an upstairs one-bedroom apartment at 648 14th Street in Santa Monica, doing nothing, working as a tree surgeon…my lost period. (I began my adventure in movie journalism the following year.) Right below me lived a guy named Eddie Roach and his wife Tricia. At the time he was working with the Beach Boys as a kind of staff or “touring” photographer. Dennis Wilson fell by two or three times and hung out a bit, and one time I was part of a small group that played touch football with him at a local high-school field. Dennis mocked me that day for being a bad hiker, which I was.
Anyway it was a cloudy Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I was lounging in my living room when I began to hear someone tooling around on Eddie’s piano downstairs. It sounded like the beginnings of a song. It began with a thumping, rolling boogie lead-in, complex and grabby, and then the spirited vocal: “Back home boogie, bong-dee-bong boogie…yay-ee-yay…back home boogie, bong-dee-bong”…and then he stopped. One of the chords wasn’t quite right so he played a couple of variations over and over, and then he began again: “”Back home boogie, bong-dee-bong boogie yay-ee-yay!” and so on. Then another mistake and another correction. Then he stopped again and started laughing like a ten year-old drunk on beer: “Hah-hah, heh-heh, heh-hay!” and then right back into the song without losing a beat. It was great stuff. Who is this guy?
I grabbed my cassette recorder and went outside and walked down the steps leading to Eddie’s place, and I laid it down on one of the steps and started recording. I must have captured two or three minutes worth.
Then I decided to knock on Eddie’s door and pretend I needed to borrow a cup of milk or something. I had to know who the piano guy was. Eddie opened the door and I said “hey, man,” and in the rear of the living room stood a tall and overweight Brian Wilson. He was dressed in a red shirt and jeans and white sneakers, and was cranked and excited and talking about how great some idea might be, gesturing with his arms up high. Then he saw me and almost ran over to the doorway. I suddenly knew who it was and it was a huge internal “whoa!” Wilson looked like a wreck. His hair was longish and sort of ratty looking. His unshaven face was the color of Elmer’s Glue-All and his eyes were beet red. I didn’t mean to disturb the vibe but a look of faint surprise or shock must have crossed my face because Wilson’s expression turned glum. It was like he suddenly said to himself, “Wow, this guy’s some kind of downhead. Everything was cool until he showed up.” Eddie spotted it too and said, “Sorry to disappoint you.” I said everything was cool and retreated back upstairs.
I must have played that cassette tape of Wilson’s song for at least 15 or 20 friends over the next couple of years, and then it was gone. Lost. A shame.
20 years later I interviewed Wilson at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. The chat happened in a restaurant on Main Street. His fiance Melinda Ledbetter sat beside him. He was there to promote the Don Was documentary I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, which was all about Brian’s brilliant, tortured journey. I mentioned the piano-playing episode and tried to describe the sound of that song, and for whatever reason this put a look of tension in his eyes. I thought he was just intrigued or concentrating but he was getting upset. I repeated that I loved that half-baked boogie riff and Wilson blurted out “I can’t talk about this or I’ll freak out.” Uhm, you can’t…? “I’ll freak out!” he said again. So that was that.