The Beach Boys' tragic real-life story

The Beach Boys were a huge part of the soundtrack of the '60s, and even people born decades after they reached their height of popularity know the songs. "Good Vibrations," "California Girls," "Surfin' Safari" … there are a ton of them. When Rolling Stone ranked the 500 greatest albums of all time, their Pet Sounds came in at an impressive Number 2 (only topped by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band).

It's difficult to describe the impact the Beach Boys had on music, with songs that seemed to capture the fun, carefree spirit of the California surf scene. Heck, they even released one called "Fun, Fun, Fun," so it's clear they were sitting on the top of the world and enjoying it, right?

Behind the scenes, exactly the opposite was true. Brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, along with cousin Mike Love and lifelong friend Al Jardin, created that iconic music while wrapped up in what can only be described as a real-life nightmare. 

'Don't Hurt My Little Sister'

Murry Wilson was the father of Beach Boys Brian, Dennis, and Carl, and he was a horrible person. Brian (pictured) talked about the abuse they suffered in I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir (via Vanity Fair). "My dad was violent," Brian writes. "He was cruel." 

How cruel? The Beach Boys' songwriter and composer was deaf in one ear thanks to a blow from a lead pipe delivered to his 3-year-old head. As children, he says they were all on the receiving end of abuse — Brian was once handed a beating with a 2-by-4 (via the Chicago Tribune), but it was only Dennis who ever fought back, once standing his ground over some kittens.

The psychological abuse was there, too. When they were children, Murry would pull out his glass eye and make the boys stare into the empty, gaping hole. Murry followed them as their original manager and constantly berated them: They were losers, they were worthless, they were failures. In 2010, The Guardian reported on the discovery of a letter, handwritten by Murry and addressed to Brian. Dated May 8, 1965, (when the Beach Boys were enjoying the chart-topping success of "Help Me, Rhonda") it read, in part, "It has become very apparent to me that the family cannot exist under the worrisome and trying conditions. … No matter how many hit songs you write or how many hundreds of thousands of dollars you may earn … you are going to suffer remorse."

'In the Back of My Mind'

Over the course of his life, Brian Wilson became more and more reclusive, even when he continued to write songs for the band. According to The Independent, his preferred place to write was at his L.A. home, sitting at a grand piano he'd put in a homemade sandbox so he could feel his feet in the sand. There, he did everything but write the lyrics, composing and arranging the music for nine consecutive gold albums.

He was also frequently partaking in amphetamines, LSD, morphine, and topping it all off with alcohol. Brian became obsessed with the idea he was being bugged, and would only meet with people from what he perceived as the safety of his pool (via American Heritage). When a rash of forest fires coincided with him writing the song "Fire," he started to believe his music was influencing real-world events. He started to hear voices, and while some loved him, others promised to kill him. He retreated even further, only 25 years old when he largely dropped out of the public eye. Retrospectively, he was diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder, but it would be a long time before he got the help he needed.

'A Young Man is Gone'

The entire saga of Charles Manson, his Family, and their murders is a strange one, and it's made even more bizarre by the short time his story had a bizarre crossover episode with the Beach Boys.

According to the Washington Post, it was the summer of '68 when drummer Dennis Wilson hooked up with the Manson clan and spent a few months completely submerged in a drug-fueled orgy. It started after Dennis picked up a few hitchhiking Manson devotees, and continued because of Charles Manson's own musical aspirations. Once he started showing Dennis how to play guitar, the hooks were in. They even all lived together — on Dennis' dime — until things suddenly went sour. Dennis offered Manson the opportunity to hit the recording studio, but when the producers tried to make some changes, Manson pulled out a knife.

The entire episode left marks, though, especially the bloodshed that happened afterward. Even though Dennis vowed to never speak of it, Mike Love mentions the episode in his memoir, Good Vibrations (via People). "The guilt was devastating," Love wrote. "Dennis [was] shaken to the core. [He] carried that guilt with him for the last 14 years of his life."

'Help Me, Rhonda'

When Rolling Stone asked Brian Wilson what he hoped people would learn from his life story, he responded, "I want people to realize that drugs can be very detrimental and dangerous. I talk a lot about my bad experiences on drugs … for that reason." And he wasn't even the worst. Rolling Stone also says when Dennis tried to check into a California hospital's detox unit he was turned away with the doctor (allegedly) saying, "He's just too much trouble." So, how did these guys manage to pull themselves together long enough to record in the studio? They didn't always do it, and instead, they called in reinforcement like Carol Kaye, the only female member of the group of studio musicians nicknamed The Wrecking Crew.

Kaye was the most in-demand session bassist of the 1960s, says LA Weekly, and even though most people don't know her name, they've heard her work. For starters, that's her playing on the entirety of Pet Sounds. With somewhere around 10,000 songs under her belt, she's seen a lot — and the irony of covering for musicians too wasted to play their own music wasn't lost on her.

"It's a sad thing to see that decades later, people's drug use [was] influenced by musicians whose records they idolized, and the real musicians playing on them were totally straight. … We weren't on drugs, were a mixed group, black and white, and as old as their parents."

'Surfin' Safari'

Pet Sounds was an iconic album, and the cover is pretty iconic, too. It was shot at the San Diego Zoo, and the San Diego Tribune says it was rumored to be a direct message to their rivals, The Animals. Whatever the motivation was, it didn't go well. You've heard the saying about never working with children or animals? Someone should have told the animals never to work with the Beach Boys.

They were ultimately banned from ever setting foot in the zoo again, and there's a list of bizarre shenanigans that went on. Names aren't named, but someone thought it was a brilliant idea to bounce a carrot off a tiger's head, someone else tried to manhandle an antelope, and somehow, they got hold of a few puppies and baby chicks, leaving them in strategic places around the zoo. Is it really any surprise they were banned? Meanwhile they claimed they were the ones suffering — the goats that made it onto the final album cover were supposedly particularly awful — but those unsuspecting puppies probably felt differently.

'It's Over Now'

It was Christmas Day 1983 when Dennis Wilson (left) was turned away from detox. He was dead three days later.

Dennis drowned in the waters of Marina Del Rey, where he'd been hanging out with friends, drinking — a lot — and diving off a boat called Emerald. He had a blood alcohol content of .26 when he made his final dive, and didn't come up again. He was 39 years old.

The years leading up to that were rough, and Rolling Stone says he'd already gone off the deep end. As early as 1963, his spot at the drums was being filled by a studio drummer, but it wasn't until 1979 he was finally kicked out of the band. The events leading up to that final decision were terrifying: He'd started using heroin, and he was the abuser in a relationship with actress Karen Lamm, whom he nearly killed when he put a bullet into the car she was standing next to. He torched a Ferrari, checked in and out of hospitals, and destroyed Christine McVie's house while on alcoholic, drug-fueled rages. Then there was the last straw: He hooked up with his second cousin, the 16-year-old daughter of Mike Love.

That went over about as well as expected, and there were restraining orders issued between the two bandmates. There was more drugs, more alcohol, and when Dennis died, they announced they wouldn't be disbanding — only taking a short break to mourn.

'I Just Wasn't Made for These Times'

In 1975, Brian's family and bandmates — led by then-wife Marilyn — made what seemed to be a last-ditch attempt to bring him out of his own downward spiral of substance abuse and untreated mental illness. According to the New York Times, therapist Eugene Landy put Brian on around-the-clock care, and it wasn't kind care. With Brian's weight out of control, a padlock went on the fridge. Depression made it difficult to get out of bed, so Landy would rouse him by throwing cold water on him. Landy was dismissed by the end of 1976 but was re-hired in 1983 amid mounting problems.

Things took a dark turn pretty quickly. Landy continued his 24-hour monitoring, charged his only client $35,000 a month, and started putting his name on songs and albums as executive producer. He also made it into Brian's will, and in 1989, he lost his license to practice. The charges? Unlawful prescribing of drugs (he had a colleague actually write Brian's prescriptions, but he oversaw them), gross negligence and sexual misconduct with another patient, and cocaine use. The LA Times reported many were claiming Landy created an care plan that made it easy for him to exploit those seeking his help. Landy died in 2006.

'Heroes and Villains'

So, what about Mike Love, cousin to the brothers and the guy who sings on songs like "California Girls" and "I Get Around"? When he talked to Rock Cellar in 2016, they touched on what seems to be the most apt description of him ever: "the switchblade and the butterfly." While Love said he could see how his particular sense of humor could come off as a little crass, a lot of what he's done has all been in good fun. He says. Given how many times he's taken Brian to court, you can see how people would be mistaken.

He told Rock Cellar the main lawsuit stemmed from a single place: his claim that he wrote a number of Beach Boys songs — including "Surfin' USA" and "Help Me, Rhonda" — but was never given a songwriting credit. "I'm not taking credit for Brian's brilliant arrangements or production or anything like that, and I'm not saying I could have done it on my own," he said. "I'm saying that there was not an accurate picture of who did what when it came to the creation of these songs."

That 1992 lawsuit was just one of many (via Rolling Stone), and one reason he's been labeled the villain of the Beach Boys. He feels it isn't deserved, telling Rolling Stone he laughs off the hate most of the time, but sometimes, it breaks him.

'Kokomo'

That's right. Let's go to there. (To Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, let's stop.)

In 1988, "Kokomo" shot to the top of the charts 24 years and four months after their first chart-topper, "I Get Around" (via Billboard). There's not much those two songs have in common, and there's a pretty good reason for that. "Kokomo" was written for a film — Tom Cruise's Cocktail — and it wasn't written by the musical genius behind most of the Beach Boys songs. According to EW, you can blame Mike Love, Doris Day's son Terry Melcher (also a target of Charles Manson), '60s hippie songwriter Scott McKenzie, and human being of dubious humanity John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas for "Kokomo," the song that's stuck in your head right now.

At the time, Brian was under the constant supervision of Landy, and Jezebel says it was Landy who forbade Brian's initial involvement with the song, although he does eventually show up in the video. It's also worth noting that there is no actual Kokomo, although an island was briefly renamed after the success of the song, and that it was once performed live at Mar-a-Lago. (Yes, Love is a massive Trump supporter.)

'Finders Keepers'

Murry Wilson died in 1973, but his legacy of horribleness continued to be felt for decades after his death. In 1989, Brian (left, with Al Jardin) headed to court over the fate of a catalog of Beach Boys songs.

First, let's backtrack. In 1962, Brian and Murry reached an agreement: They'd split the profits from the songs, which were published by their Sea of Tunes company. Unfortunately, it was an oral contract, and Brian was underage. Fast-forward to 1969, and you have Murry selling the rights to all the songs for $700,000. That's a lot, but Brian saw none of it, even alleging in court he was owed $50 million in royalties and another $50 million in punitive damages. According to the LA Times, part of his case was that he was suffering from the effects of a nervous breakdown and paranoid psychosis, making him incompetent to make any kind of decision. His signature was forged on some of the documents, and he also claimed breach of contract, conflict of interest, and malpractice.

The LA Times reported it was settled before it went to court, and Brian walked away with what amounts to a pittance: $10 million for his contribution to a catalog of songs estimated to be worth around $40 million.

'Wouldn't It Be Nice'

Carl Wilson died in 1998, only a few months after touring with the band for their 36th annual summer tour. The official cause of death was complications from lung cancer, although he had also been diagnosed with brain cancer (via the New York Times). He was only 51 years old.

Obituaries, historians, and those who knew him remembered him as the group's heart, the one who grounded the rest through all the chaos. Beach Boys publicist Sandy Friedman said (via the LA Times), "Carl was like a rock for the group. He was the steady one. He was the tiller." Mike Love's brother, Stan, added, "He never wanted credit for their success, but he was the glue that held the band together."

Mike Love agreed, and told Rock Cellar that of all the hard times they'd been through as a band and a family, the hardest was the final tour with Carl: "After his last concert with us in Atlantic City the year before he passed away, seeing Carl Wilson take a look at all of us and saying goodbye for the last time to everybody, which is basically what it was; that was really hard to think about again."

'You Still Believe in Me'

The Beach Boys definitely didn't have an easy road, and even though their music inspired all the happy feels that come with a happy-go-lucky lifetime of fun in the sun, nothing was further from the truth. Brian Wilson and Mike Love have talked a bit about that time with the sort of hindsight that comes with survival, and perhaps most tragic of all is that their retrospectives are tinged with respect and regret.

In a 2016 interview with Rock Cellar, Love said Brian had been gifted with "a super-charged packet of genealogy that gave rise to his brilliance in music." And, in spite of acknowledging his rocky relationship with Dennis, he also gave credit where it was due. "He … was a very powerful drummer and he had that competitive spirit."

When Rolling Stone talked to Brian in 2016, there were a lot of things he said he missed. He missed "hanging with Dennis." He missed Carl, too, saying, "I miss hearing him talk, the things he has to say." And Love? He said he hoped that broken relationship would be repaired, someday, and he wanted to produce some records for him and make sure he got another good song to sing. Brian adds, "My favorite part of music is harmony. That's the part of music I like the most. I like the full harmony."