The Beach Boys haven’t topped the charts with a new song since 1988’s “Kokomo,” but for music author and GW alumnus David Leaf, the story of the group and their frontman Brian Wilson is still worth telling.
Leaf – an author, director and UCLA professor of music industry – is doing just that in his new book “God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys & the California Myth,” which releases Thursday. The book is a roughly 150-page expanded version of a biographical opus Leaf originally published in 1978, recounting Wilson’s career and creative frustrations as the primary artistic mind behind many of the band’s hits like “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” and “Surfin’ USA.”
Leaf wanted to tell the story of the iconic group and its innovative leader since his time as The Hatchet’s music editor in the early 1970s, during which he said he assigned himself albums and concerts to review, including those by the Beach Boys.
“The first pieces I wrote for The Hatchet were about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys,” Leaf said. “And that was where I began to tell the story that I was going to tell.”
Leaf attended GW from 1969 to 1973, studying business administration after realizing a journalism degree would be too much work. He said he first discovered Wilson and the Beach Boys while at GW about five years after their commercial peak. He said he went to a now-defunct record store near 13th Street and New York Avenue called Record City, where he saw a copy of Rolling Stone with the six long-haired Beach Boys sitting on the cover. The magazine featured part one of a two-part profile on the band.
He said the article enlightened him to the musical genius of Brian Wilson and the dysfunctional family that made up the rest of Wilson’s band. Both of these themes are prevalent in Leaf’s 1978 book, where he describes how the other members of the Beach Boys, particularly Wilson’s cousin Mike Love, prevented the artist from achieving his full musical ambitions in criticizing some of Wilson’s more personal work on the albums “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE.”
One week after seeing the magazine, Leaf said he returned to the record store to purchase a copy of the Beach Boys’ 17th album, “Surf’s Up,” which he heaped praise upon through his review in The Hatchet.
“Both for their music and the return of Brian Wilson, who is definitely one of the best writers of melody in the pop spectrum, it is good to have them back,” Leaf said in his 1971 Hatchet review of the band’s most recent album.
Leaf said the discovery of his passion for telling the stories of the artists he admired pushed him to move to California, where he would go on to write a book on Wilson, befriend him and help him finish his abandoned rock album “SMiLE.” A version of the album, “Brian Wilson Presents Smile,” debuted in 2004, and Leaf produced a documentary on the release.
Leaf accomplished the first two goals of befriending and writing a book about Wilson in 1978 when he published “The Beach Boys and the California Myth.” The book chronicled Wilson’s early career, including his rise and the struggles he faced both creatively and personally, and featured interviews with Wilson and many close to him.
He said trust was one factor that brought him closer to the vibrant artist as a confidant. Leaf said Wilson spent most of his time with people on his payroll, so he lets his personality out more around people who will tell him what they actually think without fear that they’re only saying what he wants to hear.
He said the two have a normal friendship going swimming together, getting dinner with their wives and singing in the car.
“I mean, we just laughed a lot,” Leaf said. “He’s fun to be around.”
The friendship does still have its less normal parts. Leaf said the musician would ask Leaf to come on tour with him because Leaf would be the only person there as a friend while everyone else would be there as a co-worker.
“Friend, cheerleader, semi-ghostwriter, author, filmmaker, tribute producer, I fulfilled a lot of roles in his life,” Leaf said. “But the one that matters to him the most is friend.”
Leaf said while he acted more like a journalist trying to explain Wilson to the world in his 1978 book, the new edition focuses more on his own friendship with Wilson, adventures the two shared and personal memories from home and on the road.
“Obviously you can go on Wikipedia and read endlessly about everything, every album anyone’s ever done, every tour they’ve done, all that information is there,” Leaf said. “So me writing that is no longer valuable. What’s valuable is telling stories that only I can tell.”
One such adventure was when the two met the late Queen Elizabeth II of England in 2002. Leaf said he accompanied Wilson on his journey to Buckingham Palace, where he was invited to play at the Queen’s Jubilee. He said the guests were instructed to not speak to the queen unless she spoke to them first – a rule which Wilson promptly broke as he exclaimed “Hi Queen!” while the monarch walked by.
Leaf also decided to change the title from the original “The Beach Boys and the California Myth” to “God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys & the California Myth.” He said the expanded title includes the name of one of Wilson’s most publicly beloved songs to evoke the spiritual nature of his music, in which the artist believes God speaks to the listener. And by adding the song title and Wilson’s name, Leaf said he wanted readers to understand this was a book about the creatively fruitful, yet artistically stymied Wilson as opposed to the entire Beach Boys.
“The truth is, when it comes to his story and why things have happened, you could literally shrug your shoulders and go ‘God only knows,’” Leaf said. “Because there are things that cannot be explained.”
Leaf’s writing about Wilson has helped readers realize and continue to understand the sheer influence of the ever-complex artist’s music and his triumph over his creative struggles.
Fourty-four years after the book’s initial release, Leaf’s published work has reached all ends of the music industry. He said he has received praise and compliments for his work from famous artists, including when he ran into legendary rock artist Tom Petty backstage at the 1991 Billboard Music Awards.
Leaf recalls Petty standing next to him backstage and leaning over to say “Great book, man.”
“The people who matter recognized what the book was because they already knew who Brian was, and they were thrilled that somebody had put it into print,” Leaf said of the interaction. “So I think that was, what I did was, I put Brian Wilson’s story into print in such a way that it couldn’t be denied.”