Searching account of 1960s Southern California, when the wistful innocence of the Beach Boys died alongside the victims of Charles Manson.
It makes sense that the first figure really to take form in McKeen’s (Chair, Journalism/Boston Univ.; Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West, 2011, etc.) latest book is Murry Wilson, the psychologically tortured, reflexively violent father of Beach Boys Carl, Dennis, and Brian—in fact, the latter was so relentlessly damaged by the shock of a raging parent that, more than half a century later, he is not quite at home in this world. “The boys knew they could stem the brutality with music,” writes McKeen, and so they sang—but also drank, drugged, and did all they could to escape. It was an accident of history that Dennis’ path crossed that of would-be songwriter Charles Manson, whose creepy, ultimately murderous family would invade Dennis’ life and home before committing their infamous acts. In between, McKeen recounts the rise and fall of LA pop-culture icons such as the Byrds, a band born in all sorts of conflict and personality clash even as it projected a flower-power cool: “They wanted to be rock ’n’ roll stars, but they couldn’t decide what would make the band distinctive.” The “star-making machinery,” a line of Joni Mitchell’s that McKeen cheerfully echoes, took in all kinds of disparate characters, from the lost wild child Gram Parsons to the craggy Svengali Kim Fowley. As the author notes, that machinery had no problem with the waiflike Michelle Phillips straddling a couple of dudes in a bathtub on an album cover but recalled it to sticker over the edge of a toilet that had strayed into the picture. McKeen’s book ends near where it begins, with the haunted Wilson family caught up in the terrible vortex of the post-Manson ’70s, when hippies were now objects of fear and bedrooms and barrooms were the sanctuaries of choice.
Excellent social history, bracketing David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) as an indispensable account of a time of beauty and terror.