Charles Manson had a sweet, clear voice, reminiscent of Chet Baker’s, that could carry a pop song, a jazz standard, or a show tune. He wrote some good songs, a couple of which became unironic hipster anthems decades later. He charmed his way into an elite circle of Los Angeles musicians, and he swayed a few of them to record his compositions.
Then people began to die at his bidding, Charlie was bundled off to prison, and those who survived put the tapes away.
Los Angeles, as every writer from Raymond Chandler on has told us, is a weird place, a place where the sun shines while the earth trembles, where all the loose bits and pieces of a continent seem to have gathered, geologically and metaphorically. It’s a place where The Byrds could craft the art of tight harmony while feuding interminably, where Brian Wilson could hear choirs of angels that he wrestled onto the charts while quietly going mad. It’s a place of good food and bad drugs and vice versa, a place where voodoo and sects and sex and drugs and rock and roll have nestled comfortably within thriving cities shaped by the aerospace, academic, and film industries.
It’s also a place where William McKeen, the author of the new book Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles, has long made a home—at least in his imagination. Now the chair of the journalism department at Boston University, he fell in love with Southern California through its music way back in the ’60s. “I heard those songs on my radio living on an Air Force base in Florida where the Soviet missiles in Cuba pointed to,” he tells Kirkus Reviews, “and I fell in love with the idea of the place.”
He came to be disenchanted by aspects of Southern California all the same, as his book plainly shows. Some of them were musical: McKeen is no fan of Mike Love, the bête noire of all Beach Boys aficionados, though he gives Love grudging nods for his work on the centrifugal album Holland, an all-but-lost classic from 1973. “The most disappointing thing I learned in my research, though, was that Brian Wilson wrote ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ thinking about his sister-in-law,” he adds. “That was kind of crushing for me. I thought it was a song projecting the feelings of an innocent 18-year-old, and it wasn’t.”
That fits the spirit and substance of McKeen’s book well, though: Southern California can be a place of magic, Disneyesque and otherwise, and a place of horror and deception. In the ’60s, daily events there showed how thin a veneer of civilization overlay the flower-power generation. For every child of Aquarius, there was a Jim Morrison, whom McKeen characterizes as “a mean drunk you wouldn’t want to be around.”
And then there was Manson, who, with his unmerry gang, pretty well killed the spirit of the laid-back Topanga Canyon ’60s even as they killed well-connected Angelenos. As for those on the hit list who avoided that fate, “seeing the newspaper and knowing instantly what had happened,” McKeen says, gave rise to the title he worked with originally, playing on the name of a Bach cantata: The Rock Star Awakes. Rock stars awoke indeed, and retreated behind gates and walls.
McKeen began thinking about his book four decades ago, when events were fresh. He did newspaper work and wrote other books instead, including a book about Key West, Mile Marker Zero, and the well-received Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. The trail of that famed gonzo writer led him back into the Los Angeles of the era, but it wasn’t until a bout of cancer sidelined him a couple of years ago that he found the time and the leisure to write his latest. “I couldn’t wait to work on it each day, and I went for chemo full of excitement about all the things I was discovering and writing about,” he says.
The book has its dark moments, but also its happy ones. The world still adores “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” for instance, even if it still seems improbable, as McKeen notes, that Brian Wilson was the only one of the three Beach Boy brothers to live into the 21st century, for reasons that are definitively tragic.
Meanwhile, says McKeen, he’s planning out a couple of other books, thinking of topics that are “a little more contemporary.” Still, he keeps turning back to that bygone era of youth and—well, perhaps innocence, if fleeting innocence. “I love it,” he says, “and I get a lot of pleasure out of working on a time that I lived through and know.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.