Rock and Roll Book Club: William McKeen's 'Everybody Had an Ocean'

William McKeen's 'Everybody Had an Ocean'
William McKeen's 'Everybody Had an Ocean' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

There are six photos on the cover of William McKeen's new book Everybody Had an Ocean: five rock stars, and Charles Manson. That five-to-one ratio pretty accurately represents the ratio of music to mayhem in this chronicle of "music and mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles."

The idea that there was a dark underbelly to the sunny sounds of California in the '60s is nothing particularly new: if you've read one thinkpiece about Altamont and the end of the innocence, you've read a million. On a conceptual level, McKeen doesn't have too much to add to this narrative. In terms of sheer mayhem, there are probably much longer books to be written about the New York and London music scenes.

McKeen actually has just a couple of crime-related stories outside of Manson's — and they're probably new to most readers.

One involves the kidnapping for ransom of Frank Sinatra Jr., which was perpetrated by a clumsy cadre of desperate dudes that included a guy named Barry Keenan, a longtime friend of Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean. Torrence actually lent Keenan $500 for living expenses, after Keenan described the kidnapping scheme. Torrence never thought Keenan would go through with the half-baked cash grab — as he ultimately testified at Keenan's trial — but his association with the high-profile crime was close enough that it helped derail Jan & Dean's career.

The second involves the death of Bobby Fuller: the Texas-born rocker who had a 1966 hit with his band's cover of Sonny Curtis's "I Fought the Law." Very unfortunately for Fuller, his music was distributed by Roulette: a label run by mobsters who probably were behind Fuller's still-mysterious death at age 23. He was discovered by his mother, severely beaten and soaked in gasoline, lying face-down in the front seat of her car. The death was ruled a suicide, which was obviously ludicrous.

Those incidents just fill a couple of chapters in this 15-chapter book; most of the rest is a fairly straightforward history of California rock in the '60s. While some readers might feel cheated, I was okay with it, because McKeen does a nice job of chronicling the music and personalities of the era. He ably outlines the dynamics of bands like Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Byrds, and captures the freewheeling scene that spurred so many fruitful collaborations.

A good rock book is all about balance, and McKeen — the chair of journalism at Boston University — effectively and concisely describes the appeal of artists like Joni Mitchell and the Doors, putting their music in the context of their personal relationships, the larger social scene, and the rapidly evolving landscape of rock music in the '60s.

(Despite being generally a superb writer, McKeen is prone to the rock journalist's vice of using overly colorful metaphors just to show how un-square he is. We read, for example, that "critics will still wrestle nude in creamed corn" to argue for the virtues of Ike Turner's "Rocket 88," and that "Brian Wilson met Van Dyke Parks when he was nipple-deep in Pet Sounds.")

It all comes back to Manson, though, and Everybody Had an Ocean is probably the best way for a music fan to figure out just what the hell was going on to connect the notorious cult leader and California's most famous band.

The book opens with an evocative scene from 1968. Dennis Wilson, the hottest and horniest Beach Boy, picks up a couple of attractive female hitchhikers. They go back to his house, they both hook up with him, and they agree to hang out at the house while the drummer goes in to the studio for a recording session.

After several hours working on Brian Wilson's weird composition "Even Steven," Dennis returns to the house to discover that it's now full of naked women. The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour is blasting, and a scraggly man is there as well. Wilson immediately fears the man plans him harm, but instead Charlie Manson leans over and kisses Wilson's feet.

Despite Manson's lack of musical talent, his weird charisma — and all those aforementioned naked women — ingratiated him to the late-1960s L.A. music scene. The artist who was most impressed by Manson's singing was Neil Young, who recommended the cult leader to Mo Ostin...but the Reprise leader took a hard pass.

(So did Mike Love, whose onetime babysitter became one of the women convicted for participation in eight Manson murders. In one of his rare defensible musical judgments, the Beach Boys frontman described Manson's recording sessions as "just chanting, f---ing, sucking, and barfing.")

Though Manson ran with Wilson's crowd for a time — they had a boys' club of self-declared "Golden Penetrators," with Manson demonstrating his dance moves during an unforgettable visit to the Whisky a Go Go — but things got weird and Wilson distanced himself from Manson before the cult's killing spree began. To the end of his days, though, Wilson understandably never wanted to talk about his former friendship with Manson. Another member of the Golden Penetrators, producer Terry Melcher, was Manson's target on the terrible night that Sharon Tate and four others died.

Does that add up to a critique of the California sound? Does it cause us to hear the music any differently, as McKeen suggests it should? Maybe. McKeen does suggest that musicians like Dennis Wilson were implicit in creating the kind of permissive atmosphere that became fertile soil for Manson — lots of drugs and impressionable young people who distrusted the establishment — but if there's a larger pattern to be found there, McKeen doesn't identify it.

Still, Everybody Had an Ocean is a great read, one that offers real insights into the burgeoning L.A. music scene in the '60s. Some of its most affecting and memorable passages involve artists who had nothing to do with mayhem — the likes of Mama Cass, who was universally beloved but never quite in the way she wanted, and the contentious David Crosby, who McKeen paints as another one of the era's essential connectors despite his musical talents being constantly overshadowed by those of his various bandmates.

A more intriguing thread McKeen hints at, but never quite follows all the way to its conclusion, involves Phil Spector. The producer's own career, of course, ended in murder and mayhem — he'll be in prison for life after being convicted of the 2003 killing of actress Lana Clarkson — but his tyrannical tendencies were also what allowed him to create the music that helped to provide the decade's immortal soundtrack. He pushed and pushed until he got his way, and his way was the Wall of Sound.

"The more successful he became," writes McKeen, "the meaner Phil Spector got." Maybe it was inevitable that the whole scene would ultimately lose that lovin' feeling.

The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club will be part of the second annual Lit Crawl MN on Saturday, Sept. 16. Jay Gabler will host a discussion, reading, and record party at the Bryant-Lake Bowl at 9 p.m., featuring local authors Andrea Swensson, Jim Walsh, and Cyn Collins. Free and open to the public.

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