Lessons from Carl Wilson

UPDATEDD and rereleased with new material.

A conversation with Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys, on the evening of November 17, 1974, changed the course of my life. Ultimately it led to the discovery that Jesus Christ is really alive and the only treasure worth having. It also taught me something about famous people and their needs.

The following is an excerpted section from my forthcoming memoir, Adopted: A Memoir of Healing Love. The section is entitled, “Lessons from Carl Wilson,” in which I relate the details of this encounter that sparked my spiritual journey to Christ:

In November of 1974, The Beach Boys were in concert at the civic center in Springfield, MA.. Around the time of their concert, I worked on and off for a sound and recording studio, The Studio, in the Berkshires owned by Norman Titcomb. While with Norm, we provided sound reinforcement for Arlo Guthrie, Wendy Waldman, John Davidson, the 5th Dimension and later, Natalie Cole.

I had never seen the Beach Boys live. They had to be experienced. I called my sister, Dorothy, and I called my girl friend. We three went together. My sister contends that my girlfriend was not wild about my sister’s presence with us. I do not remember it that way. I thought everything was fine.

I was surprised and disappointed that Brian Wilson wasn’t with them. A second drummer had joined them on the road, Rickie Fataar. They did a great job though. They played both their new and old songs. I had never been to a concert as great as that concert.

Later, backstage, I met one of the sound guys and he invited us to the Beach Boys party at the Springfield-Holyoke Holiday Inn, Holyoke, MA. What a break!  Now I get to meet, talk with, drink with my long time heroes.

We got to the Inn and entered the convention room where the party was already in progress. None of the guys had arrived yet. Mainly groupies, sound guys, and a few associates were already there with wine, drinks, and snacks. Everything flowed freely and generously there. I don’t remember paying for anything. Most likely the record company picked up the tab.

When the guys got there, Carl Wilson entered. He wore an open flannel shirt and jeans. He sat at a table behind me. I couldn’t believe it. These guys practically lived in my room–“In My Room.” That song spoke for me. It was as though they knew me or something. The guys who knew me and helped me through many of my problems with girls and at school. The guys who went to the beach with me every summer, who knew the salt and sea air, who knew the smell of French fries and hot dogs were right here with me now. What could I say to them that wouldn’t sound stupid. Hey, I really identified with the stuff in ‘All Summer Long?’

I turned to Carl. “Great concert tonight. The sound was excellent!” We struck up a conversation. We talked together about the road and other hazards. He seemed a little tired, perhaps road-weary, but other than that pretty opened and interested talking. Then it happened. I don’t think he knew what he was about to unleash in my life.

He asked me the strangest question. I later remembered that Plato had said the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. My life was pretty much unexamined up until this night with Carl Wilson. But it was this question and his response to my answer would several months later be used of God to bring me to Himself.

“What’s your dream? What plans do you have for your life?” asked Carl.

I couldn’t believe my ears. What an out of place question in the middle of a party, of all places. I wasn’t in the “profound” mood either. Besides, I didn’t much ask myself such questions. They usually got me depressed.

On top of that . . . I had no clue. “I want to be like you guys,” I heard myself say. “I sing in a band and we hope to get on the road and cut an album.” You would have thought I had told him that Audrey wore combat boots. He laid into me.

“Are you crazy?” He shook his head in disbelief, turned to more fully face me, then riveted his eyes on mine. “Maybe you want to be like him,” he said as he pointed at a dilapidated Dennis Wilson, crumpled on the floor with his back up against the wall, his head tilted to the side, eyes rolled back. He was totally out of it with one attractive girl on each side of him pawing him in his oblivion. One of the girls shoving her shoulder up under his head to later claim that a Beach Boy had slept the night on that shoulder.

Just then, Mike Love shoved the double doors open and burst in. He wore  green satin pants and a matching shirt with a yellow star on it. He had a striking blonde girl on one arm and a to-die-for red-head on the other. He announced in a tone full of himself, “I’m here.” He scanned the scene for response.

Carl could see that I was in shock. He said, “Or maybe you want to be like that asshole.” He pointed to Mike.

I said lamely, “Nah . . . I just want to make it like you guys. And have all the friends and people that love you.”

He shook his head and squinted, and fired at me, “You’re an asshole!”

You think these people are our friends? Man . . . I could go to bed with any one of these chicks tonight but never know whether she did it because I was a Beach Boy or because I’m Carl Wilson. I don’t ever know whether I’m valued as Carl or as a Beach Boy. That’s what you want?”

Then he turned away from me and got up.

I don’t know where he went because I had turned back to the people at my table who were all watching me. Fortunately, I was too drunk and high to know how to respond. I sat stunned.

His cousin, Al Jardine, who had apparently overheard the conversation came and sat next to me. He broke my stupor. He said something like, Hey man . . . don’t worry about him. He doesn’t really mean it. He’s just really bummed out about being on the road. He won’t get to be with his family this Christmas and he’s worried about Dennis and his brother Brian. He’s home in bed.

I didn’t understand what was going on in their lives at that point in their history. Frankly, I was one of those people who saw them as The Beach Boys, not as Carl, Dennis, Al, Brian, Mike, but as a phenomenon and as the group that expressed what I felt in music. If any one of them felt used, rejected frightened, I don’t think I ever gave that a thought. Later I would find out, through documentaries, that Brian had had a breakdown and was literally in bed, clinically depressed perhaps. That they had a falling out with their father who had been their producer early on. And that Dennis was keeping company with Charles Manson and family.

All of the guys wondered about their futures, cared about what was happening to their family and each other and were trying the best to cope with all the “stuff” of their public and private lives, while people like me made them money but didn’t have the humanity to see them as brothers, fathers, husbands, or guys who–like the rest of us–needed love and real people in their lives.

“Yeah . . . OK, thanks,” I said, but didn’t mean it because Carl’s words had cut deeply into my fantasy of who The Beach Boys were. My idols had, in one stroke, in three minutes of conversation incinerated and blown away.

Al spoke again, “Hey . . . sorry. We really do appreciate you and thanks for buying our records and diggin’ our music.” I looked at him. His smile was warm. He placed his hand on my shoulder. “Have another beer. Enjoy yourself.” Honestly, up until that evening, Al was the one I liked least of all the guys. I thought his talent fell short of Brian, Carl, and Mike. He was just kind of . . . there. Then I realized he was one of the nicest of the guys. I felt like he considered it a privilege to be in the band and never fell into believing his own press.

It wasn’t Carl’s fault that I had been crushed. An encounter with reality that evening changed my life. And that was God’s intent.

I had always wanted to tell Carl: that though He did not claim to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, his encounter with me led me to the examination of my life that ultimately resulted in my finding Christ as Lord and Savior. I owed my adolescent love of music to them. Now I felt I owed to Carl’s struggle and suffering (and The Beach Boys indirectly) my new spiritual life in Christ. I was saved through a sincere search that began  with Carl Wilson’s offhanded, (but accurate about me) comments. I wanted to tell him but didn’t even know how to get in touch. Time passed. Dennis died. Then Carl died of brain cancer (or so I heard).

For Carl’s hard word to me that night, for Al’s compassion, and for Brian and Mike’s music I am extremely grateful. I now see them as people. I often wished I could have been a friend and returned the favor. This account is my attempt at that and my thanks to a loving Father, who in spite of my ungratefulness to him, kept drawing me to Himself with cords of love. Through any and every means.

This touchpoint in my life taught me three things:

First, famous people have a life. The people who bring us entertainment, songs, music, movies are first and foremost people. Like you and me. They are not what the media makes of them—stars, icons, etc. We do them a great disservice when we idolize them. We actually dehumanize them. That must feel to them like we’re using them. They’re already being used by everyone around them. To many of those people, the entertainers are products to capitalize. Agents use them. Concert promoters use them. Record companies use them. And, in a sense, we use them. Just as they use us. We’re their fans and it’s a love-hate relationship.

We also cooperate with their fantasy—that they are somehow SO important. I don’t ever want to dehumanize another person whom God has created. Nor be guilty of contributing to their own “pride of life”—the inflated notion of their own sense of worth. Their worth comes from the fact that they are created by God for relationship with the Heart of the Universe. Not that they can stir the emotions of hundreds of people on a stage—so could Stalin—or are household names—so is Hitler. Popularity is fleeting and says nothing about character or value.

Second, God can use anyone at any time as an agent for his purposes for people. He can put words in their mouths that can be life changing, whether they know it or not. In my role as a pastor, I’ve found that even an enemy can speak truths that I need to hear. And Judas fulfilled God’s purposes for Jesus. Often, a thought enters our mind. We speak. But regardless of what we think we meant, God can use it in the other person for his/her good. That’s why writing this book is so important to me. God will use it in the lives of those who read it.

The third thing: don’t wait until it’s too late to thank people. Do it now while you can. And I make that my habit. Say it now! From what I’ve learned about my heavenly Father, his love requires that he smash our fantasies and demolish our idols so that nothing false stands against truly knowing Him for who he is. As long as I trusted in myself and my sense of future fame, I had a focus that kept me from Him and that contributed to a view of people that kept me from fulfilling the purposes He had for my life.

These are the things I believe I learned through that encounter with The Beach Boys and from what God has taught me from this touchpoint with His divine providence.

 *  *  *

NOTE:  The period from the fall of ’74 through the fall of ’76–the bicentennial of our nation–was for me a time of deep soul-search. I knew that I was going nowhere. Carl’s question kept repeating in my mind. It focused me. This was a time of many questions: Who was I? Where was I going? What was my future? What would I do with my life? The questions most young people ask in their early college years, I was asking at age 26.

This was an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Adopted: A Memoir of Healing Love. Expected release on Kindle for fall of 2012.

© 2011, David C Alves

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