Back when I was a kid, around 12 or 13, I mailed a letter to a writer I very much admired.
Since I was born too late to send a letter to Edgar Allan Poe or Mark Twain, I sent one to a writer — a songwriter — who continually amazed me even at that early stage with his exceptional musical abilities. He not only wrote the songs he sang, he also wrote the songs sang by his brothers, his cousin and a longtime friend, all of whom were in the same band as he.
I'm talking about Brian Wilson, the amazing talent behind The Beach Boys.
Somehow I had obtained an address for The Beach Boys — but I didn't write to the whole band. I singled out Brian Wilson because his name had been cited in virtually all of the songwriting credits on the group's records. Sometimes he wrote in collaboration with others. Still, unless it was a cover song, all of the songs the band recorded at the time had Brian's stamp on it.
When I sat my young self down to write Brian a letter, I didn't aim for anything very profound; I got right to the point.
As I recall, I wrote something along the lines of "Dear Brian, you are a great songwriter. You write all the best songs! I love to listen to your records here in Oklahoma.
"Your friend, James."
That's about it. I didn't want to drag it out too long. I figured Brian had lots to do, what with writing hit songs, serving as the band's de facto recording producer, and playing and singing with The Beach Boys.
I wrote down the California address, placed a stamp on an envelope and stuck my brief missive inside. In case the letter got lost or rejected or something, I wrote my return address on it. Then, I placed it in the mailbox. I simply wanted to let Brian know his musical endeavors were highly appreciated in the Sooner State. I didn't expect anything, not even a response.
That's why I felt so surprised when one day my mom told me a letter had arrived from me from California. California! I didn't know anybody in California other than my mother's Aunt Dolly. And she wouldn't be sending me a letter. Wait a minute. It couldn't be... could it?
I tore open the letter and there inside was an autographed picture of The Beach Boys — not only with Brian's signature, but with the signatures of his brothers, Carl and Dennis Wilson, his cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine as well. It looked like they were in an empty swimming pool, gathered around a ladder.
No, I didn't have a personal reply from Brian, but this was pretty good!
A few years later I got to see The Beach Boys when they gave a short impromptu concert during a surprise assembly for McAlester High School students inside S. Arch Thompson Auditorium at the invitation of then-Lt. Gov. George Nigh.
What amazed me was the sound they produced using the school's PA system, along with a few guitar amplifiers. They blended their five-part harmonies perfectly when they put down their instruments and gathered around a single microphone for an a capella version of "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring/A Young Man is Gone."
Wow! Even though Brian Wilson is a renowned studio wizard, The Beach Boys' amazing harmonies were not done through studio trickery. They could replicate their recorded vocals right there onstage at S. Arch Thompson using a school PA system.
My only disappointment is that Brian wasn't touring with the band, staying at home to write songs and produce backing tracks with the LA studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. If Brian had come to McAlester, I would have found a way to personally thank him for that signed photo.
After the band left the stage and the assembly ended, I saw a couple of limousines parked on the street with the motor running. I was cheeky enough to stick my head through the rolled-down back window of one, where Carl and Dennis Wilson sat in the backseat. I thanked them for playing a high school assembly in McAlester, like I was some sort of Junior Rock 'n' Roll Chamber of Commerce member. They were very polite.
"Oh yeah, say 'hi' to Brian for me." I'm sure they remembered.
While The Beach Boys rode a wave to their early fame as a surfing group and then a hot rod band, those phases were a minuscule part of their artistic output. Any list of the greatest albums of all time includes Brian's groundbreaking "Pet Sounds" on the short list, while "Good Vibrations" is considered one of the greatest singles ever released.
Even when The Beach Boys unfairly fell out of favor for a time with those who considered themselves the hip elite, they continued to create some of my favorite albums, with "Sunflower," "Holland" and especially "Surf's Up" — which is definitely not a surfing album. It's outstanding track is the title cut, a moody, introspective song by Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, full of wordplay and poetics, accompanied by a piano and angelic vocals.
The hip tide began to roll back in The Beach Boys' favor when they were invited onstage at the Fillmore East for a surprise appearance with another California band — The Grateful Dead.
I still have that signed picture of Brian and the other Beach Boys. Unfortunately, we lost Carl and Dennis Wilson, but Al Jardine still tours with Brian — or did until the pandemic shut everything down. Mike Love has the legal right to tour as The Beach Boys, which he does with Bruce Johnston.
Yep, Brian is not only still touring as a solo artist, he also releases the occasional solo album, which still contain elements of that Beach Boys magic.
After dashing off that short letter to Brian as a kid, I've since wondered if I wrote him a letter today, what would I say?
I believe I would write something along the lines of "Dear Brian, you are a great songwriter. You write all the best songs!. I love to listen to your records here in Oklahoma.
"Your friend, James."