by Mitch Albom
It was 50 years ago this summer that a couple of guys named Mike and Brian were sitting in a California garage, noodling with a song. As Mike recalls, the song "didn't take that long. Just a few minutes." When you read the lyrics you believe him:
Surfin' is the only life
The only way for me.
Now surf, surf with me
Bom Bom Dit Di Dit Dip
Bom Bom Dit Di Dit Dip...
Mike and Brian, along with two of Brian's brothers and a family friend, took the song to a local record company, which had wanted them to do a folk tune a la the Kingston Trio.
Instead, they came up with "Surfin'."
And the Beach Boys were born.
I don't know which stuns me more: that the Beach Boys have been around 50 years, or that I know their first hit. But there is something undeniable about their body of music, something that says there is music, and there is iconic music. Why do songs like "California Girls," "Wouldn't It Be Nice" or "Fun Fun Fun" still sound fresh, still make people smile, still throw a beam of sunshine over the coldest day?
It must be more than the chords, right?
More than surfers
"It is pretty remarkable," Mike Love admitted to me last week, "that people still love the songs we created lo these many years ago."
Love and the Beach Boys, in their current incarnation, were coming to suburban Detroit for an annual concert tradition. Of course, most of the original members weren't there -- including the semi-reclusive Brian Wilson or his now-deceased brothers, Dennis and Carl. But at this point, even the Beach Boys name is an institution, and people come out to sing along with songs that hearken to a more innocent time -- and an endless summer.
"Dennis, myself and Al (Jardine) were all surfers when we got started," Love said. "In high school, if we heard on the radio that the surf was up, we might miss a few afternoon classes."
Ironically, once they came up with "Surfin'," the band pretty much retired their boards. They've been touring every summer since 1962. As songs like "Surfin Safari" and "Surfin USA" became increasingly bigger hits, the men singing them were increasingly landlocked.
Still, the feelings their music evoked were as sparkly as sunshine refracting diamonds on the ocean. In time they sang about cars ("Little Deuce Coupe," "409"), about school and hanging out ("I Get Around," "Be True To Your School"), about the innocence of youth ("When I Grow Up To Be A Man," "In My Room") and eventually, even psychedelic spirituality ("Good Vibrations").
But through it all, one thing was constant. Their sound was unique. And you always hummed along.
A musical genius
I am -- obviously -- a huge Beach Boys fan. I admire the genius of Brian Wilson's arrangements, his harmonies, his innovative use of sounds and instruments. That he did this on such simple infrastructure as "Dance, Dance, Dance" or "Help Me, Rhonda" only makes it more impressive.
There is no shame in being serious about music and serious about the Beach Boys. Even the Beatles were envious of their work.
Still, there is something about finding out that this band of once shaggy golden boys is now 50 years old, or that Mike Love is in his 70s. It gives you pause.
In "The Picture of Dorian Gray," the lead character never ages, but a hidden portrait of him shows the decay of years.
In real life, the Beach Boys have it better. Their hairlines and birthday cakes may tell one story, but their music tells another. It tells the same remarkable tale it did the day they took a garage-created tune and brought it to a studio.
Sometimes, magic only takes a few minutes. And if you're lucky, it can last for decades.