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Give Bruce Johnston credit; he isn't put off his chosen path easily.
"I was 14 when I made my first record. I had an appointment to see this man, John Dolphin, who owned a chain of black record stores about 15 miles from Hollywood, near Watts. We were in a room this size” – he gestures vaguely at the regular sized office we’re in – “and the guy that walked in with me got in a fight with the owner. I was sitting there and this guy shot Dolphin five times in front of me. Fourteen years old and I'm the witness to a murder!
"Dolphin got up and fell on a heater and turned it on, he's foaming at the mouth, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'This isn't the way business is done...Wait a minute!'
"I had to go to court and testify…and they found a knife with Dolphin's fingerprints on it, and I don't remember if he lunged towards the guy. So the guy got five years to life and he was out in five years. He was a songwriter who claimed he was owed back royalties."
His head tilts back in laughter, shaggily perfect hair brushing his Hawaiian shirt as his eyes twinkle with the amusement of distance, his skin a golden California glow, clothes immaculate, exuding the confidence that comes with success and comfortable wealth.
Nope, you should never let a minor incident deter you.
Bruce Johnston is 30. Two years on from The Beach Boys (though it’s an association which continues), he is in town to promote his new group California Music, their debut single “Don't Worry Baby”, and Equinox Records, the company he has started with Terry Melcher.
California Music was originally an even more confident name: California. Dedicated to creating the definitive Californian music, in its original incarnation it was almost a cliché of Southern California myth-music making: Bruce, Byrds producer Terry Melcher, Dean Torrence (of Jan and Dean), and a few other studio surfers. The line up today is Bruce, Gloria Grinel and Kenny Hinkle, with Melcher and Johnston as producers. Mrs. Grinel was most recently on these shores as support singer to David Cassidy.
Bruce drops the needle and “Don't Worry Baby” is eased into, a languid, slow dancer pace, bass, drums and acoustic guitar taking the rhythm, embellished at points by ultra low-key piano, flute and electric guitar. As in all good California music, the faultless vocal harmonies carry the melody and counterpoint. Releasing it as a single seems kind of pointless since it isn’t going to catch any wave up the charts, especially when the original version is one of the most perfect songs in existence. But there’s no denying the effortless way it creates mental pictures of blond surfer girls and guys cruising in open top cars under a perfect blue sky.
Okay Bruce, so why are you so into the California myth?
A puzzled expression, some amplification on the part of the interviewer, a bit of thinking. "I am the California myth. I'm an important spoke on the wheel...Jeezuz, you ask me about it...It's sitting in front of you. The California myth is probably where guys like me have come from and where we are now.”
I suggest that he and his friends, with their eulogies to surf, cars, and girls, have created a musical world that presents California as Utopia. He focuses on the surf, cars, and girls.
"But that's all ended. and I've been through all that, and I'm not going to start recutting my past."
It would be churlish to point out his new single is exactly that, so I sit in silence as he pauses.
"California isn't Utopia. It's a nice place to live. New Zealand is a better place to live, and I've seriously thought of moving down there...It's like California and England combined. That's my idea of utopia."
Johnston’s forays into the music business and recording led to an association with Terry Melcher in 1959, when they first made and produced records together. They reached a peak around 1963/4 as Bruce and Terry on CBS. Jan and Dean were across the road and The Beach Boys next door; they were soon trading ideas, songs and voices.
When Brian Wilson stopped touring in 1965 Bruce sat in for a weekend, which in turn became two, and soon he was a regular member of the group, both in the studio and on the road. While he contributed a number of beautiful songs over the years, his finest moment is undoubtedly singing the harmonies that soar and circle skyward throughout “God Only Knows”. It lasted until 1972.
Melcher, meanwhile, went on to produce The Byrds, helping to create the fabled ‘folk-rock’ sound in the process. Although he worked on a string of records with the group that will probably be with us forever, he thinks 'Chestnut Mare' the best song he's produced. In the late 60s he got involved with Charlie Manson, luckily avoiding the fate planned for him when he didn’t follow through in producing Manson’s music. Continuing to contribute to the California myth, his recent solo album name-checks Beverly Hills hangouts.
Johnston first sang with the Beach Boys on “California Girls”, and was heavily involved (with Terry) on Pet Sounds, though CBS refused permission for a credit.
"We did a really terrific version of “God Only Knows”, with Brian's wife and sister, Terry, myself, and a couple of the group. Carl sang the lead, Brian, Carl and I sang the bridge, and Brian and myself sang the end part; so it was only a trio.
"You know, I've got all these tapes up at my house. A seven minute version of “Heroes and Villains”, a lot of things from Smile. Not “Elementals” – that's better off not being heard, if you understand me. And I never play them to anybody, it never occurs to me.
"During Smile Brian was very paranoid and there were a lot of people coming on the scene saying, 'Wow, heavy Brian. Here, take this, smoke this, shoot this, do this.' Brian was just a basket case, and just kinda tuned out.
“He's done a couple of tracks for the new album…”The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and something else. I hope they get in.
He looks a little peeved that we’re not talking about his new group. "You know, everyone this morning has been asking a lot of questions about the Beach Boys and the past. Why are you guys so interested in it?"
Perhaps, Bruce, it's that California myth. He doesn't look convinced. But maybe that's as it should be.
© Jonh Ingham, 2011