Growing Up with the Wilsons & Working with Brian
For many years, David Marks, a founding member of The Beach Boys, was a mere footnote in music history, a forgotten figure relegated to an obscure answer in a rock trivia game. A childhood friend and neighbor of the Wilsons—Brian, Dennis and Carl—Marks was a key figure during the formative years. Along with Carl Wilson, he is responsible for creating the group’s trademark surf guitar sound that powered so many of their classic early hits.
In recent years, Marks has returned to the fold, taking part in last year’s wildly successful 50th anniversary trek. This year, Marks and fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine are touring with Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You lived across the street from the Wilsons in Hawthorne, California. Tell us about the area and the environment inside the Wilson home.
David Marks: The neighborhood bordered between Hawthorne and Inglewood at Kornblum Avenue. I lived directly across the street from the Wilsons. We both had corner houses. My side of the street was a new tract home development and all the houses were exactly the same in terms of floor plan. On the Wilson side, that neighborhood had been there for quite a while. It was run down. There were no sidewalks. The houses were older and the Wilsons lived in a pretty small, modest two-bedroom home. The boys all shared a bedroom. When they got older, Brian started sleeping in the den more and more, which was a converted garage they had turned into a music room. They had a Hammond B-3 organ, an upright piano and a little hi-fi in there.
RCM: Describe the household dynamic.
David Marks: It wasn’t Leave It To Beaver (laughs). It wasn’t Tobacco Road either. It appeared to be a poor household although Murry (Wilson) was successful selling two or three huge machines a year, industrial drill presses and lathes. They were like as a big as a car. He would import them from England and sell those to maintain the household. They weren’t rich by any means. The outward appearance of the household was happy. The boys were always running around doing something and Murry was on the phone and Audree was wearing the apron in the kitchen. It was pretty typical, actually.
There was nothing really unusual about it except people probably don’t imagine the Wilsons crammed in a tiny two-bedroom house in a poor neighborhood.
There was one bunk bed and one cot in the bedroom and it was always a mess. Clothes all over the place. They didn’t really have any material possessions to speak of other than the instruments in the music room. All the stuff that you hear about Murry being a prick, for me it was an average normal household. My dad was a prick too and all the dads in the neighborhood were pricks. The school of parenting for that generation is what I’m describing. It was okay to smack your kid, especially my Dad who was Italian; if you say something out of line you get smacked. If you cause problems you get a beating with a strap.
When I first moved into the neighborhood I was seven years old. Carl and Dennis immediately adopted me. I mostly hung out with Dennis. Dennis was very adventurous and would always recruit me to go out with him. He’d always be up to some sort of mischief. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was ten years old and got one for Christmas. When the guitar thing happened Carl and I began to spend more time together.
RCM: You used to sneak over to the Wilsons’ home and watch Brian practice.
David Marks: I would always be busting in at the house over there every day. Sometimes there wasn’t anyone at home except for Brian and he would be playing the piano and I was fascinated by what he was doing so I would kind of spy on him through a window and watch him in the music room. I watched him quite a few times when he was working out harmonies. He was studying The Four Freshmen.
His method was to play the same three or four notes over and over again on the stereo. When he had it in his head he would take it over to the piano and sing it. Carl and I used the same method Brian did to learn guitar parts by Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy.
As we were unveiling the statue at the Hawthorne landmark a few years ago, I sheepishly confessed to Brian that as a kid I used to spy on him when he was at the piano working out arrangements. He half smiled and said he knew and that it was okay I was there watching.
I always felt like I was kind of on the outside as far as the Beach Boys go so when Brian told me it was okay with him that I was part of that private musical world of his it finally dawned on me that I spent a lot of time needlessly feeling excluded from those guys.
It really helped me embrace my past and got me into the right frame of mind to work with Jon on my book.
RCM: How did you come to join The Beach Boys?
David Marks: Joining the Beach Boys is kind of an elusive thing because I had been involved with the Wilsons’ musical endeavors as soon as I moved in across the street. The music evolved and I was just normally there every day. The Beach Boys band slowly evolved, it wasn’t an overnight thing. It was like one day Brian was playing the piano and he heard Carl and I playing guitar and he recruited us to play along with what he was playing on piano, which turned out to be Surfer Girl. So he had us doing that little strumming thing on Surfer Girl, he was intrigued that Carl and I were so into Chuck Berry.
The surf instrumental thing was a big thing for us and Carl and I were really into that. Brian wanted to incorporate the reverb unit, big Fender guitar sound that was happening at the time.
RCM: It’s amazing to realize that in early 1962 The Beach Boys were playing small gigs and less than a year later in October of 1962 you were performing onstage at The Hollywood Bowl.
David Marks: Early on, we had a played a couple of local things and played a party at Milton Berle’s house for his daughter’s birthday. Gigging back then was very exciting. Brian had already gone in and experimented in the studio. He was using different people. His mom was even involved in one of the sessions. He did the session for Surfin’ and Luau with Al and that was getting airplay locally in L.A.
In the meantime, Al split. He got a job at an aircraft company. He really wanted to do folk music and he wasn’t into the direction that the Beach Boys were going with the electric sound. They had shopped the acoustic stuff that Brian had done at Candix around to all the labels and nobody was interested. With the incorporation of our electric guitars we did some new demos of Surfin’ Safari, 409 and Lonely Sea and that’s what got Capitol interested in the band, that electric sound. Of course they still had their doubts because they didn’t think surfing was gonna catch on. I think it was the hot rod songs that really made the band go national. As for playing at the Hollywood Bowl, try to imagine yourself at 13 or 14 and you’re just having fun playing and not really thinking that much about it. Then all of a sudden you hear your song on the radio and it’s going national and you’re getting called for all these jobs. Our heads were spinning. It just happened so fast and it was really exciting.
We immediately adapted to it.
RCM: Did this sudden success seem unreal to you or were you feeling this is what should be happening, like ‘we’re gonna be big stars!’?
David Marks: Yeah, exactly. When we walked out on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl it felt like a natural thing. We were excited and proud but we felt like we belonged there. It wasn’t humbling because we were arrogant (laughs).
We had the world by the balls. So when we walked out on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl we were like, “here we are everybody!”
RCM: Did you sense Brian was special back then?
David Marks: Brian was special in that he had leadership qualities from the very beginning. He always recruited the neighborhood kids to play football and do crazy stuff. Everybody looked up to him. When he heard a song in his head he immediately had to get it out. That’s where his genius lies. He was able to manifest the music he heard in his head. He would threaten us if we didn’t help him sing (laughs). “I’m gonna punch you out if you don’t stay here and sing!” We’d say, “But Brian we wanna go out and ride the go-karts” (laughs). Lucky for us that he forced us to stay there and do music. When he started getting successful with his songwriting, he focused entirely on the music. He did exhibit special qualities ever since he was very young.
RCM: How different is the Brian of 1962 to the Brian of 2013?
David Marks: Not very different. He was distracted and with all kind of psychological stuff but Brian was always inside there through all of it. When we were together on the roof of Capitol Records he was his old self, messing with people. Funny and lucid. An older version but basically the same person.
RCM: The innocent image of The Beach Boys collided with the stark reality of life on the road.
David Marks: We were presented with various temptations and opportunities to be naughty and we took them. We were rowdy kids in the neighborhood before we were the Beach Boys, nothing was gonna change us. It just opened up the door for us to be even more mischievous. When you’re a young teenager and you’re making lots of money, there are a lot of opportunities to drink. There were no drugs around but we did drink. There weren’t really a lot of groupies. Most of the kids that came to the shows were little girls.
Our road manger was the instigator to that one experience with Carl, me, Mike and Dennis going to the hotel with the prostitute. Mike and Dennis dragged Carl and I because they probably thought it was funny, (laughs) ‘cause we were both virgins. But that’s innocent too. That was something that happened 45 years ago. It would have been abnormal for a hit rock and roll band on the road not to have done something like that.
Dennis and Mike were always on the prowl for chicks. They had an apartment together in Manhattan Beach after the band’s first tour. They had their little competition of who could score the most chicks and Dennis won. (laughs) He was quite the charmer. He looked like a movie star and had the personality to go with it.
In those days the tours were grueling. It wasn’t like you jumped into a limo and went to a 5 star hotel and then do your 90 minutes. You had to rent a U-haul truck and a Chevy station wagon and drive 500 miles and you stayed at crappy motels and then you played 4 hours. You did three of four 45 minute sets at the high school dance. For the most part it was really hard work and the accommodations sucked. It wasn’t that glamorous.
RCM: Did Mike Love always seem like an old soul to you?
RCM: Wasn’t Mike constantly on you about writing to your folks while you were on the road?
David Marks: On the road we were pretty much unsupervised. Murry ended up hiring a guy who was just as bad as us. I kind of suspect that my father took Mike aside and said, “You’re the oldest, take care of him.” Mike was on me about getting up to go to the gigs and write home to my parents. He looked after me and literally saved my life one time in Hawaii and metaphorically after that. We were sitting on a balcony after a show and we were in a hotel three stories up. I was drunk and we were talking to some girls. I was sitting on the actual railing and I went backwards over the railing and he grabbed my ankle and pulled me back up. It would have been disastrous; I probably would have died. When I was in the gutter in the late Nineties he recruited me to go back and play on the road with The Beach Boys.
But even before that through the years he would call and ask me if I was doing alright. The fact that he called out of the blue through the years was impressive. Anyway, Mike kept bothering me to write a letter home to my parents so one day I sat down with the hotel stationary and wrote this letter detailing every woman and drink I had on the tour.
It was filthy, everything you wouldn’t want your parents to know. When Mike read it I never really saw him laugh that hard ever before or since. (laughs) I said to him with a straight face (speaks in innocent voice) “Here’s a note I wrote home to my parents, do you wanna read it?” He started reading it and went down on his knees laughing. He didn’t expect it at all and the irony of it was most of it was true.
RCM: Does Mike get a bad rap as the villain in the Beach Boys saga?
David Marks: Yeah. Mike doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because he’s not a virtuoso on an instrument but when he sings the bass parts to those Four Freshman harmonies, that’s so hard to do. You have to be a really talented musician with a great ear to sing those interval spreads and keep them on pitch with three other people doing three other harmony parts.
The guy deserves a lot of credit for that alone not to mention the hooks and the lyrics that he came up with for Brian’s songs.
Mike also kept the band together through a lot of crises. As far as being the villain, people need a villain and he got chosen. I guess it all started when he was opposed to Brian’s acid-induced artistic period.
RCM: From all accounts, Murry was quite the disciplinarian on the road; you were routinely fined for cussing.
David Marks: The only time that I spent with Murry on the road was when he fired our road manager because it got back to him about our behavior. He fired the guy and took his place in the middle of a tour. He didn’t normally tour with the band. In fact, he got my Dad to come out on a lot of the tours. Murry was a very staunch businessman and a hard-nosed disciplinarian. He had his kids’ best interests at heart and he protected them and was always on their asses. When we hit he saw that it was going to be very big and went into business mode and he didn’t want us to screw it up.
All Dennis and I wanted to do was have fun and screw around. He would always be on me constantly about carrying my amp or smiling onstage. He would come up on the stage some times and turn my volume down or put more treble on the guitar.
RCM: Who came up with the Beach Boys’ look and later the trademark stage movements?
David Marks: All the bands had uniforms. Brian picked out the clothes, and then Carl, and finally Al decided he wanted the band to look like The Kingston Trio so he picked out some striped shirts. As for the dance, that was something called “The Stroll.” The local rhythm and blues bands in Southern California did this cool dance called “The Stroll.” That’s what the surfers took and started calling “The Surfer’s Stomp.”
It was Brian’s idea to do that, that’s what all the kids were doing.
RCM: Set the scene for Beach Boys recording sessions, was it a rush, rush situation where you had three hours and had to cut five songs in a session?
David Marks: We were very practiced and rehearsed but we were also relaxed in the studio. There was no pressure for time except when we went to the Capitol tower to record. There was more pressure then. Nik Venet, their A&R guy was there. They were also required to go through the union therefore there was a time constraint and more pressure.
RCM: How involved was Nik Venet in terms of producing the sessions?
David Marks: Nik went through the motions but he didn’t really do anything. He was very ineffective as far as producing. Brian pretty much ignored him. Carl was funny, he used to make fun of Nik constantly, he’d make fun of his accent or make fun of the fact that he was not doing anything. Murry was just a frustration to Brian. He would try to get his own way because he was a bully but Brian would fight him on it.
When we first did Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ U.S.A., and Shut Down at Western, I think Murry got his way a few times. He was obsessed with the guitars being all trebly, which actually benefited the sound overall. You’ve gotta give Murry a little credit there but for the most part Brian was very frustrated with Murry interfering with his musical expression. Brian knew what he wanted before he would go into the studio.
We recorded so much stuff in such a short period of time that it started running together a little bit. The memories that I have of those times are not about the music, it was the hang, the camaraderie, hanging out after the sessions and going home listening to the demos. The sessions that stand out for me are Hawaii and Our Car Club because we had Hal Blaine playing drums. Dennis had hurt his leg so a session guy named Frank played on Surfin’ U.S.A. and that was exciting. Hal Blaine played the timbales on Hawaii too.
RCM: Discuss creating the Beach Boys’ classic surf style guitar with Carl.
David Marks: My musical connection to the Wilsons was already pretty established in that Audree would sit me down and teach me boogie woogie on the piano. It’s the same stuff she taught Brian and Carl and Dennis. We didn’t realize it at the time but she was forging a musical connection between the three Wilson boys and myself by teaching us this special boogie woogie piano. You can hear it in the early songs, Carl and I were doing the boogie woogie stuff that Audree introduced us to on guitars.
We played together every day and our guitar playing blended not unlike the vocal blend of the Wilson brothers. Our blend and the way we played off of each other sounded like one guy. We would do our little nuances to complement each other. We were trying to play like our heroes but we couldn’t so it came out our own, this raw, garage kind of sound.
When you’re young and you’re trying to emulate someone and you can’t really do it, when it comes out your own style that’s the ideal thing – and that’s what happened with us.
But then we started hearing other people trying to play like us.
RCM: At age 15, what ultimately led you to being ousted from the band?
David Marks: When you’re young you tend to be a little arrogant so I was convinced that I didn’t have to take Murry’s shit anymore and I was pissed off because Brian wouldn’t listen to any of my songs. On that one tour where Murry fired the road manager and came in the middle of the tour, that’s when we really started locking horns. It was in the car on the way from Chicago to New York. He started picking on me. Anyone else would have sat there and said, “Yes sir.” But not me. I had to mouth off. Everybody quit the band but of course the brothers weren’t able to physically leave.
Brian wanted to quit the band from the very beginning and concentrate on being a producer. He didn’t want to be a Beach Boy per se; he wanted to be like Phil Spector.
So when it was my turn to announce that I quit no one took me seriously. Brian actually laughed out loud. On the side I had another group of musicians from the neighborhood and I was writing and doing records with them. I was convinced that my association with the Beach Boys was going to propel my own career. I didn’t really seriously want to quit. It was just a tantrum in the car because Murry was picking on me.
Murry continued to ride me and played upon my arrogance and intimidated me. I finally starting insisting I leave so I could do my own music with my band. When you’re 15 you don’t rationalize that you’re gonna be screwed if you quit the most famous band in the country. Also there was a lot of political stuff behind the scenes. My mother wanted to be involved more with the management and she was suspicious of Murry getting advances from Capitol and withholding touring money.
It was about money and power between the parents and with me it was about wanting to go off and have my own band.
RCM: How did you deal with sudden thrust of fame and then being on outside looking in, watching The Beach Boys become bigger than ever?
David Marks: I didn’t really think about it. I liked Fun, Fun, Fun and Help Me Ronda and Good Vibrations was awesome but by the end of the Sixties that was it for the Beach Boys. I didn’t care, I had no idea what was going on. No disrespect intended, but by that point I was concentrating on my own music career and had left that life behind years before.