Backstage in South Florida: The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations Turned Bad

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Witnessing a Beach Boys brouhaha.

The Beach Boys have always been a band wracked by contradictions. Although outwardly exuding vibes beaming with sunshine and harmony, inwardly they've been haunted by division, repression, and discord. The fights, feuds, and tension eventually tore them apart. I witnessed this unusual dichotomy for myself during the summer of 1982, when, working as a promotions representative for Capitol Records. I was touring with a rookie band named LeRoux that was opening for the Beach Boys for a lengthy tour -- thanks in large part to the success of their regional hit "Take a Ride on a Riverboat," a catchy little tune I still hum to this day.

The tour had stopped in Lakeland, and when I arrived backstage at the Civic Center before the show, it was already evident that trouble was brewing in the Beach Boys camp. Apparently Brian Wilson had wandered off and left the theater, leaving the band and their road crew wondering where he had gone. Unfortunately, Brian had never been the most stable individual when it came to touring; early in the group's career, he had to be taken off a plane after his fear of flying caused a public breakdown. Shortly thereafter, he begged off the road altogether, preferring to be ensconced in the studio, where he could focus on creating the band's albums.

Still, in 1976, the group's handlers launched a much-publicized "Brian Is Back" publicity campaign proclaiming the fact that the Beach Boys' musical mastermind was once again joining the fold after having agreed to go back on the road. Not surprisingly, the announcement was greeted with great enthusiasm by fans and critics alike. Apparently, though, something had once again gone askew at this particular stop. Fortunately, Brian returned a short time later and, his misstep forgiven, I watched as the musicians gathered in a group hug, all drawn together by a tug of camaraderie.

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Still, that didn't end the difficulties that night -- or the drama. Once onstage, Dennis Wilson began acting erratically. Only an adequate drummer at best, he issued a blunt confession during the middle of "Help Me Rhonda" when he suddenly grabbed an overhead mic and abruptly announced "I'm a shitty drummer!" There wasn't even time for onlookers to gasp in agreement before he scooted out from behind his kit and clumsily attempted to situate himself on top of his brother Brian's piano. Stepping on the keyboard as Brian tried to soldier on, his foot struck a bum note that naturally impeded the performance before he successfully scaled the piano entirely. Once there, he began swaying precariously, not unlike a drunken sailor hoping to keep his balance during a fierce gale. The stage crew desperately ran out on stage and surrounded him, pleading with Dennis to alight before he had a chance to hurt himself. At first, he stubbornly refused, but eventually he was coaxed down, much to the roadies' relief and the audience's amusement.

That wasn't the end of Wilson's misadventures, however. Dennis would always take the spotlight at center stage for his solo rendition of "You Are So Beautiful," a schmaltzy Billy Preston ballad previously popularized by Joe Cocker. Sadly, Dennis' take on the tune gave Cocker no competition whatsoever. Croaking out the lyrics with little regard for the melody, he created a pretty pathetic display, looking and sounding like a man whose excesses had clearly caught up with him. To make matters worse, once he finished, he sank down to his hands and knees, turned his back to the crowd, and literally crawled offstage. Suffice it to say, it was a spectacle weirder than anything I'd ever witnessed before or have witnessed since.

A year later, Dennis died from drowning. Brian became increasingly estranged from his bandmates and eventually quit the band, leaving it to carry on the legacy alone. Carl Wilson, lead guitarist and the soulful lead singer of such timeless classics as "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations" died after a valiant fight with brain and lung cancer in 1998. Consequently, I'll always have special memories of one of the final times they performed together, owing to both the music and the mayhem.

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