It’s 26 years since a few dozen people in a humble church hall in an unfavoured West London suburb — the readers of Beach Boys Stomp, a British fanzine, assembled for their annual convention — were given the biggest and best surprise of their lives when Brian Wilson himself stepped on to the stage and sat down at an electric keyboard. This was 1988, and Brian had been in semi-seclusion for years. He was in the process of re-emerging with his first solo album, but his extreme nervousness was apparent that afternoon, even in front of probably the smallest audience he had faced since the Beach Boys turned professional.
To his listeners’ astonishment and delight, Brian performed three songs: “Night Time” and “Love and Mercy”, from the new album, and “Surfer Girl”, which would have been high on any true fan’s list of requests. Moved by the warmth of the response, he signed autographs for practically everyone before taking his leave. The triumphant Pet Sounds tour of 2000, the Queen’s golden jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 and the amazing premiere of Smile in 2004 lay far ahead in an unimaginable future.
Marilyn Rovell was the girl whom he was dating when “Surfer Girl” was still a brand-new song, and who was with him when he wrote all the rest of the great stuff. They started going out in 1962 and married two years later. She and her sister Diane and their cousin Ginger Blake became the Honeys, then Spring (without Ginger); both groups were produced by Brian. She kept the famous house on Bellagio Road in Bel-Air, where a sandbox surrounded the piano on which her husband created his masterpieces. They were divorced in 1979, but their daughters, Carnie and Wendy, had hits with their group Wilson Phillips, in which they were joined by Chynna Phillips, the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips; they sold eight million copies of their debut album in 1990.
Marilyn remarried 15 years ago and still lives in Los Angeles, where she works part-time selling real estate. Yesterday she and her second husband, Daniel Rutherford, arrived at the parish hall of Our Lady of the Visitation in Greenford, Middlesex, as the guests of honour at Beach Boys Stomp‘s’s 35th annual convention. Marilyn answered questions, signed autographs, posed for photographs, and made sure she said hello to every single one of those present.
This was her second visit to the convention (the first was in 2005) and it was apparent that she keeps her memories of the time she spent with Brian in clear perspective. Most of those memories, of course, are warm. “Everything was always exciting,” she said when talking about the pre-Pet Sounds era. “He’d wake up every morning with a new idea of what to do next. He was a remarkable man — inspired and inspiring.”
She loved singing backgrounds on some of the Beach Boys’ later records, particularly Carl Wilson’s songs, such as “Feel Flows” and “The Trader”. She also mentioned “Funky Pretty”, which was written by Brian with Mike Love and Jack Rieley . “It wasn’t because I was great or anything,” she said. “It would be when they needed a part.”
But she doesn’t try to pretend that those years were one long beach party. When she talked about Spring’s 1973 United Artists album (here is its best and strangest track, Brian’s “Sweet Mountain”, and here is its sweetest, Marilyn singing lead on Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said”), the mention of its co-producer, David Sandler, a friend of Brian’s, hinted at the problems she confronted in her day-to-day life with a troubled genius. “I liked David a lot,” she said, “because I didn’t have to worry about him giving drugs to Brian.”
I hadn’t seen Marilyn since the spring of 1973, when she invited me to the Bel-Air house to spend an afternoon with Brian. The sandbox had gone by then and he wasn’t in great shape (there was a large dollop of what I recall as being raspberry Reddi-whip on his tea-time ice cream), but he sat down at the piano and sang the full version of “Heroes and Villains”, which was a revelation, and a funky arrangement of the semi-traditional “Shortnin’ Bread”. That song turned up a few years later on the group’s L.A. (Light Album) but the version Brian recorded for the unreleased Adult Child project (it’s here) is closer to the sound I remember from that day. And, of course, he wanted to talk about Phil Spector, and to make sure I heard “Be My Baby” a few times before I left.
Marilyn was invited to be become involved in Love and Mercy, the new biopic starring Paul Dano as the young BW and John Cusack as the older version, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She declined, as she declines most such requests. Not because she’s hoarding her memories for her own purposes — although there might be a book one day — but because experience tells her that these projects tend to deliver 50 per cent of what really happened and 50 per cent of what some outsider wants to think happened.
“Who knows what’s real and what’s not real?” she said. “I know.”
* The photograph of Marilyn and Brian Wilson in 1965 is from the cover of the Beach Boys Party! album.