Friday, April 14, 2017

Everybody Had an Ocean by William McKeen - Book Review

Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960's Lost Angeles by William McKeen (Chicago Review Press, 2017, 423 pages, $26.99/14.57) frames the music world of Los Angeles during the 1960's within The Beach Boys who, in many ways helped define West Coast Music, and Charles Manson, the murderous psychopath, whose murder spree at the end of the decade helped awaken the entire world to the destructive qualities represented by sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll when they happen in conjunction. This lengthy, name-filled, and often confusing book profiles most of the seminal performers, producers, and record company executives who fed off each other in a decade dominated by the movement from the placid 1950's through a period rife with a foreign war, multiple assassinations, dangerous sex, extensive drug use, campus riots, and sublime music taking the world from the comfort of Frank Sinatra through the riotous hippie era to a new awakening partially prompted by the brutal, senseless killings.

Perhaps the most effective components of this long and extensively annotated account are the profiles of artists as they develop and emerge in Los Angeles or move there to be a part of the increasingly dominant Rock 'n' Roll scene. Native Californians like the Wilson Family, who comprised most of the Beach Boys, as well as Jan & Dean, and others grew up in the sunny, laid back world of Hollywood dominated by the wave-filled ocean, hot rods, and lubricious, willing girls. Musicians developing across the continent were attracted to this burgeoning musical mish-mash. In the burgeoning world of California rock during the late fifties and early sixties, a number of songs, titles, bands emerge that raise memories for a teen of that era. Sadly, the names of record producers and labels seem to dominate, creating a confusing, at least for me, world of change whose only constant seems to be the successful combining of southern black and western white middle class surfer/car fanatic together to produce music for a new and different kind of music consumer. Names that become legendary, like Phil Spector and Herb Alpert almost drown in the proliferation of producers and wannabee labels.

The importance of the Wrecking Crew, a rather loosely defined collection of Los Angeles session musicians whose virtuoso musicianship helped define the sound of many Southern California bands is rightly emphasized throughout the book. These mostly anonymous musicians not only helped create the recordings, they taught the band members in groups like the Beach Boys and The Monkeys how to play their instruments well enough for road concerts while performing, usually without credit, on the recordings. For a wonderful profile, take a look at the documentary film The Wrecking Crew.

As long as Everybody Had an Ocean sticks to California, the Beach Boys, and the Wrecking Crew it does a fine job. But when McKeen seeks to place this large enough scene into a still larger context, his book loses focus and clarity. It's hard to keep a coherent narrative running straight ahead while jumping into the south, Cleveland, New York, race, the British Invasion, and more. Keeping focus within the larger context muddies the important role of the California scene. Couple this with the author's need to throw in the gratuitous anatomical reference and the book becomes trivialized. McKeen's language is gritty, scatological, and physical. For him, size matters, whether it's male or female. Much of his sexual imagery is particularly explicit. McKeen, insists on providing details about human superstructure, saying, for example, that Charlie Chaplin, “was a small man with a penis attached.”

Many of the profiles of artists are what stick in my mind. Joni Mitchel, Brian Wilson, Sam Cooke, Phil Spector, The Mamas and the Papas, and other seminal (oops!) groups were valuable. The story of how an off hand comment by singer Billy Ward in Cleveland struck a nerve with disc jockey Allen Freed, creating the name Rock and Roll is priceless. But the ocean is too big and deep to fill in this outline. The mixing of California beach and car culture with Black southern blues influenced (dominated) by the British Invasion has too many threads. The rather long story of the “kidnapping” of Frank Sinatra, Jr., seems extraneous, taking the narrative off focus, even though Jan Berry, an important character in the book, was involved.

William McKeen

William McKeen is the author of nine books and the editor of four more. His most recent books are Everybody Had an Ocean (2017), Too Old to Die Young (2015), Homegrown in Florida (2012), Mile Marker Zero (2011), Outlaw Journalist (2008), Highway 61 (2003), Rock and Roll is Here to Stay (2000) and Literary Journalism: A Reader (2000).

McKeen teaches at Boston University, where he chairs the Department of Journalism and serves as associate dean of the College of Communication. He teaches literary journalism, history of journalism, reporting, feature writing and history of rock’n’roll. He's widely published in both the popular and scholarly world.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in history and his master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and his Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of Oklahoma. He taught at Western Kentucky University 1977-1982, the University of Oklahoma 1982-1986 and the University of Florida, 1986-2010.

He has seven children and lives in Cohasset, Massachusetts. (edited from the author profile on

Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960's Lost Angeles by William McKeen (Chicago Review Press, 2017, 423 pages, $26.99/14.57) is a too comprehensive and ambitious account of the Los Angeles music world to maintain coherence throughout. Nevertheless, it provides cultural guideposts for those who did not live through the era. For those seeking greater depth, I'd suggest reading specific books on the bands, the politics, and the issues of this important period. The book is extensively annotated and provides a very useful reading list. Listening to the music through one of the streaming services would prove helpful, too. Snarkily sexual, anatomical, and functional references seek to make the language sixtyish, or something hip, but left me, at least, simply turned off. So, who's the audience? It certainly can't be adults, not with the language silliness McKeen indulges in. And it can't be teenagers, either, because they'd miss many of the references and may not care about sixties rock and beach music anyway. He seems to me to be reaching out to Millenials rather than people who lived through the sixties, who might be interested in putting it all into perspective, now that they're sixty-somethings and people who still read books. I received the book from the publisher as an electronic Advanced Readers Copy through Edelweiss: Above the Treeline and read it on my Kindle app.

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