Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

The Religious Conversion of the Beach Boys


Originally appeared in Cheetah, October 1967. Copyright Jules Siegel 1967, 1999

It was just another day of greatness at Gold Star Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. In the morning four long-haired kids had knocked out two hours of sound for a record plugger who was trying to curry favor with a disk jockey friend of theirs in San Jose. Nobody knew it at the moment, but out of that two hours there were about three minutes that would hit the top of the charts in a few weeks, and the record plugger, the disk jockey and the kids would all be hailed as geniuses, but geniuses with a very small g. 

Now, however, in the very same studio a Genius with a very large capital G was going to produce a hit. There was no doubt it would be a hit because this Genius was Brian Wilson. In four years of recording for Capitol Records, he and his group, the Beach Boys, had made surfing music a national craze, sold 16 million singles and earned gold records for 10 of their 12 albums. 

Not only was Brian going to produce a hit, but also, one gathered, he was going to show everybody in the music business exactly where it was at; and where it was at, it seemed, was that Brian Wilson was not merely a Genius—which is to say a steady commercial success—but rather, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, a GENIUS—which is to say a steady commercial success and hip besides. 

Until now, though, there were not too many hip people who would have considered Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys hip, even though he had produced one very hip record, "Good Vibrations," which had sold more than a million copies, and a super-hit album, Pet Sounds, which didn't do very well at all—by previous Beach Boys sales standards. Among the hip people he was still on trial, and the question discussed earnestly among the recognized authorities on what is and what is not hip was whether or not Brian Wilson was hip, semi-hip or square. 

But walking into the control room with the answers to all questions such as this was Brian Wilson himself, wearing a competition-stripe surfer's T-shirt, tight white duck pants, pale green bowling shoes and a red plastic fireman's helmet. 

Everybody was wearing identical red plastic toy fireman's helmets. Brian's cousin and production assistant, Steve Korthoff was wearing one; his wife, Marilyn, and her sister, Diane Rovelle—Brian's secretary—were also wearing them, and so was a once-dignified writer from The Saturday Evening Post who had been following Brian around for two months. 

I used to have a notice asking folks who enjoyed this story to send me any book of their choice as a gesture of appreciation. I guess Brian Wilson fans aren't booklovers,as I never did get any. If you would like to receive the full story, please hit the button and follow instructions. The fee is only $3, but it will keep this website going and help enable me to feed my voracious book habit.

If you cannot afford to pay this, please write to me at Smile Story and tell me why you'd like to read it free. Many thanks for your understanding.



Thank You!

for the wonderful responses so far. "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!" is a piece of my heart that I can never put a price on, but it is quite a thrill to see all those PayPal messages coming in.

I was very moved at the beginning of 2004 to learn that Brian Wilson received a five-minute standing ovation at the conclusion of his Smile performance. In "Holy Pop Relic," Jeff Turrentine mentioned my role in the saga of Brian Wilson's Smile project.

Although Turrentine correctly reports that the Saturday Evening Post killed my story, it was later published in Cheetah magazine, October, 1967, as "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!--the Religious Conversion of the Beach Boys." It's been anthologized in at least four books, most recently in Library of America's Writing Los Angeles.

Without any false humility, I can say that I was one of the people who invented rock journalism. Journalists such as Al Aronowitz, Richard Goldstein and I were among the first to write about rock in mainstream media without being condescending or demeaning. Nonetheless, I never thought of "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!" as rock journalism. It was a pretty far-out piece even for regular journalism at the time. I don't think many celebrity pieces before or since have ever gotten that close to a subject and been written about it.

Brian was quite upset about it. I heard that the Beach Boys were still complaining about it a few years later in Tom Nolan's Rolling Stone interview. Maybe now he's got some more distance on it and can see that "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!" was a principal force in creating the myth of Smile. I know that others did write about it at the time, but some of them talked to me first. Other than David Oppenheimer, I was the only one in the major media who took Brian seriously, and even David talked with me at great length while he was making his documentary.

In reading over my story 37 years later, I see some rather awkward moments. At the time, Saturday Evening Post writers did not usually mention themselves in stories. I wanted to do this story exactly as I would have written a short story or a segment of a novel. In order to get around my adherence to the convention of impersonality, I had to describe myself as a "Saturday Evening Post writer" and a "friend." Both were true, but these days I would just use "I" or "me." Some of the writing is a little too self-consciously jazzy, but I was young then.

Despite these minor flaws, I'm still very happy with the story, and I am even happier that Brian has finally achieved his dream. He was a giant then and he is a giant now. All of us who struggle against the mainstream currents can take heart in this outcome. For once, a good guy wins. God bless Brian Wilson! God bless all artists who try and fail, and try again and fail again, ad infinitum, but never give up.

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