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Pet project: Mark Dillon’s Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys

A page from Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys (photo: ECW Press)

When Toronto journalist Mark Dillon decided to make the Beach Boys the subject of his first book, he knew there would be obstacles ahead. The biggest was how to write about the revered pop group in a way that was fresh. After all, typing Beach Boys into Amazon’s search engine nets over 6,000 results for books alone, including one published last year entitled The Beach Boys FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About America’s Band.

Coincidentally enough, it was while walking on a beach that Dillon remembered the band’s 50th anniversary takes place this year. He had also noticed how prevalent the Beach Boys had become in mainstream culture. Young musicians kept citing them as an influence, and several TV shows (including Men of a Certain Age and Big Love) were using their music as theme songs.

Dillon decided to run with the 50 idea, and set out to interview 50 people about 50 of the Beach Boys’ most notable songs, turning each interview into a chapter. The result, Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys: The Songs that Tell Their Story (ECW Press), is a fascinating addition to the Beach Boys canon that keeps the music front and centre, and makes clear the band’s long-lasting influence on popular music.

Interviewees include former Beach Boys collaborators like Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher and producer Steve Levine; contemporary indie musicians like the Shins’ James Mercer, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, and She & Him vocalist and actress Zooey Deschanel; and, most hard-won, all five surviving Beach Boys: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks.

Though Dillon is a long-time fan of the band, he bucked the trend that’s seen writers like Dave Bidini, Kevin Chong, and Robert J. Wiersema pen hero-worshipping memoirs to their musical idols. Instead, Dillon put to use the skills he honed as a freelance entertainment journalist and as former editor of Playback, the Canadian broadcast industry trade publication.

I took the fan knowledge I had but really tried to make the book a journalistic enterprise, using whatever chops I have in terms of chasing down interviews and asking the right questions, says Dillon, who interviewed Brian Wilson for Maclean’s in 2010 (excerpts of which appear in Fifty Sides). The book celebrates the band’s music but is not so much about what I feel about it. There might be a few people out there who care what I think, but I’m pretty sure more are interested in what other musicians and the Beach Boys themselves think.

This approach required persistence. For every interview published, there are approximately nine others Dillon wasn’t able to get, including Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson’s early muse and first wife, Marilyn. I cast a wide net, he says. Pretty much anyone you’d think I’d approach I probably did. But I have to say that those who responded were, for the most part, at the top
of my list.

The toughest get was Beach Boys guitarist and sometime lead vocalist Al Jardine, who took 16 months to warm to the idea. Dillon reached him by phone, only to have Jardine say he still had to think about it. My deadline was approaching and I had one spot left for ˜Help Me, Rhonda,’ Dillon says. I really needed him to talk about it. It was a number-one song and he sang it!

Dillon, to whom Jardine eventually gave a generous interview, chalks up the wariness to the fact that most Beach Boys books focus on the sordid aspects of their career: the drug use, the partying and girls, the abusive Wilson patriarch, and Brian’s mental illness. While he didn’t shy away from those subjects “ there is, for example, a revelatory interview with one of Dennis Wilson’s childhood friends about the drummer’s close ties to Charles Manson “ Dillon used that context to shed light on the songs.

Dillon’s next challenge was convincing a publisher to take a chance on the book.

There was a lot of rejection, he admits. A lot of publishers thought the approach was unmanageable. Like, ˜How are you going to tell the story by 50 people talking about the songs, jumping time frames, et cetera?’ They felt it was going to be a mishmash going off in a lot of different directions.

So he refined his approach, making each chronological chapter less about the commentator and more about where the band was at that point in its history. Early on, he pitched the book to ECW Press, which had published Jon Stebbins’ well-received 2000 biography of the late Dennis Wilson. (Stebbins discusses the 1965 song Do You Wanna Dance? in Dillon’s book.) But it wasn’t until Dillon had written 40 or so chapters that ECW committed.

ECW publisher Jack David says the contractual details took some time to work out, but he was interested in the manuscript from the beginning because it wasn’t just another Beach Boys biography. It was a different book and therefore appealing, he says.

Co-publisher David Caron expects the U.S. will account for just over half of overall sales, consistent with other ECW titles. The initial print run is 5,000 copies, and customers who purchase the book will also receive a free ebook version by contacting ECW directly for a digital file in their preferred format.

The one factor Dillon and ECW have on their side is timing. To their knowledge, no other books about the Beach Boys will be released to coincide with their reunion tour, which kicked off April 24, and the band’s new album “ the first Brian has been actively involved with in 35 years “ is scheduled for release on June 5, four days after Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys hits bookstores.