Brian Wilson: Piano in the Sandbox

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Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson in all his glory. (Photo by Mark Hanauer) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Beach Boys have a new cd out, called That’s Why God Made the Radio.  It’s a musical time capsule for boomers, and makes for a great  summer soundtrack.  I’m reminded of a story about Brian Wilson from a eclectic new book of short historical anecdotes, called Curious Little Stories / 250 Slices of Biography, by James Picco.  It’s such a wonderful story I’ll repeat it verbatim.  Picco writes:

“A long string of hit records, from ‘Surfin'” to ‘California Girls’, made Wilson a wealthy man at the age of 23, so he bought a house high in the Hollywood Hills, with views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

He also talked his wife Marilyn into accepting a sandbox in the dining room.  Surrounded by sand, he would feel like a kid again, and feel the joy that kids feel at the beach.  This, he said, would inspire his songwriting.

So it was that carpenters built a low retaining wall and filled it with about eight tons of premium beach sand.  In the middle of it all went Wilson’s grand piano.

The piano tuner, for one, didn’t like it.  On one of his visits he entered the sandbox, lifted the piano hood, and peered inside.  The way Wilson told it, the man could hardly believe his eyes:  somehow sand had gotten inside the piano—an unforgivable abuse of a precious instrument.

When the Wilsons moved to Bel-Air, Mrs. Wilson made sure that the indoor beach was left behind.

Journalists often cite this anecdote as evidence of Wilson’s weirdness, but as he later poointed out, he did write some great music with his feet in the sand.”

The new book by James Picco is a wonderful glimpse into so many interesting people.  His one-page biographical haikus cover so many different historical figures that it’s hard to put down.  There’s Chuck Berry and early psychoanalyst Alfred Adler.   African tyrant and cannibal Jean-Bedel Bokassa, also Luis Bunuel,  French gastronome/epicure Brillat-Savarin, Michaelangelo, writer Frank Harris.  On the musician side, there’s Astor Piazzolla, Hector Berlioz, Robert Johnson, Sun Ra, Leon Theremin, to name just a few.  It’s a diverse array of characters if there ever was one.   250 slices in all.  And This book is now on for only $10!!

I’ve heard from friends who’ve seen the new Wilson biopic that the beach / sandbox part is in the film.  Meanwhile, here is a picture photographer Mark Hanauer took of Brian on Sycamore Beach.  Brian drove up for the shoot in his Corvette Sting Ray.