Back in the aughts, Marc Schuster started Small Press Reviews and published several books with a number of independent presses including PS Books, the Permanent Press, and McFarland. More recently, he’s been recording music under the name Zapatero and laying the groundwork for a new project he’s calling Plush Gordon.
Citing burnout, he renounced writing altogether but published Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited a few months later. This latest book chronicles the recording of a lesser-known Beach Boys album that, the author contends, deserves at least some of the spotlight usually afforded the band’s better-known works like Pet Sounds and Smile.
Curtis Smith: Let me be honest—I’ve never been a Beach Boys fan. And while I admired Pet Sounds and Smile, I never really enjoyed them. So what am I not seeing/understanding?
Marc Schuster: It’s really just a matter of taste, and for a lot of people, I imagine the Beach Boys represent something that’s a little too slick and, in the case of Pet Sounds and Smile, maybe a little too overwrought as well. For fans, though, listening to the Beach Boys can be like sneaking a peak into a mythological, idealized version of America that probably never existed—the world we lost when Kennedy was assassinated, maybe. Sure, there’s something candy-coated about early hits like “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” but that’s part of the fantasy. Cotton candy, tiny flags, and sparklers. The rumble of fast cars. Dads with Buzz Aldrin haircuts. Moms in Jackie Kennedy sunglasses. Majorettes spinning batons while Shriners in golden fezzes drive go-karts on the Fourth of July. But that’s just me. People bring whatever they want to the music, and if it clicks, it clicks. If not, well, I don’t know—I guess you must be a communist or something!
CS: I am a bit of a commie, but that’s another story. My ambivalence toward the Beach Boys not withstanding, I enjoyed Holland more than their other albums. I love music—but I don’t play an instrument or know much about it at a level beyond a layman who grew up listening to a lot of radio—so my musical vocabulary and my ability to explain what I feel is limited. So let me ask you—what makes Holland different than the group’s other offerings?
MS: Towards the end of the 1960s, the Beach Boys really took a tumble when Brian Wilson failed to complete Smile, which was supposed to be the band’s masterpiece. Over the next few years, they regrouped to the best of their ability, but it took them a while to really hit their stride again—this time with Brian’s younger brother Carl more or less at the helm in terms of musical direction. By the early 1970s the band was putting out some good albums that had what today we might call more of a classic rock sound than a golden oldies sound—a little less slick than the early hits, a little more organic than Pet Sounds. If you’re looking for other albums like Holland, check out Sunflower and Surf’s Up, which are from the same era. But one thing that really sets Holland apart is that the first voice you hear isn’t any of the original Beach Boys. It’s a South African singer named Blondie Chaplin who joined the band earlier in the decade.
CS: Do you remember the first time you heard Holland? Did it blow you away or was it the type of album that grew on you? Did your appreciation of it evolve over the years? How so?
MS: I was actually babysitting the first time I saw the album. The baby was asleep, so I didn’t play the record. I just kept looking at the cover, which is an upside-down photo of a boat docked on a canal in the Netherlands. Most of the photo is a reflection of the boat and the dock and the buildings behind it rippling on the surface of the water, but the water is a murky greenish-brown, so it almost looks like a painting. I just sat there and looked at that album cover for a long time and wondered what the music sounded like. I don’t think I bought the album until a year or so later, but that image was always in the back of my mind, and every time I would see the CD at Sam Goody, I’d think about buying it, but I was trying to accumulate the entire Beatles catalog at the time, and I was seventeen or so, and I was kind of lazy, so I never had enough cash to buy more than one CD at a time. When I finally did get around to buying it, though, I put it on and just thought, “Wow, this sucks.” The main problem was that I’d been imagining something more akin to “Good Vibrations” for over a year, and the first thing that hit me when I put the CD on was some voice I’d never heard before. But that was the great thing about being into music back then. If you bought a bum CD, you were kind of stuck with it. And that was, what? An investment of like seventeen or eighteen dollars? The record companies really had us over a barrel at the time, so we had no choice but to buckle down and learn to like the damn thing even if we hated it the first time around. So I listened and listened and listened and listened until I finally decided it was the best thing the Beach Boys had ever done.
CS: Can you take us back to the start of the project? Did you want to write about an album and then pick Holland? If so, did you debate about writing about other albums? Which ones? Or did the project start with this specific album—and it was Holland or nothing else from the get-go?
MS: The book was always going to be about Holland because that album usually gets glossed over in any discussions of the Beach Boys’ career. Outside of hardcore fans, if anyone knows anything about the Beach Boys, it’s that the band was hot in the early 1960s, but then they imploded in 1967 and came back as a beloved American institution in the late 1970s or thereabouts. The Holland-era doesn’t really fit into that narrative because it suggests that the Beach Boys were still doing something worthwhile when nobody was really paying attention to them. That said, it’s actually funny how often I hear that Holland is someone’s favorite Beach Boys album. I was at a bookstore once, and I ran into Greg Frost, who is one of my favorite writers. When he asked if I was working on anything, I said that I was kicking around the idea of writing about a Beach Boys album. Before I could say anything else, he said something like, “Is it Holland?” And I said that, actually, yes, it was Holland, and he said that Holland was his favorite Beach Boys album because he loved the opening track, “Sail On, Sailor.” He must have bought the album at full price, too.
CS: Writing about someone else’s work of art is tricky. Did you feel a kind of loyalty to your source material? A feeling of duty that you wanted to do right by the album and the artists? If so, how did this extra level of scrutiny impact your writing?
MS: The hardest part about writing the book was describing the music. What’s the famous quote that says writing about music is like dancing about architecture? All I could really do was try to explain what I think I’m hearing on different tracks and how it makes me feel. Fortunately, though, most of the book was an attempt at reconstructing and interpreting the past, which was a lot of fun because it gave me an excuse to read loads of old interviews in fanzines from that era. You get a quote here and a quote there and eventually a picture starts to form, and as long as you can tell people where you’re getting your information from, you’re pretty safe. If anything, my big concern was keeping the fans happy. What if I put all of this effort into researching and writing the book only for fans to say something like, “Well, yeah, everyone knows that already!” Or worse, “I’m sorry, but you got the whole thing wrong!” I wanted to write a book for people who know the Beach Boys pretty well and want to know more about that era of their career, but I also wanted to examine the ways in which artists more generally go about reinventing themselves.
CS: Was finding the proper shape for the book difficult? Did you go with a straight-up examination of the album? Or do you weave in your personal experiences? I’m sure going so deep on something, even something so familiar, led you places you didn’t expect.
MS: Tired of California was the most straightforward book I’ve ever written. It starts with an extremely brief reflection on why Holland matters to certain Beach Boys fans, then gets into the history of the album—where the band was in terms of their career in the early 1970s, why they decided to go to the Netherlands to make the album, and then everything that went wrong once they got there. Towards the end, the book gets into a fairly lengthy examination of the album itself, but the bulk of it is historical, so its structure is fairly chronological.
CS: Can you tell us about some discoveries that surprised you during the course of writing this book?
MS: I was a little surprised to learn that the most interesting character in the Holland story isn’t actually a member of the band but their publicist and eventual manager, Jack Rieley. He wasn’t afraid to stretch the truth beyond recognition, but that skill made him particularly adept at creating an environment in which the Beach Boys could reinvent themselves for the album-oriented FM radio market. To some extent, the decision to record in the Netherlands stemmed from a rumor that got a little out of control after Rieley planted it in the media. Sadly, other rumors didn’t bear the same fruit. At one point, he told the press that Keith Moon would be joining the band as their drummer. Can you imagine that? Quitting the Who to join the Beach Boys? For the most part, though, Jack Rieley was the kind of guy who talked such a good game that everyone believed everything he said even when it had no basis in reality, and that’s what the band needed at that point in their career.
CS: Let’s say this book ending up in the hands of some of the Beach Boys. What would you hope they’d say when they were done reading it?
MS: I hope they’d say the book was pretty accurate in terms of historical detail. Beyond that, it’s all subjective.
CS: You’re a musician. What elements of this album do you find influencing your work?
MS: I really wish I could harmonize like the Beach Boys, but that’s not where my talents lie. If anything, the big overlap between Holland and my own music is that there’s an interesting blend of synthesizers and more traditional instruments on the album. You don’t really hear the synths so prominently, but they’re in there, filling out the bass lines and adding some interesting effects in places. It’s a good blend, and it’s something I shoot for in a lot of my music. Philosophically, I also like that the albums of the Holland era represent reinvention. The Beach Boys are doing something new on those albums, breaking away from the past, and that’s something that really resonates with me on an artistic level.
CS: What’s next?
MS: I’ve been pretty focused on music lately. I have one band called Zapatero that’s electronic and poppy, but I’m winding things down with that one for the time being so I can start a new band called Plush Gordon. The new band will have a more organic sound—just guitars, bass, and drums. So far, I have two songs. One of them is about the guy who bags the groceries at my local grocery store. The other is about Gregor Samsa on a good day. I also want to start a record label, but I don’t really have much business acumen. I took a course on the business of music a while a back, and we had to write up a business plan. In its entirety, the plan I came up with read, “Try not to lose too much money,” so we’ll see how things turn out.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five, and his fourth novel, Lovepain, was just released by Braddock Avenue Books.