Everybody Had An Ocean by William McKeen

With Everybody Had An Ocean, we get all the good and none of the bad that can plague the nonfiction historical genre: the writing is clean, precise, and friendly, the book stays on topic and rarely veers off on tangents, and the material is highly researched and very well disseminated. Imagine a large venn diagram of the 1960s Southern California music scene and you’ll get an idea of how author McKeen has chosen to present the information. It’s a very twisting but fascinating story of a somewhat insular scene that was just starting to grow, mature, and then stagnate in the pivotal 1960s.

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The book has two anchors: a chronological account of how the music changed in the Los Angeles scene from the early 1960s to the end of the decade and the people involved in that change. At the epicenter of the change is the Beach Boys; from their nexus we get the stories of how they interacted with, helped grow or develop, hindered, or just hung out with so many of the big musicians of the time (or in the near future). From the musicians themselves (Mamas and Papas, Jan and Dean, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Jim Messina, etc.) to the studio bands, record company owners, producers, hanger-ons, wives, and more. More interestingly, much of the beginning of the book is a breakdown of the various musical styles as they developed, from surf music to folk, psychedelic rock to rhythm and blues. If it sounds pedantic, it isn’t. McKeen carefully and smartly interweaves all the stories so that the reader is never left wondering how they are all connected.

As the title suggests, this isn’t about the Beach Boys and isn’t their biography even though we are given quite a bit of information about them. Where most biographies focus on the subject, this book focuses on the impact of our subjects on others; e.g., how Brian Wilson’s search for self actualization would lead him to try to work on other bands only to be reigned in by Mike Love and how Dennis Wilson would unwittingly begin the series of events leading to the Helter Skelter murders.

The first half of the book is very fact heavy to establish the backgrounds and perspective of the music and why it all ended up in Los Angeles. Artists big at the time like the Beatles are briefly mentioned but did not have a great effect on the LA scene. But other artists such as Elvis will have left a bigger legacy and so gets a bit more time in the book. As the book goes on, it becomes solely focused on the people and their interactions. The writing changes from factual to subjective in a way that makes complete sense but does oddly feel like a catharsis for the writer.

Although Los Angeles is the heart of the book, it really isn’t the reason to read Everybody Had An Ocean. And indeed, not much time is spent on the city at all. It’s all about the many different musicians/producers/music industry insiders who moved to LA in the 1960s in order to make their fortune. Some thrived, some died, and some just faded away. But their stories all made for excellent reading.

As noted early, the author is friendly, brief, concise, and does a very good job of editing himself to stay on topic and not get too distracted. Because the tone is conversational, the wording is never stiff or ‘non-fiction dry’ that can plague the genre. Indeed the author intersperses quite a bit of his opinions throughout and this is, as a result, a very subjective book. I may not have always agreed with his opinions of what music was good or who was a genius but I always respected the reasoning he gave for his assertions.

In all, I greatly enjoyed Everybody Had An Ocean. Perhaps better than any individual biographies of musicians from the era, this gives a much needed big picture perspective that make so much of the period much more understandable and defined. As such, this is highly recommended. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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