My serialized novel Meeting Dennis Wilson had its origins in a long, couldn’t-quite-get-it-right-no-matter-how-many-times-I-revised-it story entitled (I think) “Bad Vibrations,” in which the book’s protagonist, Margo, bought a copy of the then-new Beach Boys album Fifteen Big Ones and had to repeatedly return it to the record store because it wouldn’t play, only to discover, thanks to her best friend (and our narrator) Brian’s help, that she had her stereo speakers too close to her turntable, and THAT, not a defective pressing, was making her record skip.
When I sent a draft of the story to a friend to critique, he said “What’s this story about, anyway? Speaker placement?”
Well, KIND of… but one thing it WAS about was how music and records permeated our lives as teenagers (and, for many of us, still does).
To me and a lot of people, pop music is more than “just a song on the radio” or “background noise,” and records are more than just vehicles for that noise. The songs say what we feel and think in words we couldn’t think of; the records are relics that remind us of a time and a place.
I realized that “Bad Vibrations,” whatever it wasn’t, WAS an idea which could probably be part of a bigger and better whole… a novel of some kind, although, clearly, it couldn’t be “about speaker placement.” I wanted the records and the music to occupy a place in the novel akin to the place that they occupy in many peoples’ lives.
So while the plot of Meeting Dennis Wilson is “teenaged girl has a crush on the Beach Boys’ drummer and decides she’s going to meet him,” and all the subplots spinning around it, one of the devices I use in telling that story is old records and music.
Most of the chapters in Meeting Dennis Wilson are set up by records and songs that would have been on the radio, on the jukebox, and in these kids’ bedrooms and hearts and souls back in spring of 1976. Many of the chapters are “set up” with actual pictures of record labels or covers, as “prompts” for the action that follows. In some cases, the records make direct appearances; in others, their presence is more covert.
So, in many ways, Meeting Dennis Wilson is a novel that has evolved from a failed short story about speaker placement to a novel “about” music and records and its importance to those of us who love them… among other themes and subplots.
Here is an excerpt from Book Seven of Meeting Dennis Wilson: the vignette that evolved from the “Bad Vibrations” short story. –Max
We heard from all of our disparate sources (Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, Crawdaddy, and whatever magazines Margo read that boys wouldn’t be caught dead looking at) that the new album would be in stores before July 4th, 1976. “15 Big Ones,” Margo explained, “because it has fifteen songs on it and it’s also their fifteenth anniversary. Fifteen new songs.”
New records hit the stores on Tuesdays, and the morning that the album was slated for release, Margo and I biked side by side downtown to the record store so we could get a copy as soon as they opened. “I am so ready,” she said as we pedaled. “Not only did I clean my room, but I rearranged my stereo and stuff. Put the speakers so that if I lie on my bed, I’m right between them and I can hear everything.”
We were waiting in front of the record store at 9:59 when the aging hippie manager unlocked the door, and Margo walked in quick steps ahead of me, right to the rack of new releases. There it was: 15 Big Ones… a blue cover with the group’s name in gold neon, and their individual portraits framed by five multicolored neon Olympic rings (not only was it the Bicentennial; it was also an Olympic summer).
“Here it is!” Margo tittered, and she examined the pictures on the front cover. “God… is that Brian Wilson? He’s all fat… and look how greasy his hair is! He still has a cute smile, though…” Her voice got hushed. “…and Denny has a beard! ”
She looked at the price code sticker and then up at the price list on the wall. “D… five-forty-nine,” she said, looking down into her purse to make sure she had enough money, and then she flipped over the album and counted the songs.
“Fifteen songs,” she said, nodding her head, “and only three that I already have.”
“Those are all new,” the manager said from behind the counter, and Margo took some money from her purse.
“Well, not all new,” Margo said as she stepped up to the register. “I have three of them on singles already…” She set the album on the counter. “…but that still leaves 12 out of 15.”
Margo bought a copy of the album and I bought two (“Awwww… you bought one for Christy? See, this is why I like you, Bri. She’s not even here and you’re buying her presents. You can wrap it and put it in the fort!”), and instead of going to one or the other of our rooms to listen, we decided to split up and listen separately.
“Meet me in an hour,” Margo said, “and we can talk about it…”
That sounded like a good idea to me. Seriously, I wasn’t expeccting much, There seemed to be a reason that they hadn’t done a new album in over three years: Endless Summer, a double album greatest hits collection from a couple summers before, was not only a gigantic seller (talk about Beach Boys all over the radio), but to the group, it was both a blessing and a curse: it sold a lot of albums and drew a lot of fans to their concerts, but most of those fans wanted to hear the oldies, so the group stopped doing adventurous new music…
That was how Fifteen Big Ones struck me at first listen: unadventurous. Like John Lennon’s Rock and Roll a year before, it was a new album, and new Beach Boys or Lennon was better than no Beach Boys or Lennon (as we unfortunately found out a few years later with John), but it was nothing to really get all that excited about.
Half covers, half new songs, and there was just something about it that sounded half-baked.
Like they weren’t trying.
I wondered, as I tracked through side one, if Margo felt that way. She was a fan, but she never hesitated to say if she didn’t like something–
“–Briiiiian? Phone! Margo!”
Mom. From downstairs. I hadn’t even heard the phone ring.
I went down the hall to my parents’ room and picked up the other line. “Yeah?”
“Brian,” Margo said, her voice serious and deep. “We have to go trade my album in downtown. There’s something wrong with it. ”
“Yeah. Every song skips.”
That was weird. “Is it scratched?” I said.
Tsk! “Brian, it’s brand new. It’s not scratched. I looked at it under the light. Both sides. And my needle’s fine.” Sigh! “There’s something wrong with it. I need a new one.”
I met Margo at the foot of our joined back yards a few minutes later. “And you said yours plays?” she said.
I nodded my head. “All the way through.”
“Do you like it?” she asked, and before I could think up a way of saying “Well, you’ll like it,” she said “Don’t tell me! I want to hear it for myself.” She sighed. “And just watch him try to tell me it’s my needle. That’s always the first thing they try and sell you…”
We biked back down to the record store, her with the defective copy of the album in the bag, where Margo explained that, no, she didn’t need a new needle (“Didn’t I tell you, Bri?”), she’d just replaced it a couple weeks before… all this while the aging hippie put on his reading glasses and examined the surfaces of the vinyl.
“Looks fine,” he said, slipping the disc back into the sleeve, “but if it doesn’t play…” He looked at Margo. “Go get another one. Sorry about that.”
“Thanks,” Margo said, and she flipped past the front copy and snagged the second copy of the album from the rack and we rode our bikes back home so she could play it.
I would have gone up with her to make sure it played, but I had work to do. I’d barely gotten out of the house twice before I got questioned about the lawn: the first time, Dad asked me if I was going to do the lawn, and the second time, he asked me when I was going to do the lawn. I wanted to listen to the record with Margo, but I wasn’t going to let Dad ask a third time. I dropped my bike in the garage… rolled the mower out onto the driveway… filled the tank with gas… punched the black rubber button a few times to prime the engine (loved those old Lawn Boys)… yank! yank! yank! the cord and the engine sputtered to life, spitting out acrid blue smoke. I took off my shirt and pushed the puttering mower out onto the grass, and I barely got ten yards down my first swath before I saw Margo standing in my path, brown record store bag in her raised right hand. I cut off the mower and wiped the sweat from my brow.
“This one skips too, Bri,” she said. “Every song.”
We rode back down to the record store, and the whole time Margo was fretting. “He’s gonna give me a hard time, I just know it,” Margo said, but I said why would he give you a hard time, you just had bad luck, if it doesn’t play it doesn’t play, you have the receipt, it’s more of a hassle to you than to him…
“Wait out here,” she said, no idea why, but I did, and she went into the shop and, two minutes later, was back out with her third copy of Fifteen Big Ones.
“He said if this one doesn’t play, call him,” Margo muttered as she climbed on her bike. “Yeah, I’ll call him all right…”
Meeting Dennis Wilson by Max Harrick Shenk…
“Today marks the day that I officially add Meeting Dennis Wilson to my ‘Favorite Coming of Age Books’ list. I adore John Green and his work [and] I fell in love with this book just as easily as I fell in love with Paper Towns or An Abundance of Katherines. Meeting Dennis Wilson can easily be compared to a teenager who’s just coming of age: awkward, quirky, hilarious, and loads of fun to be around. Meeting Dennis Wilson is incredibly comical, sweet, and ultimately feel-good.” (The Literary Connoisseur)