COLUMBIA, Md. — Three hours before showtime, Brian Wilson says: “There is no Rhonda.” Sitting backstage, gathering strength for the evening's 48-song, 150-minute concert, Wilson was not asked about her, he just volunteered this fact. The other members of the Beach Boys seem mildly surprised to learn that the 1965 song “Help Me, Rhonda” was about no one in particular.
Not that it matters; the sound is everything. Attention must be paid to baby boomer music-cued nostalgia, and no one pays it better than the Beach Boys. They are on a 50th-anniversary tour that has more than 60 concerts scheduled and others still being booked.
Their band began in 1961 in Hawthorne, in Los Angeles County, when the parents of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson went away for a weekend, leaving the boys with meal money they used to rent instruments and record a song called “Surfin'.” They rode a wave of fascination with California to the top of pop music.
Given California's dystopian present, it is difficult to recall that the Beach Boys' appeal derived not just from their astonishing harmonies, but also from their embodiment of a happy Southern California that beckoned to the rest of the nation. Political scientist James Q. Wilson grew up there and in 1967, the year after the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations,” he wrote a seminal essay on the political vibrations that produced California's new governor: “A Guide to Reagan Country.” Wilson's conclusion was that Ronald Reagan represented the political culture of a region where social structure nurtured individualism.
Southern Californians had, Wilson wrote, “no identities except their personal identities, no obvious group affiliations to make possible any reference to them by collective nouns.” Eastern teenagers had turf. Their Southern California counterparts had cars, the subject of so many Beach Boys songs. They hung out in places reached by car and with lots of parking, particularly drive-in restaurants. “The Eastern lifestyle,” Wilson wrote, “produced a feeling of territory, the Western lifestyle a feeling of property.” Houses and cars strengthened, Wilson wrote, “a very conventional and bourgeois sense of property and responsibility.”