Performer: The Beach Boys
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Gary Usher
Original Release: Surfer Girl
Definitive Version: None
Not all stories are good, funny or merely boring. The story that I’m about to relate is a bad one (not to mention long, but then I just mentioned it), but I couldn’t write an autobiography without noting it. I suppose I could skip it, and it wouldn’t matter, but I have no other story that goes with this song. Please feel free to skip it if you want and come back tomorrow when I’m sure I’ll relate another forehead-slapper about various relationship follies.
When I was younger, everyone knew The Beach Boys. They were fun-in-the-sun, good-time music, as light and breezy as a day on the beach at Malibu. I always kind of liked this song: It had a different sound and seemed romantic, like a slow dance at the prom, even though the words didn’t seem to fit.
After I found Steve & Garry, my idea of this song changed. I heard them talk about how Brian Wilson’s dad used to beat the crap out him and his brothers, and that gave the song far more poignancy, because it brought it home to me in a big way.
Debbie used to say I had a miserable childhood. Maybe I did; I don’t know. Sure, I know plenty of people who were better off when they were kids, but there certainly were a lot of kids who had it far worse than I did. I mean, I survived it. Lots of kids don’t even survive their childhood—forget happiness.
I wasn’t abused; I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t neglected or at least felt as though I were neglected until I was much older. I lived in a crime-free neighborhood where kids could play all hours of the night unsupervised, away from gangs and drugs. It wasn’t bad; it was it was.
OK, so my parents got divorced when I was 12, so what? So I was bullied a bit in junior high; again, so what? I was spanked and slapped across the face at least once by my father when I was bad. Well, I grew up in the Seventies: Who didn’t have that happen to him or her back then?
Mom was an alcoholic. Again, this is nothing special, but it did produce situations that led me to feel afraid and that, unlike Brian Wilson, my room didn’t provide security.
I think I was 9—8 or 9—before I realized that everything wasn’t perfect. That was the age when I became aware that my parents fought … wildly. They woke me up in the middle of the night once, hurling profanities of the type that I knew only from the schoolyard at the top of their lungs. I don’t know what the fight was about, but it didn’t matter: All I knew was I was terrified.
I don’t remember doing anything specifically to stop the fight, but I’m certain that whether it was crying out for them to stop or knocking on their door crying, I made it known that their fights no longer were private. In retrospect, you’d think that such exposure would get the parents to cool it. It seemed to have the opposite effect, unfortunately.
It was like they didn’t have to go through any pretense about covering their animosity up and could just fight—always at night but always within earshot—as much as they wanted. And, make no mistake, the frequency increased.
They also expanded their territory. A few times, the fights spilled into my bedroom—always accompanied with door slams that prompted as fast a dive under the covers as you could make. I had twin beds in my bedroom, so Dad would come into my room to climb into the other bed, with Mom in hot pursuit, neither one caring that they’re in my room as I’m yelling—ineffectually, as you might imagine—at them to get out of my room.
When Dad finally moved out once and for all in 1976, I was happy, because that meant the late-night fights were over with. It was then that Mom told me in no certain terms that not only had Dad cheated on her, but he also used to beat her on a regular basis. Given the fighting that went on, it seemed plausible, and I embraced it as the truth, which, of course, alienated me from Dad for many years.
Mom told a particular story that happened around the Fourth of July 1973 where Dad beat her up badly in basement, leaving her moaning on the floor. He then grabbed me and hightailed out of there for Torch Lake for the holiday.
Well, he and I definitely went to Torch Lake, just us two, that weekend, and I remember Dad coming to me while I was playing outside and asking if I wanted to go to Torch early the next day. It seemed odd that we would do this without any advance warning, by ourselves, so what Mom told was a plausible story.
But you know what? I heard—and saw—the fighting and knew how crazed it was. I heard Dad threaten Mom with physical violence, but I never actually heard or saw anything violent happen. I never heard a punch or a slap, or things, like a lamp, being thrown. They were so seemingly uncaring in the obviousness of their fights, but they were secretive about this—even in the heat of the moment?
I asked Dad about it once, decades ago, and he denied it. Mom insisted it happened although never badly enough for her to have to go to the hospital. Why didn’t she call the cops? She always gave the same answer: Out of respect for us kids—that we would suffer if Dad went to jail.
So who knows what really happened? The truth is probably somewhere in between and probably closer to Dad’s view than Mom’s. The reason I believe that is I came to see Mom though Dad’s point of view. It wasn’t anything he could explain to me; it was something I had to experience on my own.
And I did. When I became old enough to resemble and adult if not an actual one, Mom and I started getting into fights on occasion. When Mom moved into her final home in 1988, I stayed with her when I came home to Columbus out of loyalty or the knowledge I’d have more freedom of movement or who knows what. In her new condominium, I felt like I was in the middle of a bad rerun.
When Mom was drunk and feeling righteous, no one could be more obstinate and unmerciful. We would fight, she would leave my room, slamming the door for the proper emphasis, only to come back minutes later and start up again.
One night in 1989, Mom and I got into it after I came home late after visiting friends. The thing she had gotten into her head was she wanted to move the hutch off the childhood desk that was in the bedroom where I stayed—as in right now. I said no; it was late at night. It’s heavy; it’s full of stuff. Let’s do it tomorrow.
Let’s do it now. We fought, she left, came back, left again and came back. This was getting very old.
Finally Mom decided she was just going to do it herself and succeeded in pushing the hutch enough so it slid off the edge of the desk, putting a huge gash into the drywall and having my entire collection of model cars come crashing down in a heap of plastic.
I sat upright bolt in bed and told Mom to get out of the room RIGHT NOW or I was going to kill her. I used a few choice words from those I overheard when I was a kid.
In that moment, everything changed. It was always Dad—not Mom—quitting the fight, leaving their bedroom seeking quiet, and it was always her following, not ready to concede the day. Now, 15 years later, history was repeating and I was standing in for Dad, and here we arrived at the moment of truth.
In that instant, if Mom had kept at it, I honestly don’t know what I would have happened. I was at my wit’s end. But, Mom left the room whimpering, and she didn’t come back that night. And I never spent another night in her home.
The next time I was in Columbus sometime the next year—it might have been my first Rush concert—I asked Dad if he minded if I stayed with him. Of course he didn’t mind; he was thrilled. I NEVER asked to stay with him before. He never asked what prompted the change. Maybe he didn’t have to, because he recognized the situation: Like him years before, I reached my breaking point with Mom.
I never hit Mom—I haven’t hit anyone after I turned 11. I wouldn’t do that, but I understand how someone might under similar circumstances. I don’t know fully what happened between Mom and Dad. It doesn’t really matter anymore.
If anything, I just wish they broke up long before they did. Maybe then my not-so-miserable childhood would have been just a wee bit more pleasant.