CHULA VISTA, Calif. — The Beach Boys’ 1968 hit “Do It Again” unfolded gradually during an afternoon sound check before the group’s evening performance here late last week. In jeans and T-shirts, the band started in on the infectious and rhythmic rock song.
“It’s automatic when I talk to old friends,” they sang, “the conversation turns to girls we knew when their hair was soft and long and the beach was the place to go.”
Then came the sound of Brian Wilson’s signature falsetto, launching the group’s distinctive harmonies into the musical stratosphere.
But those glorious high notes that define Beach Boys hits such as “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations,” weren’t coming from Wilson, 69. They were emanating from the mouth of Jeffrey Foskett, the 56-year-old guitarist standing a few feet behind, and strategically between, Wilson and founding member Mike Love.
There is no shortage of veteran bands hitting the road now, but the Beach Boys reunion tour is the first time Wilson, Love, 71, Al Jardine, 69, and David Marks, 63, have toured together since the 1960s. It marks the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary, and their first album with Wilson in 23 years, “That’s Why God Made the Radio.”
Since Wilson doesn’t quite have the voice — or relationship with the group — he once had, the ability of the Beach Boys to tour depends heavily on Foskett’s voice and the role he plays connecting Wilson with his former bandmates.
Foskett was no different than thousands of other musicians who toil in anonymity when he and his cover band were banging out Beach Boys hits in the late 1970s. In a moment of serendipity, Love heard the amateur musician playing in a Santa Barbara bar, and hired him.
For a kid who grew up loving the Beach Boys’ music, Foskett said he felt like a former Little Leaguer who got a call to report to Dodger Stadium.
“That’s exactly what it is like — and probably as rare too,” Foskett said with a gentle smile last week backstage at the Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre. “How many amateur athletes turn pro? And how many of the thousands of musicians — tens of thousands of musicians — in Los Angeles are going to get into the band that they really loved, and tour with them?”
During the sound check in Chula Vista, Foskett, Love, Jardine and longtime singer Bruce Johnston went over who would sing what parts in the group’s intensely complex harmonic arrangements.
But it’s not all about music for the Beach Boys’ sole “vice principal,” the title bestowed on Foskett by the five “principals.” When a rack of freshly dry-cleaned flower-print shirts showed up in a dressing room, Foskett dutifully sorted them for his bosses. “Did I mention I also get to do laundry?” he said with a smile.
Laundry detail notwithstanding, Foskett is more than just a musical cog in the Beach Boys juggernaut. He’s the only one — including the Beach Boys themselves — who’s played with the Beach Boys, the Brian Wilson Band and the Endless Summer Beach Band that backed Love’s solo shows.
The Beach Boys formed in Hawthorne, Calif., in 1961 with brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, their cousin, Love, and two pals, Jardine and Marks. But Marks left in 1963 and Brian Wilson quit touring two years later to focus on work in the recording studio (Johnston came in to round out the touring lineup). The group’s creative leader also frequently went MIA in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1983, Dennis Wilson drowned, and Carl died of cancer in 1998.
The Beach Boys’ lyrics often centered on surf, sun, girls and car culture, but it was Brian Wilson’s falsetto that propelled their music into the heavens, a vocal manifestation of unbridled teen freedom, joy and heartbreak. But he became one of rock’s most notorious casualties after suffering nervous breakdowns stemming from his father’s dictatorial control over his sons and the band, Brian’s drug use and growing tensions within the group itself.
Wilson spent much of the ‘70s and ‘80s in seclusion, emerging only occasionally to perform with or without the other Beach Boys, until he mounted a return to the spotlight in 1998. His once-exceptionally pure and high voice, however, reflected the ravages of what he’d been through.
“Jeffrey is invaluable to keeping the continuity between the various component parts,” Jardine, 69, said backstage. “He supports Brian in every possible way.”
The trust Wilson has in Foskett, musically and personally, is a crucial element of the current tour. In some ways, he is closer to the group’s creative leader than anyone except Wilson’s wife of 17 years, Melinda.
“He has Brian’s confidence,” Jardine said, “and basically kind of makes it possible to have Brian Wilson on the road with us. (Without) that shoulder to lean on, I think it would be very difficult for Brian to tour. And I’m very grateful for that.”
Writer and documentarian David Leaf, author of the 1978 biography “The Beach Boys and the California Myth,” has followed the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s solo career closely. It’s not that Wilson can’t hit the high notes he sang routinely in his 20s, says Leaf, it’s just that he often chooses to leave that task to others.
“He has the hardest job I’ve ever seen a singer pull off,” Leaf said of Foskett’s role. “Those high parts are the ones that go straight to your gut, the ones that hit you in the heart. And he sings them perfectly. It’s an important point to make that there are other singers who could hit those notes, but to do it with the right feeling is the issue.”
Wilson himself said this union of the Brian Wilson Band, which has backed him for the last 14 years, and the Beach Boys brings the best of both together on this tour, which began last month in Tucson.
“Mike and Al love our musicians, and it steps up their show,” Wilson said from his perch in a chair at side stage during the sound check. “Their show is such a thrill, but with our band, their show is even better.”
Foskett was 8 years old and living in San Jose, Calif., when his older brother brought home the Beach Boys’ latest single.
“‘I Get Around’ was a huge hit, but ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ really spoke to me,” said Foskett. “I just couldn’t get enough of their music from that point on.”
As the young musician grew more inspired each year by Wilson’s innovative music, Foskett decided to seek out the reclusive singer, songwriter and producer in the mid-’70s.
During this period, Wilson, who’d been battling mental illness exacerbated by his drug use, had pulled back from the spotlight and famously put a giant sandbox in his home because he thought it would fuel his inspiration to write.
Foskett knew the quirky but troubled musician lived in Bel-Air, so one day in 1976, he and a friend embarked on a musical pilgrimage. They found Wilson’s house and rang the buzzer.
“Brian opened the door and said ‘Hey, come on in’ — like he’d been expecting us!” Foskett said. “I said, ‘Great!’ We hung around and went to the music room. (Wilson’s then-wife) Marilyn made us a sandwich. He said, ‘Stay in touch.’ And I did — and I’m glad that I did.”
Foskett was a student at UC Santa Barbara and struggling musician when Love discovered him playing in the bar on State Street and drafted Foskett to tour behind his solo album. He joined the Beach Boys by the early ‘80s, when the band consisted of Love, Dennis Wilson, Jardine, Johnston and, on occasion, Brian Wilson.
Foskett was part of the touring band for nearly a decade, until tensions between Foskett and “a couple of the guys” — he won’t say which ones — got him politely fired.
Foskett spent most of the ‘90s pursuing his own music. The lure of the Beach Boys, however, was never far from his mind. He ran into Wilson at a mutual friend’s wedding as the Beach Boy was preparing to record a second solo album, 1998’s “Imagination.” “That rekindled my relationship with Brian, and I’ve been with him ever since,” said Foskett, who became musical director of the Brian Wilson Band.
As the 50th anniversary approached, various factions of the Beach Boys began discussing the idea of a reunion tour.
“Because I had remained on good terms with everyone, when it was proposed that this reunion celebration would happen, there was absolutely no problem, no issue at all,” said Foskett. “I’ve had some great talks with everybody, and it’s just a really, really fun and fulfilling time.”
Having observed dozens, if not hundreds, of performances by the Brian Wilson Band as well as earlier editions of the Beach Boys, biographer Leaf said Foskett exerts a peacemaker role similar to that of Carl Wilson before his death. “He definitely reminds me of what Carl brought. There’s an equanimity about him that’s very calming.”
“Jeff doesn’t have the DNA of the original vocal blend, but from what I’ve seen and heard him do on stage, he has been incredible, absolutely essential, the one who seemingly effortlessly and always joyfully does the impossible every night,” Leaf said. “And given how long he’s been doing it, there’s no sense of it being anything other than him offering the gift back to where it came from. That’s a beautiful circle to complete.”
// Notes from the Road
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