Howard Kramer opens one of the boxes on a table in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s vault and begins unpacking artifacts exclusively on loan to the museum from Carl Wilson’s son for the upcoming exhibit, Catch a Wave: The Beach Boys, the Early Years. He carefully pulls out mint copies of “Surfin’ Safari” and “Help Me, Rhonda,” along with promotional photographs, concert handbills and programs. These like-new items are from the Wilson brothers’ early years in Hawthorne, Calif., and are evident of a youth that inspired their early ’60s “surf music” hits.
The Rock Hall’s curatorial director shows off a note from one of late drummer Dennis Wilson’s elementary-school teachers detailing his progress in reading; bassist/producer Brian’s class schedule and report card for spring semester 1961 at El Camino College (he got C’s and D’s); late guitarist Carl’s fifth-grade report card, complete with mother Audree’s handwritten reply to a teacher’s critical remarks: “Believe me, we are trying to teach Carl that he cannot coast through life” — everyday items rendered remarkable by their owners’ fame. Kramer is particularly interested in a couple of greeting cards from the boys to their father, Murry. A small Father’s Day card, the kind of whimsical missive a parent would buy for a child to give, is signed “To you from Brian with all my love.”
“The irony is Brian and Murry’s legendary adversarial relationship,” Kramer explains. “Murry was very stern. He was not adverse to corporal punishment — Brian has recounted some horrible cruelties — and he was very controlling of the band.”
Going through the boxes with Kramer is a strangely surreptitious experience, almost like rifling through someone else’s closets and dresser drawers. “When I first saw this collection, I couldn’t believe it,” Kramer says. It’s a bold statement from a man who spends his days in a place filled with the rarest of rock memorabilia — which means fans should be thrilled when Catch a Wave opens in the museum’s Ahmet Ertegun Exhibition Hall June 22.
The exhibit’s beginnings are rooted in Carl Wilson’s 1998 death from cancer. “A friend of Carl’s had visited the museum and spoken to Billy Hinsche, a longtime member of The Beach Boys’ touring band,” Kramer recalls. “They liked the little bio and photos we posted after Carl died. So Billy contacted me, and we basically struck up a friendship.” Over the next several years Hinsche, whose sister Annie was Carl’s first wife, introduced Kramer to members of the Wilson family, including Carl’s son Jonah. During a visit to Jonah’s home, Kramer found 24 boxes of personal belongings in a spare bedroom. With his permission, Kramer “spent eight hours in this one room, finding these amazing, evocative pieces.”
Other items include an acetate (a metal disc covered in the petroleum by-product that served as an instant record) for “Surfer Girl”; Brian’s handwritten lyrics for “Be True to Your School” and handwritten chart for “Summer Moon”; and records by The Four Freshmen owned by Brian. “The records are key in the development of Brian as a musician and producer and the development of The Beach Boys’ sound,” Kramer explains. Also on loan are musical instruments from Carl’s second wife Gina and Brian Wilson’s Pendleton-brand wool shirt — a signature garment worn by the band for photo shoots and performances — from a collector. Together, these pieces conjure memories of both the band and the enduring ideal of an endless summer that they created.
Catch a Wave remains on display at the Rock Hall through Dec. 31 and is included in the regular museum admission fee. For more information, call (216) 781-ROCK or visit www.rockhall.com.