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How Did This Unknown Poet End Up Making an Album With Brian Wilson?

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Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 4:00 AM
click to enlarge The young Kalinich in 1969. - COURTESY OF KALINICH
  • Courtesy of Kalinich
  • The young Kalinich in 1969.
Stephen Kalinich's A World of Peace Must Come is a spoken word curio produced by Beach Boy Brian Wilson in 1969.

First released on CD six years ago, it flew under the radar, but later this month, reissue dynamo Light in the Attic Records will give it another shot.

It deserves one, as it's a wholly unique part of Wilson's larger canon, and a component of his secret "Bedroom Tapes" era we wrote about in a cover story earlier this year

The album opens with a vocal benediction where Kalinich and Wilson harmonize the title phrase as a mini-mantra. What follows are a dozen recordings that vacillate between poetry recitation, medieval liturgy and homemade experimentation.

Just how did Kalinich, an unknown, come to work with one of pop music's greatest talents?

See also: Brian Wilson's Secret Bedroom Tapes: A Track-by-Track Description

Kalinich's father was a Greek Orthodox immigrant from Russia, and his mother was Jewish, though she eventually converted to Christianity. Born in 1942 in Endicot, New York, Kalinich himself celebrated a Bar Mitzvah when he was 13, was confirmed Catholic at 15, became agnostic at 16 and by his 20th birthday was a full-blown peacenik.

He moved to California in 1965, envisioning himself reciting poems on The Ed Sullivan Show. "I approached my poetry physically," says Kalinich today, from his home in Beverly Hills. "I wanted to do them like the Stones did records."

He began making the rounds at teen clubs lining the Sunset Strip, where he read live at coffeehouses and was once backed by the great Mexican bandleader Esquivel. He lived at the YMCA near Cahuenga and Sunset for $15 a week and sang occasionally with Jim McGuinn of the Byrds. In the end, says Kalinich, "I thought I was best suited to be a chanter."

By 1967, the young poet was introduced to Brian Wilson by a songwriter friend of his named Jim Critchfield. Wilson and Kalinich hit if off immediately and the head Beach Boy signed him to a writing and recording contract with the band's nascent imprint, Brother Records.

Carl Wilson (rather than Brian) then produced a series of Simon & Garfunkel-type tracks with Kalinich's folk duo, Zarasthustra & Thelebius. ("Leaves of Grass," from the World of Peace reissue, hails from these sessions.) Work with Carl quickly fizzled and Kalinich struck up a collaboration with middle Wilson brother, Dennis, who in 1967 had begun writing his own music earmarked for Beach Boys projects. The duo penned "Little Bird" and "Be Still" for the band's 1968 album, Friends. The Beach Boys also employed Kalinich to write press releases and, at one point, he says, he was asked to open for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who performed on the bill with the group during the Beach Boys' disastrous spring tour of '68.

After Friends, the two continued writing songs together and Dennis took to filming Kalinich reading his poems excitedly before an 8mm camera. By early '69, Kalinich was hanging out regularly with all three Wilson brothers, who each loved hearing him read, when he got the invitation to do what very few individuals ever have - make an album with Brian Wilson.

1969 was, by any account, a slow year for Wilson. He wrote fewer songs than at any other time since the inception of the Beach Boys eight years prior. Wilson's stand-alone single, "Break Away," offers a kind of resistance report from within occupied territory, its chorus declaring, "I can break away to a better life, where I can do what I want to do." The other Beach Boys had pretty much taken over the recording of new material, while Wilson, teetering on full retreat, looked outside the group for new creative stimulation. The dandified Kalinich in ascot and bonny spectacles embodied the new sexuality of the late '60s and, in some ways, was a catalyst for the Beach Boys' own eventual transformation from striped-shirt minstrels to psychedelic avatars.

The World of Peace sessions began on August 22, 1969 with the title "America, I Know You." It is the sole production on the album that doesn't feel homemade. Indeed, it is the only cut that Wilson recorded at a proper studio, outside the one installed in his Bel Air living room. "America" is also the only album cut that Wilson bothered to register with the American Federation of Musicians, something required in order to book the regular session players who fill the track's cascading instrumental scales.

According to Kalinich, Wilson himself went around to each hired hand and taught them their parts right there in the studio, a common practice for Wilson during the 1966-67 sessions for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Smile. The feel of the music takes much from the cinematic style of Ferde Grofe, whose Grand Canyon Suite (1931) was a decidedly non-Modernist, albeit popular, work of symphonic Americana.

For his part, Kalinich recites an ode to the homeland that draws on the romantic ecstasy of forebears like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, though it falls far short of their genius. "America" more often resorts to hippie era cliché and tepid sentimentality, where Wilson's production overwhelms. It is a common criticism leveled at the album, one which Kalinich takes very much in stride.

"I was in my teens when I wrote this shit," he quips. "It's not that it's good or bad poetry. The potential was activated in me." Regardless, one wishes an instrumental version had made the album as a bonus track. As for other tracks on World of Peace, it is difficult at times to detect Wilson's fingerprint at all.

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