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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.
click to enlarge Despite the public struggles Brian Wilson went through during the '80s and '90s, he and Kalinich always maintained a friendship - COURTESY OF STEPHEN JOHN KALINICH
  • Courtesy of Stephen John Kalinich
  • Despite the public struggles Brian Wilson went through during the '80s and '90s, he and Kalinich always maintained a friendship
"Candy Face Lane," the album's opener, features no production flourishes. Yet, one can't help detecting a tender empathy for the ailing Wilson in Kalinich's final couplet:

The Candy Lane is empty and cold
You go back and back again
Looking for it to hold
And you're down again
In Candy Face Lane
And you're in a psychiatric ward
And you're nearly insane
Perhaps Wilson, who'd spent his first stint in a mental hospital less than a year prior, felt the undecorated poem worked most poignantly.

Alternately, "Be Still" is actually an expansion of the song that Kalinich wrote for the Beach Boys' Friends album. Wilson improvises a moonlit organ track behind Kalinich, who calmly reads nuggets of wisdom such as, "You must take in many thoughts and experiences before you blossom."

The sessions for World of Peace finished after a year's work. Wilson sequenced the full album and had a test pressing cut for him and Kalinich. It was shopped around to a number of label-men in Hollywood, including Mike Curb at Sidewalk Records and Tutti Camarata at Buena Vista Records, a Disney subsidiary. In the end there were no takers and the album was shelved. Kalinich says he was devastated.

Thereafter, Wilson's contribution to early '70s Beach Boys albums slowed to a trickle. By 1973, he'd almost completely stopped recording, having cut just three songs with his wife's group, American Spring. Kalinich - who'd been signed as an in-house songwriter with A&M Records in '71 and Motown in '72 - then got the call to work with Wilson once again.

The pair penned a number of songs that Wilson took to the Beach Boys in 1974, including "Child of Winter," "Lucy Jones" and "You're Riding High on the Music." A Kalinich poem titled "California Feelin'" became the pair's most mature verse yet on the American subject. According to Kalinich, Wilson took his words and improvised the music live on piano as tape rolled. The results bear more than a passing resemblance to the way its poet-shirted lyricist recited verse throughout the World of Peace album.


The pair wrote one final song in 1975 - "Grateful Are We for Little Children" - before parting ways. Despite the various handlers and public struggles Wilson went through during the '80s and '90s, however, Kalinich maintained the friendship.

Then, in 2003, Kalinich got the call to work with Wilson once more. As a solo artist, Wilson finally embraced his more experimental oeuvre, touring the entire Pet Sounds album from 2000-02 and completing his long-abandoned Smile project in '04. Wilson and Kalinich's new cut was titled, "A Friend Like You" and it was recorded with Beatle Paul McCartney for Wilson's solo album, Gettin' in Over My Head.

By this time, however, Kalinich was recovering from a heart attack that left him financially crippled. When I met him for the first time in '03, he seemed almost desperate for the kind of recognition that would make him a household name.

Recently, a handful of unreleased recordings Kalinich had written with Brian and Dennis Wilson came out on new Beach Boys rarities collections. Last year, indie/psych icons Of Montreal covered the poet's "Little Bird," lending further credence to Kalinich's latent love revolution. If the vinyl reissue of A World of Peace Must Come illustrates anything, it is that Kalinich played more than a passing role in the Beach Boys' transformation into their gentle psychedelic phase. And that's no small thing.

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

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