Monday, June 17, 2024

Bill Scanlan Murphy, Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson


Aisling and father, Bill Scanlan Murphy

The Beach Boys, Charles Manson and my dad: a Father’s Day story

by Aisling Murphy

Original Story

My parents make noise for a living.

Mom is a professional opera singer and voice teacher. My father, at various points in his life, has been a session musician, church organist and electronic music programmer (not to mention a journalist, teacher and naval historian). So, growing up, I was surrounded by music.

Just after my fifth birthday, my dad, Bill Scanlan Murphy, decided it was time to sit me, his only kid, down at the piano.

He shared the bench with me as my fingers babbled over the keys. Slowly, he began to build a melody under my simple, rambling descant. Before long, my dad was playing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, singing as he played, not minding the errant notes pealing from the right-hand side of the piano.

We played together like that often, him cycling through the Southern California band’s discography, and me experimenting with a soprano line, figuring out which notes sounded right. Before long, he was explaining basic music theory, showing me how I could play nearly any pop song using just four chords. When I took it upon myself to learn the theme from “Hannah Montana,” he taught me how to play a B-flat major chord on piano in a way that wouldn’t make my hands cramp up.

As I got a little older, I began to wonder just who these Beach Boys were and why they might be so important to my father. My dad’s always been eccentric; it didn’t occur to me at age eight to care much that he had performed with these rock stars, or that he’d had a close friendship with their drummer Dennis Wilson, or that his relationship with the band eventually led to him interview Charles Manson.

Now, at age 26, I care more, especially as another Father’s Day comes around. My dad just turned 70 — and the Beach Boys once again are in the headlines. I care quite a bit.

“I owed my mother some money,” he told me recently. “And she just wasn’t letting me off the hook. I was 18, and I needed to get some cash fast to pay the old lady off. So I went into the gig I didn’t want to do, which was playing jingles.”

It was 1972. My dad was living in Manchester, England, spending some time at home before going to study music at the University of Oxford. Though born in Glasgow, he’d moved to Manchester as a child.

“My jingle producer hated my guts,” he said, laughing. “He got a call during the session, and I only heard half of the conversation. But he got off the phone and asked if I knew ‘that Beach Boys s—t.’ And I said, well, of course I did. Who didn’t know the Beach Boys? As it turned out, they needed someone to play keyboards for them that night.”

He showed up to play the gig at King’s Hall. Whatever songs he didn’t already know, he was able to learn on the spot — and he got to meet the Beach Boys. He became particularly close with Wilson, who was known to be a drug-addled womanizer.

“He had a reputation of being dangerous,” my dad recalled. “He did a lot of drugs, and a lot of drinking, and he was actually a bit scary. But he was profoundly talented, and I got to know him really well. Over the next few years, he’d sometimes give me a call and have me come down to London and play.”

In June 1975, the Beach Boys had an opening slot at Elton John’s MidSummer Music bash, an all-day festival at London’s Wembley Stadium. Wilson called my dad to come play keys for a handful of songs.

“The place went crazy,” he said. “I had never seen a crowd react to a group like that before.” Today, that concert is regarded as one of the group’s great comeback performances.

My dad didn’t hang out with the other Beach Boys much — he was known by the band as “Dennis’ little buddy.” “I have never seen a gravitational pull like Dennis’,” he said. “He could talk to anyone. He was so self-destructive but so charismatic. I learned important things from Dennis and being around him.”

One day, Wilson told my dad about a songwriter he’d met a few years earlier. He was in awe of the guy, he said, adding that he also had decent guitar chops. He called him “The Wizard.”

But his name was Charles Manson.

My dad became fascinated by the connection between Manson and the Beach Boys, and in 1991 he created a documentary for BBC Radio One about “Smile,” the group’s legendary unreleased album. He continued to dig into Manson, finding himself at the centre of a story that became increasingly less about music and more about the convicted murderer’s criminal history. In the early ‘90s, my dad finally interviewed him in prison, and in 1994, he produced a radio show about the Beach Boys and Manson called “Cease to Exist.”

“Around the Beach Boys, there was always this unspoken rule,” my dad told me. “Don’t mention ‘Smile,’ and don’t mention Charlie. And of course, I did both. Making the ‘Smile’ documentary is something I’m really proud of — it’s the achievement I want on my tombstone. That’s the thing I hope people know about my relationship with the Beach Boys — not some tinkling on a keyboard for them at Wembley.”

After Wilson drowned in 1983, my dad kept chasing the Manson story. He’s even cited on page 666 of the paperback edition of “Helter Skelter,” the 1974 book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry about Manson and his Family. He’s often called a conspiracy theorist on internet forums devoted to Manson. (In my early teens, I discovered an online movement dedicated to disproving my father’s theories on the Tate-LaBianca murders — not exactly something my friends at the time knew how to handle or even understand.)

These days, my dad’s life is a little quieter. He’s no longer hopping from party to party in Manchester or London; he and my mother left the U.K. in 1998 just a few months before I was born in Baltimore. My dad’s the organist and music director for the oldest Methodist church in the U.S.; he’s a professor with a dedicated following of electronic music students in Howard County, Md.; and he’s the proud owner of two geriatric bearded collies, both of whom share my family’s penchant for noisemaking.

“People used to think of me as the Manson guy, or the Beach Boys guy,” he said. “But around here these days, I’m the dog guy. And I’m happy with that. I’m perfectly happy to be the dog guy, and to be your dad. That’s good enough for me.”

Last year, I bought an electronic piano, one of my more expensive and less practical whims. Before that, I hadn’t lived with a piano since leaving my parents’ home for university in Canada in 2016. I wasn’t sure how easily the notes would come to my unpracticed fingers.

Without my thinking about it, the opening phrase to “God Only Knows” tumbled from my hands. It must be in my genes.


YouTube wouldn't let me embed the video of the two hour interview so here's the link. The sound is terrible.

This is narrated by Bill Scanlan Murphy and has some interesting moments. 


brownrice said...

Great post, Deb... thanks for sharing. Nice to get some back story on Bill Scanlan Murphy.

kraut_iznota_knotsy said...

Thanks, Deb S.

Doug said...

Very interesting post Deb