Courtney S. Lennon is a writer from Western New York whose oral history of legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver is due out early next year on Texas A&M University Press.
By Courtney S. Lennon
If it wasn’t for my dad, Robert Sudbrink, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. My dad always encouraged me to pursue my interest in American music history, even if my choices weren’t popular.
My first real musical hero was Dean Martin. I discovered him as a 12-year-old living in Alden, New York. My classmates were into boybands, but my Papa, William C. Gocella, introduced me to Martin, and we’d drive around singing his songs. After reading Nick Tosches’ biography on Martin, “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.” I was so inspired to follow in Martin’s footsteps, I got this idea to go to his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, to see all I had read about. I asked my dad if he would chaperone me on the eight-hour pilgrimage, and without hesitation, he said, “Yes,” taking days off work from the post office to drive me there.
All the way to Steubenville we were excited and talking about all we planned to see and do. But when we arrived, we soon realized much had changed over the 70-some years since Martin grew up there — downtown was mostly run-down with few businesses remaining. Still, we held on to our optimism and headed to the first stop on our list, Dean Martin’s childhood home. When we got to the house, there was no house — just an empty lot. I found a brick laying in the yard and picked it up as a souvenir. The rest of the trip followed suit with not much to see or do for a dad and kid, but we tried to make the best of it.
On the last day, after mostly striking out, we ran across this small welcome booth in the city lined with Dean Martin souvenirs. There was a nice old lady working inside who greeted us. My dad explained why we were there, and the woman told me that she was president of the Dean Martin fan club, and that I was the youngest fan she had met. My dad bought me one of all they had for sale with Dean Martin on it – hat, tote bag, buttons, stickers, and a t-shirt so big that to this day, I — as a 36-year-old woman — haven’t grown into it. They didn’t have much for kids, but I gave the woman my address and she made it a point to send me a big package of articles about Dean, along with information about the fan club. She took the time to encourage a young person getting into music that was important to her. It left an impression.
About a year or so later, when I was 13, I was moving up the decades and getting into the Beatles. I had a copy of “Live at the BBC” on cassette and was exploring their catalog. Back in late ’90s, it was pretty much agreed that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the greatest album ever recorded. Rolling Stone Magazine said so. These days, I’m not into lists or ranking, but back then, it seemed like gospel.
I’ll never forget that summer day when I ran outside to tell my dad how great the Beatles and “Sgt. Pepper” were. He was cleaning the pool, and I was so excited I ran out and shouted, “Dad! Guess what I learned!” “What did you learn?” “I found out that ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ by the Beatles is the greatest album ever.”
My dad paused, stopped cleaning the pool and stared at me. “Nah,” he grumbled in his Queens accent.
“No?” I asked disappointed.
“Nah. ‘Pet Sounds.’ The Beach Boys.”
I was dumbfounded. “Really? The Beach Boys?”
I thought they were a novelty act heard only on Oldies 104 and that my dad was messing with me.
“You’re saying the Beach Boys made a better album than Beatles?”
“Brian Wilson,” he said. “Brian Wilson is a genius.”
Here I thought I’d learned about music from my dad’s era that other kids my age wouldn’t know, and he didn’t even agree with me. He’s telling me about this Brian Wilson person I had no idea about. So, I didn’t take his advice right away. I thought I knew more than he did, and that Rolling Stone certainly knew more than he did.
Then one day I was down in the basement looking through my parents’ old records for anything by the Beatles. As I thumbed through their collection that included all the classic albums from the ’60s and ’70s, I landed on a copy of the Beach Boys 1964 album “All Summer Long.” This album was released two years after my dad discovered the Beach Boys when he was 12. The back cover of the album included a note from each band member.
When I read what Brian Wilson was saying, I understood his feelings of teenage alienation, and he looked like he had a kind soul. There was something about him that I knew right away I could relate to. A sensitivity I couldn’t find in the music my classmates were listening to, boy bands like Nsync, because they liked how the guys looked.
I will admit from that picture, I thought Brian Wilson was cute. I wasn’t aware he looked different 35 years later. I was a teenage girl after all, and I could tell that Brian Wilson had what those boy bands lacked – depth. I was drawn to it. Then I remembered, “Pet Sounds.” Now I had to hear it.
I found my dad’s copy of “Carl and the Passions: So Tough” a double gatefold backed with “Pet Sounds.” He got it when it was released in 1972, the year he returned home from Vietnam. Unfortunately, the record player in our house wasn’t working, so I had my mom drop me off at the Galleria Mall to pick up the Mono version of “Pet Sounds” on CD. My mom asked what I bought, and I said I didn’t get anything. I hid it from my parents because I didn’t want my dad knowing I listened to his advice because I was a stubborn kid. So, I waited until they were gone one evening and I had the house to myself.
I turned all the lights off in the room, laid down on the couch, closed my eyes, and pressed Play on the stereo remote.
“Wouldn’t it Be Nice” kicked in. Right away, I knew I was hearing something far more complex than I had before. As the album continued, I got chills hearing Brian’s soaring falsetto, his high whine capturing innocence and the loss of it at once. He was extremely sensitive and emotionally fragile.
As the album played, I was connecting with music in a way I never thought possible. It was a transformative experience because Brian Wilson took everything into consideration: penning, producing, arranging and execution. Every song on “Pet Sounds” was perfect. Brian Wilson was capturing all these feelings and emotions that I was experiencing myself or soon would. With songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” as he sings, “I keep looking for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind, I’ve been trying hard to find the people I won’t leave behind.” That’s exactly how I felt as a kid with dreams, living in Alden. Brian Wilson showed me the world in a different way and encouraged me to dream.
To this day, “Pet Sounds” remains my favorite album, and I’d be hard pressed to find a song that means more to me than “God Only Knows.” “Pet Sounds” was a game-changer. When the album stopped, I ran up to my dad’s closet and stole one of his white undershirts. I grabbed a Sharpie and scrawled across it, “Brian Wilson is a genius.” I wore that shirt to school the next day, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I really had my own identity. My mission in life was to spread the word about the music I loved and help bring recognition to artists that deserve it. I started writing for my high school paper to get kids into the music I liked.
Just about a year later, Wilson, who had taken a long hiatus from touring, began to do so again. My parents drove me to Cleveland to see the “Pet Sounds Symphonic Tour.” I’ll never forget the moment Brian Wilson walked out on stage. For me as a 15-year-old girl, it was like seeing a divine entity. Here is my hero before me and I can’t believe I’m seeing him. I’ve never lost that awe. I last saw him perform at Artpark in 2019 and was sitting there with my parents, crying as I looked back on life, thinking about how many of the great memories we shared because of Brian Wilson and his music.
My dad gave me the building blocks to recognize great music. When I was 26 and living in Los Angeles, I realized not enough people were aware of Townes Van Zandt and started my own magazine because of it, “Turnstyled, Junkpiled.” Most recently, I finished my first book for Texas A&M University Press, “Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver,” an oral history written to help preserve Shaver’s songwriting legacy. Shaver’s a long way from Brian Wilson, but my dad taught me to look for artists who are individuals, never to accept popular opinion, and to speak up about great art that’s underrecognized. Speak up about people like Daniel Johnston, my other musical hero from the time I was 16.
In 2003, when I was 18, I got lucky enough to see Johnston, who like Wilson didn’t tour regularly. At the show, I made it a point to stand around so I could meet Daniel and tell him how much his music meant to me. He was very kind and as a kid from Alden, just meeting my hero for 30 seconds was a big deal. Today, I’m humbled to say I’m Daniel’s biographer and working on my next book “True Love Will Find You In The End: The Life and Music of Daniel Johnston” (TAMU).
In just about a month, I’m headed down to Daniel’s hometown of Chester, West Virginia – only a half hour north of Steubenville, and of course, my dad’s going to take the drive with me.