On a Stolen Song

The Beach Boys are arguably one of the best American rock bands the United States ever produced. Their influence has waned in the years since their heyday back in the 60s, but their impact at the time was substantial both musically and culturally. And, like most popular musicians, they attracted their fair share of fans and hangers-on.

The three Wilson brothers and their cousin, Mike Love, formed the core of the group that used “surfer rock” to create such hits as Surfin’ USA, Help Me, Rhonda, Good Vibrations, and California Girls. These and others cemented their legacy as pop legends. Rolling Stone magazine lists them at number 12 in the greatest bands of all time, and they’re members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

By 1968, the band had undergone several changes of style and even some personnel. The leadership of the group had changed as well. Brian Wilson had been the perennial leader, but he relinquished that role in the mid-60s to a more democratic approach to making artistic decisions. Other members contributed songs, and even some outside compositions were brought in and recorded by the band.

One of these songs was brought to the group by drummer Dennis Wilson. Dennis had met a fan who was an aspiring singer-songwriter, a charismatic fellow named Charlie, and the pair began hanging out. They jammed often and even riffed off each other’s chords and musical phrases. Dennis liked the young man’s songs, one in particular called Ceased to Exist. But Charlie proved to be too much of a fan rather than a writing partner, and the pair eventually parted ways.

In the summer of 1968, the Beach Boys entered the studio, and Dennis introduced the group to a new song he said he had been working on. It was entitled Never Learn Not to Love. What it actually was was a slight re-working of Ceased to Exist. The song was put on the next Beach Boy’s album and the band even played it on one of their TV appearances (on the Mike Douglas Show).

Had Dennis Wilson stolen this fan’s song and simply changed some things and put his name to it? Well, apparently it depends on whom you’re asking. Dennis swore that he and Charlie worked on the tune together, and that the fan had sold his rights to a songwriting credit for some cash and a motorcycle. Fair enough. But that’s not what others say. Some say that Wilson stole it and cheated the young man out of what was rightfully his. Ultimately, it came down to one person’s word against another person’s word, and, well, whom would the public believe?

A famous rock star or Charles Manson?

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