Gary Steel surveys two new biographies by two old foes from the Beach Boys – Brian Wilson (genius) and Mike Love (asshole), and finds the asshole’s book is better.
In the left corner, the drug-fucked genius, the Bach of modern pop: BRIAN WILSON! In the right corner, the craven villain that everyone loves to hate, the man who stole the Beach Boys: Brian’s cousin, MIKE LOVE!
First, let’s hear it for the Beach Boys. Were they the first proper boy band? When they first broke big, they were all teens, and Brian Wilson’s brother Carl (the one with the really great voice) was a mere 15 years old. They were all family, managed by their tyrannical dad Murry, apart from Mike Love, Brian’s close boyhood friend and cousin.
They looked like squares and they never had the hip cachet of the band they considered their real competition, the Beatles. On the other hand, they were capable of realising a unique take on art pop (“In My Room”, “God Only Knows” etc) that was, and still is, simply unassailable.
In fact, there’s a case to be made for the Beach Boys having created art pop. While the Beatles laid the foundations for the British progressive rock phenomenon on post-tour albums like Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, the Beach Boys were forging an equally studio-bound sound that – while hugely indebted to various strands of the so-called Great American Songbook and inspired by Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”– presented a new, skewed version of American pop music.
The legend of Wilson as pop’s eccentric genius grew legs in the mid-70s. The story was just too rich. It cast Wilson as a missing-in-action legend, a drug casualty whose greatest work had been resisted by both the record company and uncomprehending idiots from within the band itself. Especially cousin Mike Love.
This careful manipulation of the facts enabled Wilson’s stature to grow, and his work within the Beach Boys to attain mythic status, while the so-called post-Wilson years were for many years viewed as almost worthless, and commercially dire. It’s a distortion that has seen some of the group’s best work obscured, and iconic albums like Pet Sounds elevated to a level that beggars belief. Pet Sounds is simply the result of Wilson taking the reins, and getting in hired guns to forge an orchestrated pop that acknowledged they were no longer teens. It may be the Beach Boys masterpiece, simply because Wilson’s autocratic drive made it sound of a piece, and it’s true that the 1966 album takes the group’s pop music to a new level. But there’s a recalibrated assessment to be made of their subsequent work.
The canonisation of Wilson at Love’s expense, and the other members of the Beach Boys, is dependent on ignoring the often sublime work found on the clutch of albums they made between 1967 and 1973, on which the leader became a bit-part actor.
Wilson’s withdrawal from normal group participation ended with the absurd spectacle of its leader being ousted. On top of that, Mike Love sued Wilson over missing songwriting credits on Beach Boys songs, and won. The result was a vilification of Mike Love through Brian Wilson-loyal music media that resulted in the group’s on-stage front man becoming perhaps the most hated character in pop, with screeds of anti-Love press asserting his essential worthlessness as a musician, songwriter and human being.
It’s easy to buy into the Love hate, because it’s everywhere, and he does sometimes seem to have acted like a complete dick.
The first page of his memoir, Good Vibrations – My Life As A Beach Boy made me want to punch him in the face, just because of the self-righteous way he tries to ram home his positivity. There’s something about Love’s gleeful self-belief in the face of the massive dysfunction of his group that grates, but really, he’s just like the nerd at school who gets picked on by everyone. You know the guy, the irritating know-it-all who you can’t even work up enough compassion to protect from the bullies because he’s just too annoying.
That’s Love’s personality quirk, but he’s really not the villain in the Beach Boys story. In Good Vibrations, Love tells his story clearly and concisely, and aside from the odd irruption into smugness, it’s a great read that provides real insight on one of the most fucked-up band histories of all time.
There’s a sense that Love is always on duty, has a great head for detail and broader evocation, and surprisingly, he’s even occasionally apologetic about his behaviour over the years. The sadness that comes through repeatedly is the derailing of his close friendship with his cousin Brian. Love leaves his harshest words for Brian’s violent father (and the group’s original manager) Murry, and the cabal of miscellaneous “protectors” (wives, psychologists, lawyers) who he feels have driven a firm wedge between the old boy buddies. Is he delusional? Possibly. The whole book, in a sense, is like a love song to Brian Wilson, a song he’s been singing for decades, but to which Wilson just ain’t listening.
Good Vibrations gets a bit bogged down as the story of the group gets stretched out beyond its natural life; in the 80s and 90s it becomes a series of one-off dates and nostalgia tours and those interminable law suits. The legal details are necessary, however, because they disentangle the tabloid media coverage from the facts. Anyone who has demonised Love for fighting Wilson for the rights to the band name, for instance, should read this.
It all gets stranger than fiction when Love co-writes (amazingly, with Scott McKenzie and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas) the song “Kokomo” about a fictional island off the coast of Florida, and has the biggest ever Beach Boys hit with a track that “genius” Brian Wilson had absolutely nothing to do with. Hilariously, having belatedly heard (and loved) the song, in his memoir Brian admits that he asked his bemused driver to take him to Kokomo.
Out of it, and out to lunch. That’s I Am Brian Wilson, more a series of random reminiscences than a genuine autobiography.
Where Love’s accounts are detailed, mostly first-hand and helpfully sequential, Wilson’s book comes at the reader in random bursts and (acid?) flashbacks. This overly simplistic and often cloyingly sentimental book is short on detail, leaves many questions unanswered, and is really only of use to those myth-builders and sycophants who want to read some old dude being interviewed about his creative process and inspirations. As Brian notes: “Sometimes it’s pieces of pictures. It’s hard to get back to where you were, you know?”
It’s a theme he repeats later on in disconcerting phrases like: “Time jumps around so much that it’s hard to remember exactly what happened!”
And really, that’s not surprising, because from late 1964 through to the mid-90s Wilson spiralled out of control via drugs and alcohol into serious mental illness. He was there, but he wasn’t there, for much of the action. His description of his years under the control of Hollywood psychotherapist Landy make for disturbing reading, but mostly for what Wilson can’t remember. It all comes across like a fogged-up nightmare in black and white. There’s the odd staggering detail, but Wilson was so drugged-up during those years that perhaps only (the now-deceased) Landy could have given an accurate insight.
If there is any revelation here, it’s Wilson’s acknowledgment of the mental illness from which he’ll never fully recover. From the mid-‘60s onwards, he’s heard voices in his head: “They’re saying horrible things about my music. Your music is no damned good, Brian. Get to work, Brian. You’re falling behind, Brian. Sometimes they just skip the music and go right for me. We’re coming for you, Brian. This is the end, Brian. We’re going to kill you, Brian.”
In a way, the least interesting but most poignant sections detail his daily life: the fact that he gets up and does the same thing every day, sits in the same chair for hours at a time, watches the same trash shows on television: “I love watching Eyewitness News. The content is not very good, but the newscasters are pleasant to watch. They have nice personalities. They also give you the weather.”
For the most part incoherent sprawl, I Am Brian Wilson does conjure up a few good lines and a few pungent observations and memories from the fog: that he was a huge fan of the Walter Carlos synthesiser record Switched-On Bach, that this meat-mad carnivore briefly ran a health food store called Radiant Radish in 1969. He also explains some personal peculiarities, like the lopsided way he talks. I had assumed it was from the many years of prescription medications, but he puts it down to the deafness in his right ear, and pushing the sound out of his mouth towards the ear that could hear.
Possibly the most standout revelation however, is that one of the percussion sounds on the song “Vega-Tables” was Paul McCartney chewing celery. But I jest. The most revealing sections are Wilson’s interminable descriptions of the best steaks and pizzas he’s ever eaten. Or maybe that in the 80s, with a chin that made him look like a “turkey gobbler”, Brian got a facelift.
He does eventually get into the two most difficult subjects, Landy and his dad, but while he turns the screws on Landy, surprisingly, he gives Murry Wilson a free pass for having pushed the Beach Boys to success, despite the fact that “he could be brutal and belittle me and sometimes even make me regret that I was alive.” What comes through both the Wilson and Love accounts is that Brian, despite his fragile grip on reality, is very much son of the father. There’s an ironclad autocrat behind the madness, driving the Beach Boys through hundreds of sometimes humiliating takes on the thwarted Smile project. In his book, Love admits to having nicknamed Wilson as “the Stalin of the studio”, and bemoans having had to do bizarre things like “lie on our backs, with a microphone above us, and make guttural sounds.”
It’s also a pity that Wilson believes the hype, claiming that: “Al wrote songs. Mike hummed things he heard and tried to turn them into something. But there was something deep down in there [me] that wasn’t in other people.”
I Am Brian Wilson does do one service for all potential Beach Boys fans however, and stands up for the stunning sequence of post-Smile albums starting with Smiley Smile in 1967 and ending with Carl & The Passions So Tough in 1972. Wilson may have been off his nut, but the dark days of the late 70s and 80s were still far off, and those deliriously great albums benefited from being bereft of Wilson’s bossiness and obsessive production. While the unreleased Smile (a version of which was finally released in 2011) was one of the most expensive albums of its day, and took many months of gruelling sessions before Wilson got tangled up in edits and trashed the project, its follow-ups carried none of that oppressive weight, and were spontaneous sun-drenched jewels of kaftan-wearing Californian pop.
Smiley Smile, for instance, took some of the wackier sequences from Smile and recast them in Wilson’s home studio. Wild Honey from the same year made the group sound like a garage band performing in a country barn, and was a real delight. Even Charles Manson’s “Cease To Exist” (recast as “Never Learn Not To Love”) appearing on Sunflower couldn’t kill the optimistic vibe, and Brian was still around, contributing songs and singing, just not hogging the spotlight.
Sadly, Mike Love gives these albums relatively short shrift in his book, despite his prominence as a singer and lyric writer, seemingly out of disappointment at their commercial failure. To Love, the success of “Kokomo” meant all, despite the fact that few Beach Boys connoisseurs would rate it as one of their better songs.
Surprisingly, Wilson is mostly kind to Mike Love in his book, complimenting him on his singing and crediting him with some excellent lyric writing in their frequent collaborations, so it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where the enmity comes from, apart from the most likely probability that, like so many young men in rock groups, they just got fucking sick of the sight of each other. Or at least, Wilson wanted to work with lyricists like Van Dyke Parks, whose view of the world was rather more abstract.
In Good Vibrations, Mike Love describes himself as reformed sex and blow addict, whose interests (apart from the everlasting Beach Boys tour) centre around Transcendental Meditation and ecology. Often cast as a political conservative because of an infamous shot shaking Ronald Reagan’s hand, he claims otherwise (interestingly, during the recent US presidential campaign, he was caught shaking Trump’s hand). Love would have us believe that his interests are progressive, and it’s certainly true that he was the only Beach Boy on that famous Beatles-meet-the-Maharishi trip to India in 1967, and he did write ecologically aware songs for the group before most music fans even knew that ecology was a thing.
Love doesn’t spare many details, providing information about a day of seemingly endless sex with different women, a subsequent “leakage” and a trip to the doctor. Some of his stories are humorous, others speckled with barely repressed venom. There’s also his revelation that Brian’s brother Dennis, the group’s drummer, who got close to the Manson Family, actually saw Manson commit murder.
I get the feeling that in conversation, Love would call a spade a spade, maybe even coming across as hostile, but I liked him for his honesty, seeming full disclosure, and the fact that unlike Wilson, he’s modest about his modest talent.
Of course, I can already hear the answer many would have to that: Because he don’t got any!
Good Vibrations: My Life As A Beach Boy (Faber, $32.99 ) by Mike Love and I Am Brian Wilson (Coronet, $49.99) by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman.