on Good Vibrations by Mike Love (Blue Rider Press) and I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson (Da Capo)
There are at least two audiences for the new autobiographies by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. The first comprises Boomers who still buy tickets to hear the aged Beach Boys sing “California Girls” and want to linger over their idols. The second group ruminates over the Beach Boys’ significance and puzzling discography. Love’s Good Vibrations: My Life As A Beach Boy and Wilson’s I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir offer something for both audiences.
Love’s chronological memoir, underscoring his part in the music-making and maintenance of group sanity, manages to restrain his bitterness. It took almost 30 years before the courts recognized his role as the lyricist/co-writer of “Good Vibrations.” He retells the story of their fame: the three Wilson brothers – Brian (b. 1942), Dennis (b. 1944) and Carl (b. 1946) of Hawthorne, California – were flogged by their tyrannical father-manager after the release of their debut album in 1961. The music literally came out of the Wilson household with Brian channeling Chuck Berry’s updated blues riffs into “Surfin’ USA.” Their cousin Mike Love and high school buddy Al Jardine had filled out the band.
A string of hits about fast cars, pretty girls and surfing (only Dennis knew how to surf) made the Beach Boys America’s top pop group. Then in late 1964, Brian had a breakdown during a flight and began hearing voices, leading to his LSD-spiced Pet Sounds (1966) and the unfinished SMiLE. After this came a long stretch of demise and attempts to revive “girls we knew when their hair was soft and long / and the beach was the place to go.” In 1973, Warner Brothers rejected the first version of Holland because it lacked a viable single – forcing the creation of “Sail On Sailor,” written mainly by Van Dyke Parks with a lead vocal by Blondie Chaplin. Who were the Beach Boys at this point?
Music journalists have already picked apart the music and private ordeals of the players. But the autobiographies, aside from exploiting Boomers’ Social Security checks, eerily suggest deeply rooted cultural and personal pathologies – the chasm between Southern California surfing music and social turmoil on the ground, and the weird gap between Brian’s solitary “genius” and the decades-long exploitation of “Fun Fun Fun.”
I Am Brian Wilson begins with Brian’s daily routine: “When I wake up these days here in my house in Beverly Hills, I head down the back staircase to the den. That’s where the TV is, and also my chair.” He sits in the chair. He watches TV. The lyrics to “In My Room” come to mind – and it seems Brian has always been holed up in his confines, hearing a melody when lucky. His rambling narrative keeps everyone as mystified as he is about the sources of his creativity. He still can’t quite explain why he permitted a dictatorial psychiatrist to control his life for years.
When Brian drifted away into himself or spent too much time perfecting his tracks, others stepped in to keep the Beach Boys machine running. On July 8, 1968, one month after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the Beach Boys produced “Do It Again” as a single, spurred by Mike Love – a track that sounds like a commercial for themselves. Capitol Records wanted more surfin’ music and fewer Wilson genius mixes. For his masterwork Pet Sounds, Wilson had permitted the inclusion of his rendition of “Sloop John B,” a traditional Bahamian song that had been collected by Carl Sandburg in 1927 and preserved in a 1935 field recording. Capitol exploited it and the album’s other singles – “Wouldn’t It be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Caroline No” – but let the album itself languish. Released in May, Pet Sounds reached #10 – and was quickly outsold by Capitol’s July release of Best of the Beach Boys which hit #8.
“Do It Again” had been created, recorded and released in just six weeks. It reached #20 on the U.S. Billboard chart and peaked at #1 in the U.K. and Australia. America was in turmoil that summer after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., the violence at the Democratic convention, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, and the outset of the military draft. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys trotted out a summertime feel-good track echoing music they had supposedly grown out of. White kids from the suburbs who had slow-danced at the gym to “Little Surfer Girl” were now tripping to “Foxy Lady,” believing the Beach Boys had also made a transition when in 1967 they produced their psychedelic-inflected single “Good Vibrations.” It was included on their LP SMiLE, which like Pet Sounds few hippies cared about then. Even so, I can tell you where I was the moment I heard Carl Wilson sing “God Only Knows” for the first time.
In Good Vibrations, Love alternately associates their music with events of the times and admits to the music’s oblivious exclusivity. Wilson emphasizes the power of harmony – yet the music, radiating naïveté, was never harmonious with adult experience. In a 1967 interview, Wilson said, "I think rock n' roll – the pop scene – is happening. It’s great. But I think basically, the Beach Boys are squares. We’re not happening." That’s a truth that would have made promising starting points for the autobiographies.
The musicians' tragedies heighten the sense of disparity between the music and the conditions of lived life. Love's telling of Dennis Wilson's involvement with Charles Manson puts the Wilsons in harrowing perspective with the creepy, ungroovy underbelly of L.A in the 60's. Dennis' spiral into drug dependency ended in death in 1983. Carl Wilson died of cancer in 1998.
Brian Wilson wrote the melody for “Wouldn’t It be Nice” when he was 23 years old. In I Am Brian Wilson, he says about the song, “There’s nothing like being a kid before you see that life is going to force you to deal with certain things … What would it feel like when you didn’t have to ask your parents for permission to be with a girl?” Although the lyric was written by Tony Asher (Mike Love sued successfully in 1994, claiming he had contributed), the air of delayed development is pure Brian – and ultimately, a certain strain of American dreaming.
[Good Vibrations, published September 13, 2016, 436 pages, $28.00 hardcover. I Am Brian Wilson, Published October 11, 2016, 307 pages, $26.99 hardcover]