Book review: ‘I am Brian Wilson’ by Brian Wilson and ‘Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy’ by Mike Love (2016)

When Mike Love described Brian Wilson’s masterwork Pet Sounds as “Brian’s ego music”, he set himself up as one of pop culture’s ultimate heals, the philistine who lucked into a golden age and complained about how yellow everything looked. While his bandmate (and cousin) has long been cast as the tragic hero, Love has occupied the role of the moustache-twirling villain, the crass opportunist to Wilson’s wounded artistic genius.

Love writes about a pronounced split in the Beach Boys fanbase between those who prefer Brian’s innovation and sophistication and “the masses” attracted to the more straightforward nostalgia of his version of the group, which continues today with Love as the only remaining original member.

This schism dates back to Pet Sounds, the greatest pop album ever. The shadow that work cast hangs over both these memoirs; I Am Brian Wilson even utilises its familiar Cooper Black font. For Wilson, it set a benchmark he could never live up to and coincided with his withdrawal from touring life. In Love’s version of events, the record’s relative commercial failure and Brian’s increasing drug use signalled an end of the wholesome early version of the band.

As suggested by the oddly declarative title, I Am Brian Wilson foregrounds Wilson’s take on events which are already much-publicised and analysed. He has worked with a ghostwriter, but anyone who has seen his spectacular solo shows or seen him interviewed will recognise the voice immediately: vulnerable, faltering, pained, unexpectedly funny.  He describes the narrative as “a music story and a family story and a love story, but (it’s) a story of mental illness, too”.

There’s a lot of pain here, from the abuse he suffered at the hands of a cruel father to the pressure he put on himself to his years as the virtual captive of a quack psychotherapist, Dr. Landy, who he remembers as “a tyrant who controlled one person”. Yet there is a candour and even a childlike openness to how he describes the battling voices in his head and the self-doubt and self-imposed pressure which led to him abandoning the ambitious, visionary Smile project, which was originally conceived in 1966 and eventually revisited and completed in 2004.

While Love usually only features in Wilson’s book in connection with some legal action or other he is launching, Brian is a constant feature in Good Vibrations, with Love trying numerous angles to dislodge him from his position as a figure of pathos and empathy, the wayward genius fighting a losing battle with his demons.

Other times, Love too closely resembles the drunk uncle at a wedding whose speech has rambled on too long and worked a little too blue. He revisits his infamous, ranting speech at the group’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and blames his sourness on that occasion at not having meditated that day.

Elsewhere, he is content to throw shade at Wilson’s achievements, with the glorious ‘God Only Knows’ (named by Paul McCartney as his favourite ever song) perfunctorily described as “one of the album’s most celebrated numbers” and the haunting ‘Til I Die’ is only mentioned as evidence of “Brian’s gloom”. His co-written kitsch monster ‘Kokomo’, however, is poured over like it was the Zapruder film.

Love’s moments of finger-wagging anger and self-serving revisionism do sit alongside some fascinating details, like his account of writing the lyrics for ‘California Girls’ and recording the song’s heavenly harmonies and counter-harmonies. He had to sue the rest of the band for his contributions to that song (and others) to be recognised, a point he makes with some insistence.

Ridiculous as it often is, Love’s outsider perspective is undeniably fascinating and sometimes his rage is well justified. In contrast, Wilson’s memoir has a weepily beautiful mellowness and a real poignancy that shines through the acrimony and wasted years.

One cannot help but be moved as he describes the redemptive, celebratory mood of his latter-day return to the live sphere and his view of creativity as something hallowed and elusive. Most memorably, he likens song writing to catching goldfish in your hands: “They dart one way and you see a little flash of orange, but you don’t really know whether they’re coming or going”.

 

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