Three Books For Every (Beach) Boy…

You wait all your life for an autobiography by a member of a classic surf vocal group, and then three come along all at once. Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy by Mike Love with James S Hirsch was released a month ago today; Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story by Dean Torrence (with a foreword by Love) came out a week later; and then today I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman came out.

I saved reviewing these until all three came out, because they’re rather more interesting to compare and contrast than any of them are as books individually.

Before going any further, I want to make something clear — when I talk about the three authors here, I am talking about the persona they (and in two cases their co-authors) have chosen to portray in their books. NOTHING I say should be taken as a judgement on them as real people. In the case of the two co-authored books I don’t even know what proportion of the book is actually in the words of its subject. So when I say “Wilson seems to be…” or “Love thinks…”, that’s *my impression of a character who may or may not bear any resemblance to the real person*.

All three books tell the same basic story –going to high school in Southern California in the late fifties, forming a vocal group with high school friends (and, in the Beach Boys’ case, family members), huge success at a young age, coming to a disastrous end in 1966, rebuilding popularity as a nostalgia act… it’s a familiar story to anyone who is at all likely to buy any of these books, and truth be told none of them contain very much that’s going to surprise anyone.

And what’s surprising is how similar the books are in many ways, particularly in the assessments of the other participants. Dennis Wilson was impossible not to love even though every description of his actual actions sounds like he was an utter monster, Jan Berry was Dennis Wilson if he’d been a supergenius, Carl Wilson was impossible to get to know and a very serious person, a mediator between warring factions, Al Jardine is a great singer and can hold a grudge for decades, and Bruce Johnston exists.

(Seriously, one of the odd things about all of these books is how little any of these men have to say about some of the people they’ve worked with off and on for fifty or sixty years. I’d *really* like to see a Bruce Johnston autobiography, as he’s almost like Zelig).

Torrence’s book is, in many ways, the weakest of the three. Torrence had very limited creative input into his records, and so there’s very little about the process of making them, with the years the duo were successful being skimmed over, mostly in anecdote form (the time he pretended to Dennis Wilson that he’d stolen $10,000 from a promoter, the time he played football with Elvis). Quite understandably, but annoyingly for the reader, he devotes only a few pages to the decades of touring he did with Jan Berry when Berry was severely disabled due to brain damage after his near-fatal car crash. He doesn’t mention, *at all*, his one major creative contribution to Jan & Dean, the rather good solo album, Save For A Rainy Day he recorded and released under the Jan & Dean name to keep the name alive while Berry was unable to function. And his peripheral involvement in the Frank Sinatra jr. kidnapping is dismissed in two sentences — “It’s a long story, but, one of the guys is writing a book about it. Anyone who wants to, can check it out when the book gets published.”
So it’s a very light book, not really offering much insight. But its greatest flaw is also its greatest asset.

The other two books are ghostwritten, which means essentially that they were written by journalists, based on extensive interview transcripts. Torrence’s book, by contrast, seems to be entirely his own text. This is an important difference, because spoken and written English are almost two different media, and transcribed speech doesn’t work particularly well in printed form. While Torrence isn’t the world’s greatest prose stylist, he’s competent, and the result is extremely readable. It’s the best *written* of the three books.

But unfortunately one gets the impression that the book hasn’t had an editor or fact-checker at all. Names, for example, are constantly misspelled — Ray “Pulmon”, “Murray” Wilson, Tom “Hewlett”. Elvis’ manager is “The General”. And it’s not even consistent — Stan “Freeberg” turns up on page 109 while he’s Stan “Freeburg” on p133 (his actual surname was Freberg).

One thing Torrence’s book shares with Wilson’s, though, is a generosity of spirit. Torrence could probably have made his book much more fascinating by talking about the difficulties of his relationship with Berry in great detail, but other than an impatience with his cocaine habit in the early 80s, there’s nothing there. He prefers to focus on Berry’s good points, as is his right.

Likewise, no-one — other than the monstrous “Doctor” Landy — comes off badly in Wilson’s book, which if nothing else is exemplary in its graciousness. There are people discussed in the book who are (according to fan rumour in some cases, and their own statements in others) permanently on the outs with Wilson and the people around him. They’re all talked about entirely positively, and thanked in the acknowledgements.

His notoriously fractious relationship with Love is only discussed in passing, as are the end of the 2012 reunion tour and Love’s litigiousness, while Love’s vocal and lyrical talents are praised. Everyone’s his friend, or his buddy, and astonishingly talented. Some of this seems to be conflict aversion and a distaste for talking about unpleasantness — there are bits when discussing his working relationship with Joe Thomas during the recording of Imagination where he’s clearly upset by Thomas’ dominance in those sessions, but where he’s also clearly eager not to dwell on that. But most of it seems to be a genuine wish to see the best in everyone.

This is most obvious in the chapter, Fathers & Sons, that deals most with Wilson’s abusive father, Murry. Murry Wilson was, in many ways, an utter monster. Yet Wilson has always, throughout his life, been at great pains to emphasise the positive aspects of his father. Some of this, it is painfully clear, is the standard reaction of the abused child, to make excuses for their abuser. But it’s seen throughout the whole book in smaller ways, and it becomes clear that Wilson is, fundamentally, just someone who doesn’t like to say — or possibly think — bad things about anyone. He talks at one point about C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves being a favourite book of his, and how impressed he was by Lewis’ writing about charity, and the whole book is a very charitable one.

One gets the impression from the book, too, that Wilson is a fundamentally simple person. Not in a pejorative sense, but the portrait of his life as it is now is very detailed, and mostly consists of him watching Wheel Of Fortune, going to the deli, and jokingly tricking family members into giving him sweet food he’s not meant to eat on his diet. The “greatest day of his life” was when he went with Jeff Foskett and his friend Ray to see the current touring Four Freshmen, and had a Margarita.

But while the book has been promoted as being about Wilson’s struggle to overcome his problems, he’s (unsurprisingly) vague about much of the detail there. On the other hand, there’s all sorts of detail about the music in this book which is absolutely fascinating, particularly in less-well-covered aspects of his career. I was gratified to see that my own guess in The Beach Boys On CD Vol 2 as to the confused origin of Sail On Sailor (“One suspects that Wilson brought his initial idea to several different collaborators, at different times, without necessarily thinking to mention to them that he was working with other people”) is largely accurate — he talks about writing the song with Ray Kennedy, and then later Van Dyke Parks bringing him an idea which he “turned into” the earlier song.

We also learn that he thinks Al Jardine’s finest vocal is on The Beaks Of Eagles (a song he talks about a few times), and that his original conception for Mount Vernon & Fairway was to have it be *much* longer and have the Prince hear several whole songs on his transistor radio — the Beach Boys doing cover versions of old fifties hits.

There’s a surprising amount of detail on the creation of That Lucky Old Sun, as well, including one interesting thing I didn’t know — he’d asked Mike Love to rewrite the lyrics for Mexican Girl, and Love said he could (and he’d make it “twenty-five percent better”), but he wasn’t going to because he didn’t want to write lyrics for finished tracks, but only to collaborate on new material (the same complaint he had four years later about the Beach Boys’ reunion album).

That lack of collaboration is also mentioned, quite a bit, in Love’s book.

Unlike the other two, Love is on the defensive, understandably given his reputation as Satan incarnate. A great deal of the book is given over to providing counterarguments against various negative portrayals of him. Most of this is explicit (like him going into great detail about how he never said “don’t fuck with the formula” and how he doesn’t believe he’s responsible for Smile going unfinished), but some is implicit.

In particular, he never directly brings up the rumours that have gone round for years (never, I hasten to add, with any substantiation) that he’s racist, but a lot of the book seems nonetheless to be a defence against the claim, starting in the first few pages with a cringeworthy anecdote about using the n word around his black high school friends and being accepted doing so because he was such great friends with them all, and his discussion of how much he likes R&B. As you read through the book you notice that there are tons of anecdotes about his great friendships with all his Great Showbiz Mates — and that with the exception of Deepak Chopra, all these Great Showbiz Mates are dead, and with the exception of George Harrison, almost all the dead ones (Richard Pryor, Mohammed Ali, Marvin Gaye…) were black. Once you notice the pattern, it starts to seem a bit like the “The Chinese; a great bunch of lads” speech from Father Ted.

But while Love does defend himself, at length, against charges he thinks unfair, he is also *very* willing to admit to other flaws in his behaviour, particularly as a younger man, and especially in his relationships with women and with his children. He is painfully honest at points about his own flaws. A recurring motif in the book is “the switchblade and the butterfly” — his acknowledgement that as a teenager he would carry a switchblade knife and brass knuckles around, but also loved to go for walks in the countryside looking at butterflies.

He seems to have mellowed a *lot* in the last couple of decades, whether due to his age, the influence of his wife, or both, but the portrait he paints of himself in his twenties and thirties is of someone who was verbally and physically aggressive, and who seems to justify at least a quarter of the bad things people have said about him. But he *also* seems genuinely remorseful for his behaviour, and for the most part one comes out of the book thinking of him in the way one thinks of a cranky, curmudgeonly, but charming old relative who one loves despite themself.

The one exception is when he talks about Brian Wilson.

Now this is difficult to get across, and is going to sound weird. But… in large part the book reads almost like the writing of a jilted lover. He seems genuinely, fervently, desperately to love his cousin, and to be hurt that there’s a wedge between them — even as he is also, obviously, bitterly resentful of the cult of personality around him.

In particular, there’s a weird, weird, tension between mental health denialism and a resentment of Wilson’s wife Melinda, who he sees as controlling, as coming between them, and as being the reason the two of them can’t just sit down and write songs in the same room any more (Wilson, in his book, says he just doesn’t like to write that way any more, and likes to discover music in the studio). He believes that Melinda Wilson is in control of Brian — yet at the same time he also believes that Brian Wilson was fully responsible for a great injustice that Love has resented for the last fifty years.

Murry Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ abusive father, ran their publishing company, Sea Of Tunes. He screwed his own sons out of millions (in legal manoeuvring described in more detail in Love’s book than I’ve seen anywhere else — Love’s book is, as one might expect, very good on the details of lawsuits, trials, and contracts, and a very useful source for that), but he also made sure that on a lot of songs to which Love contributed, he received neither credit nor money, with all of both going to Brian Wilson. This required Brian’s signature on some documents, and Love thinks that this proves he was complicit in his father’s theft.

And he seems to think this because he seems to dismiss — in every case *except* when Brian is being “controlled” by Melinda not to work with Love any more — any idea that anyone could have any undue influence or control over Brian Wilson at all. He seems fundamentally just not to understand the nature of Wilson’s illness. Personally, I have no trouble at all believing that a naive, conflict-averse, young man in the early stages of schizoaffective disorder, when told to sign documents by his domineering, abusive, father whom he nonetheless trusts has his best interests at heart, would sign them without understanding the implications.

Love, on the other hand, is insistent that Wilson was fully responsible for these actions, which he sees as a great betrayal.

But the complete lack of understanding or empathy towards Wilson’s illness actually makes the whole thing seem even sadder. Love clearly believes that Brian Wilson is still the young man who was closer to him than his own siblings, and doesn’t grasp on a fundamental level that Wilson’s mental health should have an effect on his behaviour and their relationship. It’s terribly, terribly, sad to see.

Love’s book is a very, very, strange mixture of self-justification and self-flagellation, of self-awareness and utter cluelessness, often in the same sentence. Despite how it may appear above, I actually finished the book liking Love slightly more than I did when I started it, and understanding him a lot more. It’s the book of someone who started out as an unpleasant person, who has tried hard to become a better one and largely, but not wholly, succeeded, and who has less self-knowledge than he thinks.

None of these books are essential, all are readable. If I had to choose one, I’d choose Wilson’s book, but I suspect the value of all three will be as source material for future Beach Boys biographies (I doubt there’ll be many more Jan and Dean ones — Mark Passmore’s book is as good as we’re going to get there, I think). But as someone with an obsession with this music, I’m very glad to have read all of them, flawed as they all are.

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