The Beach Boys saga has always haunted the American imagination because of the family bond at the heart of it: the three Wilson brothers – tortured genius Brian, shy Carl, madman drummer Dennis – and their abusive dad, thrown together in a surf band with their flashy cousin. Part of the poignancy is Brian Wilson versus Mike Love – two California boys who never should have been in the same room, much less trapped together for life. Wilson and Love both have excellent new memoirs, telling the story from opposite perspectives. Since Beach Boys fans are fiercely tribal – hardcore Brianistas dismiss Love as a mercenary clod riding his cousins’ coattails – both books are musts, not to mention guaranteed argument-starters.
I Am Brian Wilson is soulful and earnest – like spending quality time with a gentle sage with an endearingly erratic attention span. It jumps chaotically all over the timeline. Wilson is heartbreakingly blunt about his mental breakdowns and suffering at the hands of his father. He has startling insights into the music, as with the obscure early tune “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister,” which comes back to haunt him in middle age: “Maybe it’s because it was a song about protection and I felt scared that no one was protecting me.” Through it all, he remains a frightened kid who connects to the world mainly through music. “Songs are out there all the time, but they can’t be made without people,” he writes. “You have to do your job and help songs come into existence.”
As for his singer – well, as Wilson writes, “Mike had a funny way of looking at things.” Good Vibrations is exactly the Mike Love book you’d hope for – he revels in his image as one of rock’s unrepentant assholes. As he notes with pride, “For those who believe that Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.” He doesn’t care if you like him or not – what he cares about is settling scores and nursing grudges. Good Vibrations is one of the most gleefully petty rock memoirs ever – it ranks up there with Morrissey’s Autobiography when it comes to the airing of grievances.
Love boasts about how much money he made suing Wilson for defamation the last time he published a memoir, though he insists he wouldn’t stoop to actually reading the whole book. He’s had it up to here with “Brian’s hagiographers and sycophants” – he sees himself as the band’s leader. Most rock memoirs get boring when they start talking lawsuits, but for Love this is the surf’s-up part: Litigation is his happy place. Depositions are his Kokomo, cross-examinations his Aruba. One highlight comes when he’s choosing a lawyer to sue Wilson: “His willingness to help me was a revelation, but we still needed to do our astrological vetting.” Fortunately, Love’s astrologer approves the lawyer because “in the twelfth House of Justice he has an exalted Jupiter.”
The constant family betrayals add up – at one point, the 36-year-old Dennis impregnates one of his teenage daughter’s friends. She happens to be Love’s 17-year-old daughter. (They split just a few months after their wedding, before Dennis drowned.) In a depressing scene, Brian attends Love’s wedding, where Carl sings “God Only Knows”; Love’s best man is the lawyer who’s just deposed Brian for 17 days.
If you were hoping either book would make you feel warm and fuzzy about the Beach Boys – well, wouldn’t it be nice? But neither is watered-down product. Both are full of pain. For Love, the injustice is how the world still feels so much affection for Wilson in all his fragile humanity. I saw a Wilson show this summer where he spaced on the second verse of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” He chuckled and said, “Oh, I forgot the words.” The crowd sang it for him until he figured out where to come in for the chorus. It could have been a pitiful moment; instead, it was suffused with warmth. That’s a moment I won’t forget – there isn’t a moment like it in Love’s book. How can such troubled men create such beautiful music? God only knows.