Despite a bounty of hits that have endured long past the surf-sun-cars-girls era in which they were created, and at least one album widely regarded as a masterpiece, the Beach Boys story is inseparable from turmoil and tragedy.
Now two key figures in the band who have often been pitted against each other both in the courtroom and in public perception – Brian Wilson and his cousin Mike Love – have emerged with memoirs that offer conflicting histories of one of America’s most revered bands and their contributions to it.
In many ways, they play into the roles that have been assigned them by historians: Wilson as the “troubled musical genius” nearly done in by drugs and mental illness who finally settles into a modicum of late-career stability and productivity; Love as the hard-driving, commercially minded singer and lyricist who kept the Beach Boys and their “brand” afloat for decades no matter whom he had to litigate against or how many cheesy songs like “Kokomo” he had to write.
Wilson’s book (written with journalist Ben Greenman) documents scattered memories and streamlines them into a series of impressions and anecdotes. Love’s memoir (written with journalist James S. Hirsch) provides more chronology, context and factual information, underlined by a sense of score-settling while quoting extensively from court hearings and business meetings.
Previous books about the band have been far kinder in assessing Wilson’s contribution to the Beach Boys legacy than Love’s. The band’s most revered album, “Pet Sounds,” is essentially regarded as Wilson’s masterpiece, with Love and the rest of the group (including Wilson’s brothers, Carl and Dennis) reduced to supporting roles. Love spends most of his book trying to make the case for his contributions to the band, while acknowledging the futility: “For those who believe Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.”
Love’s enemies list is long. It starts with his uncle and the Wilson brothers’ father, Murry Wilson, who managed and produced the band when the family started harmonizing together in Hawthorne, Calif., in the early ‘60s. The list also includes Beach Boys biographer David Leaf and music executive David Anderle, who are singled out for driving the narrative that Love undermined Wilson’s efforts to expand the Beach Boys sound in the late ‘60s. And there is Wilson’s second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, who is portrayed as a meddler who scuttled Love and Wilson’s attempted reconciliation and cut short a Beach Boys reunion tour a few years ago.
Love describes Murry Wilson as “a violent blowhard” who mentally and physically abused his sons, particularly Brian, who was the oldest and most musically gifted. But Love is most aggrieved that his uncle, who also controlled the band’s publishing during its most successful era, gave sole credit to Brian for writing songs such as “Be True to Your School” and “California Girls.” In 1994, Love sued Wilson for publishing royalties, and was later awarded millions of dollars.
In his memoir, Wilson says Love was like a third brother to him when they were growing up. He doesn’t dwell on the growing distance between them in recent decades, and doesn’t dispute his former partner’s songwriting claims. His tone regarding Love: Been there, done that. “Mike was Mike,” Wilson writes in laughing off a late-career attempt at collaboration that goes awry. “You can’t wallow in the mire.”
Wilson is far more thoughtful about and critical of his father’s mood swings and his mishandling of the Beach Boys’ publishing. He also credits Murry with opening doors and pushing the band to its limits, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Without his father’s insistence, “nothing would have happened,” Wilson writes. Yet he does not attend Murry’s funeral in 1973, at a time when his drug addiction was consuming him.
A few controlling figures overshadow Wilson’s life for decades – first his father, then the psychotherapist Eugene Landy. The Wilson of the ‘70s and ‘80s is an increasingly paranoid, depressed, obese, drug-impaired recluse who would spend days hiding from the world in bed.
A third, more positive figure enters his life in the late ‘80s. Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter at a car dealership and they fall in love. She helps extricate him from Landy’s control after Wilson leaves her a desperate note at the dealership containing three words: “Frightened, scared, lonely.” Wilson marries Melinda in 1995 and praises her for bringing a sense of stability and security to his life and helping him heal old wounds. But the rift with the man who once had been his best friend and closest songwriting collaborator remains.
The years in which Wilson produced his most ambitious recordings, 1966 and ‘67, also planted the seeds of his physical and mental decline, and fractured his relationship with Love.
After a nervous breakdown while on tour in 1964 during the height of the Beach Boys’ fame, Wilson retired from the road to write and produce music while the rest of the band played concerts around the world. He began working with outside collaborators, notably a jingles writer named Tony Asher who would help Wilson craft lyrics for “Pet Sounds.” The album’s introspective tone and lush orchestrations were a departure from the Beach Boys’ more direct and upbeat style. When Love returned home to work on the vocals with the rest of the group, he was not impressed: “No sound was too precious,” he writes of the lengthy recording sessions. “I named Brian ‘the Stalin of the studio.’”
Wilson acknowledges that he was moving into an area that Love and the rest of the group may not have fully understood or appreciated because he “was tearing down what we had built and starting a whole new foundation.” His motivation was to match or even outdo his inspirations and peers, notably Phil Spector and the Beatles. He was awestruck by the Beatles’ 1965 album “Rubber Soul,” and went to work on “Pet Sounds” as his response. The Beatles, in turn, were effusive in their praise of Wilson’s music. Rather than a rivalry with his British contemporaries, Wilson writes, “there were messages that got sent back and forth across the ocean” that inspired ever-more ambitious recordings.
Though “Pet Sounds” won praise from tastemakers for its breadth and beauty, it failed to make much of an impression on the pop charts. The band’s record label quickly pushed out a greatest hits album to fill the commercial gap. Rather than abandoning his new course, Wilson doubled down with the elaborate, multipart orchestrations of the single “Good Vibrations” and then the would-be song cycle “Smile.”
Love says he and the other Beach Boys were bewildered by the opaque lyrics for “Smile,” written by Wilson’s latest sidekick, Van Dyke Parks, and labored to do Brian’s bidding in the studio. “Brian and I both craved hits,” Love writes, “but he also seemed to need the approval of the critics, of the illuminati.”
Love chafed when a U.K. publicity campaign for the Beach Boys was built on Wilson’s musical “genius,” and the British weekly Melody Maker asked, “Are the five touring Beach Boys just puppets for sound genius Brian Wilson?”
Wilson certainly was a musical visionary, but he was also impaired by drugs and his own increasingly massive insecurities. With “Smile,” he writes, he was in over his head – “I was trying to put my arms around everything that music could do” – and eventually abandoned the project. He was never the same, and Love remained embittered by being cast as the fall guy.
In the past 15 years, Wilson finally returned to “Smile” and finished it with the help of a new generation of admiring accomplices, then launched an acclaimed solo tour with a large band to perform it. Yet Wilson, never particularly at ease on stage, often looked and sounded like he was performing under duress, which in countless ways only fed into the “troubled genius” stereotype that has solidified around him for decades. Love, meanwhile, continued to play more than 100 shows annually under the Beach Boys name by reliably reprising decades-old hits.
Both books offer valuable if unsettling insights into the personal dynamics inside an American band with a split personality – one led by a beach-party entertainer who loves to tour, the other by a composer forever in conversation with the voices and sounds in his head. The story is incomplete without both.
I Am Brian Wilson
By Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman
Da Capo, $26.99, 336 pages
Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy
by Mike Love with James S. Hirsch
Blue Rider, $28, 448 pages