Tuesday 25 April 2017

Bad vibrations: the feud behind The Beach Boys

* Memoirs: Good Vibrations, Mike Love with James S Hirsch, Faber, hdbk, 448 pages, €20
* I am Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman, Coronet, hdbk, 320 pages, €20

Wilson, Love and war: Cousins Brian and Mike performing at the Grammy Awards in 2012
Wilson, Love and war: Cousins Brian and Mike performing at the Grammy Awards in 2012
The Beach Boys in the mid 1960s
Good Vibrations by Mike Love with James S Hirsch
I am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman

Helen Brown

Drug abuse, duelling egos, court cases, breakdowns - where did it all go wrong for Love and Wilson.

God only knows how The Beach Boys' ghostwriters must have suffered to bring us this autumn's deuce coup of unreliable memoirs.

Of the two, cultural historian James Hirsch probably had an easier time with Mike Love. Although he was called "one of the biggest assholes in rock'n'roll" by Rolling Stone magazine, and is clearly out to rewrite history so that he sounds less greedy and more artistically open-minded than he really was, recent interviews reveal Love to be talkative and surprisingly insightful.

I'm sure he enjoyed thrashing out his self-aggrandising version, then letting the historian make him look smart. "Um, Mike," you can imagine Hirsch saying, "if we're going to celebrate the groovy Sixties Californian dream, we do need to mention the race riots, too…"

But it must have been torture for the novelist Ben Greenman to drag anything out of Brian Wilson. Just picture his frustration, hour upon hour, trying to coax the secrets of pop genius from a mind blown on LSD half a century ago. Wilson admits to memory problems and to making things up to "test" people. Like his dad before him, he says he became "difficult, then impossible". Whatever Greenman's pain, the torture was probably greater for Wilson, who prefers to evade his traumatic past when questioned and speaks mostly in banalities - when he speaks at all.

Today, 75-year-old Love is doing well out of The Beach Boys brand that he owns, with over 170 shows around the world last year alone. Meanwhile, 74-year-old Wilson (his cousin) prefers to watch the world go by from an old easy chair he calls his "command centre".

His five adopted kids - Daria, Delanie, Dylan, Dash and Dakota Rose - hurtle past his door. He gazes through the window at Benedict Canyon. In the darkest days of his mental illness, he would watch the television screen even if it was turned off. These days, it's on. "I am getting tired of watching Jeopardy," he confides. "It's the same bulls*** every day. I like Wheel of Fortune." Despite the mitigated success of the band's 50th anniversary tour (Wilson claims he wanted to extend it but that Love wouldn't agree), the cousins no longer speak.

Decades of drugs, duelling egos, mental health problems and legal wrangling have taken a sorry toll. But, Love claims, before they formed the band, he and Wilson were best friends. "We were both loners," he tells Hirsch. Wilson would escape the toxic stew of his home to visit the more luxurious, less fraught Love household, where the boys slept "in the trim, knotty pine bunks built into the wall, the glowing fireplace nearby". Love kept a transistor radio under his pillow, and they would listen to music and talk through the night.

Love's chronology is conventional; Wilson's stream of consciousness jumps, perhaps more revealingly, all over the shop. Both give a similar account of their early years: although they became famous for singing about surfing and cars, the Wilson brothers weren't really surfers and Love's car was such a wreck it was nicknamed 'Gangrene'. And both men give distressing accounts of their early manager, Wilson's "monster" of a father.

Murry Wilson was a violent bully who channelled his musical ambitions through his three sons, swinging and screaming at them to do better, work harder. He had lost an eye in an industrial accident and took sadistic pleasure in removing his glass eye, forcing the kids to stare into the empty socket. Wilson's brother Dennis sometimes fought back, but Carl and Brian sucked it up. Brian recalls only one moment of rebellion, when he defecated on a plate and handed it to his dad.

All The Beach Boys agree that Murry drove their ambition but then refused to back off as Brian soared. Murry kept barking out instructions until, during the recording of 'I Get Around' in 1964, the prodigy snapped and sent his father sprawling. "He didn't come back at me with fists or even angry words. He just left. I didn't see him for a while after that."

Love enjoys recounting his wild times - meeting The Beatles, exploiting the groupies, attending orgies in Australia in which people lit newspapers and jammed them between their buttocks. Wilson is less into dirt-dishing. He tries to make sense of the breakdown at 25 that left him hearing voices (among them, Murry's and Phil Spector's) for the rest of his life. Greenman relays it simply, with a detached melancholy.

Drugs took what inner peace Wilson once had, but he also believes they gave him some of his best songs. The first time he dropped acid, aged 22, he wrote 'California Girls'. He says the hallucinogen allowed him to see melodies floating above the keyboard. Smoking pot "locked me in with my piano" and gave him 'Please Let Me Wonder'; cocaine yielded 'Sail on Sailor'.

Later he didn't even know the names of the drugs prescribed by his controlling doctor, Gene Landy, who was barred from seeing Wilson again by a 1992 restraining order after it was proved that he had ghostwritten much of Wilson's 1991 memoir, which misrepresented Love's part in the creation of The Beach Boys' hits. Love netted a cool $1.5m in compensation and, two years later, successfully sued for songwriting credits.

Love had a knack for a hook, and both these books credit his lyrical contributions. Still, the author of "Round, round, get around, I get around" rather over-eggs his literary prowess. Then again, Wilson is not above bragging himself. He says that his song 'Mexican Girl' is "probably the best song ever written about a Mexican girl". When he met the Eagles' Don Henley, Wilson signed a record for him, "Thanks for the great songs." Then he changed his mind, crossed out the "great" and downgraded it to "good".

Fans who hate Love usually blame him for forcing Wilson to abandon the SMiLE album that was meant to follow Pet Sounds. Collaborators such as Van Dyke Parks claim that Love's failure to embrace Wilson's avant-garde ideas cost the world a great record. It's true that Love is a conservative - he gave Tipper Gore $5,000 to start her music censorship campaign. But Wilson doesn't blame him here. He says that his drug use made the album feel like doing a jigsaw puzzle on a wall: the pieces kept slipping.

Love and Wilson do disagree on the story behind 'The Warmth of the Sun', which became a national hymn after JFK's assassination. Love says he wrote the lyrics long before, about his unrequited love for a girl named Gloria; Wilson claims it was all about Kennedy. Love is more credible but - as his book goes on - also more tedious, ploughing through his lawsuits, six marriages and obsession with monarch butterflies.

Wilson's book has more sadness (he ended up hitting his own kids, just like his dad) and more moments of magic: the youthful ecstasy that came with writing 'Good Vibrations' and the joy of stepping back into the ocean after 40 years, and at least a decade after his brother Dennis drowned. "It was so great I didn't want to get out," he says. "It was early afternoon and then late afternoon and I still wanted to stay there."

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