According to the blurb accompanying I Am Brian Wilson, this is the book in which the co-founder of the Beach Boys “tells his extraordinary life story for the first time, in his own words”. Note what comes after the comma. This is actually the second time Wilson has told his extraordinary life story. In 1991 he had his name on a book called Wouldn’t It Be Nice. When people took exception to some of its contents, Wilson confessed that he hadn’t read it. The work in that case had been done by a ghostwriter, Todd Gold.
In 1991, the power was wielded by Eugene Landy, the sinister psychotherapist who controlled Wilson’s life for most of the 1980s and in the early 1990s. Landy died in 2006, hence the release two years ago of the Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, in which he could serve as the villain, and now this second autobiography, ghosted by Ben Greenman and, one senses, guided by Wilson’s wife and manager, Melinda.
Greenman seems to have started Wilson on certain topics and then been happy to follow him down the meandering paths of his memory. The Beach Boy is, like so many rock stars, a rambling man. To many musicians, the world is sounds, not stories; feelings, not facts. This book proceeds accordingly. From old tunes that we all remember to new ones that we have already forgotten, and the precise details of a 40-year-old mix retained by the same mind that can’t remember what happened when he met the US president, this is a strangely accurate picture of what it’s like to interview a rock star, with many of the longueurs left in. There’s a lot about food – one of the few features of a working musician’s daily life that he can control. Even now, when Wilson finds something that he likes on the menu, he has it every night. Parents of 14-year-old boys may recognise the syndrome.
There is an odd flattening effect in Wilson’s recollections that gives you some idea of his state of mind. About fifty pages in, he starts discussing making music with his family; then he remembers how, when he was going to Florida to write a song with Jimmy Buffett, somebody told him that they would be close to Kokomo, the name of a Beach Boys song that Wilson didn’t write, which was co-written by Terry Melcher, whose former house Sharon Tate was living in when she was murdered by the Manson gang, who had been friends of his brother Dennis; and, on the flight, Wilson was told that Kokomo was just an invention, which made him think about the time when he went to see a cousin in hospital and wrapped his head in toilet paper so he looked like a mummy. It’s like spending a long time with someone who makes no allowance for the way the rest of us process information. It’s a trifle wearing.
The Beach Boys as a creative force lasted just four action-packed years, from the song “Surfer Girl” in 1963 to “Heroes and Villains” in 1967. The story of the Beach Boys, on the other hand, has endured for more than five decades. They were a family band formed around the three Wilson brothers and their cousin Mike Love and managed by the Wilsons’ martinet father, Murry. Brian co-wrote and arranged the songs but wasn’t built for the pop star’s life. In 1964 he had a breakdown on a plane to Houston and withdrew from touring. He mostly stayed at home in the studio, wrote the songs and taught the band members their parts. That worked while the songs were pouring out of him. Then he was laid low by a combination of mental instability, overindulgence in psychedelic drugs, morbid overeating and writer’s block. By this point, his PR man Derek Taylor had announced that he was a genius. The problem was that he could no longer deliver the hits. “I love being a genius, but I hate the responsibility,” he said.
After 1967, Wilson could only come up with glimmers of what he had once done without trying. Nevertheless, the narrative of his genius has been kept going ever since in magazine features, boxed sets of recorded relics, sentimental dramas, unconvincing re-creations and score-settling memoirs. Rock’n’roll myths get halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on.
According to scripture, Brian Wilson is the hero of the Beach Boys, and the band’s lead singer, Mike Love, is the villain. There have certainly been times when Love has behaved like a thundering arse, such as when he went off-script at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and accused Mick Jagger of being “chicken-shit to get onstage with the Beach Boys”, or when he decided that the band should go on tour with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or the many occasions he has tried to make up for the lack of hair on his head by showing us a bit more of the hair on his chest. However, even arses are capable of being wronged and Love was the victim of one of the pop-music crimes of the 20th century when the catalogue of Beach Boys songs that he had co-written (often without credit) was sold at a knock-down price at the end of the 1960s by Murry Wilson.
Daddy Wilson thought that he was doing the shrewd thing. He had assumed that the songs were about to be valueless. Now we know that they are invaluable, and we know how this story plays out. The guys who joined the band as teenagers are married to each other and that catalogue until death. Love and Wilson are the only two principals still standing and they were awkward participants in the tour that was put together in 2012 to mark the band’s 50th anniversary.
Love’s new book, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, is named after one of the songs he wrote the words for. The book is so relentless in its efforts to build up his part that you feel that Will Ferrell should consider turning it into a film. The scene in which Love’s wife, Jacqueline, and Brian’s wife, Melinda, clash backstage over which Beach Boys songs Wilson’s and Love’s offspring will be allowed to perform could be a corker. Love’s wife makes the mistake of referring to her husband as Brian’s partner. “I’m his f***ing partner,” is Melinda’s response. Cut to the band looking nervously at each other as they sing “Good Vibrations”.
Between Love’s insistence on mentioning every luscious lovely who has been unable to keep her hands off him and Wilson’s perfect recall of every compliment he has ever been paid by a well-known musician, there’s enough in both books to make you stagger away thinking that these grandfathers, neither of whom will see 70 again, should get over themselves. They both finish with expressions of gratitude that they are able to keep doing what they started doing as teenagers. They recognise the members of the group who barely achieved middle age. Not at any stage does either seem to realise just how absurd his life has been. They both take themselves preposterously seriously. It would take a more forgiving disposition than mine to read these books again for anything but money.
David Hepworth’s “1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year” is published by Bantam Press
I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman is published by Coronet (307pp, £20)
Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy by Mike Love with James S Hirsch is published by Faber & Faber (436pp, £20)
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge