Searching for Good Vibrations
And we’ll have fun, fun, fun until Mike Love and Brian Wilson wax up their pens and ride the tumultuous waves of their lives as Beach Boys as well as their lives outside a band that’s been washed up for years. These days, Mike Love leads a cast of characters called The Beach Boys who turn the nostalgia key and have the wine-and-cheese crowd singing along to California surf-rock classics such as “Surfin’ USA” and “Little Surfer Girl”; audiences, misty-eyed about their golden youth that existed only in the lyrics of a Beach Boys song, bounce beach balls high in the air. During Brian Wilson’s last tour, he played a few Beach Boys songs—he believes that “Good Vibrations” is one of the top songs he’s ever written—but he often sat, almost catatonic, behind the piano while the rest of the band ran through those songs. Wilson came to life when he played songs from the then-new album Love and Mercy and his critically acclaimed songs such as “Caroline No.”
Love’s and Wilson’s new memoirs are as different as these two touring shows. Love’s Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy (Blue Rider) rides the nostalgia wave, focusing on the brightness that the Beach Boys’ music sheds on its listeners. He has scores to settle with Wilson—or his uncle, Wilson’s father—over lost royalties to songs, such as “California Girls”—that he co-wrote, but Love doesn’t let those issues occupy him for more than a few pages. Love’s anger flashes now and then, but he rides onto the shore carrying a feel-good message that music will heal the world, though his final sentiments come off too easy and a little simplistic.
Love invites us into his story and sets the book’s tone in two opening paragraphs: “Growing up in southern California, I loved watching the sun descend across the calm waters of the Pacific. I infused its disappearance with something cosmic and mystical. Darkness fell. The Earth spun. And then dawn broke, bringing light and renewal to all. I’ve tried to maintain that attitude in all aspects of life—to recall the warmth of the sun even on the coldest of nights. My approach toward music bore that out. As a member of the Beach Boys, I was the one most apt to find the positives, the silver lining, even in moments of despair. My parents were responsible for that. They gave me every reason to be hopeful.”
Looking back on the beginnings of the band, Love recalls that “we were just a bunch of blue-collar kids whose ancestors had come from the sticks, but there was magic in that gene pool. We had to set it free.” Even though he and Wilson loved music, Love admits that they were drawn to two different styles of music. Wilson loved the harmonies of folk music, especially the Four Freshman, but Love’s true love was doo-wop and R&B: “My favorite was Chuck Berry: the clever vignettes, the syncopation, the alliteration in such classics as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybelline.”
In spite of their different styles of music, Love and Wilson collaborated on tunes whose hooks buried themselves deep in their fans’ consciousness. Yet, Love clearly recognizes the challenge of overcoming the stigma of a one-genre band that never grows beyond its biggest hits. Reflecting on “Good Vibrations,” Love emphasizes the collaborative quality of his and Wilson’s work, as well as their achievement in moving the band beyond simply being recognized as a “surf band.” (At any rate, by 1966, when the song appeared, surf music’s popularity had crested and the tide had turned toward soul music, early country rock, jug band music, and early psychedelic music.) “Brian has been rightfully hailed for producing a track that in length, construction, and complexity defied all expectations of how a rock song could be written and performed…’Good Vibrations’ indicated that we could evolve with the times…By 1966, we [the Beach Boys] had recorded all kinds of music, but what had been successful in the past wouldn’t necessarily succeed in the future. The question was, could we develop a new sound that retained the idealistic ethos of our early music while staying in sync with an era of tumult and protest—music that was avant-garde and edgy, with a spiritual sheen? ‘Good Vibrations’ said we could.”
Love’s story follows the warmth of the sun wherever it takes him, and he seldom has a discouraging word. His prose is often sticky sweet, and he sometimes comes across as arrogant, as if his view is the best and only one. Yet, he clearly believes that, in spite of the disharmony he and the band have weathered that “the Beach Boys’ appeal has no demographic boundaries, no technological limits, no expiration date. The world will never be without heartbreak or despair; never without war, terror, hunger, or loneliness. If this is the case, I believe there will always be a need for a sonic oasis, or music that offers, however briefly, harmony in word, harmony in spirit.”
Brian Wilson’s memoir couldn’t be more different, and, like his concerts, he’s sometimes there, and sometimes not there. While Love tells his own story with a straightforward delivery, Wilson digresses, wanders off into various corners of his story, and sometimes loses us along the way, and repeats himself. Yet, while Love’s memoir might be the brighter of the two books, Wilson’s resonates as the most viscerally honest of the two, and the most painful. After all, even before word of this memoir got out, audiences saw Wilson’s story unfold in the film Love and Mercy. What was left but for Wilson himself to shed a little light in the corners of his life? Was Dr. Eugene Landy’s treatment of Wilson as harsh and as self-serving as the film portrays? Yes, according to Wilson. Does Wilson have good days and bad days? Yes, he writes. What about that now-legendary relationship with his father that so affected Wilson? Wilson delves deeply into that in the memoir. Is music still the force that rescues him emotionally? Without a doubt.
Wilson’s I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir (DaCapo), written with Ben Greenman, opens on a far different note than Love’s: “My story is a music story and a family story and a love story, but it’s a story of mental illness, too.” The beauty of these opening remarks lies in Wilson’s lack of fear, his open embrace of the state of his life, and his unflinching gaze at his mental illness and the voices that often drive him to despair. Wilson’s memoir offers a more sober glance at the spiritual and physical forces that haunt artists and that often drive them to produce the beautiful, sad, and relentlessly affecting music we often embrace.
Wilson focuses mostly on himself in this memoir, not moving deeply into relationships with other members of the Beach Boys; those stories are there, of course, but he’s more focused on his own ups and downs, his own failures and successes, his own attempts at writing the song that makes it to the top floor of his building of songwriting. He’s clear about “Good Vibrations”: “Any minute playing ‘Good Vibrations’ is a minute that I feel spiritually whole. I hope that any minute hearing it is the same.”
Murry Wilson’s treatment of Brian and the other members of the band remains the stuff of legend, and many stories written about him, according to Brian, are “dirty lies.” Yet, Wilson, all these years after his father’s death still struggles to understand his father’s dual nature: his love for music, his violence and cruelty toward his sons. In the end, Wilson continues his work to reconcile his father’s goodness with his dark side, and Wilson continues to weigh its impact on him as musician: “There were other parts of my dad’s personality that were as bad as his love for music was good. There were days with my dad that I wish never happened, and not just a few of them…they had a big effect on almost everything that came later—every friendship, every decision I made about people, probably even every decision people made about me. I said before that there are parts of my life that are hard to talk about. Lots of things that happened with my dad are in that category.”
In the end for Wilson, though, songwriting continues to be the act that saves him, that brings life to him, that channels the voices he hears, that helps him face his past: “Those melodies I’m working with sometimes stick around for a while and become songs…the first part of that process, the part where I’m at the piano just playing and listening to what I’m playing—that’s the way I discover new songs. What is a song, exactly? It’s something that starts as an idea and becomes more than that. It becomes physical and emotional and spiritual. It comes out into the world. It can soothe you when you’re feeling at your worst. It can make you happy when you’re sad…songs are out there all the time, but they can’t be made without people. You have to do your job and help songs come into existence.”
In spite of all their great songwriting, neither Love’s nor Wilson’s memoir is especially compelling or interesting. For one, many of the stories that each of them tells are already out in the world and their own re-telling doesn’t bring much new life to them. Beyond that, Love delivers a rosy-colored view of his life as a Beach Boy that eventually runs as flat as pavement, and Wilson’s digressions often grows frustrating and mind-numbing. Despite its meandering character, Wilson’s memoir eventually grabs us at a deeper level than Love’s. If you’re looking for fun, fun, fun, pick up Love, but if you’re searching for a more introspective, in my room, experience, pick Wilson. In the end, fans may want both memoirs, but neither resonates with good vibrations.