Book review: Mike Love tells his side of the Beach Boys’ story
Hits, writs, family feuds and untimely deaths – Love’s autobiography has them all. What it also has is genuine affection for the music he made, and the people he made it with
by Mike Love with James S. Hirsch
Blue Rider Press
Beach Boy Mike Love is aware that he is perceived as a villain.
In his new autobiography, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, Love puts the conventional public framing of his relationship to his cousin and musical collaborator Brian Wilson simply: “For those who believe that Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.”
But every villain is the hero of his own story, and Good Vibrations, which oscillates from riveting to boilerplate to dull and back again over the course of 400-plus pages, lays out Love’s origin story, adding fodder to the tale of a legendary band. When so much has been written, documented on film, interpreted dramatically and sworn into the official record in court, the idea of distilling “the truth” about the Beach Boys as an entity is as slippery as an unwaxed surfboard.
Add the prism of individual recollections, some addled by substance abuse, and it becomes nigh impossible. But Love attempts to live his truth, and Good Vibrations is an intermittently fascinating read for those interested in both the minutiae surrounding the birth of California Girls and the details of fractious family lawsuits.
Which is, of course, the ultimate Beach Boys irony. As Love puts it, the Beach Boys – initially made up of three brothers, a cousin and a friend – were all about harmony on record but often about discord outside the studio. Given the melancholy underpinnings of some of their most famous hits, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that if everybody goes surfing, odds are some are going to wipe out.
From the early, sun dappled years as the band rose, to their descent into the deep – presaged by a history of family dysfunction and exacerbated by fights over both creative and personal matters, betrayals, untimely deaths and the grind of endless touring – the Beach Boys’ story is as murky as their records are pristine.
Love details his childhood and school years – surrounded by musical siblings and cousins but feeling a remoteness from his parents – and also makes clear the contrasts between the Loves and Wilsons, particularly financially. He explains how, in his view, the abusive behaviour and inexperience of his uncle Murry – father of band mates Brian, Dennis and Carl, and the eventual band manager – affected them personally and professionally.
But he emphasises early and often just how close he and Brian were as kids, performing at family and church events and staying up late listening to the radio, harmonising on arrangements that Brian cooked up on the fly. “We both had other friends and we both had girlfriends, but I don’t know that either of us had a better friend.”
Love also reminds readers how true the band name was: they really were boys, either still in or just out of high school, when they began their ascendance. They may have sounded carefree singing about girls and cars, but the ride was fraught from the start. Love chronicles the winding road from early gigs to studio alchemy to romantic dalliances to packed arenas to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
You don’t get to that pinnacle without encountering a colourful cast of characters. For Love, the list is long and glittery and includes but is not limited to several presidents, many rock stars – including Marvin Gaye, Glen Campbell and multiple Beatles and Rolling Stones – Muhammad Ali, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (from whom he acquired a lifelong devotion to transcendental meditation) and, for those who may have forgotten the connection, briefly and awfully, Charles Manson.
He weaves those names into a story that is largely hellbent on dispelling the “Brian was the genius and the rest of the guys just showed up to sing” narrative. However, he also repeatedly, unreservedly expresses his admiration for the estimable gifts of his cousin as well as the other members of the group and those who orbited it over the years. (Wilson himself will have a chance for rebuttal when his memoir I Am Brian Wilson, written with Ben Greenman, is released in October.)
But for those interested in Love’s perspective, Good Vibrations is a generally solid read – and suitable, unsurprisingly, for the beach.