I listen to a lot of musician bios on audio. Some are rather illuminating (Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash). Some are egotistical screeds (Steven Tyler). A few just pull back the veil behind the music that defined the culture for decades (Keith Richards, Eric Clapton). One turned out to be a self-help book that even showed its warts (Guns ‘N Roses’ Duff McKagan, who knows a thing or two about living years in recovery from addiction.)
Never have I listened to two guys from the same band within weeks of each other. Moreover, never have I listened to two guys who now suffer a rift as wide as Mike Love and Brian Wilson. But listen I did to Love’s Good Vibrations and Wilson’s I Am Brian Wilson. Of the two, Wilson now seems the happiest and most contented. Love is still frustrated after all these years despite securing the rights to the Beach Boys name and getting credit for his work on all those classic songs. Love tries (and eventually fails, but only when explaining his suit for credit) to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt and believes his cousin is a genius. Likewise, Wilson credits Love with a lot of ideas, but eventually expresses frustration with what he sees as Love’s ego.
The two accounts of the history of the Beach Boys and Wilson’s solo career actually have few contradictions. Love watched in horror as Dr. Eugene Landy, who could be considered a cross between a Bond villain and Hannibal Lecter minus the violent overtones, kept his cousin a virtual prisoner. Wilson, for his part, tries to give both sides of everyone’s story. He has kind things to say about father Murray Wilson while still confirming Love’s dark portrait of him. He acknowledges Love himself as the voice of reason at times and a keeper of the Beach Boys’ legacy. But with Landy, Wilson struggles. The mad doctor, as depicted by Paul Giamatti in Love & Mercy, kept Wilson a virtual prisoner. Wilson says “He helped me somewhat,” but can’t shake the fact that Landy controlled every aspect of his life. He even confirms Love’s accusation that Landy intended to kill Wilson after becoming the songwriter’s sole beneficiary.
Love’s story is impressive because it’s a tale of hard work and of learning from mistakes. None of the Beach Boys (nor very many rockers not managed by Brian Epstein or Andrew Loog Oldham) were sharp businessmen in the early days. To be honest, neither was Murray Wilson. But Love has come to run the Beach Boys touring band like a well-oiled machine, playing more, smaller venues to keep the band going. As long as he and Bruce Johnston are involved, it’s still the Beach Boys.
Wilson’s is a tale of overcoming mental illness. He still deals with it, deals with fully audible voices that trouble him. But he has a support system around him, a new family with wife Michelle, fond memories of first wife Marilyn (an accomplished singer in her own right and still a friend), and his oldest daughters Wendy and Carnie of Wilson Phillips fame. He writes songs and still works. He’s happy.
But Wilson and Love miss the other two Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl. Dennis was probably in worse shape than Brian and maybe even Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett after his breakdown. (Ironically, Barrett’s life turned out much happier than most suspected after he left London for good, even traveling to the City to take in art museums on his own. The recluse image was partially Barrett’s invention.) Dennis’s appetites and anxiety resulted in his accidental death in 1979. Carl, on the other hand, became the calm center of the Beach Boys, played until cancer would no longer let him play, and wanted desperately to play on his brother’s first post-Landy solo album. Love misses Dennis’s ferocity (The two would get into fist fights and forget them, sort of like Popeye and Bluto when they were buddies.) and Carl’s leadership. Wilson misses his brothers.
But listening to the two on audio leads on to realize that neither of them understands the rift between them. Maybe it’s because their lives have taken such widely diverging paths. Wilson cannot do Love’s grueling tour schedule, and Love can’t stay off the road. It’s too bad, because both of them acknowledge that, when they’re in the room together making music, something magical happens.