Book review: I Am Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California. Picture: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Brian Wilson at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California. Picture: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
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He gave the world Good Vibrations but Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life has been one of struggle punctuated by brilliance, writes Chris McCall

The Beach Boys were a band of stark contradictions. Their early hits mythologised the surfing culture of early 1960s California, yet only one of them could use a board. Their best loved songs evoke sunshine and happiness, but were performed by a group riven with sibling rivalry and myriad personal problems. Yet the timeless quality of their best material ensures they win new fans among each passing generation. Their place in the pop pantheon is beyond question. But how did they get there?

Brian Wilson was the Beach Boys’ leader and principal songwriter from the beginning. The eldest of three brothers raised in Hawthorne, California, he taught his younger siblings, Carl and Dennis, to harmonise by listening to the radio in their shared bedroom. While The Beatles grew up with George Formby and Buddy Holly, the Wilsons were obsessed with vocal groups such as the Four Freshmen. The brothers were equally inspired and encouraged – often forcefully – by their father Murry, a songwriter with frustrated musical ambitions.

The Wilsons recruited their cousin, Mike Love, and school friend, Al Jardine, to complete the band line-up. In an era still dominated by crooners working for label-controlled songwriters, a group that wrote and performed its own material was a novelty. But their talent was obvious and they quickly secured a local record deal. That in turn led to a contract with then industry-leading Capitol Records and the pathway to stardom was clear.

Even the most casual of music fans will be able to recite the hits that followed – I Get Around, California Girls, Good Vibrations – and be vaguely aware of the issues that forced the group’s creative force to quit touring and, on several occasions, the music industry itself. Brian Wilson was blessed with a natural talent for writing pop hits, but cursed to suffer from mental illness at a time when the issue was little understood. Few people – family members, record company execs, music journalists – could fathom why one of the most acclaimed hitmakers of the ’60s could seem so miserable.

This biography is as much about Wilson’s reclusive existence in the 1970s and ’80s as it is about the heyday of his band. That he recovered sufficiently to return to regular touring in the early 2000s is one of the most remarkable stories of the pop music era. This is no misery memoir, however – the tone throughout is almost breezy; difficult subjects are dealt with honestly, but never in such detail as to become uncomfortable.

This is the second official telling of Wilson’s life. The first, published in 1991, prompted a string of lawsuits and was later disowned by its subject. This book is unlikely to cause a repeat. Many of the central characters are long dead, and those still alive are dealt with in a scrupulously even-handed fashion.

The strongest section of the book is when Wilson speaks candidly about his relationship with his late father. Many music hacks have speculated about the damage Murry caused his sons, but the reality is more complex. Brian admits he often feared him – beatings, shouting matches and the like were common when he was growing up. But he also acknowledges it was unlikely the Beach Boys would ever have taken off without Murry’s determination to see his sons’ band top the hit parade.

The book is on less firm ground when pages are given over to Wilson’s later solo material. While it’s obvious the recording studio was often his only truly safe space, and songwriting was an essential part of his recovery, even the keenest of Beach Boys fans may struggle to match his enthusiasm for long-forgotten album tracks.

Those fascinated by the Beach Boys’ mid-’60s peak are advised to read Nick Kent’s authoritative extended essay on the subject. But I Am Brian Wilson succeeds in shedding new light on Wilson’s remarkable life – and finally gives one of the great American songwriters the biography he deserves.

I Am Brian Wilson

By Brian Wilson, with Ben Greenman

Coronet, 320pp, £20