This episode is inspired by our regular contributor Gary Wells’ popular website, www.soulrideblog.com, ‘Your Home for Vintage Leisure’; specifically, his reviews of two important and fascinating books on the Beach Boys – The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience (1990), by Timothy White, and Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy (2016), by Mike Love with James S Hirsch.
Gary takes us through why the ambitious scope of Nearest Faraway Place makes it much more than just a rock and roll bio. We discuss the emerging music scene in California of which the young Beach Boys were a critical part, and how Timothy White’s work helps us to better understand Murry Wilson, and assess his complicated legacy. For a little additional context, we also refer to I am Brian Wilson (2016), written by Brian himself with Ben Greenman.
Gary also gives us some detailed analysis on Mike Love’s autobiography, a major theme of which is his long fight for songwriting credits on some of the Beach Boys’ most iconic tunes. We look at why Mike can be such a polarising figure within the fan universe and beyond, and expand upon Mike’s account of Charles Manson’s disturbing incursion into the Beach Boys’ orbit.
During the podcast, Gary also shares an entertaining, personal story of how he and a friend found themselves backstage at a Beach Boys concert in the early 1990s, rubbing shoulders with Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine.
We begin with Nearest Faraway Place, which Gary has reviewed in detail on his own site. He explains how the book encompasses “the complete spectrum of the American Dream as it related to westward migration in the early days of the 20th century”. One family making this tough and uncertain journey was the Wilsons.
Read Gary’s complete take on The Nearest Faraway Place here;
Book Talk – The Nearest Faraway Place
Author Timothy White, in amongst a distinguished career as a music writer, editor and artists’ rights campaigner, also wrote the hugely successful Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, and passed away in 2002, aged just 50.
From his obituary in The Guardian;
“…White loved history. In his music biographies, the subject did not appear until at least a quarter of the way into the tale. Long Ago And Far Away: James Taylor, His Life And Music (2001) opens in 1622 with the story of Taylor’s Scottish ancestor Hercules Tailyeour, a shipbuilder from Montrose. The first part of The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience, are a history of the state and of surfing. Rigorous research is not always apparent in music biographies, but White’s attention to detail earned him many admirers…(While editor of Billboard), he was unafraid to tackle the controversial issues of misogyny and homophobia in rap lyrics, and he even took a stance on gun control, banning adverts with artwork that featured weapons…”
A hugely significant aspect in the story of the Beach Boys is the complicated legacy of Murry Wilson (1917-1973), father of Dennis, Brian and Carl, and how his influence extended beyond his own family into the artistic and ‘business’ end as well.
Through The Nearest Faraway Place we perhaps come to a greater understanding of what made Murry tick, for better or worse. We consider what Timothy White describes as the ‘legacy of pain’ left by the male Wilson line, and how Murry’s behaviour clouded his sons’ own ability to achieve any kind of youthful enjoyment of their success;
“…Murry’s inability to see the Boys’ success through their excited eyes sabotaged many of the the professional glories he had once assured the boys they would find so gratifying when they achieved popular recognition…”
In the David Leaf documentary, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, Brian describes his father as ‘hostile, messed up, and with a lot of hatred’, while David Marks recalls his own father breaking up a fist-fight between Murry and a teenaged Dennis at the Wilson home. In I am Brian Wilson, Brian relates a letter Murry wrote (on business letterhead) after he had been side-lined as the group’s manager, in which Murry set out some justification for his tough discipline, lamented the state of his marriage and the fact that wife Audree was resentful over his ‘authority’, suggested that the Beach Boys’ success was a passing fad, and seemed jealous of the love Audree bestowed so generously upon their three sons to his exclusion.
The Nearest Faraway Place reaches out beyond the Beach Boys to cover the broader Southern California culture of the time. Gary also explains how the early sixties saw a pivot in the music industry generally, away from the regimented Brill Building in New York to a freer, less corporate, and more universal ability to write songs and make music, right there in your own garage, and on the other side of the country. Other key artists cited by Timothy White during this formative period in California were Jan and Dean and Ricky Nelson, about whom Gary has also written previously.
There’s no doubt that Mike Love, whose mother Emily was Murry Wilson’s sister, can be a polarising figure, often with good reason but perhaps not always fairly, yet he remains a pivotal element in the history of the Beach Boys, and of the music scene in California more generally. His book was co-written with James S Hirsh, whom Mike credits with the background research and assembling extensive facts for an accurate timeline.
Gary’s review of Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy takes an open-minded and balanced view (certainly more so than many other reviewers in mainstream press), and assesses the book as generally believable although questions Mike’s unconvincing denial over the perceived Beach Boys’ musical ‘formula’. Gary expands on this in the podcast, as well as the tricky balancing act between art and commerce. Read Gary’s complete review here.
Mike argues that his straightforward, escapist lyrics leant a sense of fun and optimism to the Beach Boys’ music, and made accessible (and arguably more commercial), some of the more complex ideas that emerged through Brian’s developing mastery of writing (with other collaborators) and production, although it took many years and complicated legal manoeuvres for Mike himself to be fairly credited. He says that his family were blue collar, successful in their own right, but with little understanding of the legalities and complexities of music publishing, and that he was essentially swindled out of his share. He states that Brian was unhappy about this, but was unable to stand up to his father initially, and later his business handlers.
The shadow of the Wilson patriarch looms over events, not only in terms of Mike’s exclusion, but later Murry’s lack of faith in the commercial future of the Beach Boys during a low period in the late 1960s, resulting in a decision to sell off their song publishing rights.
This is how Patrick Doyle, writing in Rolling Stone in 2021, saw the sale of Sea of Tunes;
“…The history of the Beach Boys’ business side is full of missed opportunities. In 1969, Murry Wilson… the band’s former manager, sold Sea of Tunes — the band’s publishing company, which owned the rights to the dozens of classic hits from Surfin’ Safari to Good Vibrations — to A&M Records for only $700,000. “He believed we were washed up,” Brian wrote later…Those songs, singer Mike Love wrote in 2016, might be worth $100 million or more today. Love believed that the lowball deal caused a “ripple effect” for the rest of the Beach Boys’ career. Band members retained their own managers, and often battled each other in court…”
Mike talks candidly about these matters in a promotional interview given to The Wall Street Journal, and also addresses the Beach Boys’ professional and personal encounters with Charles Manson.
In her review of Good Vibrations in the New York Times, Janet Maslin suggests that the book ‘ranks high in gossip and readability’, but that James S Hirsch’s journalistic style is overcome by the ‘boasts and grudges’, and describes the general theme of the book as ‘score-settling and frequently bilious’. She also references the Manson factor;
“…Even more egregious, was Dennis Wilson’s bringing home the Manson family and involving the Beach Boys with the Mansons professionally. That is recalled here at length and with cold fury. Among the many things for which he blames Dennis Wilson, who died in 1983, is leaving two young Love children with Susan Atkins, who helped kill Sharon Tate, as their babysitter…”
At the end of the podcast, we also speculate on how Dennis’ direct association with Manson, which included a creative collaboration that led to Never Learn Not to Love from the 20/20 album, and during which time, according to Mike Love, Dennis actually witnessed a murder at Spahn Ranch amongst a succession of other increasingly terrifying and disturbing behaviours, might have informed, at least in part, the rest of Dennis’ tragically short life.
Compare the versions here:
Never Learn Not to Love (Official Beach Boys on YouTube)
Cease To Exist (Manson – K7 Records)
(For some additional background we’ve also relied on an excellent BBC Wales documentary from 2009, Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy. It was co-produced by Jon Stebbins, who also wrote the book.)
The story of the Beach Boys is fascinating and multi-layered, with family, creative and business relationships eternally complicated by the influence of what Carl Wilson once referred to as ‘forces around the group’. In amongst the wildly conflicting accounts of Beach Boys’ history, in Brian’s enjoyable but slightly chaotic stream-of-consciousness memoir and Mike’s more loaded offering, did we ever reach a conclusion as to who might have been right? Probably both.
Thanks for joining us for a deep dive into these fascinating books on the Beach Boys, and the complex dynamic between individuals, families, music, and money. And, of course, the California Dream.
A Little More
The Beach Boys toured Australia in the (southern) autumn of 1978. They played the major capital cities, in venues ranging from the 4 000 seat Brisbane Festival Hall to the 60 000 seat outdoor stadium, Football Park, in Adelaide.
Local press seemed determined to take a negative perspective, picking up on the fractured nature of the group at that point, and some loose performances led to poor, although not always fair, reviews. Carl Wilson fronted up to a sanctimonious and hostile press conference in Perth, Western Australia, during which he took responsibility for his own behaviour, held his composure and remained courteous in the face of unnecessary and sustained provocation, to his great credit.
The selections here (audio), are Country Pie and Help Me Rhonda, (not from the show referenced during poor Carl’s ordeal), which are joyously chaotic and great fun. There’s also a brief, comical exchange between Carl and Dennis about Dennis’ solo project, Pacific Ocean Blue, along with some audio of Carl Wilson’s excruciating press conference. It’s a fascinating piece of Beach Boys history.
Thanks to Gary Wells, Steve Collins for technical support, and Gainesville for our theme music.