Good (and Bad) Vibrations Abound in Mike Love's Long-Awaited Beach Boys Memoir

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Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy
By Mike Love with James S. Hirsch
448 pp
Blue Rider Press

One of the Beach Boys’ more interesting tunes is “Heroes and Villains.” And to many a casual fan (and lots of music journos), singer Mike Love was the latter in the group, especially when compared to the band’s resident genius, Brian Wilson.

“For those who believe that Brian walks on water,” Love writes in this revealing and candid bio, “I will always be the Antichrist.”

Now, by his own admission, Love hasn’t exactly been his best PR agent. At times prickly, boastful and boorish (see his 1988 induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), he was destined to be the odd man out in the Brian-Carl-Dennis Wilson troika, despite being a first cousin.

But the guy did get screwed, most obviously on song credits, having written the majority of words to tunes like “I Get Around,” “Be True to Your School,” “Help Me, Rhonda” and – most important – “California Girls,” which Brian got sole credit for.

It was all the result of Brian’s lackadaisicalness about business and the meanness of Wilson’s mercurial manager father, Murry. Love ultimately won a lawsuit that added his name to the credits of 35 songs and thus the all-important royalties. (Love always got credit on material including “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Good Vibrations.”)

So with this book, there is a good deal of score-settling and saber-rattling. But also some meaty insights, new stories even the most diehard Beach Boys fan has never heard, and Love’s own take on much-told tales.

He swears he never uttered the infamous and oft-attributed phrase “don’t fuck with the formula” to Brian when his writing veered from the topics of surf, cars and pussy to the more experimental Pet Sounds/Smile efforts. “It’s the most famous thing I’ve ever said, even though I never said it. But the myth was too strong to be inconvenienced by the truth,” Love writes.

Most compellingly, Love writes of his frustrations with all three Wilson brothers' intake of both soft and hard drugs and how it affected the band’s potential. Love himself eschewed substances after discovering Eastern philosophy and transcendental meditation, even attending the fabled retreat at Rishikesh led by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with the Beatles and Donovan. But he had his own vices and shortcomings, mostly revolving around finances, women and his children.

He also gives a fairly detailed telling of one of the more bizarre areas of the group’s history, their involvement with a pre-murderous-rampage Charles Manson and family, largely through the cult’s “friendship” with Dennis. When Love reveals that Manson killer Susan Atkins once ended up babysitting his small children, it’s a chilling moment for any parent reading.

Houston appears several times in the book, from the famous incident on a December 1964 plane ride to the city when Brian had a panic attack that led to his quitting the concert trail, to a station ID Love remembers doing for KUNZ radio, as well as the fact that Houston was the city in which the band opened for both CSNY and Chicago. There’s even a quote from – yes – The Houston Press that spoke disparagingly of Love’s songwriting credit lawsuit (it’s there on page 374!).

But even Mike Love’s detractors have to give him credit for keeping the Beach Boys alive today, touring incessantly under the name (175 shows in 2015 – the most of any year. They will be at the Stafford Centre on October 5), and in markets and venues that many groups pass over.

As to reports that he “owns" the Beach Boys name and has not treated other original band members right, Love counters that he purchased the same license to use the name that others declined to do so. And that his contract with the group’s corporation stipulates that Brian Wilson's, Al Jardine's and Carl Wilson’s children still get revenues from current tours without setting foot on any stage. He also had "original, non-original" member Bruce Johnston in the current lineup. 

Love clearly has an agenda of setting the record straight – according to him – with this book. Who can blame him, given the heaps of bad press he’s gotten over the years, some deserved, some not. But it’s rich with Beach Boys info and a crucial addition to the library shelf, coming out coincidentally at the same time as Brian Wilson’s own second memoir, I Am Brian Wilson.

Needless to say, the men sometimes see the same event or occurrence in markedly different lights. And clearly, this all too public family fight will continue to be waged in print, in speech and on the Internet. So much for good vibrations, but we still have a catalogue of music from “America’s Band” that thrills to this day, whether or not a listener has ever touched a surfboard.

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