“Over the years, I’ve tried not to let the personal attacks bother me, as I learned long ago that if you’re going to be in the spotlight, either you develop a thick skin or you find another job.”
“Good Vibrations – My Life as a Beach Boy” by Mike Love with James S. Hirsch (2016)
Mike Love once called me a “bastard”.
After seeing the Beach Boys in concert on August 25, 1991, a buddy and I snuck backstage. After telling Mike – who was surrounded by the girls used in the show and seemed drunk – that we had avoided security, he exclaimed “You bastards!” He gave me his autograph and I patted him on the shoulder. It felt like he was wearing a wet suit top under his flowered shirt.
I had been a Beach Boys fan since about 1984 when I was 12, as my regular readers will probably know. I remember seeing them on the atrocious television show Solid Gold and, not knowing much about them, I called our local oldies station to ask which of the Beach Boys had recently died. The DJ wasn’t sure (Dennis). My next gaff was assuming that the front man, the lead singer, the supposed leader of the band, was the famous Brian Wilson I had heard so much about. I even thought it odd that some books I was reading were getting the captions mixed up. That is not Brian Wilson, that is. The guy I was looking at was vocalist and lyricist Mike Love.
There is a misconception – but not a huge one – about the Beach Boys that says the only real talent in the band was the legendary eldest Wilson brother, Brian. But youngest brother, guitarist and vocalist Carl, took over the musical direction of the band when Brian began to have mental health and drug issues. He had a celestial voice as evidenced in “God Only Knows” and possessed his own deft production style as heard in “I Can Hear Music”. Middle brother Dennis is best known as the sex symbol and wild man of the group but the drummer also knew how to make good records on his own. His solo effort, 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue, was heralded at the time and is considered today to be a sonic marvel.
And then there is Mike Love. Another Beach Boy misconception – but not a huge one – says that Mike was bereft of talent and rode both Brian’s genius and the band’s rep of fun in the sun all through their heyday and still is, 50+ years down the line.
Some Beach Boys Facebook groups are more lucid than others and in one of them you will often hear people reassessing Mike’s reputation and reconsidering his contributions to the band. When Mike’s autobiography came out in 2016, some said it was a better read than Brian’s memoir, released around the same time. I started to think to myself that if I want to know the whole story – or at least hear another side of it – I should probably read Mike’s book. So I did this spring. I expected an obnoxious attempt to rewrite history but got something a little different. Actually, I was surprised in the early going to find the book so dull but it picked up.
I guess the big question regarding this book is can you believe Mike’s account of things? Yes, is my answer, I found most of what Mike had to say jibed with what I had always read. It seems that a big purpose of this book is to correct wrong impressions Mike feels have grown over the years. I found a lot of these corrections easy to accept – actually I found a lot of the details Mike talked about to be almost moot. It’s easy for me to accept that over the years a somewhat exaggerated legend has grown that Mike was against Brian in all Wilson wanted to do with his music. One specific instance in the book has Mike asserting that he never uttered the phrase “don’t f#$& with the formula”. OK, so Mike didn’t say that but it still seems obvious to me that Love felt that the reaching Brian was doing, particularly with SMiLE, was not going to latch with the kids. Heck, Mike may even have been right. So, Mike didn’t say it but I think it’s clear he lived that out. On what do I base my insistence that Mike didn’t want to deviate from the fun in the sun formula? The fact that Mike never did or never has deviated from it.
Examples are plentiful. Mike says he was inspired to “get Brian out of bed” to write the 1968 song “Do It Again”. This after the sonic experiments had failed and Brian checked out. “Do It Again” is the first of the Mike-inspired looks back to the “formula”. In 1974, Mike works with Capitol on the greatest hits compilation that renders any forthcoming new material redundant and that Mike names Endless Summer, as in the summer songs will have no end. The 1976 song “It’s OK” that Brian and Mike co-wrote that Mike “thought was a great summer song”. Another look back to the “sum-sum-summertime”. Mike puts together a band to support him as he promotes his 1982 solo album Looking Back With Love. He didn’t really have to name the band but he did: the Endless Summer Beach Band. The Beach Boys’ #1 song from 1988, “Kokomo”, contains Mike’s lyrics. He says he was able “to use the same travelogue approach that I employed for ‘Surfin’ Safari’, ‘Surfin’ USA’, and ‘California Girls'”. Sounds like using the old “formula”. And the biggest example is the debacle of the 1992 album Summer in Paradise. The synthetic sounding record is chock-a-block with tropical tunes and surfing ditties. In 2003, Mike again suggests to Capitol a compilation’s title; “Sounds of Summer as a continuation of our seasonal motif”. And just listen to Mike’s lyrics from “Brian’s Back” (1976) and “Summer in Paradise” (1992); both contain references to song titles from the band’s surfin’ heyday. All these examples fly in the face of perhaps the most egregious pronouncement in the book; Mike says that the Beach Boys “have no formula”. Really? Funny, Mike, how you have gone back to this non-existent formula every step of the way since 1968 – 50+ years ago. Funny, too, that Mike says early in the book that the only way to combat the uncertainty of the record business is to “reinvent yourself”; something he and his Beach Boys have never done.
It seems that Mike’s memoir is almost primarily used to cement the fact Mike did indeed supply the lyrics to many of the Beach Boys’ iconic songs. Here, again, I have to say that his assertion is almost unnecessary. I think that most Beach Boys scholars accept the fact that Mike was the primary lyricist of the band’s most iconic songs. I think it’s assumed that unless it’s Pet Sounds or SMiLE, Mike wrote the words. Turns out that it was the Wilson brother’s father, one-time manager Murry Wilson, who did not credit Mike on the paperwork filed for many early songs. Again I say, scholars can probably believe that Murry was half-a-crook and favoured his son getting rich over his sister’s smart aleck kid, Mike. So the problem for Mike here is not the people don’t know I wrote the words. The problem for Mike is I ain’t getting paid for writing the words. Which is a legit beef but I think his legacy as a lyricist is intact. It’s just that he is rightfully angry that Murry robbed him – and then sold the Beach Boys’ publishing company, Sea of Tunes, for a pittance.
I have some problems with Mike’s assessment of the litigation with Brian over the songwriting credits. From the outset, Mike notes that the lawyer he chooses to represent him prefers cases that involve “huge injustices” and those that pit “right versus wrong…good versus evil”. Is Brian evil here? Mike then takes pains to describe in cloak-and-dagger detail the sequence of events that lead to the sale of the Beach Boys catalogue, a sale that benefited only Brian/Murry. Mike dramatically describes the moment he knew that Brian was just as guilty as Murry had been. “(Brian) knew his father was trying to sell the catalog, and he approved it…I put my head down in my hands”. Now we are supposed to be mad at Brian. We are supposed to believe – as Mike evidently does – that Brian was in cahoots, an equal partner, in Murry’s robbing of Mike by selling the catalogue and not crediting Mike on the songs in the first place.
Now, Mike is Brian’s cousin but this leaves me to believe that my fellow Beach Boy scholars and I “know” Brian better than Mike does. As I’m reading this part, I’m yelling at the book “Mike, do you know Murry?!”. Brian Wilson was dominated by his father. The very idea that Brian was a willing participant in anything devious suffers when compared to a scenario where Murry just does whatever he wants. If Brian even knew anything about these shenanigans I’m sure Murry would have assured Brian’s acquiescence by manipulation and more bullying. The idea that Murry and Brian were equal partners in this theft is preposterous. Mike should know this. Keep in mind that Sea of Tunes was sold in 1969, a time when Brian Wilson was not at his strongest or sharpest. Not that I believe Brian could be “evil” at any point in his life.
It can be oversimplified by saying that Brian Wilson’s life can be cut into three phases, some running concurrently: trying to please his father, absorbed in making music and hiding out from the world. I don’t feel like during any of these phases he was really capable of anything as devious and clandestine as what Mike accuses him of. Throughout his discussion of the court case, Mike does continue to refer to “Brian’s lawyers”, suggesting that Mike himself knows that Brian is not the real culprit. Mike notes that Brian “admitted – to the dismay of his lawyers” that Mike wrote the lyrics. So, which is it, Mike? Evil Brian robbed you or gentle Brian is manipulated by others?
The trial ends with Mike and Brian agreeing on a settlement and Mike is rightfully credited with writing the lyrics to many classic songs. Now, Mike says, maybe Brian and he can get back to writing music together. Silly Mike. You think that’s ever gonna happen? Mike wraps this section by pondering Brian’s motives for selling Sea of Tunes. He says that drugs plus mental illness may have made Brian “susceptible” to his father’s demands.
Mike’s autobiography left me with a confirmation that he is not the official villain of the Beach Boys story. That honour perhaps goes to Murry Wilson or my beloved Capitol Records. Have I changed my mind about Mike? Not really. There are truths in the Beach Boys’ story that I don’t think you can deny. Brian Wilson made the band what they were and what they are today. Others contributed, yes. I give Mike credit. For what it’s worth, Mike Love is the original “front man”. Most bands benefit from a goof ball prancing around the stage and playing the crowd; think Mick Jagger, who started the same time as Mike but didn’t really master the front man thing until much later, or David Lee Roth. Mike’s bass voice was essential to the vocal blend. And, yes, he did write some iconic lyrics. But let’s talk turkey. “She got her daddy’s car and she cruised to the hamburger stand, now” and the like are perfect words to conjure up the joys of life. Yes, I like Mike’s lyrics but let’s face it; we’re not talking Dylan, Springsteen or even Billy Joel here.
Mike says rather tellingly that “for those who think Brian Wilson walks on water, I will always be the antichrist”. I wouldn’t go that far but the facts speak for themselves. Talking about the late ’60’s, Mike does admit that without Brian “we could never keep up”. When Brian is at the top of his game, so are the Beach Boys. When Brian crashes and burns, so do the Beach Boys. Mike can run the store but only Brian can create the merchandise. Case in point; Brian, captive to mental disease and adversely affected by drug use, crawls out of bed and creates “‘Til I Die”. Mike, healthy, fit and robust of mind, comes up with “Everyone’s in Love With You”. You see?
Talking about Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics for the SMiLE album, Mike says that the abstract lyrics wouldn’t “appeal to the masses”. He says that a band can only survive by making music people want to hear. And there is the oil and water part of the Beach Boys story. Art and commerce. Mike is limited in the art department so it stands to reason that he is a proponent of the commerce angle. The band’s 1976 album 15 Big Ones, Mike says, had rough sections. But he thought “we should release it before we lost the momentum” the band had built up with live shows and in the press. “You can’t dawdle in search of artistic perfection” he says. Indeed. Don’t forget; the one time Mike took complete charge of an album, the result was Summer in Paradise, the absolute worst album in the band’s history. It sold so poorly it put one of its distributors out of business – and you know what? Mike spends ZERO time talking about that album in his book.
Although throughout Good Vibrations Mike seems to be simply quoting from the documentary The Beach Boys: An American Band and he insists on transcribing for us lyrics we all know by heart, his book is an engaging read. Maybe he has got a bum steer. For sure it’s because of him that the Beach Boys – such as they are – continue to tour and generate revenue for others to this day. He was victimized by Murry, yes – but nowhere near as much as Brian was. Yes, he wrote some great lyrics and sang some great leads. But yes, he forever will be in Brian Wilson’s shadow. But don’t be sad, Michael. Most artists in history are in his shadow, too.