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. 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 , he taught his younger siblings, Carl and Dennis, to harmonise by listening to the radio in their shared bedroom. They recruited their cousin, Mike Love, and school friend, Al Jardine, to complete the band. 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 the stage. 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. 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 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 is almost breezy; difficult subjects are dealt with honestly, but never in such detail as to become uncomfortable.
The strongest section of the book is when Wilson speaks candidly about his relationship with his late father. Beatings, shouting matches and the like were common, 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, though clearly the recording studio was his only truly safe space. But I Am Brian Wilson succeeds in shedding new light on Wilson’s remarkable life.