Einstein on the Beach

BRIAN WILSON HAS BEEN DEAF IN HIS RIGHT EAR since childhood. He mixed the Beach Boys’ albums, including Pet Sounds, in mono because he couldn’t hear them any other way. “It was sort of like being robbed of something, some pleasure of life,” he said in 1976. “I’m not complaining, but it’s a little bit of a setback.” I think the deafness might explain why the left side of his mouth reaches up when he speaks, like he’s addressing his good ear. (The affect has become more pronounced with age, but it’s visible in footage from the 1960s.) “I got one ear left and your big loud voice is killin’ it,” Brian yelled at his father and former band manager, Murry Wilson, during 1965’s “Help Me, Rhonda” recording session. Murry, drunk but not untrue to his sober form, had been berating the guys for almost forty minutes as they tried to get down the vocals.

While Brian’s hearing loss is undisputed, its cause has never been confirmed. In his second, most recent autobiography, I Am Brian Wilson, Brian says another kid hit him in the head with a lead pipe. Previously, he claimed this disabling strike came from Murry and, on other occasions, said he was born that way. His mother, speaking as the universal repository of a family’s medical history, said it could have been congenital or that it could have come from a fight with a neighbor. Except for the time when, according to Brian’s cousin and fellow band member Mike Love, she said Murry inflicted it by hitting young Brian in the head with an iron. Doctors couldn’t deduce the cause. Sometimes, no amount of information gathering yields an answer.

I tend to be a finicky reader, but I’ve yet to regret the time spent on any material about the Beach Boys, no matter how contested and familiar the claims. Without complaint, I’ll read another paragraph about original Beach Boys member Al Jardine briefly quitting the band before they released “Surfin’ U.S.A.” because he thought their success was over. Or the tyrannical, recently fired Murry failing to upstage his sons with his flop Beach Boys rip-off, the Sunrays, who opened for the Boys a few times and still couldn’t get any commercial traction. Here comes the usual anecdote about Brian writing “California Girls” while tripping on acid, though in both his autobiographies, he describes writing it immediately after the drug wore off. In a recent documentary, he says its composition happened a week later. Then there’s the oft-told tale of Mike and Brian composing “The Warmth of the Sun” in a half hour after the assassination of JFK, even though in his autobiography, Mike says it was written the night before—which would explain why the lyrics are about a woman instead of a dead president. I’d probably be happy to be reading the Beach Boys’ Wikipedia entry while on my deathbed, smiling and nodding at the three-hundredth encounter with the fact that their name was bestowed upon them by a record exec, and they didn’t know it until the release of their first single, “Surfin’.” I’m not trying to be an expert or out-pedant fellow fans. I just like thinking about the Beach Boys because I feel grateful for them.

The Beach Boys advertisement image, Billboard magazine, June 29, 1963.
The Beach Boys advertisement image, Billboard magazine, June 29, 1963.

Steven Gaines’s 1986 book, Heroes & Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, stands out for its willingness to sideline details about the irresistible music in favor of equally irresistible gossip about affairs, drugs, and fistfights. The result is a collection of remembrances and allegations that could hold the interest of someone who’s never even heard “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” There are other places to look if you want a reverie on Carl Wilson’s legendary vocal on “God Only Knows.” This is the book in which famously mild-mannered Carl gets so excited when he hears their first song on the radio that he—intentionally, maybe?—drinks milkshakes until he barfs, and, by the ’70s, has become an admitted cocaine addict who so spectacularly falls during a concert in Australia that he’s made to apologize at a press conference the next day.

Gaines doesn’t divulge how he earned the confidence of so many ex-wives, collaborators, and intimates. Perhaps he’s a very charming man—or maybe the Beach Boys, like other rock celebrities, attracted fame-hungry and shameless people eager to stake their claim to the legacy. (This is indisputably true for the vile Rocky Pamplin, a model and aspiring singer who, according to Gaines, began a Machiavellian affair with Brian’s wife Marilyn in the three years that he acted as Brian’s bodyguard, then left her cruel, anti-Semitic messages after she fired him. He also, for no apparent reason, joined Mike Love’s brother, Stanley Love, in ambushing and brutally beating Brian’s brother Dennis Wilson. “We broke our hands the first couple of punches,” Pamplin brags to Gaines. “We slammed his head against the bedboard twelve times.”) The book is sometimes dismissed as too sensationalistic to be true, but Gaines appears scrupulous about noting when participants’ stories contradict, and he includes an abundance of direct quotes.

Another mark in favor of its veracity is that the pugnacious, grudge-holding Mike Love takes no apparent issue with Heroes & Villains. In his autobiography, he singles out other authors for misrepresenting the band’s history but mentions Gaines without negative commentary. This is especially fascinating given that Gaines says Mike beat his second wife, Suzanne, while she was pregnant and hired a private detective to help him gain sole custody of their children to punish Suzanne for an alleged affair with Dennis, Mike’s long-standing sexual rival. In Mike’s own retelling, he defends his position  by saying he heard Suzanne once left their two children alone with infamous Manson acolyte Susan Atkins—though he never asked Suzanne if this was true. (In a baffling unforced error, Mike also admits that he toured too much to spend time with his kids.)

Mike is exceptionally unlikable, but Gaines can’t devote too much space to him, given the abundance of details about other parties. Dennis is probably the most sordid figure, according to Gaines’s reporting: he allows the Manson family to live with him for months, coaxes almost $100,000 out of his girlfriend, Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie, manages to marry four times before his death at age thirty-nine, and impregnates a teenager who was likely Mike’s daughter and therefore his own cousin once removed. And if the book hadn’t predated many of the Beach Boys’ legal disputes—Mike Love suing Brian and, separately, Al Jardine; the restraining order granted in 1992 for Brian against nefarious, disgraced doctor Eugene Landry; and Brian’s ex-wife Marilyn suing Brian for royalties—it would have been twice as long.

None of this tawdriness spoils the music of the Beach Boys because their music is unspoilable. It can’t be ruined by banal, sexist lyrics or my thousands of listens over dozens of years or by exposure to the members’ worst qualities. Learning about their struggles and failures only makes their achievements more impressive by highlighting the improbability of collaborative excellence, the creative miracle. Dennis wasn’t supposed to be in the band, but Wilson matriarch Audree asked the guys to include him. Al Jardine dropped out, came back in time to sing the lead on “Help Me, Rhonda,” and has stayed for decades of records and tours. Mike Love, that bastard, came up with “round round, get around, I get around” because the existing words were “pussy lyrics” that he refused to sing. Brian was born never to hear stereo, abused horribly by his father, and saddled with mental illness and drug addiction, and yet he wrote some of the most perfect songs the world has ever known.

That sort of inexplicable, felicitous triumph is what we generally call fate, and regardless of how it feels to its players in the moment, from a distance, it looks like a brush with the divine. Brian’s talent—and for all the important contributions made by the band’s cast of characters over the years, Brian’s compositions are the nucleus of the glory—is inextricable from his experience of music as a channel to God, a way to examine and take solace from the fear that’s dominated his life. You don’t have to research much about the Beach Boys before you realize that Brian is freaked out by everything:  interviews, touring, the ocean, the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.” He wrote “Good Vibrations” while dwelling on his mother’s suggestion that dogs react to people based on vibrations: “It scared me to death.” His famous 1965 remark that he’d one day create “songs that people pray to” registers as typical rock-star arrogance if you ignore the fact that he needed songs he could pray to, too. “Voices were the problem,” he says of his mental illness, “but also the answer.” Music—harmony—was how he found God in his tenderness and terror.

The human voice is the most celestial instrument, and when it combines with others, the effect is transcendent. Family voices are uncannily moving when united in song because of genetic similarities and intimacy; if you grow up together, you’re more likely to pronounce words the same way, which makes the blend more seamless. The only Beach Boys covers I can tolerate are instrumentals because listening to other singers try to riff on perfection is unbearable. And though Brian’s productions are brilliant—the instrumental version of “Good Vibrations” is a deeply satisfying song in its own right—the voices turn a listener inside out. The a cappella version of 1965’s “Kiss Me, Baby” is, for me, as sublime as the whole production of “God Only Knows.”

Brian wrote of making Pet Sounds, “I looked around at the musicians and the singers, and I could see their halos.”

The boys weren’t angels. They sang like them anyway.

Charlotte Shane is a cofounder of TigerBee Press and the author of Prostitute Laundry (TigerBee Press, 2016).