“California is the ultimate.”
That’s what Mike Love’s grandfather always used to say. Seems like an appropriate place to start the life story of one man who’s not only used the state as song fodder for over 50 years but also made a career out of exploiting its good vibrations.
In rock history, there probably isn’t a more divisive figure than Love, who’s fronted the Beach Boys for the entirety of the band’s existence. Some fans will find almost any fault with him, from the way he sings, to the way he dresses, to all of the alleged abuse he’s doled out to his cousin Brian Wilson over the years. Sometimes it seems like the only person who sees Mike Love as a hero is Mike Love, while the rest of the world sees him as a villain.
In his new memoir, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, he spends some ink discussing one of his most famous quotes, “Don’t fuck with the formula,” supposedly born upon hearing and rejecting Wilson’s newest musical direction. Love says, “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.”
Given the chance, Love would probably say the same about his whole life. Now, he attempts to set the record straight with his side of the story, something that fans historically weren’t, and aren’t, willing to hear. Within the pages of his book is much braggadocio, fanfare, and loftiness, but also a surprising amount of humanity. He fesses up when he was wrong, and he gives readers a glimpse behind the scenes on what it was like to be semi-sober in a band — and family — riddled with drug addicts, controlling personalities, and bad business moves.
Where Love is sentimental about the past, often reminiscing about how he was close with the Wilson family — brothers Dennis, Carl, but especially Brian — he’s also quick to dole out back-handed compliments to his revered cousin, insisting that Brian’s “genius” status was contrived by Beach Boys (and Beatles) publicist Derek Taylor. “I’m a Pisces, and Brian, a Gemini,” he writes, “and it is said that a Pisces writes out of inspiration, while a Gemini writes out of desperation.”
Though he claims to have addressed his cousin with “respect, even awe” during the experimental Pet Sounds sessions, a stance that’s controversial given the widespread opinion that he didn’t want to, well, fuck with the formula, Love implores that, given the chance, he could have made what many consider the jewel in the Beach Boys’ crown even better. “The conventional wisdom on Pet Sounds is that Brian needed a different lyricist who could connect with his feelings of longing and disillusionment…I could have done that for some of the tracks…maintaining Brian’s artistic vision while broadening its appeal.”
That may be partially true, as Pet Sounds was a commercial flop, which played a large part in Wilson’s downward spiral into drugs and depression. But Love subtly supports the skeptical notion that he wasn’t on board with the musical shift as he’d like people to, hopefully, come to believe. “I never saw [our music] as a catalyst for leading movements of changing policies,” he writes. “It was, instead, a way to lift spirits, to bring people together, to offer them an escape.”
“…One of the secrets to his genius: simplicity camouflaging complexity,” Love continues, talking about Wilson’s musical abilities. Ironically, he treats his own musicality like nothing less than a prodigal gift, even though including many of his lyrics here draws attention to their own simplicity. Not to mention that he’s once again extolling the virtues of “alliteration” when he really means another device like internal rhyming… or nothing at all.
The overarching theme of his memoir’s 400-plus pages is Love’s struggle to right the most heinous wrong of his life: the lack of credit for some of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits. He explicitly recounts the time spent penning lyrics to beloved tracks like “California Girls,” “Surfin’ USA,” and more, attempting to persuade the reader to his side instead of accepting the herd mentality that Brian Wilson is the genius and he’s just a frontman.
But as he himself says after finally winning his resulting court case against Wilson and a place for his name alongside his cousin’s on many of the Beach Boys’ songs, “The trial set the record straight, but it didn’t affect Brian’s reputation. By now, the myth was too strong, the legend too great. Brian was the tormented genius who suffered to deliver us his music — the forever victim…To Brian’s fans, he was beyond accountability.”
“For those who believe that Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.”
To be fair to Love, however, he does accept and even prides himself as his role as the most “business-minded Beach Boy,” often delineating the all-important relationship between “art and commerce,” a phrase that’s tossed out many times. His work ethic is never called into question, as he’s the only Beach Boy who’s been continuously hitting the ol’ dusty trail since the early ’60s.
His reasons largely go back, again, to proving his validity as songwriter. “I realized that the only way I could claim ownership of the songs that I had written, the only way I could stay connected to them, was to be a road dog: to rejoin the guys, get back onstage, and take or music to all four corners of the country and beyond.”
Nothing is off limits for Love; he addresses dalliances with Charles Manson and his Family, including the now much-publicized incident when Dennis Wilson shakily confessed he saw Manson murder a man and stuff his body in a well. He doesn’t pull punches on how he really feels about Beach Boys’ bandmate Al Jardine (“prickly,” “rude,” entitled”) or Brian Wilson’s wife, Melinda. He gives credit where credit is due, praising Carl Wilson, who, he says, was really the musical backbone of the Beach Boys from 1967 onward. And he’s actually — gasp! — likable at times when writing about his personal life, many failed marriages, and his attempt to rectify neglect of his kids by creating a familial atmosphere down the line.
He’s also quick to extoll the virtues of his spiritual beliefs as his center. On a fateful meditation retreat to Rishikesh, India, in 1967 — the same one that included the Beatles and their wives — Love decided to devote himself to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (The Beatles later claimed the guru duped them, provoking John Lennon to pen the song “Sexy Sadie” in retaliation.)
After that experience, Love’s spirituality becomes a major character in the book. He credits it for keeping his head on straight amid death threats, lawsuits, stressful tours, and the general hate he receives from Beach Boys fans on nearly a daily basis. Practicing transcendental meditation has, more than anything, provided him with the escape into his true self that he’s ostensibly been searching for his whole life.
“Perhaps saints or yogis have defied gravity,” he says, “but for mortals like me, I can only practice, cultivate these attributes of personal improvement, renew my energies, overcome my fears, push forward, and with the grace of God, transcend.”
Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy is out today. Find it on Amazon.