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The Beach Boys Heroes And Villains: The True Story Of The Beach Boys by Steven Gaines (1995)


There’s something to be said for trashy biographies, as long as a reader is somewhat prepared to take what he or she reads at less than face value. “Heroes & Villains” has undeniable readability, throws up some arresting caricatures that must bear some proximation to the subjects described, and is more lurid than mean-spirited in its design.

But you really wonder about factual accuracy with a book about a group of pop music giants that manages to misspell the names of Jimi Hendrix, Glen Campbell, and Sam Cooke. That’s a rock, country, and soul trifecta for those keeping score, not to mention Campbell was briefly a member of the Beach Boys’ touring band. Or how about a book that is ostensibly about the Boys but spills more ink about the bodyguard who had an affair with Brian Wilson’s wife than it does on Al Jardine or Bruce Johnston, actual members of the band?

At least Gaines throws in a kind mention of Bruce Johnston’s classic “Disney Girls (1957),” which was nice for this fan to read. It’s more notable because there’s not much attention in this book to the Beach Boys music, other than their earliest, career-making singles, “Good Vibrations,” and the Pet Sounds album. He skims over so much there’s no mention of such classics as “Wendy,” “Do It Again,” “Little Honda,” “Come Go With Me,” “All Summer Long,” and “Good Timin’.” There’s nothing said of “Kokomo” either, though since the book was published in 1986, two years before that final number-one hit was released, you can’t blame Gaines for missing it. (If only the Beach Boys had.)

The advantage of Gaines approach is you do get drawn in, right away as he begins by recounting the last hours of Dennis Wilson’s troubled life, then back-pedals to the abusive Hawthorne, CA household where frustrated songwriter Murry Wilson browbeats and, at times, just beats his three sons into becoming the closest answer America ever had to the Beatles. Murry is one guy you can’t worry about being too unfair with, and to his credit, Gaines attempts to separate fact from fiction with this nasty fellow.

But the book sags notably once the band’s career takes off. Gaines can’t really focus on the music, or even on the band’s upward trajectory or its influence on popular culture. His interest is exclusively on What Went Wrong. As a result, this reads at times more like an autopsy report than the history of a band so successful it became an institution. Unlike Gaines’ Beatles book, “The Love You Make,” there’s no narrative thread to sustain the story. The most wretched lowpoints are thrown up one after another with minimal context.

There’s fun to be had here, with a character list right out of Dickens, everyone seemingly scrambling to be more messed up than the next. Brian and Dennis Wilson are obvious centers of attention, as is a manager who apparently got the bright idea of moving America’s Band to the Netherlands just so he could have a cozier place to be with his boyfriend. A succession of managers, wives, girlfriends, and hangers-on create an environment so chaotic and dysfunctional you are hardly surprised when the Manson Family drops in for an extended stay.

Brian’s ’70s excesses prompts one funny question from Gaines, “how a 240-pound, unwashed, emotionally-disturbed man could wind up with three women fighting over him?” The answer of course, is money and fame can blind a lot of people. The problem is, in a different way, it blinds Gaines, too, making him look less at the Beach Boys as confused mortals than as depraved gods making a gorgeous mess of their Mt. Olympus.

Unless you have some personal stake in the Beach Boys, and many do, there’s probably more to like in this book than not, provided you don’t take it seriously. The bitter recollections of hangers-on don’t really make for a definitive story, though the claims made in “Heroes & Villains” are the kind any serious biographer will need to address, which is more a good thing than not. I liked reading it more for entertainment than illumination, but I needed to take a shower when I was done.

June 15, 2013 Posted by | Book The Beach Boys Heroes And Villains: The True Story Of The Beach Boys by Steven Gaines | , | Leave a comment