Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Surfin' Salieri

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 22-23, 2016

Brian Wilson had genius, while Mike Love only had talent. That is the standard thing to say about the two dominant personalities of the Beach Boys. The tortured but indispensable Wilson wrote the irresistible tunes and created the richly textured arrangements. Love, the all-American Everyman, supplied skills of a more practical, material kind. He had rangy good looks. He sang some but not all of the lead vocals; wrote some but not all of the best lyrics; became the touring band’s gawkily bopping front man after Brian, crippled by stage fright and mental illness, retired from performing to stay home and write songs.

Love, with some justification, thinks this conventional version of the Beach Boys story sells him a bit short. It’s not that he minds Wilson being called a genius; indeed he’s happy to call him one himself. But Love resents the notion that the remaining Boys were “Brian’s puppets,” or “nameless components in Brian’s music machine.” His new memoir is an attempt to set the record straight – to write his way out of Brian’s shadow. The book is called Good Vibrations, but I believe I picked up a few bad vibrations in it too. For an adept of Transcendental Meditation, Love sure knows how to nurse a grudge. 

In some ways you can’t blame him. For decades he was denied proper credit, and therefore proper royalty payments, for his lyrics. When he sued Wilson for restitution, he won. But the settlement he accepted was a mere “fraction of what I could have collected.” Worse still, the court ruling put no dent in Brian’s reputation as the band’s lone auteur. “The myth,” according to Love, “was too strong, the legend too great.” Meanwhile, the legend had acquired a subplot. In the minds of a certain Love-hating faction of fans, poor old Mike had thoroughly established himself as the band’s villain. Not only was he not a genius. He was a bit of a twerp too. “For those who believe that Brian walks on water,” as Love now puts it, “I will always be the Antichrist.”

Well, his timing is certainly diabolical. At the very moment when Love has made this carefully reasoned attempt to overhaul the narrative, Brian Wilson has published a near-simultaneous memoir of his own, called I am Brian Wilson. And while Love’s book is merely pretty decent, Wilson’s turns out to be freakishly, genre-transcendingly good: a rock memoir of genius, if ever there was one. Love, it seems, just can’t catch a break. He may not be the Antichrist, but he does call to mind another thwarted historical figure. He’s a surfin’ Salieri, forever doomed to be outshone by Wilson’s flaky Amadeus.

In addition to being his musical collaborator-slash-nemesis, Mike Love is Brian Wilson's cousin. (Love's mother was the sister of Wilson's father.) The other founding Beach Boys were Brian’s younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, and a family friend named Al Jardine. The band got a recording contract in 1962, after which things happened fast, even by sixties standards. In 1963 the band released three albums, and their single “Surfin’ USA” charted at number two. In 1964, which Wilson calls “the year of everything,” they released four albums and five singles (including “I Get Around,” their first number one) and played more than a hundred shows in Europe, America and Australia (where the Joy Boys invited them to an orgy). In December of that same year, Wilson “freaked out” on a plane, quit playing live, and bunkered down to explore the possibilities of the recording studio. The Pet Sounds album, released in 1966, would prove the summit of the group’s achievement. An attempt at a follow-up record, Smile, flamed out on the launch pad; Brian, who was still just 25, was fast withdrawing into a miasma of depression, paranoia and psychedelic self-medication. In 1967 the band had its last number one single, “Good Vibrations.” From that time on, Love says, “something was missing.” 

It’s hard to disagree with that. Technically the band still exists and tours, although the 75-year-old Love, who enjoys an exclusive grip on the live naming rights, is the last original performer. Dennis Wilson drowned in the early eighties; Carl died of cancer in the late nineties; Brian now records and plays as a solo artist. For non-legal purposes one feels entitled to think of the Beach Boys in the past tense. Viewed in retrospect, their story looks heavily front-loaded. For three or four years, a long time ago, almost everything they touched turned to gold. Then came the long fade: the numberless Greatest Hits records, the ossifying of the live setlist, the general sense of flogging a decreasingly vital horse. Or as Brian puts it with deadpan candour: “There were always reissues and repackaging of old albums, almost every year, and they got thicker and fancier. Usually there was a sun somewhere on the cover. Most of them were the same songs rearranged …”  

Whatever the latest version of the Greatest Hits is called, though, it will always sound gloriously fresh. Nor can it be denied that Love’s verbal contributions are a good part of the reason why. A song like “Fun, Fun, Fun,” gets a lot of its verve from its compact, propulsive lyrics. “Well she got her daddy’s car and she cruised through the hamburger stand now / Seems she forgot all about the library like she told her old man now.” There’s a lot of movement and freedom and Americana crammed into those opening lines. If Wilson is to be called a genius for writing the melody, then surely Love was a kind of genius too, for supplying words that so perfectly matched the tune's jauntiness. 

Love, it emerges, wrote his best lyrics at a cracking pace. He came up with “California Girls” in “less than an hour”; he dictated the whole of “Good Vibrations” during a twenty-minute car ride. But there was solid craft in the way he carpentered the words to the tunes. Revising the original lyric of “Help me Rhonda,” he tweaked the phrase “ruined our plans” to “shattered our plans” for the sake of assonance. “It’s only one word, but you get very few words in any given song or poem, so each one counts.” 

Love calls his collaboration with Wilson “a triumph of both art and commerce.” As a rule, he sounds far more likeable when talking about the art than the commerce. Unfortunately, he talks about the commerce a lot. Defiantly flaunting his status as “the most business-minded member of the Beach Boys,” Love feels no urge to cringe when discussing the tackier aspects of the band’s CV: the corporate sponsorships, the cameos on horrible sitcoms, the hangs with Nancy Reagan and George Bush Senior. “I've always,” he writes at one point, “liked playing in smaller markets.” Markets? Must everything be tainted with the language of economics? But Love doesn’t bother to sanitise such stuff, since he doesn’t consider it unsanitary in the first place. It’s just the way he thinks. “Every performance was like convening a very large focus group,” he says elsewhere. “I knew which songs resonated.”

Love sounds like a cocksure sort of guy: you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet him. But his hyper-confidence makes his book an unusually honest one. Because he thinks he’s always right, he leaves nothing out. Indeed his memoir has a panoramic clarity that Wilson’s lacks: if you don’t know much about the Beach Boys, Love’s is the better book to start with. Wilson throws his story out in a staccato, out-of-sequence way; he seems to assume that the reader will already be pretty well-steeped in Beach Boys lore. Such an approach is unusual in a rock memoir. But it ends up being brilliantly unusual, like Wilson himself.  

Love should count himself lucky not to be a genius, if being one means having to live with the package-deal of misfortunes and afflictions that have been visited on Wilson since birth. For starters he had a domineering and violently abusive father. He also had a predisposition to depression and anxiety. As a child he was whacked with a lead pipe by a neighbourhood ruffian, leaving him 95% deaf in one ear. His habit of singing and talking out of the other side of his face makes him look, by his own admission, like a stroke victim, or the recipient of a dentist’s needle. At the age of 22 he began hearing voices in his head. The extent to which these hallucinations can be blamed on his then-prodigious appetite for LSD remains unclear. He is still plagued by voices today, even while performing. He spent a good chunk of the seventies and eighties being overmedicated by a mysterious guru named Dr Gene Landy, whose interventions converted him into a housebound zombie.

How does all this feel from the inside? The greatest achievement of Wilson’s book is that it gets his unique inner world on to the page intact, by distorting the memoir form in various unexpected and disorienting ways. Instead of starting with the author's childhood, the book plunges straight into a chapter called “Fear,” which describes, in a series of short deadpan sentences, an average day in Wilson's current life. The author gets out of bed; he goes downstairs; he sits in his armchair. “It’s my command center. I can sit there and watch TV … I love watching Eyewitness News. The content is not very good, but the newscasters are pleasant to watch. They have nice personalities. They also give you the weather.” Uneventful as this sounds, it’s an improvement on what Wilson managed to achieve during the nineties, when he used to watch his TV without even bothering to turn it on. “I don’t mean I was watching a show or anything. It was just the set. I liked thinking about all the things that used to be on it, all the shows I had ever seen.”

Piling up on top of each other in slow, affectless drifts, sentences like that give you some idea of what it must feel like, roughly, to be Brian Wilson. It seems a fair bet that Ben Greenman, Wilson’s co-author, deserves a lot of credit for creating this uncanny effect. A lesser ghostwriter would have smoothed away Wilson’s weirder edges, including his thoughts about Eyewitness News, and would have whipped his story into more or less conventional shape. Celebrity ghostwriters have a tendency to iron out their subjects' quirks, as if their job is to make each new celebrity memoir sound like every other celebrity memoir. But Greenman has made a refreshing effort to preserve Wilson’s eccentricities, and let them soak deep into the book’s fabric.

Thus Wilson, as a narrator, has an eerie habit of discussing, as if we should know them, people he has never mentioned before. On page 12 the enigmatic Dr Landy, having so far received just one fleeting mention, suddenly walks out of Wilson’s front door forever, with an oddly perfunctory cry of “I am leaving because I lost my licence … Bye, Brian.” To find out who Landy is, and what he was ever doing there, we have to wait until Wilson’s thoughts loop back to him in another context. 

Wilson’s father, too, circles into the text and then back out of it, ominously. “The things with my dad happened almost from the beginning,” Wilson writes early on, “but I’ll talk about them later.” He doesn’t want to discuss these things prematurely, because “it’s easy to misunderstand them, even for me.” When Wilson is finally ready to tackle the father theme in earnest, something odd happens. The book entirely shakes off the limits of its genre. It dawns on you that you’re reading a moving and highly intelligent piece of writing. Wilson’s prose turns out to be a literary instrument, sensitive enough to register how it feels to hate and fear and love a person at the same time. 

There were times, Wilson says, when his father could “make me regret that I was alive.” But he could be tender as well, and Wilson needs us to know that. He has an artist’s urge to get all the nuances in. He also feels ethical pangs, as all serious memoirists do. Since his father is “not here to explain himself,” Wilson feels bound to do the explaining for him, or to try. Also Wilson finds that the memory of his father’s bullying has faded, for a reason he explains with a typically casual stroke of philosophy. “At the time it wasn’t something I liked at all, but over time you had more memories and less time to think about them.”

Wilson’s book is full of stuff as startlingly good as that. It’s also illuminated, along the way, by sudden lightning-flashes of insight into the world of mental illness. Wilson knows that his condition is, by definition, very difficult to describe to the non-sufferer. Watching him from the outside, when he’s on a stage or being interviewed, you see a man who apparently doesn’t want to be there. His book gets you beyond appearances and makes you understand how things feel from his side – how mental illness is “a struggle every single day, so you have to invent ways of getting through it.”  

The way that Brian made complexity sound simple, Mike Love says, was “one of the secrets to his genius.” Allied with that gift was his knack for transmuting turmoil into beauty, often with the aid of Love’s sunny lyrics. Both Wilson and Love have written books that burrow fearlessly back the other way, and expose the messy, discordant truths that underlay the harmony. Neither man pretends to be perfect, or anywhere near it. But together, for a while, they made songs for which perfect is the only word.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 12-13, 2016 

Jimmy Barnes has been trying to get the story of his childhood off his chest since the early nineties. He had abandoned the project twice when a viewing of the movie Snowtown impelled him to push through with it once and for all. “The floodgates opened and I couldn’t hold back the past any longer.” When Snowtown serves as a trigger for the remembrance of things past, it’s a fair sign your childhood was less than ideal. 

This isn’t, then, a memoir of its author’s career as a rock star. When Barnes brings the book to a close, he has only just joined an obscure Adelaide band called Cold Chisel. Nor is there any other sense in which this book resembles the typical celebrity memoir. Most star autobiographers have nothing urgent to say; their books aren’t driven by the impulses that make a real writer write. 

Barnes’s book is, to a startling degree. He doesn’t just have a scarifying story to tell. He has a grippingly effective way of telling it: one that does full justice to the grim facts without overcooking them. The result is a stunning piece of work – relentless, earnest, shockingly vivid. The identity of its author is incidental, and in some ways even distracting. After all, you don’t open a book by Jimmy Barnes expecting a classic of Australian autobiography. But I submit that he has written one, by revisiting the Dickensian squalors of his childhood in a spirit of near-fanatical honesty. 

The book’s early pages don’t prepare you for what’s coming. The author sounds, for a while, like the genial latter-day Barnesy. He cracks some awkward jokes. He offers some thoughts about drinking and oblivion that sound, for the moment, like sketchy generalisations. Only later does it become apparent what Barnes is doing in these opening pages. He is nervously clearing his throat, finding the right tone to talk about the all-too-detailed horror show that only he knows is coming. 

Barnes spent the first five years of his life in Scotland, in a rough suburb of Glasgow called Cowcaddens. His mother was a formidable and sometimes violent woman with a “voice that sounded like an open razor, slashing everything it came close to.” His father was a champion boxer and abject alcoholic, with a habit of drinking away money that might otherwise have fed and clothed his children. Jimmy was one of six: three boys and three girls. Many of his first memories revolve around hunger. He remembers worse things too. One night in Cowcaddens, one of his sisters was dragged away by a stranger and assaulted. Barnes is hazy on the details – he can’t even recall which sister it happened to. But half-remembered horrors will turn out to have been a staple of the Barnes childhood, along with fully remembered ones. 

When Jimmy was five, the family emigrated to South Australia, where their first home was a stifling tin hut in a migrant camp. By day the kids got to play barefoot in the sunshine. By night, however, they were obliged to return to their cramped and terrifying shed. Barnes is now sixty, but he has forgotten no detail of how it feels to be a child living in an atmosphere of violence. “Every punch and threat that Mum and Dad threw around hit each of us as if we’d been thrown against the wall.” 

Nor did things improve much when the family moved to a tiny house in Elizabeth, a new suburb on the fringe of Adelaide. “The flights were getting more intense, more extreme, and we were in more danger.” The children hid in a cupboard while glass and furniture smashed outside. Nobody came to save them. Narrating these scenes, Barnes builds a sense of dread. He gives each bad thing its proper weight. But he makes it plain that worse things will be happening soon. 

One of them happened when Barnes was around nine. “One morning, I woke up and mum wasn’t there.” Unable to cope, his mother had simply fled the house. She stayed away for something like two years, although Barnes has a hard time recalling exactly “how old I was or how long this nightmare went on for.” 

Nominally, the children spent this period in the care of their father. Effectively they raised themselves, in a house that soon became a hovel. It was Lord of the Flies in Australian suburbia. Their father was rarely present and conscious simultaneously. Barnes’s oldest sister stole money from him for food. Barnes recalls getting through the week on sacks of potatoes so heavy that the children couldn’t carry them from the shop; they had to drag them along the ground. 

Barnes has unusually vivid memories of being nine, but one doesn’t envy him for it. His perceptions were sharpened by fear and deprivation. At one point his younger sister adopted some stray cats who used the potato bag as a toilet. Barnes recalls “gagging at the sink” while scrubbing cat shit off the last few potatoes. Eating them sickened him, but he was too hungry not to force them down. 

When the Barnes children were on the brink of becoming wards of the state, their mother, who in the meantime had acquired a saintly new husband, took them back in. For a handful of pages, things look up for the book’s hero. And then, for reasons that Barnes still can’t fathom, his mother moved the family back to Elizabeth – the scene of Barnes’s nightmares. When she stepped back into that “void,” Barnes says, “she dragged us with her.” 

After that, a different kind of bad time started. In his teens, Barnes was routinely involved in near-homicidal episodes of street violence. “These fights were not just about knocking people down, they were about hurting people as much as you could.” 

Some of the violence is unbelievable. Barnes scarcely seems to believe it himself. There is so much of it that it would numb you, if Barnes were a lesser storyteller. But he knows how to make startling things sound startling – probably because he has never stopped being startled by them himself. Also he gives the violence meaning, by showing how its roots lay in fear. He is in a good position to know. He spent a lot of his childhood being violent. He spent all of it being terrified. 

Barnes has a knack for making words echo and embody the barren, hardscrabble atmosphere of his former life. Whether he found the book’s style instinctively, or had to work at it, I don’t know. But as he careers towards the harrowing central chapters, he stops cracking jokes. He starts writing like a man possessed. His scenes get shorter; they come tumbling out of him fast, as if he needs to get each thing out of his head as efficiently as possible. 

One story starts off like this: “I’m not sure when or why this next thing happened but it was horrible.” This sentence will fill you with an almost visceral dread, if you’ve followed Barnes to this point. You know, by now, that he has an unusually high bar for what makes a horrible incident. 

Further on, deeper in, another chapter begins: “Someone was messing with the kids.” Having made that arresting start, Barnes gradually expands on his theme. A friend of the family had an older teenaged son “and he was a fucking deviant. It seems he was messing around with all the kids.” 

Does this mean he messed around with Jimmy too? Barnes doesn’t know, but he suspects that he probably did. He is writing blind, addressing things that he and his siblings have never discussed with one another, much less with anyone else. “I am writing from what I feel; I don’t really know any facts.” 

Barnes writes about these things with deep anger; but he knows how to use his anger as fuel, so that it keeps his book hurtling forward instead of burning holes through it. If he sometimes sounds like a man in therapy, it’s because he is one. The book is an act of purgation. 

Barnes’s honesty is total; it overwhelms and absolves the book’s weaknesses. Early on, he displays a worrying tendency to crack off-the-shelf jokes. “A Glaswegian could start a fight at a funeral, even his own.” Such second-hand gags have a way of stopping a book in its tracks, and for a while you wonder why nobody weeded Barnes’s out. And then he says, after cracking one of them: “I shouldn’t joke but laughing is the only way I have got through most of my life.” Under normal circumstances this would sound like a cliché. But the circumstances are far from normal – by the time he says this, Barnes has already given you some sense of the life he’s had to get through. So the cliché reconstitutes itself as a genuine insight. Suddenly you see that his jovial, fast-talking persona is a kind of nervous tic, a band-aid covering a still-open wound. 

In a similar way, the preface of the book contains some stock phrases about how Barnes’s parents tried their best in tough conditions. These are conventional pieties; and no doubt they are perfectly true, in a sense that doesn’t get us very far. But Barnes, while uttering them, temporarily sounds like a man saying what he ought to say, not what he really thinks. 

Unfortunately he sounds far more convinced, and convincing, when furiously and extensively evoking the damage his parents inflicted while doing their worst. At times he seems to write himself into a kind of trance, as if channeling his abandoned younger self. Here he is leaving home for good, taking a jacket that once belonged to his older brother, who has left too: 

He left it with the rest of the rubbish. The shit he didn’t want to see anymore. I was part of that rubbish, now that I think of it. So were the rest of the family. I don’t blame him. I don’t want to see him or any of this again either. 

What makes this so effective is that it’s not written for effect. Barnes’s only aim is say how he felt at the time. But his hair-raising commitment to the facts, and his shocking lack of sentimentality, forge a memorable style. He could have written the kind of book prized by Oprah, if he’d wanted to milk his story for sympathy. But there are no requests for pity here, no wallowing in victimhood. Above all there is a bracing intolerance of bullshit. On God he says simply: “If he was up there he should’ve looked down on us a little more often; things might have been better. Now it’s too late; I don’t need him.” 

You can’t fake such a tone. You have to earn it. One would like to claim Barnes’s voice as quintessentially Australian, although one would have to concede that its central toughness was imported from Glasgow. Also, before we get too patriotic, we need to grasp the ugly fact that the Australian suburbs, in the process of forging Barnes, very nearly killed him. 

But he survived, and became the front man of Australia’s greatest rock band. Then he had a second career as a solo artist. Those achievements, you might have thought, were more than enough for one man. But now he’s accomplished something new and wholly unexpected, by flinging down, from out of the blue, this rugged, haunting book.