God Only Knows: The Story of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys & the California Myth Author: David Leaf

Book review by Larson Sutton

Author David Leaf occupies a unique space in the story of the Beach Boys; admiring as a devoted fan, then reporting, then befriending.  And if not for the fact that Leaf deftly walks the line between an objective journalist covering the band and a trusted confidante to its principal creative center, Brian Wilson, his near 500-page, newly updated definitive work concerning one of America’s more cherished pop rock groups may lack the gravitas to be considered as such.  Leaf trusts his transparency and his self-awareness to guide his decisions, and expresses that mindset often enough to reassure the reader, as well.  In other words, he’s quite aware of the value of- and the skeptics of the impartiality of- his unique position and perspective.

As such, Leaf effectively and conspicuously provides the necessary balance in the book’s previously issued first three-hundred pages, (covering up to 1978, then updated through 1985) and when it shifts in its latter half to focus more on Wilson, openly acknowledges how his relationship with the famed Beach Boy has changed in the interim.  It’s more than enough to assuage any concerns of bias, and with an artist as sensitive as Wilson, Leaf’s personal friendship is no doubt integral to Wilson’s trust and revelations.  Totaled, it makes for an equally fascinating latest update to the original, even if it leans more towards Wilson than his other bandmates.

The Beach Boys’ story and its accompanying myths and realities have grown only more intriguing and heartbreaking and illuminating in retrospect.  Decades of hindsight frames the Wilson brothers’ abusive father, their relationship to Charles Manson, their shifting musical, legal, and personal travails and triumphs, and their multiple achievements on record and on stage in even sharper relief than in the mid-‘80s when it was first re-issued.  With the insight of the additional material, the legacy of the band Leaf expressed in 1985 becomes more mid-point in the journey rather than conclusion, and who better to continue to detail the trip than the fan turned trusted friend?

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