I Am Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman, Coronet £20

UNTIL his resurgence at the end of the 1990s with concerts of the music of the classic 1966 album Pet Sounds – including emotional evenings at Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium and London’s Royal Festival Hall that I was happy to witness – the picture most music fans had of the songwriting and record producing kingpin of the Beach Boys was of a damaged recluse. He worked on songs no-one got to hear at a piano which sat in an indoor sandpit, and when Paul McCartney called he refused to answer the door, because the Beatle had described Wilson’s song God Only Knows as his favourite single ever.

The Wilson we saw at those concerts – and all the tours that have followed – is clearly a damaged human being, but in a better place than he had been in years, surrounded by musicians who had only his best interests at heart. That was not the case the last time he published a memoir, a book he has claimed not to have read, far less written, when his life was being overseen by the ambitious Dr Eugene Landy.

Landy is just one of the malevolent presences that hover over I Am Brian Wilson. His ambitious father, Murry, is another, but then the stories of the violent upbringing Wilson and his late brothers Carl and Dennis endured are also not new. Yet the equanimity with which the 74-year-old Wilson revisits these back pages is charmingly serene. Ambivalent feelings towards the man who sired him are understandable, but the lack of outright condemnation of Landy is more interesting: Wilson seems determined to see the good side of almost everything, or at least not add to the myth.

Here he is on Murry: “Lots of things have been written about my dad and way he treated me and my brothers. Lots of them are true. Some of them are dirty lies. I have said how hard it is for me to talk about my dad, and that’s partly because I want to get it right.”

Those few, characteristically short, sentences are indicative of the style and the substance of this book. Far from being tiresome, it becomes a compelling read. There is nothing about the Beach Boys story that has not been comprehensively picked over, as Wilson says. Journalist Steven Gaines’s thoroughly researched and sourced 1986 book Heroes and Villains was effectively the first and last word on the real story behind the toothy smiles, striped shirts and summer surf songs. So closely do some of Wilson’s own memories here resemble stories in that book, you wonder if that may be where Brian has found them.

But the revelation of I Am Brian Wilson does not lie in the correction of previous misreporting or the telling of startling new tales, it is in that tone of equanimity and acceptance that runs through it. Probably by no coincidence whatsoever, the other survivor of the earliest line-up incarnation of the Beach Boys, Mike Love, published his own autobiography, Good Vibrations, My Life as a Beach Boy, last month. It is concerned with exactly those things – settling old scores, making sure the contribution of the author is at the heart of the success stories and blameless of the disasters – and a typical self-serving rock’n’roll memoir.

It may equally be no coincidence that Brian Wilson’s memoir was published the day after World Mental Health Day, because its honesty about the author’s own mental health problems is what distinguishes it and what drives his version of events. He refers constantly to 1964 as “the year everything happened”, but the chief thing that happened to Brian that year was that he had some sort of a breakdown on a plane that was about to fly to Houston for a performance by the group, and was only ever a very part-time member of the live performing Beach Boys thereafter. I Am Brian Wilson is essentially a narrative of the author’s mental illness from then on, and an attempt to understand what precipitated that event. If it fails in the second task, it is invaluable in the former. It probably helps to be familiar with the Beach Boys saga before you pick it up – although it actually does a reasonable job of taking the reader through that, in its episodic way – because the extra layer of understanding that Wilson wants to share can then happily occupy the foreground.

As is the case with the late Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, the easy dismissal of Wilson as a mid-1960s acid casualty is wide of the mark. Just as he will not blame individuals, Brian is accepting no chemical excuses for his problems.

“The drugs weren’t something that I liked for themselves. They were ways of dealing with the fact that my head wasn’t right. But they didn’t solve a thing. With the drugs, in fact, came every other kind of problem. Bad days turned into bad months and then bad years. The music stopped almost completely. Or the music went on without me.”

It is my guess that the contribution of Wilson’s collaborator Ben Greenman lies chiefly in the non-chronological organisation of the book under meaningful chapter headings (“Family”; “Fathers and Sons”; “America”) rather than any modulation of that authorial voice. Given how little Wilson is given to saying either from the concert platform or in rare interviews, this autobiography of one of the most creative minds in 20th century popular music is clearly worth the reading, but the fact that it turns out to be an eloquent witness for a 21st century approach to mental illness may ultimately be its greater value.