biography

Long Promised Road

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.22.43 PMBooks about the Beach Boys tend to focus on Brian Wilson, depicting him as the “mad genius” behind the band’s music. Such accounts trace his evolution from a surf-pop wunderkind to the architect behind the masterful Pet Sounds album, then dwell almost lasciviously on the mental breakdown surrounding the recording of the long-deferred Smile album before turning to his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the troubling relationship with the Svengali-like therapist who took over Wilson’s life. While such narratives are certainly valid, they tend to ignore other members of the band—in particular Carl Wilson, the youngest of the brothers who formed the heart of the band. In Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys, Kent Crowley aims to correct that.

Less of a counter-narrative than a complementary one, Crowley depicts Carl Wilson as the emotional and musical center of the band, particularly during the years when Brian’s contributions were negligible. In Carl’s early childhood, he was a somewhat reluctant partner in his older brother’s musical machinations, only singing along with Brian under duress and as a result of maternal intercession. Yet as the band started coming together, Carl’s talents as a guitarist and his natural ear for music made him Brian’s closest confidant and later ensured his role as the band’s musical director as the oldest Wilson brother drifted further out of the picture.

As Crowley makes clear throughout the book, a combination of talent and compassion allowed Carl to hold the Beach Boys together through some of the band’s leanest years. Yet even in these lean years, Carl emerges as somewhat of a creative dynamo, crafting some of the finest, albeit most obscure, music the Beach Boys ever created. Indeed, part of the heartbreak of reading Crowley’s account of the band is seeing Carl’s desire to push the band ever forward on the artistic front while personal, financial, and cultural concerns gradually transformed the band into a nostalgia act built almost entirely on the legend of Brian’s genius.

Needless to say, Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in Beach Boys lore. While Crowley’s extensively researched and emotionally sensitive biography can’s fully extricate Carl from that shadow, it succeeds in shining a well-deserved spotlight on the brother whose love for his family and the beautiful music they created together kept the band alive when the rest of the world appeared to have given up on them.

Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story

Fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater will find a familiar figure in Doris Buffett, the subject of Michael Zitz’s new biography, Giving It All Away. Like the fictional Rosewater, Buffett (the sister of legendary investor Warren Buffett), has made it her life’s mission to share her fortune with people in need. As with Rosewater, many who seek aid from Buffett are individuals who, through no fault of their own, have fallen upon hard times, and it’s not uncommon for Buffett to personally telephone those who request her help. Unlike Rosewater, however, Buffett was not — as some might imagine — born into wealth. Indeed, a good portion of Giving It All Away focuses on Buffett’s early years, during which she endured the verbal abuse of her emotionally distant mother.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the stormy relationship between herself and her mother, Buffett gravitated toward adults who could provide a template for the kind of woman she would one day become. Most notably, a widow named Florence Post opened her eyes not only to cultural issues but to the value of kindness as well, planting the seed of philanthropy and, more important, resilience in Buffett’s heart at an early age. In her life, Buffett has overcome depression, failed marriages, and bankruptcy, and if there’s one thing that these experiences have taught her, it’s that everyone encounters bad luck from time to time.

Though Giving It All Away returns frequently to the subject of her generosity, Buffett also emerges as a complex “character” in her own right throughout the narrative. Most notably, Buffett’s involvement with anti-communist politics and her subsequent work with the Barry Goldwater campaign in the early 1960’s stands in stark contrast to her eventual support of Barrack Obama in 2008 and her interest throughout the last two decades in what might, for better or worse, be termed “liberal” causes. The irony, of course, is not lost on Buffett, who is quoted as saying, “There used to be a myth that communists were trying to take over America by influencing the five percent of college students who were most intelligent and the most sensitive… Now I’m trying to do the same thing.”

Ultimately, Giving It All Away paints Buffett as a social pragmatist. Though seemingly “liberal” on the surface, the causes she has supported over the years are all, in her estimation, beneficial to the whole of society. For example, as many states slashed funding for education programs in prisons, Buffett got behind many such programs and kept them afloat. Her reasoning was simple: although some might argue that criminals don’t deserve a “free” education, statistics show dramatically reduced rates of recidivism among those who have completed degree programs. For Buffett, then, supporting these and similar programs is pure common sense.

Inspirational without being syrupy, Giving It All Away does for readers what the caring adults in Buffett’s youth did for her: it gives us a template for generosity and, borrowing a phrase that gets repeated throughout the book, challenges us to pay our good fortune forward.