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Brian Wilson


by Ellen Barnes

Everything about Brian Wilson — his stony, etched face, his weary blue eyes, his labored gait — seems to say: You wouldn't believe what's happened to me. The survivor of an abusive childhood as well as a devastating battle with drug abuse and mental illness, Brian mustered his mad, musical genius early on — almost as if his life depended on it. In many ways, it did. Scared into success by his megalomaniacal father, Brian overachieved as a means of reprieve from Murry Wilson's gruesome, one-eyed glare. Despite his struggles and setbacks, Brian's is an unlikely success story. He's continued to pile high his achievements — the trailblazing Pet Sounds, numerous studio and songwriting innovations, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Grammy Awards and so on — triumphing over the ugly tragedies on which his career was built and the personal problems that plagued his adulthood. Now nearly seventy years old, he's regarded the world over as one of the finest minds to ever set foot inside a studio and has inspired and endeared himself to the most extraordinary of his peers — Paul McCartney calls 1966's Pet Sounds "the classic of the century," while Pete Townshend says, "I love [Brian] so much it's just terrible; I find it hard to live with."

Brian Wilson

For all the trouble at home, you wouldn't know it if you were watching Brian from the bleachers at his Hawthorne, California high school. Wilson was the quarterback of his football team. Beach-blond, lithe and muscular, the California native threw touchdowns and also ran cross-country during the day. At night, he and his two younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, retreated to their bedroom to sing harmonies and fiddle with a Wollensak tape recorder, where Brian would capture early versions of Beach Boys' breakout hits "Sloop John B" and "Surfer Girl." Right off the bat, there wasn't much Brian couldn't do and do well. The late Murry Wilson — Brian's father and The Beach Boys' original manager — remembered that, by his first birthday, Brian could mimic lines of the patriotic tune "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along" and, by toddlerhood, Brian had discovered George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (which he retooled and released this past August). "Oh, I loved it," Brian told biographer Peter Ames Carlin of the Gershwin composition. "Looking back now, I can see what I heard, even if I couldn't express it in words back then. Listening to it now brings back some bad memories, because I had such a bad childhood. But good memories, too, because I loved that song."

Though Brian's father, Murry Wilson, has been dead for almost 40 years, his influence on Brian's troubled psyche remains. It is addressed it nearly every interview and belabored by each of his biographers, but for better or worse it drove Brian into music's waiting arms. A longtime aspiring songwriter, Murry encouraged Brian — the eldest of his three sons — to excel at music. According to many biographers, he also frequently beat up his son. After Brian unleashed a neighbor's puppy, Murry reportedly whacked the six-year-old with a 2'-x-4', causing Brian to permanently lose hearing in his right ear — a story that Brian has alternately corroborated and denied many times over the decades.

Brian was 19 when The Beach Boys assembled their original lineup of all three Wilson brothers, cousin Mike Love, and high school buddy Al Jardine. Capitalizing on the local surfing craze, the band (originally dubbed The Pendletones) earned overnight success in the California area with a queue of cheery songs about the water sport. Though the band was managed meticulously by Murry, who secured The Beach Boys their Capitol Records deal, Brian managed to exert control over their studio time, even negotiating a rare deal to pay for the band's own recording sessions in exchange for elevated royalties. In the studio, Brian was a perfectionist who took much of his inspiration from pioneering producer Phil Spector, with whom he was infatuated and to whom he would pay tribute by assigning Pet Sounds Spector's initials. During the early '60s, The Beach Boys enjoyed several hits, but their heyday proved to be relatively short-lived. After an on-flight panic attack in 1964, Brian hired singer Glen Campbell to replace him on tour so that he could stay behind to tool around in the studio. Though this break from the band was a harbinger of future problems, Brian used the time to create his masterpiece, Pet Sounds, before succumbing completely to his hang-ups — which included intimidation over The Beatles increasingly savvy albums.

Preferring the mechanics of songwriting to the pressures of performing, Brian holed up in the studio with lyricist Tony Asher and, in late 1965, he introduced The Beach Boys to his ideas for what would become Pet Sounds — one of the most influential and revolutionary albums of all time. Eschewing the straightforward live recording trend, Brian embraced the new 8-track technology and recorded and re-recorded layers of sound, playing with echo and reverberation, and introducing unconventional instrumentation, like bicycle bells and an Electro-Theremin, while keeping The Beach Boys' rapturous harmonies front and center. The result, released in 1966, was one of the most lush, complex and adventurous albums ever captured. Three months later, Brian reached even greater heights, releasing the sonic tour de force "Good Vibrations," which became the band's third #1 hit.

Fueled by critical, if not commercial, success, Brian went to work on Smile with folk lyricist Van Dyke Parks, but progress was blighted by Beach Boys feuds and Brian's punch-drunk mental state. The '70s and '80s proved to be periods of great personal turmoil for Brian, who was largely out of the public eye and under the care of controversial psychologist Eugene Landy. Indeed, there have been many well-documented stops, starts and detours in Brian Wilson's career, but the last decade has been a productive one for the former Beach Boy, wherein he's polished off many wildly ambitious musical projects — including the long-awaited completion of Smile and a tribute album for his first musical hero, George Gershwin. A true original, Brian has continued to confound and dazzle critics and earn the admiration of his fans.

On Brian's website, friend and longtime writing partner Van Dyke Parks says, "Music is Brian Wilson's best friend, lover, everything. On a one-to-one basis, it's the only thing that has never wronged him. It's when people, and gossip, and record companies came into play that things went askew. The music never betrayed him. And given Brian's vulnerable, exclusive nature, it's only natural that it's the central fact and concern in his life. He may forget a name or a contract, but he never forgets the music. It's a consequence of devotional thinking, and geniuses are prone to it."