On Oct. 11, Random House Canada will release I Am Brian Wilson, written with Ben Greenman. It’s Wilson’s first real memoir, having disowned a title from 1991 completed while he was still under the “care” of psychotherapist Eugene Landy. Landy, who helped Wilson recover from the addictions he struggled with in the 1970s – but later kept him in a fog for several years while limiting his contact with family and friends and charging him up to $35,000 a month – is a major character in this edition.
So is Wilson’s wife, Melinda, whom he met at a car dealership in the 1980s, and who worked with his family to emancipate him.
And so is his father, who pushed him toward a musical career but was physically and emotionally abusive. Wilson says he forgives his dad, who died in 1973, but it will take “a year and a half” to forgive Landy. “Actually, I’ve already forgiven him,” he says during an interview in his hotel suite in New York. “He wasn’t all that nice to me, but he taught me how to eat right, how to exercise, how to sleep at night.”
“When I sit at a piano, I feel God this far above my head. And I can feel his presence – makes my hands glide over the keys, and it helps me write a song.”
“It’s a feeling that you can’t deny. Something you can really feel. You just know there’s somebody, a higher power above me, that helps me out when I’m scared.”
— Brian Wilson
It’s useful, if somewhat strange, to review Wilson’s narrative in the light of 2016.
He is still beloved, but the boomer market is shrinking, and millennial fans like myself constitute a niche. For a lot of listeners, the Beach Boys stand for white-dad rock, which stands for a worldview we’re in the necessary process of
dismantling. The 1960s mainstream was tailored to a limited range of people, with a limited range of experiences. This also means that Brian Wilson’s story was forged at a time when empathy was less considerate of the personhood of people with mental illness. The flip side of stigma is fetishization.
“What made it worse, at least early on was that the voices that were in my head trying to do away with me were in a crowded space. They were in there with other voices that were trying to make something beautiful. Voices were the problem, but also the answer. The answer was in harmony.”
Wilson started the Pendletones, soon to become the Beach Boys, with his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, scoring a long string of hits in the early 1960s – “it’s been written about so many times that it’s almost like a story that someone else is telling me instead of a piece of my own life,” Wilson writes. (Love, who has elsewhere been pegged as the villain of that story, has his own memoir out this year.) In late-1964, Wilson had a breakdown on a flight to Houston, and decided to stop touring, devoting himself instead to songwriting.
That was the year he first tried LSD, and shortly thereafter he started hearing voices, which would continue for the rest of his life. He’d hear his father and early manager, Murry. He’d hear Phil Spector, whose production of Be My Baby had changed Wilson’s life. And he would hear other, stranger and more menacing voices. “I said, ‘What happened?!’ I took this stupid drug, and that drug made me scared,” he says today. “But it made me write better music. It made me write more sensitive music. I was going to make an album called Sensitive Music for Sensitive People. Isn’t that a great title?”
Pet Sounds was released in 1966, to famously lukewarm sales, followed by less celebrated but still canonical albums such as Wild Honey, Friends, and Surf’s Up. But Wilson began to struggle with drugs, alcohol and overeating, gaining more than 100 pounds and retiring to his bed, leaving his first wife, Marilyn, to take care of their two daughters. Desperate, she called Landy, a “therapist to the stars” whose 24-hour methods, unbeknownst to her, would involve screaming at Wilson while wresting control of his creative output, fortune, and cognition. “If you help a person to get better by erasing that person, what kind of job have you done?” Wilson writes. “I don’t know for sure, but he really did a job on me.” Read the rest of this entry »