Excerpted from The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop © 2012 by Dylan Jones. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Picador. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Over fifty years after inventing the Californian Dream, Brian Wilson is finally living it. In his primary-coloured Hawaiian shirts and standard-issue Ray-Bans, he can be found cruising along Mulholland Drive, high up in the hills above his sprawling adobe-style Beverly Hills home, listening to oldies stations, and wallowing in the security of the present and the serenity of the sunshine. Having survived half a lifetime of drug abuse, drug damage, psychoanalysis, and stultifying medication, Wilson is now trying to enjoy all the things he espoused when he first started making music with the Beach Boys fifty years ago. He still suffers from a schizoaffective disorder, a mental condition that means he hears voices in his head and suffers terrible bouts of depression… So he lives day to day, trying to replace all his bad old memories with bankable new ones. He rarely listens to his old records, as he’s unsure what sort of memories will cloud his mind. But when the good ones come, and when a record comes on the radio he likes, he embraces them: “Each one brings back a different kind of memory,” he says. “Sometimes sadness, but most of the time it brings back a good feeling – sunshine and ocean. The Beach Boys were all about sunshine and ocean.”
The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop
(Picador; US: Oct 2012)
The ocean was such a defining trope of Wilson’s songwriting that he has all but abandoned it – “I don’t need to think about the ocean” – and sunshine is the thing that keeps his dark moods at bay. He rarely visits the beach, as he doesn’t know what it holds for him, unsure of his ability to cope with it. Instead, he embraces terra firma, his car, and the Southern California sunshine, visiting the past only when he feels like it, in his imagination. Wilson is a big man, six foot four, with broad shoulders, but the gentle giant has a weathered face that makes him seem critically vulnerable. He has full salt and pepper, Jeff Bridges hair, but again this is incongruous; he is about as emotionally fragile as a seventy-something-year-old man can be.
“He needs a real comfort level,” said his second wife Melinda. Not only is she responsible for his new spiritual well being, she’s also the one largely responsible for his creative rebirth, and for getting him back into concert halls ten years ago. Melinda and Brian share their Beverly Hills home with their adopted daughters, Daria Rose and Delanie Rae, and a son, Dylan, as well as an assortment of dogs. The past doesn’t exist here, only the now, and there are no mementos from the past, no reminders of the life he knew before he started coming back to the relative normality he enjoys these days. And instead of gold discs or photographs of the Beach Boys, there are Toby jugs, Victorian dolls, and twee shop-bought paintings (Wilson was always criticised for having poor taste in this respect – he was always too bound-up in himself and his art to worry about what paintings might be on his wall).
When he’s interviewed these days he tends to sit bolt upright, as though he’s there under duress, and walks in and out of rooms as though propelled by remote control. Wilson can appear absent-minded at the best of times, although there is always a strange logic underpinning his actions. He was having dinner in the Wolseley, in London, a few years ago, eating steak with a famous friend of his, and their respective spouses. Having finished his meal, he simply stood up, announced he wanted to go, and started walking towards the door. Once he got there, he stood, implacable in his own way, and waited for his companions to finish their meal. Having spent half his life at the beck and call of others – his father, his band, carers, doctors, dealers, therapists – Brian Wilson now tends to do things his own way.
“Brian Wilson’s psyche is now a fragile and uncertain thing, stabilised on a variety of legally prescribed mood-dampening and -altering drugs,” wrote GQ’s Mick Brown when he interviewed Wilson for the magazine on the release of Smile in 2004. “In profiles he is sometimes described as ‘child-like’ – an apt description. Wilson lacks the easy felicities of normal conversation: he has the child’s way of replying to any question with no more than the question demands – talking with him can be like navigating a map of cul-de-sacs. It can sometimes seem as if he is not quite in the present; yet he remains capable of pulling the most surprising recollections from his past.”
He now plays more concerts than he’s played since the early Sixties, and the songs that nearly killed him are now keeping him alive. “I sit down on stage because I feel more comfortable sitting,” he said. “I move my hands around to try and look alive. I’m looking at the front row and I’m looking up in the air, but I can’t see without my glasses and I don’t remember any faces.”
But he’s enjoying himself.
While it is true that Brian Wilson helped invent California – a neo-Polynesian paradise conjured up by an overweight, puppy-faced adolescent – up until recently he had never been able to fully enjoy its spoils; trapped, seemingly, in an internal – and eternal – world of foreboding, panic, and insecurity. The only thing that has saved him from true madness is his awesome talent for sweet music.
Like Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson had the ability to mix euphoria and melancholia in the space of a single song, often the same melody, and occasionally the same note. Given his history of personal problems (an aggressive and belligerent father, a dysfunctional family, a fragile mental state, addictions, weight problems, and a long-standing over-bearing therapist), it’s hardly surprising that Wilson’s best music always had an innate sadness, a tender quality which can be found in such diverse Beach Boys songs as “Our Prayer”, “Wind Chimes”, “The Lonely Sea”, “Melt Away”, “Caroline, No”, “Surf’s Up”, “The Warmth of the Sun” (written in response to the JFK assassination), and his greatest triumph, “Till I Die” (a version of which appears on their 1971 LP Surf’s Up, though a vastly superior extended instrumental version was released on Endless Harmony in 1998). As legendary rock journalist Nick Kent has so eloquently written, Wilson wrote “harmonies so complex, so graceful they seemed to have more in common with a Catholic Mass than any cocktail a capella doo-wop.” Wilson called his work “rock church music”, while every one of his classic songs contains a “money chord”; Mark Rothko, eat your heart out.
The remarkable thing that Wilson achieved was to create a world that wasn’t there before, a world that not only celebrated a Californian dreamworld, but also invented an inner world where Wilson – and anyone who ever listened to a Wilson record – could go and be comforted. In this case his music acted as medication, therapy, or in Wilson’s case, a piano standing in a box full of sand. The other remarkable thing is the way in which Wilson’s world connected with so many millions of people. The awful irony of Wilson’s fabulous invention was his complete inability to enjoy it, even though it gave so much enjoyment to so many others. In Barney Hoskyns’ gripping book Waiting For The Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes And The Sound of Los Angeles, the songwriter Jimmy Webb says, “I don’t think that the Californian myth, the dream that a few of us touched, would have happened without Brian, but I don’t think Brian would have happened without the dream.” Wilson fuelled a fantasy and surf pop was born.
When Wilson was at his very lowest ebb, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, having suffered more than one nervous breakdown, and having taken far too many illegal drugs, his behaviour was so strange it soon became legendary. In the grip of one of his many mental breakdowns he would regularly insist that business associates attend meetings in the deep end of his swimming pool, where, he believed, it would be impossible for anyone to bug them (a true paranoiac, he believed he was being listened to all the time). And because he wanted to recreate the feeling of being at the beach, and wanted to feel the sand beneath his feet when he was composing, Wilson had a huge sandbox built in his living room and a truckload of sand shovelled in to fill it up. This ruse worked – “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Wonderful”, and “Cabinessence”, were all written in it – although Wilson’s dogs started using it for their own purposes, and it soon began to stink of faeces. For a while though, “It created a mood that was magic,” says Wilson. There was also an Arabian “inspiration” tent pitched in an adjacent room, where he went to smoke dope. Every day. And having achieved a temporal state of nirvana, he would then trundle off to record a backing track at the bottom of his pool.
For much of the Seventies, the bloated musical genius was “brain-fried”, in a world of his own. So much so that he’s spent a good portion of the last forty years being discussed in the past tense: “I was a useless little vegetable. I made everybody very angry at me because I wasn’t able to work, to get off my butt. Coke every day. Goin’ over to parties. Just having bags of snow around, snortin’ it down like crazy.”
Wilson was so strung-out on drugs that he basically went to bed for four years. And what did he do in bed for those four years? “Beat off. Watched TV. I didn’t read. I couldn’t see, my eyes [were] too bad. I could have gotten a pair of glasses. That would have helped me. I stayed in my room and wouldn’t see anyone. I reclused, definitely. I don’t know how, but I somehow got into weird stuff in my head. All mind and no activity.”
And how did it feel to be a recluse?
“Pretty powerful. I felt power, but I didn’t know what it was about. I couldn’t relate it to anything. Maybe it wasn’t my power. I could have been feeling somebody else’s power.”
When the near-legendary British publicist Keith Altham represented the Beach Boys as the Sixties turned into the Seventies, he was initially kept away from Wilson. On one visit to LA to see the band, he asked brother Dennis to take him to see Brian. The following day he was taken to a health food restaurant called The Radiant Radish that Brian had an interest in. As Dennis and Altham sat in their car in the car park, waiting for a visitation, eventually Brian shuffled into view, a huge, bloated figure dressed only in a bathrobe and a pair of dirty slippers.
“There,” said Dennis, pointing excitedly. “There he is.” Brian was now in the store, manically taking tins and bottles of honey from a shelf, and Altham wanted to pounce. “Great,” he said. “Let’s go and talk to him.”
“Talk?” said Dennis. “You don’t talk to Brian. No one ‘talks’ to Brian. I thought you just wanted to see him.”
One day Wilson turned up at drummer Hal Blaine’s house – the same Hal Blaine who had played on many Phil Spector and Beach Boys records – and forced him to take his gold discs. Wilson didn’t want anything in return, just wanted rid of the memories. And if Blaine didn’t take them, he figured they could easily just end up in a ditch.
The Beach Boys myth, however, is an enduring one, even though it has been disproved time and time again. And while any history of the group must now include sibling rivalry, domestic violence, appalling drug abuse, death, madness, and internecine lawsuits, the popular images of bronzed beach babes, hot-rods, and roller-skating carhops at the Wilshire Boulevard Dolores Drive-In have become as iconic as those grainy black and white photographs of the Cuban-heeled, black-clad Beatles rushing through the streets of London pursued by hundreds of screaming schoolgirls; none of it was particularly true, though now it’s almost too late to deny.
The songs, though, are as true as anything cast in vinyl: everything from “Surfin’ USA”, “California Girls”, and “Spirit of America”, to “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “God Only Knows”, and “I Get Around” epitomising all that was once white and willing about American youth – real sonic sunshine. The success of the Beach Boys’ early records – all of which eulogised life on the California beaches – encouraged the rest of America to vicariously enjoy this new “layabout” lifestyle. “The records would have been effective advertising jingles for mail order catalogues, for surfboard hire companies, or for travel agencies looking to attract the nation’s youth to Santa Monica,” wrote Charlie Gillett in his definitive history of the early days of rock’n’roll, The Sound Of The City. The West Coast idyll of “two girls for every boy” was apotheosised in a catalogue of extraordinary songs that celebrated happiness, and happiness only. Initially, at least. Wilson’s reaction to living in a world without love was to write and inspire some of the loveliest songs ever recorded: “In My Room”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “Please Let Me Wonder”, “And Your Dreams Come True”, and dozens and dozens more, songs that managed to say so much with so little. (John Peel once wrote that a lot of groups write songs that have revolution in their lyrics but not in their music, although where the Beach Boys were concerned, the opposite was usually true.)
Leonard Bernstein once called Wilson one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, while Bob Dylan said Wilson’s one good ear should be donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Paul McCartney has famously acknowledged that it was Pet Sounds that “was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded [Sergeant] Pepper.” At the ceremony inducting Wilson into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, McCartney called Wilson “one of the great American geniuses” and paid succinct tribute to his friend by saying, “Thank you, sir, for making me cry.” He’s been called rock and roll’s gentlest revolutionary, a songwriter whose body of work contains real humanity – vulnerable and sincere, authentic and unmistakably American. “What Brian came to mean,” said the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, “was an ideal of innocence and naivety that went beyond teenage life and sprang fully developed songs –adult and childlike at the same time. There was something genuine in every lyric. And it was difficult for me not to believe everything he said.” He could write instant epiphanies (using a sound as big as Niagara Falls), sad songs about happiness, and most things in between. According to Art Garfunkel, his voice was “this unique, crazy creation, a mix of rock and roll and heartfelt prayer.” He wasn’t so much the nabob of sob, as the nabob of male neuroses.
Brian Wilson’s more obvious influences have been well documented (the Four Freshman, Phil Spector, mid-period Beatles), though a lot of his orchestration and arrangements owe much to Martin Denny and Les Baxter (and in particular tracks such as “Misirlou” and “Voodoo Dreams/Voodoo”) as well as other exponents of exotica, like Yma Sumac (Amy Camus) and Tak Shindo. Even Wilson’s most innocent and naive melodies have a hint of pathos about them, and using exotica’s bizarre array of references (eerie choral repetition, jungle noises – “Pet Sounds” – staccato keyboards), he found himself able to conjure up the most sublime parables of hope and desperation (Pet Sounds, in the words of GQ journalist Peter Doggett, “conjures up the volatile ecstasy and despair of teenage romance within the context of loss, love and self-awareness that can only come from the experience of adulthood”); music which seemed like it had spent a thousand years 20,000 leagues beneath the surf. The Beach Boys became teenagers when the teenager was suddenly something, when teenage emancipation was big news. They inspired generation envy: how colourless were their parents’ times – born too early… too early to be a Beach Boy. If you believe that the adolescent environment as represented by the comfort of pop music is little more than the prolonging of childhood, then the world imagined by Brian Wilson was the epitome of that – a self-contained club that took care of its members. At their core the Beach Boys really represented Fifties’ ideals, and although the imagery surrounding them was quintessentially Sixties, they were reassuringly old-fashioned; which made the lurch from their Beach Blanket Babylon early days to the drug-induced weirdness of their post-1965 period even more pronounced.