The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music

by Dylan Jones

13 December 2012


The Orson Welles of Rock

Wilson’s CV has been truncated into legend: after a difficult childhood, the shy fat boy creates a hit factory, then produces the best record ever made (Pet Sounds), takes drugs and goes mad, living in a vegetative state for thirty years before an unlikely creative comeback. What this version of his life fails to acknowledge are all the little masterpieces he made during his hiatus, all the little anguished missives, the fragile sketches of a better life buried on mediocre Beach Boys albums and solo records. No rendering of Brian Wilson’s life is complete without a soundtrack that includes the likes of “This Whole World”, “Sail On Sailor”, “Still I Dream Of It”, “Love and Mercy”, etc. The extraordinary thing about Wilson’s most successful work is the unnerving way he manages to evoke physical landscape while at the same time painstakingly exploring his interior world. How to describe Wilson’s music to someone who’s never heard it before? Well, how about you imagine you’re dreaming about paragliding over Big Sur – and really, really worrying about it. Many have written songs about being mad, and some have written songs while actually being mad, but none have done either with as much finesse as Wilson.

Up until a few years ago, Wilson’s official releases tended to sound unnervingly like nursery rhymes (particularly some of the more arcane material on Orange Crate Art, his 1995 Van Dyke Parks collaboration), and for a while his legacy was in the hands of people like the High Llamas, who once had a remit to finish the album he found himself unable to complete until 2004, Smile (back in the Seventies Wilson said that attempting to finish Smile would have been like “raising the Titanic”). A decade ago Wilson was all washed up, an empty Coke bottle on Venice Beach, and there was little hope that the tortured genius would – with the help of some descending minor chords, some cascading strings, soaring horns, and the fat twang of a cheap guitar – ever finish Smile himself; but then with the help of Scott Bennett and the Wondermints, the LA-based Beach Boys’ style band he accidentally hooked up with in the mid-Nineties, in 2004 he did just that. I have an ungovernable appetite for the Beach Boys, and like many, I had spent thirty years collecting the various bits and pieces required to build a decent version of Smile – an honourable task, I thought, and one that had occupied considerable amounts of my time; but having got there, having achieved my goal, when Wilson finally released his rerecorded interpretation, all I felt was a massive sense of deflation. It was all right, I thought to myself, but a) It’s not quite as good as the original, b) Now everyone’s got it, and c) What do I do now?

Brian Wilson’s Smile is a remarkable achievement, but when I first heard it in 2004 I almost felt like a light had been turned on in a basement I had been very happy to wander around, in the dark, for over twenty years. But this wasn’t about me, or any other Beach Boys obsessive, it was about Brian Wilson.

Like many Beach Boys obsessives, I’ve spent hundreds – maybe thousands—of hours immersed in their music, seeking out bootlegs and alternative versions, looking for those maudlin little songs that are the true reflection of Brian Wilson’s psyche (even at the height of punk, when everyone else was searching out rare Stooges releases). These days, unsurprisingly, the internet is where Beach Boys obsessives like to hang out (where did you think you’d find them, down at the beach?), and you can get lost in all the noise made by these cyber cicadas, noise made almost exclusively by men. On one site’s message board I found the following tag: “Why don’t women like the Beach Boys?” posted by “Jeff” on Saturday, September 25, 1999, at 11pm. Three hours later he got a carefully considered response, from one “MCP”: “One possible reason is that the early BB stuff was male focused, surf, cars, etc. Then there is the Pet Sounds period… singing about what all young men go through. Thirdly, women are inferior to men.”

Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942 in Hawthorne, California, a barren, treeless, and smog-filled sprawl, an hour from LA (“The City of Good Neighbors”) and more than a world away from the Malibu surf, a suburban backlot that was also the home of Marilyn Monroe, singer Chris Montez, and Olivia Harrison, Beatle George’s second wife. Hawthorne was not and never will be La Jolla. Sixty years ago the only thing to do here was go and watch the planes take off at LAX. Decades seldom start on schedule, yet Brian Wilson ushered in the American Sixties in 1961 by forming a garage band in Hawthorne with his two brothers Dennis and Carl, his cousin mike love, and family friend David Marks (soon to be replaced by another friend, Al Jardine). When the brothers were lying in bed at night, having been scolded again by their father for some minor misdemeanour, Brian would lead his brothers in three-part renditions of famous hymns. The songs were learnt at Sunday services where they were taken by their mother, and maybe the reason Wilson – who was at heart a suburban misfit – used to describe his Beach Boys songs as “modern hymns”. Wilson was the songwriter, mixing the tried and tested rock and roll of Chuck Berry with the production style of Phil Spector and the harmonies of the popular vocal group, the Four Freshman. They started singing about cars and girls, until Dennis Wilson inadvertently stumbled across the focus of their sound, brought alive by his experiences surfing the waves down on the coast. (Brian would never surf, and when, years later, John Belushi “arrested” Wilson for not even climbing on a board in the classic Saturday Night Live sketch, the sight of the whale-like Beach Boy being forced into the sea was more than a lot of fans could bear.)

The Beach Boys were the most important American band of the Sixties, reinventing the music industry in the way that the Beatles would soon do in Britain. They wrote their own music, they produced their own music, and they had a keen idea of exactly what they wanted to be.

The biggest influence in Wilson’s life was his overbearing father, Murry, a frustrated musician who would live vicariously through his sons’ success. From a very young age, Murry insisted the boys follow his orders with rigid precision. Confronted by a child who had violated one of his orders, he would yell “I’m the boss”, before whacking them with his belt. He had an artificial eye, and would regularly remove it, forcing his sons to stare into the jagged inside of the socket. He actually had two glass eyes – one for normal use and a special bloodshot model for when he was hungover. Dennis once stole the bloodshot model after Murry had spent the evening drinking, and took it to school the next day. Unsurprisingly he was soundly beaten on his return. Stories of the tensions between Brian and his father are legion, including one apocryphal tale of Wilson defecating on his father’s dinner plate – at Murry’s behest, to punish him for some small misdemeanour. “No, that’s absolutely not true,” Murry told Rolling Stone in 1971. However, it appears to have been Murry who was responsible for ruining his son’s hearing: Murry once hit him so hard that he destroyed all the hearing in his eldest son’s right ear, and consequently Brian only ever heard his records in mono. One of his father’s most brutal acts of cruelty was to “appropriate” the copyrights to Brian’s songs, selling them in 1969 for $700,000, a pitiful sum. Twenty-one years later, the younger Wilson won millions of dollars in back royalties after arguing in court that he was a casualty of drug abuse at the time. When Wilson senior finally died of a heart attack aged only fifty-five in 1973, neither Brian nor Dennis attended his funeral. As dysfunctional families went, the Wilsons were in a league of their own. (A decade later, Dennis was also dead, drowned while diving off the side of his boat, his body ruined by alcohol. Carl followed him in 1998, stricken by lung cancer.)

Wilson suffered his first nervous breakdown in 1964, just a few years after his band’s first success, so unable was he to cope with the pressure of recording and touring. And so the dense forest of Wilson’s professional history began, the damaged genius using alcohol, food, and drugs to try and alleviate his emotional pain. He started taking acid in 1965 at the age of twenty-three, and it changed him forever. As Nick Kent wrote in his classic 1975 piece in the NME, “The Last Beach Movie”, “His personality, always as fitful as it was fanatical in any given direction, was supposedly weighed down by brooding hermetic traits, and he was often erratic, paranoid, crazed – cursed by a weight problem that had ultimately got out of all proportion and which consequently seemed to be reinforcing his numerous complexes.”

By 1966, Wilson had moved from surf, cars, and beauty queens to a less specific absorption in sensation, what the exotica specialist David Toop once called, “the magic of nonsense, the power of the elemental”.

He was only twenty-four by the time he’d finished Pet Sounds, but when Wilson heard Sgt Pepper he abandoned Smile and went to bed for two years. He spent years laying inert in his bed, his weight ballooning up to twenty-four stone. He admits he was a child during these years, unable to cope with even the most ordinary, menial day-to-day things. Shy and socially awkward as a boy, Brian’s battle with his demons and insecurities grew more acute with age. Smile was meant to be a celebration of Americana, a panoramic commentary on America’s tangled past: “I was there to support his ‘dreamscape’,” says Wilson’s collaborator on the project, Van Dyke Parks. “He wanted to make the American saga a legitimate currency in this new global music market that had just defined itself since 1964.”

But the making of the original Smile literally sent him mad: one night, while recording a section of his “Elements” suite about fire, called “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow”, Wilson distributed plastic fireman’s helmets to the orchestra and lit a small fire in the studio to feel the heat and smell the smoke. When Wilson learned that later the same night a building near the studio had burned down and that there had been several other fires across Southern California, he abandoned the entire project. The music was just too powerful. Wilson was scared of his talent, scared of what he could produce, scared of the reaction his music caused in other people. To understand the tragedy of Smile, you could maybe try to imagine Paul McCartney, say, having a nervous breakdown after recording “Yesterday”, scared that having created something so perfect, he might never be able to match it, and then withering on the vine, unable to cope with the burden of topping it. “I’m getting there,” Wilson said, back in the mid-Nineties, from the one side of his mouth that still seemed to want to talk to the world. “I’m forcing my way out. It’s almost as though I went into an egg and just had to poke my way out of it.” *

* * *

*(The actual “sound” of Smile has become something you try to approximate when you run out of ideas in the studio – just listen to the hash of it that R.E.M. made on their Up album in 1998 – which made it even more strange when Wilson did the same thing when he eventually rerecorded it. Its influence is all over the place – a glockenspiel here, an oboe there, a theremin thrown in for good measure over there in the corner, plus marimbas, wind chimes, and jewellery percussion. It’s there in the intro – Wilson is the intro – to “This Life”, track six on Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream; there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s an unnecessary homage. The post-Pet Sounds “sound” has become a template, a trendy cliché: I was watching a Tina Fey film on a plane to Hong Kong a few months ago and one of the “sequence-blending” songs was little but a Beach Boys song full of glockenspiel and trippy organ, an atmospheric melange that sounded as though it had been made by a bunch of Japanese high school kids with access to little but Beach Boys records and their parents’ collection of loungecore. It’s difficult to imagine Nicholas Stoller’s film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which is set in Hawaii, without some mention of the Beach Boys, and it doesn’t take long – thirty minutes to be exact – for there to be one.)

* * *

Wilson’s excessive drug taking often ended with him wandering semi-comatose down the highway dressed only in his bathrobe. “The big disappointment I feel about my life is that I didn’t have more wisdom when it came to taking drugs,” he said recently. “Drugs laid me out for years.” Asked once if he’d prefer to come back free of his mental handicaps but also free of his talent, or spend his time again with the same mix of musical genius and mental anguish, Wilson said, “You know what? It would take me a year to answer that question…” When pushed he answered, “I would take being a songwriter with the handicap. I wouldn’t be able to live without music.”

By the early Eighties, Brian weighed over twenty stone and was consuming a dozen eggs and a whole loaf of bread for breakfast. He refused to wash or dress and rarely rose before six in the evening. With his children and first wife Marilyn gone (they were divorced in 1979), there was little to distract him from his demons.

In desperation, his family gave him over to a psychiatrist called Eugene Landy, a man who appointed himself as Brian’s unofficial “creative” father. Like Murry before him, Landy had no intention of letting go once he had a hold of Brian. For eight years he milked his charge of millions of dollars, controlling his every move – even down to choosing which women he was allowed to date. It eventually took a judge to remove the psychiatrist’s grip from his life. Life became more stable for Wilson when he met Melinda Ledbetter in a Cadillac dealership in the mid-Nineties (she was trying to sell him a car). They married in 1995.

The Orson Welles of rock still has anxiety attacks, but he has learned to walk between the raindrops. “I’ll tell you something I’ve learned,” he said not so long ago, “It’s hard work to be happy.”

The Wilson brothers’ boyhood home in Hawthorne was demolished in the late Eighties during the construction of the Century Freeway, although it was eventually honoured by the dedication of the Beach Boys Historic Landmark (California Landmark 1041) in May 2005. The monument is somewhat underwhelming, being little more than a small wall of bricks with a rectangular white stone in its middle, featuring a carving of the boys carrying a surfboard (inspired by the cover of their Surfer Girl album). It sits exactly where the curb of their front lawn used to be, and looks as surreal as it looks drab.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Wilson family home – a home where Brian first crafted those teenage hits about surfing and hot-rodding – should have made way for eight lanes of the I-105 freeway, where many of the cars will be tuned to oldies stations pumping out Wilson’s songs… about surfing and hot-rodding. “If you tip the world on its side,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, “everything loose will end up in California.” This, everyone now seems to agree, is how the Golden State turned out the way it did, how it became North America’s repository for the eccentric, the esoteric and the extravagant… the larger than life. To live in California means to live in italics. It’s difficult to write about the state without compiling a list of the absurd and the fanciful: the pet cemeteries, gaudy museums, and beachfront fashion parades – the wicked kitsch of the West. Eventually, everything in America becomes entertainment, and often the celebration of hyper-consumerism seems the metier of the whole country. In his essay, “Travels in Hyperreality”, Umberto Eco pinpointed the appeal of America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for the extravagant and the preposterous: “American imagination demands the real thing,” he wrote, “and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.” And in their own way the Beach Boys were as fake as anything else here, because not only were they the first American boy band, but underneath the classic karaoke pop hits was a world of heartache, a dark underbelly of disappointment, thwarted ambition, violence and madness. With the Beach Boys the revelry was always countered by a tragic back story, a duality highlighted by Brian Wilson’s inability to surf. Ironic? At the time, at the birth of the Sixties, when Wilson was the man most able to articulate the teenage dream, this handicap was like discovering that Mick Jagger was impotent.

But Wilson’s music, like much of California itself, is breathtakingly beautiful. The Californian coast is a celebration of fantasy, a Pacific kingdom of sunshine, sand and surf, a reconstructed world of wonder where plastic palm trees sway beneath artificial moons, and where David Hockney paintings come to life. This post-industrial landscape aspires to being a terrestrial paradise, a near-tropical dreamland where vistas of magnificent natural beauty vie with car parks full of neo-Mexican shopping malls; where giant redwoods and valleys of golden poppies surround the state’s popular cathedrals of kitsch. This is a life of abundance, where anything is possible, and little is real. A lot of California looks like a grandiose campsite, a frontier state, where much looks as though it was thrown up overnight. Here, little looks permanent, making the landscape look as untamed as it looks manicured. But there are few things more enjoyable than hurtling down the Pacific Coast Highway in a rented convertible, few things better than the California sun hitting your Ermanno Scervino sunglasses, the spray from the surf hitting your windscreen, the wind rushing across your face, and the sound of the Beach Boys blasting through the in-car stereo. For California, Brian Wilson always had unlimited praise.

As it leaves Carmel, Route One climbs up through Big Sur. The highway soars high into the sky, and you’re rewarded with eighty miles of stunningly beautiful coastline: sharp, sheer drops where mountains hit the water in dramatic fashion, where the rocks are so high you feel as though you’re driving through cloud, as sea otters and grey whales thrash about in the Pacific below. The route is surprisingly tortuous, a narrow winding road that follows the wild and underdeveloped coast up and down the Santa Lucia mountains, in and out of canyons, like the oldest, slowest rollercoaster in the world. It’s easy to see why the Beach Boys wrote a hymn to the Big Sur hills: “Cashmere hills filled with evergreens flowin’ from the clouds down to meet the sea/ With the granite cliff as a referee…”

But then the Beach Boys wrote so much about California, a state that wouldn’t have existed in its current form unless Brian Wilson had reinvented the American Dream, moving it from New York just a few years after the Brooklyn Dodgers uprooted their team and moved themselves to LA. Eventually everyone comes to California, in the short term looking for fun, perhaps in the long run for rebirth, to be creatively born again. Brian Wilson has certainly had a rebirth, and his God-like genius is not quite as diminished as you might think it is, as anyone who has seen him perform at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the last few years will know. Having seen him perform Pet Sounds there in London in 2002 (it was like seeing J.D. Salinger turn up for a recital, as though Robert Johnson had suddenly descended from the Gods in his button-down and braces, and yup, I blubbed like a baby), and Smile two years later (how did he do that?), two of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, two performances so heartbreakingly perfect, so moving, both left me sort of numb for days afterwards – when it was announced that he’d been specially commissioned to write a piece to be performed there, my heart sank. After all, it’s all very well reproducing “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, “Lay Down Burden”, “I’d Love Just Once To See You”, and “She Knows Me So Well” live on stage – the extraordinary thing about “the Brian Wilson Construct” is the way in which the music is replicated with such precision without it sounding in the least bit hokey-karaoke – but could he write a modern-day song cycle that lived up to (or at least wasn’t embarrassed by) the various high bars set by Smile, Land Locked, and all the rest? Was That Lucky Old Sun going to be any good?

Wilson’s life has been so tragic, so fractured, that even the giddiest of Beach Boys’ songs now seems to have a dark, maudlin underbelly, every silver lining we now know to have some sort of cloud. Wilson literally suffered for his art – suffered because of his art –which is obviously one of the reasons we revere him so much. And one of the reasons we expect everything he records these days to be tinged with the same sense of pathos, even though we almost always expect to be disappointed (his 2004 CD Gettin’ Over My Head wasn’t exactly his finest hour). The Festival Hall concerts underscored the great pathos in his work. There was something joyous about watching a man emerging from a long night of the lost soul. There was a sense that when he wrote and performed a lot of his songs the first time around, that he was anticipating loss, wallowing in heartache; now, as he approaches his dotage, that loss, that heartache, has become part of his legacy. The most pertinent quote I’ve ever read from Wilson is one he gave just before his first performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007. It says all you need to know about an introverted teenager who would rather commune with the elements than go surfing, a boy in love with sensation: “When I was sixteen, I had a Woolensack tape recorder and I taped the wind. I lost it and those tapes. I don’t know where the hell they are.”

Surprisingly, rather wonderfully, Wilson and his band of upward managers (last time, there seemed to be twenty of them on stage) somehow pulled it off, with at least half a dozen of the songs on That Lucky Old Sun (which was released last summer) being worthy of inclusion on your Big Sur iTunes playlist (mine is a hundred and forty-nine songs, just over seven hours, 471.2 MB). Written with his old sparring partner (when you say that these days people automatically assume you’ve been to a spa together) Van Dyke Parks and Wilson band member Scott Bennett, That Lucky Old Sun evokes – once again – his deep love of Southern California, and at times you can almost feel the mid-afternoon sun bouncing off your forehead (and at Brian Wilson concerts, there is always a lot of forehead in the audience). And if you ask me “Midnight’s Another Day” and “Southern California” are two of the best songs Wilson has written in the last twenty years. One critic suggested that the listener could have been forgiven for thinking Wilson had been meddling with a computer randomiser, because the album is essentially a “treasure trove of Beach Boys buzzwords and almost-familiar melodies rearranged into a meticulous suite about – what else? – California.” It is always with trepidation that lifelong fans listen to another Brian comeback, because for so long his albums have been curate’s eggs, only offering glimpses of his former genius. But these songs are life affirming. Nowhere can you hear the resigned indifference of old age, nowhere can you sense he’s going through the motions. These songs are wistful reminders of what went before: there is so much pathos attached to almost every song written and performed by Wilson after Pet Sounds, and these new songs are no different; however because he has been through such a fundamental rite of passage – one that has taken up pretty much his entire adult life – these latest songs appear to suggest some sort of genuine redemption (just listen to his heartbreakingly cracked melancholy voice). If a Brian Wilson song has ever touched you, then you should go back and buy That Lucky Old Sun. If you’re disappointed, then you probably never understood the Beach Boys in the first place. And should be banned from driving in California. For life.

Twenty years ago, the day I left California for the first time, I thought back to the afternoon I arrived. Climbing into my rented black convertible Mustang at San Francisco airport, groggy from twelve hours of travelling, I pushed a button to drag back the top, and turned on the radio. In a moment of unprecedented giddiness, I pushed myself deep into my seat, smiled at the sinking, squinting sun, and pondered the road ahead. As Billy idol, then the prince of plastic pop, poured his tiny heart out of my dashboard speakers, I sat there, just wallowing in the moment, listening to song after song after song, until, inevitably, after about fifteen minutes, the DJ played the Beach Boys. “Well she got her daddy’s car, And she cruised through the hamburger stand now, Seems she forgot all about the library, Like she told her old man now…” This, I thought to myself, is it. This is most probably it…

It still is for Wilson, too. He’s working on ideas for yet another stage in his rehabilitation, this time a concept album called Pleasure Island: A Rock Fantasy. “It’s about some guys who took a hike, and they found a place called Pleasure Island,” says Wilson. “And they met all kind of chicks, and they went on rides and – it’s just a concept. I haven’t developed it yet. I think people are going to love it – it could be the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Photo (partial) by © Richard Young / Rex Features - courtesy of Picador

Photo (partial) by © Richard Young /
Rex Features - courtesy of Picador

Dylan Jones is the editor in chief of British GQ, where he has won the BSME Editor of the Year Award seven times during his tenure and was recognized for the Innovation/Brand-Building Initiative of the Year award for the annual GQ Men of the Year Awards. Jones has a weekly column in The Mail on Sunday’s magazine supplement and writes regularly for The Spectator. His other works include Jim Morrison: Dark Star; Paul Smith: True Brit; and iPod, Therefore I Am.

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