As a songwriter and orchestrator of pop symphonies in miniature, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson is an unequivocal genius. His many accomplishments and contributions to modern pop music have been documented countless times in the liner notes of album reissues, magazine articles, biographies and fan hagiographies. Because of this, it would seem there would be little left to say with regard to his life both musically and personally. Yet I Am Brian Wilson, from its title on down, seems to be designed to set the record straight.
The trouble is, Wilson himself has an admittedly foggy memory, one in which something might have happened the way others have said it did or it might not. He can’t quite remember.
In this, I Am Brian Wilson functions less as a treasure trove of insider stories and personal revelations than Wilson getting a chance to try his hand at putting elements of his life story into his own words. And indeed they seem to be his own, his voice on the page betraying a mind firmly embedded in the vernacular of early-’60s-era California. It’s a bit odd to hear the septuagenarian refer to something as being “far out” without betraying the slightest bit of irony or self-awareness. Indeed, Wilson provides many such moments throughout what reads more like one long, often rambling conversation.
Furthermore, he seems to lose his place, backtrack and then start over again or restate something he’d already related. Yet it seems to be an accurate reflection of how his mind works after years of drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. Early on he goes so far as to state, “Time jumps around so much that it’s hard to remember exactly what happened. Plus, it’s been written about so many times that it’s almost like a story someone else is telling me instead of a piece of my own life.” This last part proves to be the sticking point in terms of any sort of first person narrative from Wilson as he himself often has little to no recollection of what it was that actually transpired. Yet where he does prove most lucid he offers interesting insights into the tumultuous relationships with his father, Murray, and Dr. Eugene Landy, as well as his struggles with mental illness.
It’s this last component that proves the most revelatory. While it’s been noted time and again that Wilson essentially suffered a breakdown during the recording sessions for the aborted SMiLE album, it’s never really been told from his viewpoint, and never with as much candor. While he doesn’t go on to say as much, Wilson hints at a history of mental illness within his family, something which his father is believed to have suffered and taken out on his pop star sons both physically and mentally. “The way my dad treated me was tough,” he states plainly. Yet he seems conflicted and none too willing to lay blame. “I don’t like making the discussion all about how terrible my dad was, even if that’s true.” Time and again he proves that, despite their differences, family is family, for better or worse.
Lacking an exact diagnosis, all signs of Wilson’s own mental deterioration point to that of schizophrenia, with its post-adolescence onset aided by the use of psychedelic drugs, the omnipresence of voices encouraging self-harm and the years-long depressive states. Here he is very open about his struggles with mental illness and how it has adversely affected not only his professional life but also his personal life as both husband and father. Rarely does one read an autobiography in which the subject openly admits to and essentially apologizes for having been, for lack of a better term, a shitty father. He is less ready to admit his failings as a husband, instead chalking much of his previous marriages’ failures to age and ego.
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Here, too, we are given a first-hand account of life under the ostensible care of Landy. While initially presented as being quite helpful in sorting out Wilson’s tenuous mental state, he ultimately takes on the role once inhabited by the late Murray Wilson as he constantly bullies and cows Wilson into taking exorbitant amounts of mind-numbing medications, moving into his houses, taking over finances and trying to worm his way into Wilson’s lucrative songwriting royalties. These two demonstrative, overbearing figures in his life serve as twin pillars between which some pretty good things happened. Unfortunately, he lacks the memories associated with many of the better times, instead recalling more of the unfortunate elements of his life than anything else.
But I Am Brian Wilson is far from a downer of a personal narrative. Rather it’s often light and inoffensive to the point of being filled with inconsequential fluff. Does anyone really want to read pages of Wilson’s love of his favorite recliner? Or how he spends his days? (Spoiler alert: there’s a lot of sitting and staring involved.) These are the passages during which the book flounders, the momentum of his linear narrative coming to a crashing halt in order to spend inordinate amounts of time on the mundane. But this is who Brian Wilson is now and he more often than not seems genuinely thrilled by the love afforded his music. When he learns “God Only Knows” is Paul McCartney’s favorite song he’s over the moon. The same holds true as he finds out everyone from Eric Clapton to Leonard Bernstein has sung his praises, expressing a love of and for the music that originated in his mind. For better or worse, I Am Brian Wilson is just that.