Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ musical genius      

By John Cody

IN THE 1960s Brian Wilson, as leader of the Beach Boys, gave voice to an entire generation. The group — the three Wilson brothers (Brian, Dennis and Carl), cousin Mike Love, and neighbour Al Jardine — sold in excess of 100 million records over the course of their illustrious career.

While young America celebrated the California dream of sun, sand and surf, most had little idea that this was a world Brian never really knew. He wrote the songs, but the tales of bravado were inspired by younger brother Dennis, the only member of the group who actually surfed. Riddled with drugs, mental illness and industry corruption, the real world of Brian Wilson was a much darker place.

Essentially, Brian’s formula combined Four Freshman vocal harmonies with the rock ‘n roll rhythms of Chuck Berry. But he was equally influenced by classic American songwriters like George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael as well as his contemporaries, most significantly producer Phil Spector (Ronettes/Crystals/Righteous Brothers).

Spector was famous for his ‘wall of sound,’ which Wilson was enamoured of — to the point of hiring the same musicians and studios for his own recordings. Unlike Spector, who for the most part stuck to innocuous subject matter, Beach Boys lyrics dealt with more mature issues. Certainly songs like Fun Fun Fun and I Get Around celebrated youth, freedom and the mythical California dream — where it appeared there really were two girls for every boy — yet even the earliest material, such as In My Room, Warmth of the Sun and In the Back of My Mind hinted at a darker side.

Wilson wore many hats. Previously, music industry roles were clearly defined; performer, A & R man, songwriter, producer, arranger . . . each had a distinct position, and rarely did the roles overlap. But he managed to do them all, and do them extremely well. Highly prolific, during the band’s first five years (’62 – ’67), he was responsible for placing 33 singles and 16 albums in the charts. In addition to his efforts with the Beach Boys, the same period saw him producing, singing and/or writing for 19 outside acts, most notably Jan and Dean.

Industry pressure to turn out product was intense. By December ’64, at age 22, he succumbed, suffering his first nervous breakdown. Refusing to tour, he was replaced in the live group, which freed him to concentrate all his energies on creating new material. While the band maintained a presence on the road, Wilson stayed home recording with studio musicians. Typically, the group would return to find their next release virtually complete, with Brian singing all the vocals. He would then replace many of his own parts with the band’s voices.

A few months into the new arrangement Wilson took his first dose of LSD. The use of such a powerful drug can play havoc on the most healthy mind, but for Brian’s already fragile ego the experience was traumatic. He spoke of seeing God. The Wilson family were never regular churchgoers, but parents Murray and Audrey had insisted the boys attend Sunday School, and what little theological training they had came from the local church. Now, after the acid, Brian was obsessed with spiritual matters. Theological discussions were almost continuous, and he began to refer to his songs as ‘Teenage symphonies to God.’

In 1966 he recorded the album Pet Sounds, which included the single “God Only Knows”. Paul McCartney has referred to it as “the greatest song ever written.”

Twenty seven years later Brian reflected: “Just before we did God Only Knows, Carl and I had prayer sessions asking the Lord for guidance and maximum love vibes for this crucial single. It was the first time that anyone ever used the word ‘God’ in a commercial song . . . at least this is what we were told. During the production of Pet Sounds, I dreamt I had a halo over my head. This might have meant that the angels were watching over Pet Sounds.”

In a classic case of misguided American ingenuity, he also prayed to bring forth a product that would rival the Beatles then current album, Rubber Soul: “. . . we very cleverly intertwined prayer with competitive spirit.”

Perhaps his greatest achievement, Pet Sounds is song cycle chronicling a young couple’s relationship. The album opens optimistically with Wouldn’t it Be Nice and ends with the poignant Caroline, No. In 1997 Capitol released Pet Sounds Sessions, a four-disc box set devoted to the album, which features candid outtakes of Brian teaching intricate parts to the musicians. Conveying his vision with clear, concise directives, the package offers a fascinating look into Wilson at the top of his game.

Ironically, as he reached his creative peak, problems were brewing. Mike Love refused to sing on some of the songs. Far too esoteric for his tastes, he insisted they stick with the simplistic surf and car formula. The label concurred. The album was the band’s first commercial failure. In effort to recover from the dismal sales, Capitol hastily released a follow-up Best of collection, sending a clear message to Brian that the kids wanted ditties they could dance to, not full-fledged teen operettas. Yet over the years the album has continued to sell, long ago achieving platinum status. In 1995 Britain’s Mojo magazine polled critics on the greatest albums ever released. Pet Sounds topped the list.

Despite the commercial setback, Wilson remained true to his vision, releasing the single Good Vibrations. The song returned the group to the top of the charts, and was a taste of what was planned as his ultimate statement, Smile.

A full length LP, Smile was to be a major advance from Pet Sounds. The songs, as Van Dyke Parks, Wilson’s lyrical collaborator for the album, has explained, touched on “the innocence America had just lost, following the assassination of John Kennedy, and our entanglement in a war that a generation rebelled against. Brian decided to go back and explore that innocence of childhood.”

Songs like ‘Do You Like Worms,’ ‘The Old Master Painter,’ ‘I Love To Say Da Da’ and ‘Cabinessense’ were unlike anything the public had ever heard. Combs, snare drums recorded in the bottom of empty swimming pools, talking French horns, banjos and theremins were employed as often as traditional rock instruments. Parks’ lyrics were as challenging as the music, with word play and esoteric references scattered throughout. ‘Surf’s Up’ was typical; “Dove nested towers the hour was / Strike the street quicksilver moon / Carriage across the fog / Two-step, to lamp lights cellar tune / The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.”

Band members were deeply divided over the new direction; Carl and Dennis urged Brian to continue, whereas Jardine, and particularity Love, were dead set against continuing the project.

Initially slated for Christmas ’66, the release date was moved back to summer ’67, then abandoned altogether. Wilson’s constant drug use, coupled with manic depressive bouts, and pressure from the band and record company culminated in a breakdown resulting in Smile’s abandonment. In its place came Smiley Smile, a charming album on its own, but hardly the world shaking release that had been promised. As Carl once explained, instead of a home run they got a bunt.

Almost overnight, the Beach Boys had gone from trail blazers to has-beens. Lengthy guitar solos and improvisation were never a part of the band’s vocabulary, and they appeared hopelessly out of step with the new trends. Many of their post-Smile albums were gems, but the public was no longer interested. In an ironic twist of fate, even when appearing out of step the band remained ahead of the pack, releasing back-to-the-basic albums Smiley Smile and Wild Honey in 1967, a full year before the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Band would be applauded for doing the very same thing.

Wilson would spent the greater part of the late ’60s to mid-’70s as a recluse, retreating to his bedroom for weeks at a time. When he did venture out, the results could be spectacular, as evidenced by 1970’s Sunflower. Yet sales remained dismal.

In 1976 a much-hyped ‘Brian is Back’ campaign misfired. Wilson’s ‘comeback’ was credited to Eugene Landy, a clinical psychologist the band secured in an attempt to get Brian up and running. In short order Landy was seen as bringing on as many new problems as he solved, and was subsequently fired.

A rushed comeback album, TV special and numerous live appearances made it painfully clear that Brian was not yet ready to face the public. Years of abuse had worn his voice from angelic soprano to hoarse tenor. Weighing in at 320 pounds, audiences at live shows would often witness him dressed in a bathrobe, wandering aimlessly about the stage.

Improbably, he was still writing brilliant, albeit eccentric, music. 1978’s Beach Boys Love You is a splendidly bizarre collection of songs that have little precedent in the annals of pop music. There’s a genuine childlike sense of wonder throughout the album. Never forced or consciously ironic, songs like Johnny Carson and Mona evince a quirky, playful spirit. More contrived acts like the B52s and Talking Heads were garnering critical raves for rediscovering a sense of innocence in music, but Wilson was doing it for real. Hopelessly out of touch with the current trends, the album was ignored by all but the faithful.

Wilson again retired from live appearances, blaming his inactivity on a “fear of being devilled.” By then his marriage had crumbled, and his daughters, Wendy and Carnie — who would go on to success with multi-platinum Wilson/Phillips — have attested on many occasions to the fact he was a terrible father — to the point of asking them to obtain narcotics for him. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys evolved into a travelling greatest hits machine, focusing on the early hits at the expense of the more adventurous material.

After a 1983 overdose, Landy was rehired. Brian’s self-destructive patterns were curtailed, and it can be argued that without intervention he would have met an early death. Landy’s controversial 24 hour a day approach took over every facet of his patient’s life, including refusing access to immediate family members. In addition to an annual fee in excess of half a million dollars, Landy took co-credit for writing and producing numerous tracks recorded during this period. His involvement resulted in widespread music industry resentment, with Wilson’s’ much anticipated solo debut in 1987 receiving as much press for his doctor’s involvement as for the music. Exasperation at Landy’s meddling led to Wilson losing his recording contract before a second album was released.

In 1989, amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, Landy was charged with illegally administering cocaine and amyl nitrate for himself and his patients, and forced to surrender his license to practice medicine. Other charges specific to the Wilson case included acting as business manager, business adviser, co-songwriter, and executive producer while serving as his therapist. A 1989 court order prevented him from contacting Wilson. In 1992 Landy’s request for reinstatement was denied by the California Board of Medical Quality.

The last decade has been encouraging. In 1995 producer Don Was assembled the concert/documentary film I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, which was an attempt to explain “to the non-musician precisely why the phrase ‘Brian Wilson is a genius’ has appeared on the lips of three generations of musicians like holy gospel.”

In addition to another studio disc (Imagination) Wilson has released two well-received live CDs: Live at the Roxy, and this year’s Pet Sounds Live. Now remarried, he and his wife Melinda are parents to two adopted daughters.


Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place (Henry Holt 1994) chronicles the abuse Wilson and his brothers endured at the hands of their father. Tracing back the cycle of violence and neglect, each generation — with minor variations — played out the same pattern.

Buddy Wilson, the boy’s grandfather, was abused as a child, and swore to never mistreat his offspring. Sadly, he duplicated the very scenario he abhorred. When Murray tried to protect his mother from Buddy’s violent outbursts, his father would beat him with a baseball bat, chastising him for his lack of respect. On tour in the early ’60s, Murray smacked his boys in full view of the press, cheerfully rationalizing his actions as examples of loving authority. Deaf in one ear, Brian’s condition was rumoured to be a result of one too many beatings.

While quick to anger, music could reduce Murray to tears. Brian soon learned that a good tune could placate his father’s rage. In fact, Murray himself was a frustrated songwriter. He had placed a song or two with minor league recording acts, but any significant success was experienced vicariously through his sons. As the group’s manager, his single-minded goal of seeing them signed to a major record label was an important factor in their initial success, but he was soon considered a detriment. In 1964, after one too many attempts at undermining Brian’s authority, he was fired by the group. Sinking into a depression, he took to his bed for over a month.

In 1962 Murray created Sea of Tunes, a publishing company set up to administer Brian’s song catalogue. Brian was underage, and this was presented as a way to protect him from unscrupulous industry sharks. Other companies were interested, many offering better deals, but Murray — acting in his capacity as manager — kept the information to himself.

The company was set up heavily in the senior Wilson’s favour, and in 1969, unbeknownst to Brian, Sea of Tunes was sold for $700,000. All proceeds went to Murray. In the early ’90s Brian received a $10 million settlement in a court case charging fraud and malpractice in the sale of his catalogue. Until the judgment Wilson received no monies from publishing when his songs were played in public, be it record sales, radio play, concerts, movies or television commercials.

Brian is the most notorious, but the entire family has suffered. Youngest brother Carl took after their mother, the peacemaker, attempting to keep everyone happy. Characteristically, when Brian told the band he would no longer participate in the live shows, Carl assured the others things would work out, and, at the age of 18 took over running the live show. Like Dennis, he developed into excellent writer, producing some of the band’s best latter day material. By all accounts a kind, loving individual, Al Jardine referred to him as the ‘spiritual centre’ of the group. Upon his death from lung cancer in February 1998, Beach Boy sideman Billy Hinsche described him as “constantly striving for spiritual growth. His was a real spirituality. It wasn’t store-bought. He walked the walk. He didn’t strut his stuff, he simply and humbly lived it.” Yet he suffered his own demons, dealing briefly with heroin and alcohol problems, and the early ’90s saw his involvement as a follower of John-Roger, controversial founder of the Movement of Spiritual Awareness, and known as the rich peoples’ guru.

Middle brother Dennis vowed to be everything his father wasn’t. His unrepentant behaviour infuriated Murray, whose retaliation included forcing him to endure scalding hot water showers and floggings with a plank. Since childhood Dennis suffered from chronic acute nervous tension, and he developed substance abuse issues as he got older. A compulsive womanizer, his promiscuous behaviour resulted in convictions for sex with underage women, and five marriages. Upon his death People magazine wrote of “a vastly untidy life, one forgivable in a teenager, pitiable in a middle-aged man. Athletic, wild and charming, he had the surfer’s indifference to possessions, squandering millions on good times and friends.”

In 1977 Dennis released his lone solo album, the magnificent Pacific Ocean Blue, which contained all the promise and maturity the band could no longer muster. Sadly, while the world was focused on Brian’s problems, Dennis began his final slide into drugs and drink, subsequently drowning in 1983.

Since the late ’60s cousin Mike Love has proclaimed Transcendental Meditation as a cure-all for the world’s ills. But it appears peace and Love are frequently at odds. By the time the group played its first gig, Mike had been disowned by his mother for getting his girlfriend pregnant. Currently on his tenth marriage, he continues to be a lightning rod for controversy, in part due to his extreme conservative views and an unparalleled ability to place his foot in his mouth.

A long-standing feud between Mike and Dennis culminated in Dennis’ thrashing him onstage in full view of the audience. Dennis had previously been cited in court documents for adulterous affairs with Mike’s wife, and he later fathered a child with Love’s illegitimate, underage daughter.

Love’s brother, Stephen, who had taken over management of the band in 1976, was sentenced in the mid-’80s to five years probation after embezzling more than a million dollars from the group.


Brian once maintained his songs came through God, but that’s but no longer the case: “No, that’s how it used to be. Now, I try to manufacture something. I’m not 24 anymore.” Conversely — and for Wilson, typically — he has stated “I am proud to share with you my music, because I believe music is God’s voice.” In a recent Goldmine magazine article Brian was asked if he was a religious person. He response; “No, not really. I just believe in Jesus Christ, but I don’t know what religion I am.??”

Throughout his life, love was always contingent upon performance, whether an ability to create income and maintain careers for others, or the impossible task of pleasing his father. When Murray passed away in 1973, Brian sunk into the deepest depression of his life.

Wilson’s music reveals a world far more positive than what he’s had to endure. “When you believe in something you reflect it in your songs. You can say how you feel, and songs don’t lie. Songs are the most honest form of human expression there is-there’s nothing that lies about a song.”

© John Cody 2002

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| November 1st, 2002 | Posted in Articles |

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