Who Is Brian Wilson?
Brian Wilson formed the Beach Boys in 1961 and had a long string of hit singles and albums, helping to establish the “California sound” along the way. By the mid-60s, however, Wilson looked to move beyond the cheery, simple, teen-based formula that characterized much of the Beach Boys’ early music. The result was 1966’s Pet Sounds, which is ranked by many as one of the greatest albums of all time. But at the peak of his creative powers, substance abuse and mental illness took their toll on Wilson, who for much of the next 25 years lived in seclusion. After breaking free from psychologist Eugene Landy, who exerted an excessive amount of control over Wilson’s life during the 1980s, Wilson revived his career and released several solo albums in the 1990s.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, remarried in 1995 and was honored by the Kennedy Center in 2007 for lifetime contribution to the performing arts. Since that time he has continued to tour and record albums and was also the subject of the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy.
Early Life and Childhood
Brian Douglas Wilson was born in Inglewood, California, on June 20, 1942. But while the Wilson family lived an outwardly normal, middle-class suburban life, at home Wilson and his younger brothers—Dennis and Carl—endured a rough childhood. They were subjected to regular physical and mental abuse by their father, Murry, and their mother, Audree Wilson, was by all accounts an alcoholic. Despite this background of turmoil, the Wilson home was a musical one. Murry was an aspiring—though only vaguely successful—songwriter, and both he and Audree played piano. Wilson and his brothers would often sing along with them in the living room, developing an early ability to harmonize with one another, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Wilson was mostly deaf in one ear.
Wilson remembers his childhood with mixed feelings, once telling an interviewer, “I had a good childhood—except for my dad beating me up all the time.” But as Wilson grew older, he increasingly turned to music as an escape from the pain of his home life. Along with his two younger brothers and their cousin, Mike Love, Wilson began performing at parties and small gatherings. In the late 1950s the four relatives joined with Hawthorne High School friend Al Jardine to form a band called the Pendletones, a name chosen because of the popular Pendleton flannel shirts that became the group’s uniform in the early days. The group featured Brian on bass, Carl and Al on guitar and Dennis on drums. Though Mike and Brian would take most of the lead on vocals, every member lent his voice to their layered harmonic sound.
In October 1961, the Pendletones recorded demos of two surfing-themed songs, “Surfin’” and “Surfin’ Safari.” Although Dennis was the only member of the group who actually surfed, the band sought to tap into the rising popularity of the sport and, more importantly, its accompanying lifestyle. The small label that released the single liked the idea so much that it even went as far as to rename the group the Beach Boys, much to its members’ surprise. Released that December, “Surfin’” cracked Billboard's Hot 100, eventually peaking at No. 75 while remaining on the chart for six weeks. They followed a few months later with “Surfin’ Safari,” which reached the Top 20 and earned the Beach Boys a contract with Capitol Records, who released their first full album, Surfin’ Safari, later that year. It reached No. 32 on the album charts, launching the group on its first wave of success.
With Wilson as the primary creative force, the Beach Boys released a slew of hit singles and top-charting albums during the early 1960s, featuring a bright and cheery music that would come to represent the California youth culture of the period. They released three albums in 1963 alone—Surfin' U.S.A., Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe—all of which cracked the Top 10. They followed that breakout year with hit releases like All Summer Long (1964) and Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) (1965). Among the band’s many iconic hit songs from this era are “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (No. 3), “Fun, Fun, Fun” (No. 5), “I Get Around” (No. 1), “Help Me Rhonda” (No. 1) and “California Girls” (No. 3), to name a mere few.
But by the mid-60s, Wilson had begun to experiment musically, conceptually and chemically, and he sought to push the group’s sound beyond the light and accessible sun-and-fun formula that characterized its early music. By late 1964, he had quit touring with the Beach Boys, due in part to a nervous breakdown he had suffered on the road, and he used his time at home to begin work on the band’s next album. Initially inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965), Wilson’s goal was to create an album where “every song mattered” and that would “make people feel loved.” After collaborating with his friend Tony Asher on the lyrics, and writing and arranging the music almost entirely on his own, Wilson then employed the famous session group known as the Wrecking Crew to commit his vision to tape.
Released in 1966, the resulting album, Pet Sounds features such memorable songs as “God Only Knows,” “I Just Wasn't Made for these Times,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and "Caroline, No.” With its complex arrangements, innovative recording techniques and mind-bogglingly dense vocal harmonies, it is ranked by many critics among the greatest records ever recorded. Rolling Stone magazine, for example, placed Pet Sounds at No. 2 on their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and Paul McCartney named it his favorite album, also citing it as a primary influence for the Beatles seminal 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and calling “God Only Knows” one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
Ironically, considering its later success, Capitol Records and the other members of the Beach Boys initially resisted the musical direction Wilson took on the album, preferring to stick with the safer, proven sound that had brought them so much success. The name Pet Sounds was born when band member Mike Love quipped, “Who’s gonna hear this sh**? The ears of a dog?” Arguably far ahead of its time, it received mixed reviews and did not sell as well as many of the band’s previous albums, further adding to the strain between Wilson and the other members, particularly Love.
Heroes and Villains
But Wilson was undeterred and immediately followed with what is considered to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time, the 1967 single “Good Vibrations,” which he had begun work on during the Pet Sounds sessions. The track hit No. 1 on the charts and encouraged Wilson to employ many of the same recording techniques he had used on a new project that he hoped would reach even greater musical heights. Collaborating with songwriter Van Dyke Parks on the lyrics and enlisting many of the musicians who had appeared on Pet Sounds, the album was initially titled Dumb Angel and later renamed SMiLE. Conceived by Wilson as a “teenage symphony to God,” it would not be released until more than 37 years later. One of the most famous unfinished albums of all time, SMiLE was shelved when Wilson’s personal life took a sharp turn for the worse—though reworked versions of a few of the songs would appear on 1967’s Smiley Smile and 1971’s Surf’s Up.
Plagued by his heavy abuse of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and LSD, Wilson suffered numerous nervous breakdowns and grew obese. He famously began wailing in the aisle of an airplane, played his grand piano in a sandbox he had built in his home and claimed to hear voices in his head. Attempting to deal with his addiction and mental illnesses, Wilson spent much of the next two decades in seclusion. While he struggled with his personal problems, the Beach Boys continued to tour without him (with only a few exceptions), relying more and more heavily on a nostalgia for their early work to carry their live shows. They continued to record as well, though with diminished involvement from Wilson, and with consequently underwhelming results.
By the mid-1970’s Wilson’s substance abuse and deteriorating mental state led his family to enlist the help of psychologist Eugene Landy, from whom he received treatment on and off for the next decade and a half. But while Landy would help Wilson reign in his drug addiction and take charge of his mental and physical health, he also exploited Wilson’s dependency on him, even going as far as to convince Wilson to list him as a collaborator on several songs on his 1988 debut, self-titled solo album, as well as a beneficiary in his will. In 1991, Wilson’s family sued Landy, resulting in a restraining order and the loss of Landy's license to practice psychology in California.
Wilson has credited the mid-90s renaissance of his personal and professional life to one thing—his wife, Melinda Ledbetter, whom he married in 1995. (Wilson had previously married Marilyn Rovell in 1964, and the couple had two children before divorcing in 1979). Since that time, Wilson has released numerous solo albums, including Orange Art Crate (1995) and Imagination (1998). He was also the subject of the 1995 documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. In 2004, 37 years after its initial recording, Wilson finally released a complete version of SMiLE to wide acclaim, and since reviving his career has even overcome his legendary stage fright, performing on his own and occasionally with the Beach Boys in concerts throughout the United States and Europe.
For his immeasurable contributions to music, Wilson has won numerous honors and awards. In 1988 he and the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2000 Wilson was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental for the song “Mrs. O'Leary's Cow,” and in 2007 he received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime contribution to the performing arts.
After decades of seclusion, a happy and productive Wilson received a warm welcome back into the music industry. His good friend Sir Elton John said of Wilson, “He’s got a great family life now, he goes to basketball games, he seems happy. He's leading as normal a life as Brian Wilson can.” In fact, Wilson might be happier now than he was even during the heyday of the Beach Boys. “I’m having much more fun than I did as a Beach Boy,” he said in The Guardian. “Because I’m no longer a Beach Boy. I’m Brian Wilson.”
In 2014 the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before appearing on U.S. screens the following year. Paul Dano earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a young Wilson (actor John Cusack was cast as the older Wilson, Paul Giamatti appearing as Eugene Landy), and the legendary musician also scored a nomination for contributing the song “One Kind of Love,” co-written with Scott Bennett. That same year, Wilson released a new solo album, No Pier Pressure, which reached No. 23 on the album charts.
In October 2016, the memoir I Am Brian Wilson was published. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine to promote the book, the 74-year-old legend announced that he would begin work on a new album, Sensitive Music for Sensitive People, later that year.
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