The Beach Boys.
Brian Wilson, the eldest of a trio of brothers whose love of vocal harmony would determine the course of their lives, was the architect of the Beach Boys style. His early love of groups like the Four Freshmen and the Four Lads, combined with his interest in writing his own music, resulted in a fresh rock and roll sound that was present on the Beach Boys’ very first record in 1961 and that can still be heard on their most recent album from 2012. Brian’s journey was rarely a smooth or calm one, however, and at the same time that he experienced unprecedented success, he dealt with troubles at home, within the group, and within himself. And yet, despite obstacles that would have stopped a lesser musician, Brian Wilson continues to persevere, his career now deep into its sixth decade (his most recent solo album, No Pier Pressure, was released this past April).
Some people have called Brian Wilson a musical genius. Others regard him as a casualty of 60s drug culture too damaged to reclaim his past brilliance. The truth may lie somewhere in-between. The new film about his life, Love & Mercy, tells at least some of his story. Here are a few facts about Brian Wilson that may or may not feature in the film, but that reveal something about the man responsible for some of the most indelible pop music of our age.
He Never Heard His Music in Stereo
As a young child, Brian Wilson lost almost all of the hearing in his right ear. The percentage of hearing left is so meager that he has lived most of his life essentially deaf in one ear. For a man whose late 60s stereo recordings from albums like Pet Sounds and Surf’s Up still inspire a certain awe among his fans, it seems incredible that he could only hear his music in mono.
There are various theories about how Brian lost his hearing, none of them completely substantiated. Brian himself attributed the loss to a blow to the head he incurred as a toddler from his frequently abusive father Murry, who both encouraged his boys to be musicians and ruled over them with an iron hand. His mother, however, variously remembered a scuffle with another toddler and what she referred to as a “nerve impingement” that may have been the result of a tonsillectomy. Whatever the cause, the loss prompted Brian to be more protective of his remaining hearing and had much to do with his decision to stop playing concerts with the Beach Boys in the mid-60s.
Surfing Was Best Left to the Drummer
Brian Wilson spent the early years of his career writing one ode to surfing after another. This quintessential California pastime was the subject of the Beach Boys’ very first single, the aptly titled “Surfin’.” Brian, however, had a lifelong fear of the water and avoided the activity entirely. In fact, most of the Beach Boys were not aficionados of the sport. Only brother Dennis, the group’s drummer, enjoyed surfing, and he and his friends would provide Brian with favorite surfing spots that he could insert into the lyrics of songs like “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
In the mid-70s, when Brian Wilson was making his so-called “comeback” after a long period of inactivity with the group (ads for the group touted “Brian’s back!”), he agreed to film a comedy sketch for a TV special that showed him surfing at the beach. Paunchy and terrified, he flopped around in the water on a surfboard and couldn’t wait for the experience to be over. It’s one of the ironies of his long career that Brian Wilson’s love of sea, sand, and surf as songwriting topics was never based on real life enjoyment.
He Cared A Lot About Fire Safety
Brian Wilson was musically restless, and despite the incredible success the Beach Boys experienced in the early to mid-60s, a period during which they racked up 22 Top 40 hits, he strove to do something more. The album Pet Sounds, a collection of impeccably arranged, sophisticated pop, was the first evidence of a growth away from the simplicity of his earlier songs, and the single “Good Vibrations,” a sort of pop mini-symphony released in 1966, promised even bigger things. Feeling emboldened by the single’s success, Brian concocted plans for an album called Smile that would take the Beach Boys in an even more widescreen direction.
Brian’s discovery of LSD no doubt had something to do with this evolution. The psychedelic drug, still legal during most of 1966, expanded his creativity on one hand, but intensified his already acute anxiety and paranoia on the other. The recording sessions for Smile increasingly reflected Brian’s changing state of mind. During the session for “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’ Leary’s Cow),” a song that recreated the sounds of a large conflagration, Brian asked a janitor to start a small fire in a bucket so that the musicians could smell smoke as they worked. He also asked the musicians to don plastic children’s fire helmets to put them in the spirit and lighten the mood. Instead, the mood darkened; a series of fires that occurred in the immediate neighborhood during the several days of the session convinced Brian that the negative energy of his song was responsible. Spooked, he abandoned it. Eventually, he would abandon the entire project and it would become the most legendary unreleased album in the history of pop music, not reassembled and released formally until 2011.
Sometimes He Composed with His Toes in the Sand
Around the same time he was producing Smile, in late 1966, Brian made an unusual change to the dining room in his house. Thinking that he would be more creatively inspired at the beach, but not actually wanting to go the beach, he paid for carpenters to build a low retaining wall around the perimeter of his dining room and then had eight loads of beach sand trucked in. His expensive grand piano was then lowered into the middle of the sandbox, much to the horror of Brian’s regular piano tuner, who often found sand in the sensitive instrument.
Many viewed this transformation of his home as further evidence of Brian’s declining mental state, although he insisted that he composed some very good tunes in his sandbox while it lasted. Brian and his wife would eventually move from their Hollywood Hills home and the sandbox wouldn’t follow, but it was the beginning of a period of instability in Brian’s life that would stretch into the next decade.
Getting Him Out of Bed Was Not Always Easy
For a long period in the 1970s, it seemed as if Brian Wilson would never make music again. Derailed by drug abuse, self-doubt, and a crumbling marriage, he spent his days in his California mansion slumped in bed – overeating, drinking, using drugs, and watching television. His hair grew long and greasy, his weight ballooned to over 300 pounds, and a bushy beard hid the cherubic features that as a child had once made him a natural choice for the leading spot in a boy’s choir. Occasionally at night he would be spotted at Los Angeles clubs in a bathrobe and slippers, clearly in an altered state of mind.
Eventually, his family members intervened and Brian began a long road to recovery that involved psychological counseling, detoxing from chemicals, and revising his diet. Although most of his family would later regret trusting so much of Brian’s care to his psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, who was to some extent a frustrated show biz impresario, most of them also later admitted that without Landy’s influence, Brian might well have died. While Landy did improve Brian’s physical health, he also began to dominate Brian’s entire life, even penning a ghostwritten Brian Wilson memoir and adding his name to songwriting credits. In the late 80s, this situation reached a crisis point and the family took Landy to court. They won the case in 1992, and Landy was barred from having any contact with Brian Wilson thereafter. (Landy died in 2006.)
His Musical Guiding Light? George Gershwin
Early in his career, Brian Wilson was enamored with the productions of Phil Spector, whose hits of the early 60s for groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes were sonically grand like few pop songs before them. In his sideline as a producer, and sometimes even with the Beach Boys, Brian would imitate Spector’s sound as featured on records like “Be My Baby.” But Brian had another model long before he became interested in the “pocket symphonies” of Phil Spector. He adored one of the most popular and lasting composers of the 20th century: George Gershwin.
It’s become part of Brian Wilson lore that among his first words as a toddler was the word “blue.” When he said it, he was asking to hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” “Rhapsody in Blue” would be a continual source of inspiration for Brian during his entire career. In 2010, he had the opportunity to show his love for Gershwin when he recorded the album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Not only did he have the opportunity to finish a couple of Gershwin’s songwriting fragments, but he also (of course) recorded his own rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.” It was a fitting tribute from one giant of American music to another.