Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

I Am Brian Wilson – of music and mental illness

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i am Brian Wilson is worth it. Buy it if you are a Beach Boys fan or interested in mental illness, creativity, music and American pop culture. It’s a fascinating story –and unlike many celebrity ghost written autobiographies — a rare treat to read too.

The Beach Boys are one of popular music’s longest standing icons. Emerging around 1961 in Southern California, the band consisted of the three Wilson brothers: Brian (chief writer and producer), Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, a couple of long term buddies Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, plus a moving crew of professional musicians, including Glen Campbell.

They have as many top charting songs as any act in US music history ranging from 1964’s Surfin’ USA which set the scene for a type of Californian based surf music. It stretches from their high period complexity of of Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains in 1967 through to their later period sugar pop such as Kokomo in the late ’70s. They’re still touring today, having been in Australia earlier this year.

i am Brian Wilson’s writer Ben Greenman has done a fine job in communicating Brian Wilson’s own words. The language has a simplicity and naivety that allows the subject’s personality to shine through.

Two things have dominated Brian Wilson’s life: music and mental illness.

It feels as if Wilson is sitting at his favourite diner, or a chair at home recounting stories to his friends as he tries to explain what’s going on inside his head — as complex and disorienting as that can be. He talks of being unable to leave the house, his favourite chairs, favourite meals, good days and bad days and of needing constant support to keep the bad days at bay.

The book is structured in a similarly haphazard manner. Stories come and go and then resurface. They bounce off each other like billiard balls. It’s not a chronological telling of Wilson’s story but is thematically arranged with chapters including: Time, America, Echoes and Voices, Fear and Fathers and Sons. There are pivotal years that he returns to while other periods seem to go by in a blur.

But two things have dominated Wilson’s life: music and mental illness. This book covers both without glossing over the unpleasant or the unflattering and reveals how  music and his mental state have influenced each other.

Wilson addresses many of the myths and legends that have evolved around his rise to become one of the most famous musicians of the late 20th century. He recalls the sandbox in his living room, the doctor who dominated his life for two long periods of time, the chaos around recording SMiLE, competition with The Beatles, Phil Spector, weight gain and why he quit touring.

He tells how he saw things. He says the alleged competition with The Beatles was really about mutual inspiration. He did not throw SMiLE away after hearing Sergeant Pepper’s — there were far too many other things going on in his head for such a simplistic explanation. SMiLE was the aborted follow up to Pet Sounds (widely acknowledged as the Beach Boys peak achievement), coming in the aftermath of the hugely ambitious Good Vibrations. It fell to pieces amidst rumours of mental health issues, drugs and enormous piles of tapes of half-completed songs. It’s demise haunted Wilson for the rest of his career until he finally returned to it in 2004 under his own name.

Wilson’s age (he’s now 74) and his survival of a tumultuous life has allowed him to quietly reflect on past events. He is anxious to be fair to those with whom he has had issues — his father Murry, his brothers, Mike Love — and he recognises that they too have had their own demons.

Wilson is at pains to understand, and perhaps forgive, his father. He has come to a kind of peace with Murry Wilson’s tyrannical behaviour.

Murry Wilson looms large. He was a dominating father and early-career band manager with his own unrealised ambitions. He drove his children to success and that led to myriad issues within the family. There are some obvious, albeit tamer, parallels with the Jackson family saga.

Brian Wilson is at pains to understand, and perhaps forgive, his father. He has come to a kind of peace with Murry Wilson’s tyrannical behaviour and to understand how devastated he must have felt when the Beach Boys fired him as their manager in the mid ’60s. His voice, however, never left Brian’s mind.

His father was just one of many voices who continue to hound Wilson. The voices that tell him he’ll never be any good, who scream at him before a show, who question his talent and abilities or tell him to stay in bed all day. The voice of producer Phil Spector is one of these. Wilson was inspired by, and even copied many of Spector’s recording techniques in the studio, aiming for the big “Wall of Sound” that was evident on Be My Baby by the Ronettes – one of his big early hits as producer. That song and style influences Wilson to this day.

One of the pleasures of reading a musician’s biography is revisiting the music while you’re reading about its creation. I’ve always had a soft spot for The Beach Boys, despite the throwaway lyrics;  Surfing USA, Little Deuce Coupe, I Get Around and so on. Good Vibrations however is a high point in mid -’60s popular music and culture and ranks as one of the top pop songs of any era.

Wilson’s use of double tracking gave the songs their signature smoothness and minimised the differences between their voices.

Wilson talks about the making of these classics and you realise his musical genius. He heard music and sounds fully formed in his head and used the recording studio to extract them faithfully. He went on a hunt to find the exact foot pump organ that will sound right in the end piece of a song, and hired a Theremin session muso to play the wail on Good Vibrations. He talks of often having 20/40/50 takes on some songs to get the vocals right.

If The Beach Boys are unique, it’s for their phenomenal use of multi- tracked harmony vocals. That was pretty much all of Brian Wilson’s work even if the main lead vocals were shared across the group. His use of double tracking gave the songs their signature smoothness and minimised the differences between their voices.

There is a lot of focus on the band’s lyrics too. Van Dyke Parks’ efforts aside, many of their songs have been about teen obsessions: cars, surfing, girls. These topics aren’t what one one equates with depth or insight, but it’s plain that Wilson cared greatly and agonised at times over the lyrics.

There are insights into the commercial machine that the Beach Boys was, and continues to be (these days it’s mainly Mike Love and Al Jardine from the original line up with Wilson occasionally participating).

i am Brian Wilson is a sprawling memoir but succeeds in painting a detailed picture of what it’s like to be a genius and tortured man.

I think that more than any other major act of the modern era, except perhaps KISS, The Beach Boys had a financial savvy and saw their music as a commodity as much as an art. It may be why they’re still performing today when deaths and departures would’ve killed lesser bands.

i am Brian Wilson is a sprawling memoir but succeeds in painting a detailed picture of what it’s like to be the genius, tortured man, singer, producer, family member and visionary. It’s a worthy addition to the growing corpus of literature on The Beach Boys.

You can buy i am Brian Wilson here.

The book is published by Hachette Australia 

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12 responses to “I Am Brian Wilson – of music and mental illness

  1. Surfin’ USA was a hit in the spring/summer of 1963. At least it was in North America. That’s the song [and the album] which truly launched Brian and the ‘Boys’ to international SUPER-stardom. I didn’t find this [auto] biography to be structured in a “haphazard manner” at all. It was, in fact, far more authentic because it was presented in a manner more in keeping with how Brian would have actually told his story. The competition between Brian and the Beatles is “alleged”? He has talked about it for decades. So too have Paul McCartney and the late George Martin. Martin was ever-so amazed that what he, John and Paul pulled together competed with that which Brian primarily did on his own…sometimes with help from folks like Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks.

    The memoir doesn’t “sprawl”. In less than 300 pages Brian reveals exactly how he sees, and saw, things… … …particularly on the specific day[s] he was interviewed for the book. It is 100% succinct and to the point… … …and for the most part… … …100% accurate.

    The completion, release and touring of SMiLE [the Brian Wilson Presents version] back in 2004 was the beginning of the excellerated healing process from the professional point of view. We are here at this point…today…because THAT happened. HUGE thanks to Melinda for unlocking the doors Brian chose to walk through along with Darian … et al.

  2. Beach Boys are maybe a significant act for the USA but they are quite insignificant for the World. They were uninspiring musicians and a mediocre rock group. Elevating them to the same level as the Beatles is a pure example of a dirty propaganda.

    1. I think maybe 100 million record sales worldwide countless sold out conconccets in Europe Asia Australian and songs that are still used in television commercials in lots of countries plus the fact Brian Wilson has been touring for the past 8 months and still going worldwide proves otherwise I believe

      1. Contrary to the above, Vincent van Gogh failed to sell any of his paintings, or maybe just one or two… On a positive side, the masterpiece, as some journalists call it, such as “Pet Sounds”, can go very well with your dinner food, as a background music, providing it is emitted gently.

        1. If you listen to their albums Doc, they were always one album ahead of the Fabs – and to be fair, the Beatles took a great deal of influence from the Beach Boys – you just have to listen to Penny Lane and McCartney’s bass playing to hear the Pet Sounds infl. ‘Summer Days and Summer Nights’ was their ‘Revolver’, ‘Pet Sounds’ pre-dated Pepper, as did Good Vibrations to Strawberry Fields. ‘SMiLE’ and the fragmented albums that followed were their White Album – and the tracks on SMiLE wipe the floor musically with Peppers – though it might not be fair to compare as you wouldn’t call some of it ‘pop’, and they went back to basics after as did the Beatles after that. Not diminishing the Beatles legacy, but the Beach Boys were the curve they were following closely. You could hardly call Hal Blaine, Barney Kessel, Glen Campbell, Carl Wilson, and their ilk uninspiring. And Love was / is a great front person too. A point maybe missed here – Brian Wilson was not only ‘Lennon and McCartney’ but also George Martin too, and put out a ridiculous amount of albums in a short space of time.

    2. Paul McCartney and George Martin (producer of the Beatles) have admitted publicly many times that Sgt Pepper was the Beatles attempt to match Pet Sounds. Look on YouTube, there are plenty of examples out there. Personally, I prefer the Beatles’ catalog to the Beach Boys’ catalog — but not by much. The Beach Boys were actually more successful in other countries than in the USA. Their first #1 was was actually scored in Sweden. In England in the mid-1960’s, the Beach Boys were voted #1 group in the world (beating out the Beatles). You should probably give Pet Sounds or Good Vibrations another listen. Nothing mediocre there.

  3. Shane thanks for a beautifully thoughtful piece. I might just buy that book. The Beach Boys made some remarkable pop with infectious vocals, and recently when I heard the Ramones on radio I was surprised to realise that right underneath I could hear the Beach Boys. That’s some influence.

  4. Fact check: “Kokomo” was released as a single in 1988; the verses were written by John Phillips and Scott McKenzie two years earlier, in 1986.

  5. ‘God Only Knows’, ‘In My Room’, ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Caroline No’ – none vacuous lyrically and all wonderful musically and amongst my favourite songs of all time. People connect with different music. It’s not a competition. The thing I like about the film ‘Love and Mercy’ is the depiction of the musical process that Wilson goes through. Having not yet read the book, I don’t know if that meticulous attention to the detail of sound is captured, but I don’t think it’s something that even family members really always understood. Most would suggest that Wilson has added substantially to the lexicon of contemporary music.

  6. Interesting observations. I thought that Love and Mercy was an amazing movie and confirmed that Brian Wilson was ahead of everyone in the mid 60’s, even the Beatles. I will buy this book.

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