Brian's Song

Listening to the distant echoes of a pop-rock genius

Unfortunately Wilson himself is of little assistance when it comes to finding truth amid the melodrama, in large part because his public statements over time have tended to reiterate those of whoever's supervising his activities at the moment.

During the early '60s, when he was spitting out classic singles like "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Little Deuce Coupe," and "Be True to Your School" (not to mention the painfully honest "In My Room") at a fearsome clip, he was nothing but deferent toward his manager-father Murry, a slave-driving brute who tried to live out his songwriting dreams through his talented son; only later did he give his dad the boot. Then, throughout much of the '70s and '80s, he talked up Dr. Eugene Landy, a controversial therapist who virtually took over Wilson's life, even going as far as claiming credit for coproducing Brian's self-titled 1988 solo debut and for cowriting several of the disc's tracks. Three years later, after no shortage of legal wrangling, Wilson cut his ties with Landy, whose name appears nowhere on the just-rereleased edition of Brian Wilson; the sole coproducer listed is Fleetwood Mac brainiac Lindsey Buckingham, who said in 1993 that "God Only Knows" is one of his three favorite songs. (The others, incidentally, are the Nelson Riddle­ arranged rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin" by Frank Sinatra and "Louie Louie," by the Kingsmen).

"How's the mix on it?" Wilson asks about the reissue, adding, "I only have one ear, so I can't hear stereo." His deafness on one side was a condition from birth and not, as has been widely reported, a result of his father hitting him in the head with a two-by-four. Which, by the way, Brian still says Murry did.As Brian Wilson knows, the public has had a great many chances to see him at his worst. By the mid-'70s, after innumerable dalliances with mind-expanding drugs that seemed to shrink his, he was reclusive, dangerously obese, and only intermittently coherent. But handlers such as Dr. Landy pushed him back into the spotlight anyway, under the theory that doing so would motivate him to mend his ways. Hence a dazed, bloated Wilson was seen in a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live being dragged to a beach for a supposedly comic attempt at surfing. On the same program, he also croaked out an agonizing solo rendition of "Good Vibrations" during which Landy, according to the Timothy White book The Nearest Faraway Place, stood just outside the view of cameras holding up cue cards that read "RELAX" and "SMILE."

He's been dazed and confused for so long: Brian Wilson (second from left, sleeping) with the Beach Boys back in the day
He's been dazed and confused for so long: Brian Wilson (second from left, sleeping) with the Beach Boys back in the day

Today Wilson seems embarrassed by these images and the perceptions they cemented among fans. He says the single biggest misconception about him is "that Brian Wilson hung out in his bedroom for a long time. That's not true. I was recording and going to my friends' houses and stuff."

In addition he was frequenting Tower Records on West Hollywood's Sunset Strip, where his visits became legend among employees from that era and afterward. One morning, according to Tower lore, an assistant manager arrived to unlock the back door only to find a wobbly, incoherent Wilson urinating on the knob. Late another evening, after employees ready to close up shop had turned off the lights and ushered out what they thought was the last batch of customers, they found Wilson huddled in a corner, sobbing and repeating, "It's such a big store. It's such a big store...."

Wilson doesn't recall these specific events, but he doesn't deny them, either. The period, he says, is "kind of a blur, because it was so bad. I went through such a bad trip that I don't even remember what it is I went through."His unsteady condition didn't stop Wilson from occasionally making music that was worthy, albeit much simpler than the work for which he's most prized. In conjunction with Capitol, Brother Records, the Beach Boys' personal imprint, has begun reissuing many of the group's mostly forgotten '70s discs in two-for-the-price-of-one packages, and the finest of them demonstrate that even a debilitated Brian was better than none. Because Brian's participation in 1972's Carl and the Passions and Holland was extremely limited, the platters are interesting mainly for the ways in which they shine a light on the talents of Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al. But 1977's The Beach Boys Love You is a legitimately good record in its own sloppy, eccentric way, replete with wild celebrations ("Let Us Go on This Way"), bizarro tributes ("Johnny Carson," which begins with the lines, "He sits behind his microphone/He speaks in such a manly tone"), and extraordinarily naked balladry ("Let's Put Our Hearts Together," which teamed Brian with his first wife, Marilyn).

Considering these attributes, Wilson's claim that Love You is the Beach Boys salvo he likes best isn't as peculiar as it first seems -- but his stated rationale certainly is. He says Love You tops a crowded field because it features "Ding Dang," a goofy, fragmentary throwaway that clocks in at around 50 seconds and the sole lyrics (aside from "dings," "dangs" and "wooos!") of which are, "I love the girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly." Brian gets excited at the mere mention of the tune, announcing, without an iota of irony, "It's a little more exciting than Pet Sounds, you know?"

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