Happy Birthday Brian Wilson! We Love Your Pet Sounds

Brian at Bonnaroo: Does this man seem to be enjoying himself?
Brian at Bonnaroo: Does this man seem to be enjoying himself?
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Although he's easily the most visionary American artist to emerge from the heady Southern California sun and surf scene of the early '60s, Brian Wilson's reputation for genius has often been tempered by his battles with severe depression and mental instability.

Born on June 20, 1942 (two days after Paul McCartney, the man he'd later see as both a competitor and inspiration), and handicapped by deafness in one ear (the result of a childhood injury), he grew up bullied by an abusive father and found himself ill-prepared to cope with the fame he encountered so early on. Consequently, he succumbed to the combined pressures of success and his own fragile ego, casting a shadow over the Beach Boys' trajectory and putting the brakes on their continued success at the start of the '70s. Even after he made his reluctant return to the band's fold -- as flaunted by the much ballyhooed "Brian is Back" campaign of 1976 -- this man-child retained the scars of his damaged psyche. For all the hope and the hype that Wilson's various comebacks have inspired, not the least of which was the Beach Boy's celebrated 50 year reunion, Brian remains aloof, either too timid or too uneasy about stepping back into the spotlight.

Some 45 years after returning to the fold, Brian's now more active than ever. Indeed, ever since reviving his lost masterpiece Smile and touring behind his live revival of Pet Sounds, Wilson clearly appears reanimated, re-inspired and reconnected to his muse. His recent solo efforts have included tributes to his steadfast influences -- the Gershwins and the music of Walt Disney in particular -- and the much anticipated Beach Boys comeback effort, That's Why God Made the Radio, seem to recapture their signature sound, albeit it in the polished style of the band's later '60s style.

Brian's breakdown began early on, even before the famous failure that was his so-called "Teenage Symphony to God," the aborted album that was conceived as Smile. In 1964, he had a public breakdown on an airplane as the Beach Boys were preparing to launch a new tour, and had to be removed. His fierce sense of competition with the Beatles (it's said that the Fabs' Rubber Soul directly influenced Pet Sounds, which in return inspired the Beatles to imagine Sgt. Pepper) often found him feeling inferior and doubting his abilities to produce anything of serious merit.

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Likewise, when his promised masterpiece Smile crashed and burned after so many months of painstaking production, Wilson was physically and emotionally devastated. The completion of a medley relating to the elements -- one entitled "Fire" found him insisting that the studio musicians don firemen hats during its recording -- news reports of a fire elsewhere in L.A. convinced him that supernatural forces were out to haunt him. He promptly abandoned the project entirely, although various songs from the album would later surface elsewhere.

It would be nearly 40 years before he revisited the album, and when he staged it at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004, he was so nervous he could barely walk on stage. "Smile was killing me," Brian said later, and in fact, it had a debilitating effect on his overall psyche. Around the time of its creation, he retreated to the safety of his bedroom, staying in bed for days at a time. When he did arise, it was to practice at his piano, which he famously installed in a sandbox that he built in his living room because he wanted to reconnect with the feel of the beach. He stopped touring and commenced taking drugs, including hashish, amphetamines, and LSD.

That led him to have frequent delusions, including the notion that angels were helping him compose. At one point he was so out of control, he wandered off aimlessly dressed his bathrobe, looking like a street person with his scraggly hair and unkempt appearance. A famous scene from a mid-'70s special produced by Saturday Night Live mastermind Lorne Michaels had Blues Brothers duo Dan Aykroyd and John Beloushi kidnap him from his bedroom and drag him down to the beach to force him to surf. Wilson was allegedly terrified at this confrontation with the ocean, and he looked it onscreen. One of his few songs of substance during this period was a track entitled "Busy Doin' Nothin'" which summed up his mental state descriptively, especially in the aftermath of his father Murray's death in 1973.

Other family tragedies would befall him as well, most regrettably the deaths of his brothers Dennis and Carl in 1983 and 1998, respectively. Brian himself fell prey to his would-be svengali and therapist Dr. Eugene Landy who took total control of his patient until his family and management finally freed him. Brian was in a terrible state, a victim of his own demons and his diminishing mental and physical prowess.

Fortunately, he's been able to make a bit of a rebound, although on stage he still appears somewhat removed and uncertain about being back in front of the public eye. He's probably at his best behind the scenes, but as long as he's able to make his presence known, that's all that really matters.

Brian's back, and music lovers are all the better served as a result.

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