Brian Wilson Biography
The Beach Boys--so dubbed by a record executive--invented a new sound, combining Four Freshman-like vocal harmonies with Ventures guitar licks. "Surfin' Safari" (No. 14, 1962) began a string of hits, and the Beach Boys established themselves as the top group in America. In early 1965, Wilson--still only twenty-three years old--suffered a nervous breakdown. He stopped touring with the band, and instead devoted himself full-time to writing and producing. The result was Pet Sounds, on which Wilson employed legions of studio musicians--and only vocal tracks from the other Beach Boys--to create a pop record unlike any other.
Pet Sounds yielded just one Top 10 single, and the album peaked at No. 10, subpar for a Beach Boys release. Yet critics and other musicians were astounded. Paul McCartney was a huge fan, saying in 1990, "It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life." Wilson and the Beatles were then involved in a friendly trans-Atlantic battle for pop supremacy, and McCartney listened to the record constantly while he and John Lennon were coming up with the songs that would become Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Disappointed by the public's response to Pet Sounds, Wilson was determined to create a song that couldn't miss. He spent six months in the studio and an unprecedented $16,000 before he finally emerged with the multilayered "Good Vibrations." The single reached No. 1 and became the group's biggest hit.
For his next project, Wilson decided to record an entire album using the techniques he'd honed on "Good Vibrations." The new album, titled Smile early on, was intended as a "teenage symphony to God." Working with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson recorded a number of tracks, but when the Beach Boys returned from a triumphant trip to Europe and heard the Smile songs, they were less than thrilled with Wilson's complex arrangements and Parks' cryptic lyrics. Faced with the band's resistance and his own emotional problems, Wilson suffered another breakdown. Smile was permanently shelved. Wilson wrote and recorded sporadically for the remainder of the sixties, but gave up on musical experimentation.
The seventies were basically lost, as Wilson spent much of his time in bed, gorging himself on food and drugs. Now, while that might sound like an engaging way to spend a few years, being bloated on drugs doesn't do wonders for the creative process (just ask Truman Capote or Elvis), and Wilson's genius was in little evidence on those rare occasions when his work actually appeared on a Beach Boys record. Wilson divorced his wife, Marilyn, in 1979 after nearly fifteen years of marriage. The union produced two daughters, Carnie and Wendy, two-thirds of the early-nineties pop trio Wilson Phillips.
In 1983, the Beach Boys, desperate for a productive Brian, hired psychotherapist Eugene Landy. Landy had cared for Wilson briefly during the mid-seventies, when Wilson was able to make a few public appearances. This time Landy "treated" Wilson for nearly a decade. Brian Wilson, a solo album, was released in 1988 to generally good reviews. Sales were poor, however, and Sire Records declined to release Wilson's follow-up album. Meanwhile, Landy took co-producing and co-writing credits for much of Wilson's solo work, he helped ghost Wilson's autobiography, and he consumed larger and larger chunks of the Wilson fortune. Finally, Wilson's family intervened and, in 1991, a judge ordered Landy to cease further contact with him.
In 1993, Capitol Records released Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys, a five-disc, 142-track set that included half an hour's worth of material from the Smile sessions. The box set garnered a rare five-star review in Rolling Stone and sold well. Two years later, record producer Don Was produced and directed I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, a sixty-nine-minute documentary about Wilson which drew more raves. The soundtrack included reworkings of old Beach Boys songs performed for the film, and was certainly Wilson's most affecting work since Pet Sounds. Wilson also performed vocals on 1995's Orange Crate Art, a collection of songs written by Van Dyke Parks. These projects have all raised hopes among Wilson's fans that, unencumbered by drugs or doctors, at least a shadow of his creative powers might return.