Brian Wilson: Visionary from the dark side of the Sixties

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The Independent Online

It may be that Brian Wilson just wasn't made for these times. The years have not been kind to the ageing musical genius who led the Beach Boys to chart glory in the 1960s and then disappeared to a wilderness of mental illness for decades afterwards. He can still sing, though his now reedy voice is the palest shadow of what it once was. And while in the music he has produced since his unofficial "comeback" more than 15 years ago there are the occasional flashes of the brilliance of a man whose songs helped to define a generational sub-set, the quality is stretched thin. Far easier, surely, simply to enjoy the royalties and think of easier days?

Apparently not. Next week Wilson arrives in Britain for 12 dates as part of a European tour, performing six consecutive nights at London's Royal Festival Hall, all of which have been sold out. From there the 61-year-old will travel to the Continent for performances in Germany, France and the Netherlands. Again, all are sell-outs.

By itself, the tour is not remarkable. Wilson toured Britain twice in 2002 to rapturous applause and rave reviews (at least from his fans) and even performed for the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace.

But this time around things are very different. This time Wilson will not simply be playing medleys of his greatest hits from 40 years ago in front of uncritical, cultish fans who for the larger part are simply glad that he is still performing.

This time a lot more is at stake. In the twilight of his career, Wilson will be trying to square a circle, to confront a demon from which he has been running most of his adult life, and in doing so finally deliver to his fans one of pop music's most legendary missing grails. And he will do all of this simply by singing a bunch of songs.

The body of music in question was, or is, an album called Smile. The album has never been released: indeed, it is perhaps pop music's most famous unreleased album. Elements of the album have appeared over the years as bootlegs, a tantalising teaser of what might have been. Some of the album - such as the 1967 single "Heroes and Villains" - has even been released more or less as Wilson originally intended.

But Smile is much more than a collection of lost tapes sought by die-hards. Depending on whom you believe, that album by itself might have changed the direction of popular music, would certainly have changed the fortunes of the Beach Boys, but in doing so would have led Wilson to suffer the nervous breakdown he experienced even earlier than he actually did.

The story of Smile is fixed firmly in the middle of the 1960s, a decade in which - led by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones - popular music finally threw off the shackles and politeness of the previous two decades and stood up for itself. It was a time when musicians pushed new boundaries, experimented with new sounds and used new recording techniques to produce what had been hitherto unimagined creations. And if there was anywhere - outside of EMI's Abbey Road recording studios - that was at the centre of this experimentation it was California, the home, both literally and spiritually, of Wilson.

Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 1942 in Inglewood, a suburb of the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis. His father Murray was a jealous, abusive man who regularly beat Wilson. His mother, Audree, was an alcoholic who did little to protect Wilson or his younger brothers Dennis and Carl, from the outrages of her husband.

Despite being deaf in his right ear, Wilson displayed an affinity for music at a precociously early age, revealing his ability to hum entire tunes from memory even before he could walk. By the time he was just five years old he had written his first song. As he got older he would listen to his father - a failed songwriter - play the piano, observing the chord patterns and progressions his father made on the keyboard. Briefly, Wilson would play the accordion at school but the piano was his real instrument of choice.

As he grew into adolescence he increasingly used music as a means of escape, both from his brothers and parents. He would play to drown out the noise of their arguments but also to drown out his own doubts and insecurities.

Wilson was not a confident teenager. It was largely out of this insecurity, out of a need to be socially accepted, that the Beach Boys developed. The year after he graduated from high school, 1959, he and his cousin Mike Love started singing at social events within the community. When situations demanded, they assembled a larger group involving Wilson's two brothers and a slightly built friend from high school, Al Jardine.

The young men called themselves the Pendletones and their popularity grew, thanks to a combination of catchy tunes and a certain cynicism on Wilson's part about the style of their music. While Wilson was no surfer - indeed, it's usually said that his brother Dennis was the only regular surfer among them - he was quick to spot a trend.

In October 1961, the group had its first recording session, laying down a simplistic song called Surfin' which regaled the pleasures of the sport. ("I got up this mornin' turned on my radio, I was checkin' on the surfin' scene/ To see if I would go, And when the DJ tells me that the surfin' is fine, That's when I know my baby and I will have a good time.") In the first month of its release the song made it into the local Top 40 in Los Angeles.

Two months later the song was in the top 75 of the national Billboard chart and - unknown to the band - the record's distributor, Candix Records, had renamed them. The Beach Boys were born.

The summery surf sound that the Beach Boys produced in the early years tells only part of the story. Wilson was always more musically ambitious than his bandmates, organising four-part harmonies and intricate backing vocal parts.

But Wilson's outlook on the world was not particularly summery. Addled by anxiety, doubt and drawn to drugs and drinking, he became increasingly withdrawn. Though the Beach Boys may have epitomised the Surfin' scene, Wilson was very much sitting on the dark side of the beach.

Once again Wilson retreated into his music, creating complex, beautiful masterpieces such as God Only Knows and Good Vibrations, seemingly upbeat songs that on closer inspection bore a darker thread. They were delicate and powerful, ahead of their time. In 1966 when the Beach Boys released the Pet Sounds album it was considered a match to the Beatles' Revolver, something Paul McCartney himself admitted.

Wilson buried himself in the studio, collaborating with the San Francisco folk musician Van Dyke Parks, to complete a follow-up, aware that across the Atlantic his rivals were planning something big. It would be called Smile, he said. It was his "teenage symphony to God". Those who heard early recordings said it was masterful. Leonard Bernstein, treated to one of the tracks, said it was "too complex to get all of the first time around ... poetic, beautiful, even in its obscurity".

As the Los Angeles writer Jeff Turretine said recently, the story of how Smile came not to be has rightly or wrongly taken on the aura of a parable, a story of how a genius abandoned his work rather than see it compromised by colleagues who did not share his vision. Others simply say that Wilson was unable to cope with the added scrutiny and pressure the album would have brought, and chose to save himself. Either way, Wilson stumbled, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys were from thereon destined to be unhip.

Wilson's brothers are dead - Dennis drowned in 1983 and Carl died of cancer in 1998 - and he no longer has anything to do with Love, Jardine or Bruce Johnston, who joined the band in 1965. The most hardcore fans are less than impressed with their varying efforts to perform under the Beach Boys name.

And in many respects it is little short of miraculous that Wilson can perform at all. In and out of psychiatric therapy and drug rehabilitation for more than two decades, there were periods in his life when friends wondered whether he would return to any semblance of normality. That breakthrough appears to have been the result of two factors: the unorthodox therapy of his psychiatrist Dr Eugene Landy and the positive effect of the marriage in 1995 to his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter. Proof of breakthrough came in 1998, with the critically acclaimed album Imagination.

Quite what is driving Wilson now is unclear. When The Independent interviewed him two years ago Wilson was relaxed and happy, positive about the future, genuinely thrilled that the fans still loved him.

But it was also clear that there remained more than one Brian Wilson. There was the pop star who was happy to be playing old hits, but lurking inside was the ambitious Wilson and, as he conceded, for a man of so much creativity there was also someone with the capacity to self-destruct.

It appears that the creator has won. Reports suggest that Wilson and his band have been in rehearsal for months and that he and Parks have been sifting through those old Smile tapes, trying to recreate the original vision, albeit in a live performance.

Whether he can manage that will be seen next week. There is a breathless anxiety among his fans, who argue on message boards in what order Smile's tracks will appear and whether there really will be any "new" material.

There are some who think that Wilson should not be doing this, that he should leave his opus unfinished, for ever safe in its mystery. Wilson thinks differently. Wilson thinks that now is the time to confront the monster he created. The Beach Boy is finally ready to smile.

A life in brief


Brian Douglas Wilson, Inglewood, California, 20 June 1942, son of Audree Neva (Korthof) housewife, and and Murray Gage Wilson, a heavy equipment supplier.


Married Marilyn Rovell December 7, 1964 (divorced 1979), married Melinda Ledbetter 1995. Children (with Marilyn) Carnie, born April 29, 1968, and Wendy, born October 16, 1969. Adopted (with Melinda) Daria, Delanie.


Founder and leader of the Pendletones, 1960-61, renamed the Beach Boys 1961. Recorded and toured with the Beach Boys 1962-65, producer and songwriter for the Beach Boys 1961-1982. Collaborations with lyricists Gary Usher, Bob Norberg, Roger Christian, Tony Asher, Van Dyke Parks. Solo career from 1988.

Non-musical career

Owner of the Radiant Radish health food store

He says

"I would like to try to make some music that people would like. Music where there's love. Whenever there is love present in your music, it's emotional securityfor people. People need music because it gives them emotional security and unconditional love. As soon as you realise that you're off and running with a whole new album."

"Some people might think that sex is the highest experience you can have. I tend to think that music is."

They say

"Brian is a phenomenal talent. His is the only music that can reduce me to tears."

Paul McCartney

"If there is one person I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson."

George Martin (Beatles producer)