Brian Wilson was the genius behind one of the most revered groups of the 1960s: The Beach Boys. His skill lay in taking accessible, radio-friendly pop music and elevating it to the level of high art. Utilising complex harmonic theory and pioneering production techniques, he crafted albums that still sound as fresh and vital as they did when they were released.
Unfortunately, the same brain that allowed him to invent the swirling world of Pet Sounds was also plagued by mental illness. Wilson’s story sheds light on the darker side of hippiedom. Today, many argue that the musician was probably not born with schizophrenia – rather, it was probably triggered by his excessive use of drugs like LSD and PCP, drugs he was led to believe would expand his consciousness.
Years later, he doesn’t seem so convinced. Speaking to The Guardian back in 2011, Wilson opened up about the positives and negatives of LSD. At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe,” he began. “On the downside, it fucked with my brain.” While LSD certainly didn’t benefit Wilson’s mental wellbeing, nor did Eugene Landy, the psychotherapist his wife Marilyn hired to give Wilson one of his intensive 24-hour therapy sessions.
At this time, Wilson was struggling with excess drug use, weight gain, and increasingly erratic and reclusive behaviour, often locking himself in his room for days on end; eating, drinking, taking drugs, and speaking to nobody. Landy’s first move was to diagnose Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic, prescribe him drugs that basically turned his brain into an over-boiled vegetable, and force him to adopt a strict fitness regime, for which Landy hired a team of assistants, whose job it was to keep an eye on Wilson at all hours. As Wilson’scurrent wife Melinda recalled: “Most of the time, Landy was giving him downers to keep him out of his hair… Around 1988, when Brian’s solo album came out, Brian had a lot of things to do. So Landy would give him uppers”.
In 2016, Wilson sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss Love & Mercy, a film about Landy’s coercive relationship with Wilson. Reflecting on what he’d like people to take away from his story, he said: “I want people to realise that drugs can be very detrimental and dangerous. I’ve told a lot of people don’t take psychedelic drugs. It’s mentally dangerous to take. I regret having taken LSD. It’s a bad drug.”
Wilson was quick to clarify that, from his personal experience, he’s been led to believe that “the struggle for mental health is the result of bad drugs.” It’s surprisingly rare to hear such a candid reappraisal of an aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Even sober, a lot of ’60s rockers tend to look back on their intoxicated heyday as a period of youthful exuberance. But then again, I suppose Wilson lost a lot more than those musicians.