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Inside the mercurial mind of Brian Wilson: A Beach Boys legend at 80


“He’s like Mozart or Chopin or Beethoven or something,” Neil Young once said of Brian Wilson, “this music will live forever.” Indeed, Wilson changed the fate of music with Beach Boys records like Pet Sounds. However, the timeless timbre of his work is not merely a pivotal moment of diegesis in the long and winding road of pop music, it also, as Paul Simon declared, “has made a lot of people happy for a long time,” and will continue to do so.

On the surface, the anthems are pure pop perfection, but that gilded exterior hides an intricacy of rule-book-evading innovation. The man behind the music is just as complex and compelling, as these column inches must tell. 

A paradigm of his mercurial mind comes with the creation of his opus, Pet Sounds. “The whole living room was full of sand,” Michelle Williams of the Mamas and the Papas recalled of Wilson’s writing process. His then-wife Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford had informed her that he had filled their house with sand and perched his grand piano on top as though their lounge was some sort of walled musical beach. “I know it’s crazy but he’s writing some great songs,” Williams recalls being told, “and he was writing Pet Sounds.”

The album is a masterpiece born of monomania. Every artist in Laurel Canyon was pushing themselves to better their neighbour at the time, but no one in the world was willing to go the mystic sandy lengths of Wilson to trailblaze a new breed of artistry. As his brother and bandmate, Dennis Wilson once proclaimed: “Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.” That was a responsibility that Wilson shouldered with great reverence, and it became a difficult weight to bear. 

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Pet Sounds was a new creative watermark that the whole world had to follow. It pioneered new stereo techniques that essentially made pop baroque for the first time. But this was the 1960s and things were moving fast, so follow it they did, and Wilson and co had to pick up the pace too. While many might have rested upon the laurels of a ground-breaking masterpiece, the Californian crooner was compelled to better The Beatles with his next effort. 

The question remains: How on Earth do you follow an album like Pet Sounds? Re-entering the studio after that celestial sonic feat must have been akin to the Earth-bound dread that Ham the Chimp-onaut underwent following his undisputable accomplishment of being the first living being to successfully return from orbit. Unlike Ham, however, who suffered the first known case of post-lunar depression, Wilson was profoundly upbeat about the task ahead, stating: “Our new album will be better than Pet Sounds.” He even ventured to add: “It will be as much an improvement over Sounds as that was over Summer Days.”

Therein lies the complexity and crux of his creative being. He was wildly optimistic—so optimistic, in fact, that he was inevitably setting himself up for a fall. His main rival Paul McCartney said, “I figure no one is educated musically until they’ve heard Pet Sounds.” Adding, “To me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways.” You can’t get higher than that—and Wilson was attempting literal ways to reach that lofty perch. 

The battle to topple Pet Sounds left Brian Wilson and his cohort of crooners hoisted by their petard. When Smile entered the studio and set about incorporating well over 50 hours of sound fragments into a 12-track LP intended to only be around half an hour, it seemed doomed from the start. Much has been made of the issues that the band were facing and Brian Wilson’s mental health in the years that followed, but 50 hours into 0.5 simply doesn’t go, especially not for a band built upon the doo-wop simplicity of harmonies and beach-bound atmosphere. It all simply proved too much, and Smile was shelved, never to be finished.

During this epic battle against studio possibilities, Wilson was also experimenting dangerously on other fronts. His drug intake was worsening, his confidence was dwindling and one fed into the other, centred around the folly of trying to better a masterpiece in a cocktail that the manic cacophony of Smiley Smile tragically forecasts. What ensued for Wilson was a regression from the limelight as he suffered hallucinations, depression, paranoia and sometimes mania.

Nevertheless, there was something inherent musical about him that kept him going. As Bob Dylan once said, “Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to the Smithsonian. The records I used to listen to and still love, you can’t make a record that sounds that way. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.” Even in his despair, melodies still could be dredged up from his troubled mind like salvaged loot from the ocean floor. 

Once more, a paradigm for this tempestuous creative territory comes from the studio. ‘Sail On, Sailor’ came out of a time of troubled waters for Wilson. At one point in the production, when the group were urging him to focus on the work at hand, he even uttered, “Hypnotize me Van Dyke [Parks] and make me believe I’m not crazy. Convince me I’m not crazy.” But from that tempestuous time came a track that showed he still had plenty of skill in his locker. “Let’s write a tune,” was Parks’ only decree for the track and that comes across. It is limited in the conversely triumphant sense.

Part of the reason for that was because music was still a salvation for Wilson. It always has been and continues to be so. “Well, for the past 40 years I’ve had auditory hallucinations in my head, all day every day, and I can’t get them out,” Wilson told Ability in 2006. “Every few minutes the voices say something derogatory to me, which discourages me a little bit, but I have to be strong enough to say to them, ‘Hey, would you quit stalking me? F—k off! Don’t talk to me — leave me alone!’ I have to say these types of things all day long. It’s like a fight.”

Fortunately, it is a fight he has largely won. And his music is both a testimony and triumph over this. Borne from troubles he remains as sanguine as ever as music hums out of him as naturally as the wind through the leaves of a tree and the process of crafting it is spiritual water to a desert in dry times for the star. “On my good days I feel creative, I laugh a lot, I go to my piano and play,” he once said, “Some days I don’t feel creative and I don’t talk to anybody.”

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