Musician's name as best known: Brian Wilson
Index name: Wilson, Brian
Pronunciation: BRI-ihn WIHL-suhn
Full name: Brian Douglas Wilson
Musical identity: Rock-and-roll composer, singer, bassist, keyboardist, and producer
Although it was Wilson’s youngest brother Dennis who gave him the idea to write about the southern-California surfing fad and the other Beach Boys (plus a rotating stable of lyricists) who helped bring his compositions to life, it was Wilson’s inventive combining of 1950s-vocal-group harmony, rock-and-roll, painstaking production, and, in the Beach Boys’ first five years, frequent lead singing that made his songs an indelible fixture in American pop culture. The California of Wilson’s imagination was less a tourist attraction than a state of mind representing the transient innocence of youth and the tragedy awaiting those who cling to it. Ironically, it was by clinging to it that Wilson found himself adrift for most of his adult life, depressed by his inability to match the quality or quantity of his early output and emotionally and psychologically depleted by his self-destructive attempts at coping with this failure. That he continued composing during even his bleakest decades testifies to the durability of his talent; that he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, returning to public performing in the late-1990s and completing his long-unfinished “masterpiece” SMiLE in 2004, testifies both to the durability of his will and to the inspirational power of his music.
Wilson’s impact on American popular music cannot be overestimated. Besides writing, arranging, and singing and playing on more than two dozen of the rock-and-roll era’s most popular singles and single-handedly launching the surf-music craze, he pioneered a technologically sophisticated style of production that would influence not only the Beatles but a generation of post-1960s acts as well. Long after Wilson had retreated from public life, echoes of (and in some cases outright homages to) his style and approach could be heard in the recordings of acts as diverse as the Electric Light Orchestra, the Carpenters, Chicago, Todd Rundgren, Three Dog Night, and the Raspberries. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the six-minute signature song of the British hard-rock band Queen that became an international top-ten single in both 1976 and 1991, was in many ways a direct descendant of Wilson’s “Good Vibrations,” consisting as it did of several separately recorded and stylistically diverse sections edited together into a dazzling whole.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. New York: Rodale, 2006. A serious, well-written, and comprehensively researched biography that combines the best of Steven Gaines’ Heroes and Villains (an unflinching examination of Wilson’s psychological, chemical, and familial problems) with the best of Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place (the citing of the westward migration of Wilson’s Midwestern forebears as a metaphor for Wilson’s artistic ambitions) in a briskly moving narrative. Completed after Wilson’s successful return to the stage as a touring performer and the 2004 release of Smile, Catch a Wave is the only Brian Wilson/Beach Boys book to end on a note of optimism.