Saturday, October 4, 2014


A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Brian Wilson
Index name: Wilson, Brian
Pronunciation: BRI-ihn WIHL-suhn
Full name: Brian Douglas Wilson
Nationality: American
Musical identity: Rock-and-roll composer, singer, bassist, keyboardist, and producer

Born: June 20, 1942; Hawthorne, California

Influence: Wilson combined the intricate vocal harmonies of the Four Freshman, the simplicity and energy of early rock-and-roll, and the “wall-of-sound” production techniques of Phil Spector with lyrics evoking the seductiveness and fragility of youthful utopianism to create one of the most enduring aural and emotional templates in American popular music. 

The Life: Brian Douglas Wilson (BRI-ihn DUG-lihs WIHL-suhn) was the oldest of three musically talented sons born to Murry and Audree Wilson in Hawthorne, California.  A typical middle-class child in many ways, Wilson distinguished himself at an early age with the ability to memorize and recreate the sophisticated jazzy harmonies of his favorite vocal groups.  It was at his insistence that his younger brothers Carl and Dennis and his cousin Mike Love -- three-fifths of the future Beach Boys -- learned to sing the rudiments of what would become Wilson’s trademark Beach Boys vocal arrangements.  

Wilson’s outwardly gregarious nature (he was a popular high-school athlete and a natural leader) masked inner turmoil, particularly a tumultuous relationship with his father.  Wilson himself would later describe his formation and prolific activity on behalf of the Beach Boys as a struggle both to assert his independence and to earn the approval of his father.

From 1963 to 1965, the Beach Boys placed nine songs and eight albums in the top ten.  Finding himself at twenty-two a millionaire responsible for maintaining and continuously improving the nation’s top hit machine, Wilson began to manifest the symptoms of mental illness.  By the time he oversaw the elaborate recording of the group’s seminal Pet Sounds album and “Good Vibrations” single, he had quit touring with the group and begun seeking solace in marijuana and LSD.

Upon his inability to complete the ambitious Smile album, Wilson withdrew from public life and became as famous for his drug and paranoia-fueled eccentricities as he had been for his prodigious and inventive music.  Although nominally a Beach Boy, his contributions to the group’s music dwindled.  

From 1975 to 1985, Wilson was an overweight, often incoherent caricature of his former self.  Even his partial recovery at the hands of the controversial therapist Eugene Landy was scuttled when Landy, largely because of the questionable nature of his treatment of Wilson, was ordered by a medical board to surrender his license to practice in 1989.

Wilson began a genuine personal and professional renaissance in the mid-1990s, marrying his second wife (Melinda Ledbetter) and finding in the Los Angeles rock band the Wondermints and the musical director-guitarist Jeffrey Foskett musicians with whom he could resume not only touring but also recording.  With this ensemble and the help of the lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson finally released a complete version of Smile in 2004, which was released to strong sales and rapturous critical acclaim.  

Musical Career 
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.

Surfer Girl.  The third Beach Boys album (and the second to appear in 1963) was also the first on which Wilson was given production credit.  Although the high-energy hits “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Catch a Wave” were typical beach-crazed anthems, the title song and “In My Room” unveiled the vulnerability, introspection, and harmonic sophistication for which Wilson would ultimately become best known.      

Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!).  The highlight of this 1965 album was “California Girls,” a song that found Wilson achieving creative heights that he wouldn’t surpass until he constructed “Good Vibrations” over a six-month period one year later.   

Pet SoundsMore attention has been paid to this album, the instrumental portions of which Wilson recorded with a studio ensemble in 1966 while the rest of the Beach Boys were on tour, than to any other album in rock-and-roll history.  And it wasn’t even all that rock-and-roll, with some of the music nearly qualifying as “easy listening.”  The Beatles, nevertheless, found it so impressive that they recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in an effort to compete.  Confusing though Pet Sounds’ moody tone was to Beach Boys fans at the time, it made the top ten on the strength of the singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B.,” and “Caroline No”--and “God Only Knows,” possibly the most sophisticated and gorgeous song in Wilson’s entire body of work.      

Smiley Smile.  Released in the wake of Wilson’s abandonment of SMiLE, this 1967 oddity documented Wilson’s (and the rest of the Beach Boys’) collapse into disarray in general and drugs in particular.  Were it not for its inclusion of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” neither of which would be available elsewhere for years, it undoubtedly would have sold even fewer copies than it did. 

Spring.  Spring (known as “American Spring” in the U.K. to avoid confusion with the British act of the same name) was a female duo consisting of Wilson’s then-wife Marilyn and her sister Diane Rovell.  Their eponymous 1972 album features Wilson’s only serious work as a producer during the early 1970s.  

15 Big OnesAccompanied upon its appearance in 1976 by a massive “Brian’s Back” promotional campaign, this best-selling album consisted largely of covers of 1950s and 1960s hits and was actually a group Beach Boys effort, albeit one that included more participation from Wilson than any other Beach Boys’ album in a decade.    

Love You.  Released in 1977, this album (also known as The Beach Boys Love You) became a cult favorite on the strength of its playfully catchy melodies--in other words, despite the fact that Wilson’s lyrics revealed him to be the dysfunctional eccentric he had long been suspected of being.   

Brian WilsonLavishly produced, this album appeared in 1988 to high praise from most critics.  The masses, however, found the only partially rehabilitated Wilson’s heavily assisted attempt at recapturing his youthful glories cumbersome.

I Just Wasn't Made for These TimesThis 1995 soundtrack to the Don Was-produced documentary of the same name represented an important step in re-introducing Wilson to serious performing and audiences to the finally rehabilitated Wilson.   

SMiLE.  By the time Wilson and his touring Jeffrey Foskett-led Wondermints band recorded this finally completed version of what had been for almost forty years the most famous “lost“ album in rock-and-roll history, they had already become proficient at presenting it on stage.  So it was that what had in 1966 and 1967 been so difficult to construct that Wilson left it unfinished was in 2004 completed with relative ease.  Although there was pre-release apprehension about whether the new SMiLE would live up to the promise of the pieces of the original that had been released pell-mell over the years, the work’s high quality dispelled doubts among fans and critics alike.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was Wilson’s use of Tony Asher’s original lyrics to “Good Vibrations” instead of the Mike Love lyrics with which fans had long been familiar.  

Musical Legacy
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.  

Inducted as a Beach Boy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Wilson would, upon his return to mental stability and public performing in the 1990s, become the recipient of other honors as well, including inductions into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (with the Beach Boys) in 1998 and the UK Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.  On December 1, 2007, he was recognized, along with Steve Martin, Leon Fleisher, Martin Scorsese, and Diana Ross, at the prestigious annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony for the excellence of his contribution to the culture of the United States.       

Further Reading: 
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.

Gaines, Steven. Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys.  New York: Da Capo, 1986.  The first book to de-mythologize the Beach Boys by detailing the bandmembers’ real-life turmoil, decadence, and tragedies.  Suffers from a tabloid-like focus on the scandalous that gives short shrift to the music without which the scandals would be of no interest.

Granata, Charles L.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2003.  A painstaking, 256-page investigation of the making of what many consider to be Wilson’s finest moment–as a singer, a songwriter, a producer, and a pop cultural force. 

Leaf, David.  The Beach Boys and the California Myth.  New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.  The first extensive treatment of Wilson’s music as significant cultural phenomenon. 

White, Timothy.  The Nearest Faraway Place: The Beach Boys and the Southern California Experience.  New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.  A reasonably well-written and entertaining Wilson/Beach Boys narrative that has been accused of putting too much emphasis on the role played by Wilson’s ancestors in his artistic and temperamental development..

Williams, Paul.  Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: How Deep Is the Ocean?  London: Omnibus Press, 2003.  Several decades’ worth of essays on Wilson and the Beach Boys by the much-published rock critic and the founder of Crawdaddy magazine. 

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