I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir – Rock n’ Roll Book ReviewGuitarSpotting
Rock Music Book Review: I Am Brian Wilson
Are you a big fan of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys? If you are, this book is a must-read.
But even casual fans will find it worth their time, as will anyone who love sixties music or musician bios in general.
Brian Wilson released his autobiography, I Am Brian Wilson, in October 2016. It’s a fascinating read, as Brian has led a fascinating life.
The book’s rambling narrative frequently jumps back-and-forth through time, providing the reader with a meandering but strong sense of Brian’s voice.
He reflects on many of the key events and people in his life with a combination of childlike wonder and world-weary survival.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Years ago, I purchased a book at a local bookstore called Wouldn’t It Be Nice, written by Brian Wilson and Todd Gold, originally published in 1991. The book was riveting from start to finish, spinning an amazing tale about the life story of the Beach Boys reclusive leader, Brian Wilson.
As time went by, whispers grew that the book contained a series of inaccuracies, especially in the extreme positive manner in which Wilson’s guru, Dr. Eugene Landy, was portrayed. Lifelong Beach Boy Mike Love also sued Brian over the way he was represented in the book.
It’s a great read, and likely contains a lot of true information. However, in between multiple lawsuits, accusations of plagiarism, and Dr. Landy’s unconventional “treatment” of his star client, Brian’s family had to resort to the legal system to forcibly remove Dr. Landy from Brian’s life. And Landy undoubtedly contributed to his own rosy portrayal in the book.
Plus there’s always an open question about exactly what Brian actually remembers from the old days, especially at that time. So it’s definitely a case of the unreliable narrator, and must be taken with several grains of Pacific Ocean salt.
In his new memoir I Am Brian Wilson, Brian finally got a chance to set the record straight.
Heroes and Villains
Wilson tells his story in an unconventional way, bouncing from present day to the past, and the book is loosely structured in a series of chapters about specific topics (Fear, Family, Home, America, etc.) He talks about his brothers, bandmates, and friends, his complicated relationship with his father, and his experiences in crafting all those classic songs. Brian provides quite a few interesting anecdotes about various Beach Boys albums and songs, including what some of the lyrics mean and what he was attempting to do musically.
He also provides insight into the breakdown he suffered while attempting to record an ambitious album called Smile in 1967, his eventual withdrawal from the music scene, and for long periods of time, from life itself.
Wilson rose to fame in the early 1960s, creating the Beach Boys along with his two brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and family friend Al Jardine. Wilson grew up in a musical household thanks in part to his father Murry’s love of music, and was greatly inspired as a teenager by a vocal group called the Four Freshmen.
He soon discovered that he could break down songs into their individual parts in his head, and before long was creating group vocal harmonies of his own.
The boys grew up near the ocean in Hawthorne, California, at a time when surfing was all the rage on the West Coast. Although Dennis Wilson was the only member of the band who actually surfed, they began writing breezy songs about surf and sun. Wilson’s increasingly complex vocal arrangements provided the key to success, and pretty soon the Beach Boys were sitting on top of the world.
Their father Murry Wilson was an aspiring songwriter himself, encouraging his sons to write and perform their songs, and eventually managing the Beach Boys. But Murry was a complicated man who ruled the house with a quick temper and a leather belt. Dennis was a rebel and would often fight back, while Carl tried to stay out of his father’s way. But family strife hit his oldest son the hardest, as the sensitive Brian realized that pleasing his father was damn near impossible.
“I was a survivor. I tried to survive every day. Lots of that came from my dad. People might say that he was one of the things I had to survive.” – Brian Wilson
Brian has been deaf in his right ear since childhood, and many suspect it was caused by one of his father’s beatings. (Brian has given different answers to this question over the years).
He wrote a lot of the Beach Boys’ material, sometimes with cousin Mike Love, arranging the songs and eventually producing them as well. Murry Wilson managed the Beach Boys for a time, but the environment was toxic, and they soon realized they had no choice but to fire him.
In the new book, Brian reflects on these years with nostalgia and revulsion, reminiscing about everything that happened in 1964 (“the year of everything”), and the fateful flight to Houston in December when he had a breakdown on the plane, and realized he couldn’t continue touring. He decided to stay home and work on songs while the others handled live performances.
Wilson has battled mental health issues over the years, and reflects on this often in the book. He started experimenting with LSD around 1965, and since then frequently heard voices in his head whispering terrible things.
“My story is a music story and a family story and a love story, but it’s a story of mental illness, too…” – Brian Wilson
Brian refers to Phil Spector several times, and his obsession with the eccentric producer has long been part of the Beach Boys legend.
Ever since he first heard the opening drum beat kick in on the Ronettes song ‘Be My Baby’, Wilson has tried to emulate and improve upon Spector’s Wall of Sound and complex recording techniques.
He revisits a famous story in the book about the time he went to a party and put the record on, talking excitedly about the production and drum sound of ‘Be My Baby’ until everyone at the party begged him to stop, while he played the song over and over and over.
As for the Beach Boys, for a while everything was going great. They were one of the best-selling acts in the world, and by 1966 Brian had become universally recognized as a brilliant composer.
By then, the music industry and society as a whole were changing rapidly, and the influence of the Beatles and other musical acts on youth culture was felt around the globe. The Beatles decided to stop touring and focus on the studio, crafting more personal songs on their classic album Rubber Soul. The album impacted Wilson’s psyche like a tidal wave.
Wilson decided that he had to outdo the Beatles, writing songs for his masterpiece album Pet Sounds while the Beach Boys were on tour. The songs were very different from the fun pop music they’d recorded previously, and there is an undercurrent of sadness throughout the record that reflected Brian’s troubled personal life. The album was critically acclaimed, and the Beatles themselves were blown away.
“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life.” – Paul McCartney
McCartney has suggested that Pet Sounds inspired him to try and take the Beatles next album to a new level; Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul has also said that ‘God Only Knows’ is one of his favorite songs of all time, as has producer George Martin.
As Sgt. Pepper became the soundtrack to the Summer of ’67, Brian wanted to take this “competition” with the Beatles one step further. He began to work on Smile, an ambitious album meant to be a “teenage symphony to God,” and a sprawling look at the history of America. He recruited Van Dyke Parks to write the lyrics, and worked on the album for months.
Love and Mercy
By the early eighties, Brian had returned to his old ways, acting strangely, gaining weight and once again retreating from the world. In desperation, the band contacted Dr. Landy a second time, leading to a dark decade for Brian Wilson. Landy helped him lose the weight and get back into the studio, but he took control of every aspect of Brian’s life, prescribing an array of drugs (many misdiagnosed) that muddled his mind and made him a virtual prisoner in his own home.
During this time period, Brian met his future wife Melinda, but their relationship was cut off by Landy, who saw her as a threat to his authority. In the early 90s, Brian’s family and friends finally managed to remove Dr. Landy from his life, helping him get properly diagnosed with the right medication and therapy. This led to a happier, functioning Brian Wilson, who returned to touring and released several albums of new music, including a new version of Smile in 2004.
In 2014, a Brian Wilson biopic called Love and Mercy was made, starring Paul Dano (playing Brian in the 60s) John Cusack (playing Brian in the 80s), and Elizabeth Banks (as Brian’s second wife Melinda). Like the book, the movie jumps back and forth in time as it tells the story of Brian’s battles with mental illness, his rise and fall in the sixties, and his relationships with Dr. Landy and Melinda. It’s a great movie, and an excellent companion piece to the book. Dano’s portrayal of Wilson in the sixties is particularly brilliant.
If you want to learn more about Brian Wilson’s incredible story, checking out both the book I Am Brian Wilson and the film Love and Mercy is a great place to start.
“Making the movie was a challenge because it was an honest self-portrait, and when people responded to it the way they did, it made me proud of my life also. To be told that other people could learn from it and get stronger was even better.” – Brian Wilson
One thing that made the 1991 biography (Wouldn’t It Be Nice) so interesting was the lengthy sections detailing Brian’s interactions with both his father Murry Wilson, and Dr. Landy.
This highlights what is perhaps the biggest weakness of the new biography. While he refers to both Murry and Landy multiple times, it’s not always in great detail. Brian tries to stay positive by saying some nice things about his father, though the same can’t be said for Landy.
It’s clear they both bring up bad memories he’d rather not revisit. He also doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about another famous nemesis, his cousin Mike Love. We must acknowledge how difficult it is for Brian to talk about painful events of the past, but there’s also a lingering sense that he has either repressed some of his memories or still can’t talk about them.
It also seems likely that the book was put together by co-writer Ben Greenman based on interviews with Brian, and it isn’t always great prose.
In the end, it’s still a great book and worthwhile read, and recommended reading for any fan of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
Brian expresses pride and surprise at being a survivor who somehow managed to make it this far, when so many other key players in this story did not. His lifelong love of music is pure, and his sadness at the passing of both of his brothers is heartfelt and genuine.
Brian Wilson’s been to hell and back several times, but through it all his love of music and hopeful spirit continue to shine through.