Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (3,519 words)
One day in 1976, Brian Wilson sat down at the piano in his Los Angeles home, turned on a tape recorder, and began to play. There’s a density to the introductory chords, like the air of an approaching storm. “Time for supper now,” he sings on the demo recording, the first verse so banal as to be almost exotic.
Day’s been hard and I’m so tired
I feel like eating now
Smell the kitchen now
Hear the maid whistle a tune
My thoughts are fleeting now
“Still I dream of it,” Wilson continues, his gutted voice not quite hitting the high note, “of that happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love. And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above.”
The extraordinary chord progression, intricate melody, and anguished bridge all demonstrate “Still I Dream of It” to be a song written by a master songsmith, although one in decline. The confident tenor and soaring falsetto of Wilson’s youth are gone, and yet the song is somehow better for the ragged vulnerability. If you know about the life of the man leading up to this moment, the poignancy of this performance is almost unbearable.
“Still I Dream of It” was intended for inclusion on Adult/Child, a Beach Boys album that was immediately shelved upon recording. A bewildering mix of sublime and terrible songs, and a hodgepodge of arrangement approaches from big band to minimoog, Adult/Child is a bookend to the Beach Boys’ famously postponed 1967 opus, Smile. The first project documented a visionary at the height of his musical powers, unmoored by drugs and set adrift by overambition and a general lack of support; the second project is one of the final blows of that artist’s losing battle with his former self. What is most conspicuous about the period in between is Wilson’s absence.
Wilson showed an idiosyncratic musical genius from the start. “Brian took accordion lessons, on one of those little baby accordions, for six weeks,” his mother Audree told Rolling Stone in 1976. “And the teacher said, ‘I don’t think he’s reading. He just hears it once and plays the whole thing through perfectly.’” As a teenager, Wilson learned the complicated harmony parts of the Four Freshmen, teaching them to his younger brothers Carl and Dennis. The three formed a band called the Pendletones with cousin Mike Love and classmate Al Jardine. At Dennis’s suggestion, Wilson wrote songs about surfing and surf culture. Their first single, 1961’s “Surfin’,” and their ensuing demo, was popular enough to eventually get the band, now called the Beach Boys, a seven-year contract with Capitol Records.
Their first album, Surfin’ Safari, owed more to Chuck Berry than Dick Dale, whose reverb-soaked aggressive guitar instrumentals defined the surf music form. (“I wrote ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Wilson recently said, “because of [Berry’s] ‘Sweet Little Sixteen.’”) But the Beach Boys would not only go on to redefine surf music, they would fix the idea of Southern California in the national consciousness. Their music mapped this mythic place, fusing elements of early rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Much of this music originated in New York; Wilson’s early genius was to synthesize these musical elements and make a home for them on the other side of the country.
Beginning in 1963, two things happened in succession to solidify Wilson’s career path. The first was the release of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Perhaps more than the song, Wilson was blown away by producer Phil Spector’s orchestrative approach. “That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song,” Wilson remembered.
The second momentous event in young Wilson’s life was the British Invasion, which pretty much killed off all other forms of popular music, including surf. To make things worse, the Beach Boys and the Beatles shared an American record label, who turned its attention from the former to the latter. Wilson wrote his last surf song in 1964, although Capitol Records continued to bill the band as “America’s Top Surfin’ Group.” By 1965, Wilson had produced and mostly composed 16 singles and nine albums for the Beach Boys.
Wilson stopped touring in 1965, concentrating on songwriting and producing. After hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, he was inspired to make his own “complete statement.” While the band toured, he worked for months on a project, using session musicians from collectively known as “the Wrecking Crew,” whose all-star players previously worked with Phil Spector. The resulting album, Pet Sounds, was released in 1966. Paul McCartney described one of its songs, “God Only Knows,” as the best ever written. “If you could just write maybe the bridge to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ — that would be an accomplishment for most writers for a lifetime,” Al Jardine once reflected about another Pet Sounds track. “Just the bridge.”
Now considered a masterwork, Pet Sounds was not entirely well received by the band or their label. Mike Love, who once called it “Brian’s ego music,” found some of the lyrics “nauseating.” Capitol Records, alarmed at the $70,000 price tag — about $550,000 today — and realizing there weren’t any obvious singles on the record to help them recoup, stopped the recording and considered shelving the album. Wilson showed up at a tense record label meeting with a tape player. Instead of answering label questions, he instead played recordings of his own voice saying, “That’s a great idea,” “No, let’s not do that,” or “I think we should think about that.” Rather than embracing the band’s new approach, the label put the record out in May 1966, then quickly compiled Best of the Beach Boys, releasing it less than two months later. The best-of easily outsold the new album. Brian Wilson was already in competition with nostalgia for an earlier version of his own band. He was 24.
Meanwhile, John Lennon and Paul McCartney liked Pet Sounds so much they made Beach Boy Bruce Johnston play it for them twice on a trip to London to promote the album. “I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence,” McCartney said years later. “If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed [Sergeant Pepper]. And my influence was basically the Pet Sounds album. John was influenced by it, perhaps not as much as me.” (Wilson remembers Lennon calling him after hearing Pet Sounds and telling him it was “the greatest album ever made.”)
Already on a steady diet of amphetamines, marijuana, and hashish, Wilson began dropping LSD. “At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe,” he told The Guardian in 2011. “On the downside, it fucked my brain.”
Although hurt by the way Pet Sounds was treated, Wilson continued to evolve his production and recording process. Central to this approach was topping his previous effort. The result was one song recorded between February and September 1966 — a song that used more than 90 hours of tape and cost, in Wilson’s estimation, as much as the entire Pet Sounds project: “Good Vibrations.” In addition to arranging for cello, a theremin, and a bass harmonica, Wilson consciously used the recording studio as an instrument.
“‘Good Vibrations’ took six months to make,” Wilson told Rolling Stone. “We recorded the very first part of it at Gold Star Recording Studio, then we took it to a place called Western, then we went to Sunset Sound, then we went to Columbia. … Because we wanted to experiment with combining studio sounds. Every studio has its own marked sound. Using four different studios had a lot to do with the way the final record sounded.
“My mother used to tell me about vibrations,” Wilson continued. “I didn’t really understand too much of what that meant when I was just a boy. It scared me, the word ‘vibrations.’ To think that invisible feelings, invisible vibrations existed, scared me to death. But she told about dogs that would bark at people and then not bark at others, that a dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can’t see, but you can feel. And the same existed with people. … Because we wanted to explain that concept, plus we wanted to do something that was R&B but had a taste of modern, avant-garde R&B to it. ‘Good Vibrations’ was advanced rhythm and blues music.”
The song, and the ensuing record Smile, was written in pieces. “I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels,’” Wilson said of this time. “Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”
Although “Good Vibrations” topped the charts, Smile was never finished. Even in its incomplete state (a compilation of the dozens of sessions was issued in 2011), the project is monumental. At the time, Wilson said the result was going to be “a teenage symphony to God.” Already suffering from panic attacks, and now hearing voices in his head, Wilson had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the sessions. He began self-medicating with cocaine and heroin, ultimately being diagnosed as schizoaffective with mild manic depression. An almost complete lack of support from the band completed the bleak picture; Smile was abandoned in May 1967. “I had to destroy it before it destroyed me,” Wilson later said.
What followed for Wilson was a period of increasing indulgence and withdrawal. In the coming decade, he turned production duties over to his brother Carl, contributed fewer original songs to the band, and became known as a difficult recluse. He gained weight and increased his abuse of cigarettes and alcohol. The band toured and made records without him.
Wilson became completely withdrawn after the death of his father, Murry, in 1973. Theirs was a complicated, abusive relationship: Murry beat his children (purportedly causing Brian to go deaf in one ear), initially managed the band, and sold off much of his son’s publishing rights in 1969. “The story of my dad is the big can of worms,” Wilson wrote, “because it’s connected to everything else.” Wilson sequestered himself in the chauffeur’s quarters of his mansion and commenced a two-year period of orgiastic self-destruction.
Capitol Records released Endless Summer, another Beach Boys greatest hits compilation, in 1974. It went to Number 1. The Beach Boys, or at least the earlier, sunnier version of them, remained in demand, especially in the dark days of the Watergate era.
By now, Wilson’s reputation as the band’s guiding light had caught up with him. A 1969 contract with Reprise Records stipulated his involvement in every album. Now, without access to much of their former publishing revenue, the band needed a hit. The problem was that, by this time, Wilson was almost incapable of even getting out of bed. His wife and family hired radical therapist and former record PR man Eugene Landy in 1975.
Landy’s regiment was absolute: Wilson was surrounded by bodyguards in his own home, preventing him from doing drugs or overeating. Landy would dole out hamburgers or joints if Wilson was productive.
“Brian wanted to be left alone, but there was too much at stake,” the band’s manager, and Mike Love’s brother, Stephen Love once said. “If you’ve got an oil well, you don’t want it to wander off and become someone else’s oil well.” The label conceived of a new PR campaign, called “Brian’s Back” — Love even wrote a song with this title — which brought Wilson back on the road with the band for the first time since 1964.
15 Big Ones, the first Beach Boys album to be solely produced by Brian Wilson since Wild Honey in 1967, was comprised mostly of covers. (Wilson blamed writer’s block, but he was working on a solo project of new material, tentatively called Brian Loves You.) The band’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” gave them their first Top 10 since “Good Vibrations.” Critics rejected it. “The Beach Boys,” wrote one, “only succeed in jumping several steps sideways and 10 years back.”
Rolling Stone featured Wilson on the cover in 1976. The first interview, which took place in June, didn’t produce any useful material. “Brian was ready to talk, all right,” wrote correspondent David Felton, “just as he was ready to walk or ready to start dressing himself; but there could be no definitive Brian Wilson interview because Brian Wilson was not yet definitively himself.”
On the Rolling Stone cover, Wilson stood in the sand on a beach, surfboard in hand. Barefoot and wearing only a blue bathrobe, he appeared for all the world like an Old Testament prophet. The feature was called “The Healing of Brother Brian.”
Photographer Annie Leibovitz took the picture on Wilson’s 34th birthday. It took place during the filming of a clip for an upcoming TV special, called The Beach Boys: It’s OK, produced by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. In the skit, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd appear as “Surf Police” who force Wilson out of bed and onto the beach. Pounded by waves and, in one shot, using his board backwards, Wilson (who had never surfed before) was frightened by the ocean. In his bathrobe pocket was a folded piece of paper on which was written, “You will not drown. You will live. Signed, Dr. Landy.” (When Wilson made public appearances during this time, Landy would stand offstage, holding up cardboard signs reading “POSITIVE” and “SMILE” — the latter apparently written without irony.)
“He was not happy about it,” Michaels later remembered about the surfing scene. “It was almost a baptism.”
Though Wilson wrote and recorded the record mostly by himself, Brian Loves You was retitled The Beach Boys Love You and released in April 1977. Despite his desire to leave the group and go solo, Wilson realized he couldn’t. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel like a commodity in a stock market.”
“Once you’ve established yourself as an artist, a producer — somebody who has a style to say, something to say with a definite profound effect, you feel obligated to fulfill commitments,” he awkwardly told a BBC interviewer in 1976. “In other words, it’s an artist’s obligation to continue his, uh, constructive work — you know, his work. Any artist that you find has that feeling — he feels the need to please, you know. And it’s a very personal thing and it’s something that, uh, that you work on it. It’s something that comes … it’s natural. It’s a natural thing.”
Shortly after finishing the mixes for The Beach Boys Love You, Wilson began work on what would become Adult/Child. “[That] was Dr. Landy’s title,” Wilson wrote in I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir. “He meant that there were always two parts of a personality, always an adult who wants to be in charge and a child who wants to be cared for, always an adult who things he knows the rules and a child who is learning and testing the rules. I also thought about it in terms of family. I thought about my dad and me, and all the things he did that were good and bad, all the things that I can talk about easily and all the things I can’t talk about at all.”
“Still I Dream of It” was written for Frank Sinatra. “He didn’t say yes to the song,” Wilson wrote, “and that bothered me. It was a beautiful song about loneliness and hope.”
It’s strange to hear the 34-year-old Wilson sing from a teenager’s perspective. “When I was younger, mother told me Jesus loves the world,” Wilson sings in the bridge.
And if that’s true, then
Why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl?
Or find my world?
Till then I’m just a dreamer
Though jarring, this is the viewpoint Wilson returned to, as if the previous 15 years never happened. “We’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down,” Wilson sings in “Roller Skating Child” from The Beach Boys Love You. “Hey Little Tomboy,” another track slated for inclusion on Adult/Child, extends this idea further, creating something that band biographer Peter Ames Carlin described as what “may be the most unsettling moment in the entire recorded history of the Beach Boys.”
Wilson called in arranger Dick Reynolds to help with Adult/Child. Reynolds originally worked with the Four Freshmen and collaborated with Sinatra in 1964, the same year he arranged The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. Though Wilson claimed to want “a similar feel” as those classic Sinatra albums, the big band arrangements on Adult/Child are peculiarly lifeless. “Life is for the living,” Wilson sings with strangled enthusiasm over a high kick horn arrangement on the opening track.
I thought you wanted to see
How it could be
When you’re in shape and your head plugs into
His last vocalization of “life!” is a harrowing shriek. Reportedly when Mike Love heard the album in the studio, he turned to Wilson and hissed, “What the fuck are you doing?” Love and Jardine’s vocals on the album were culled exclusively from earlier sessions; Wilson did most of the work alone, or with his brothers.
Adult/Child was shelved, by nearly unanimous consent. The band was nearing the end of their record contract with Warner/Reprise — who didn’t think the album had commercial potential anyway — and might have wanted to save some of the material for a major upcoming deal with CBS. Oddly, the only track from Adult/Child to be formally issued was “Hey Little Tomboy,” on the largely despised M.I.U., released in late 1978. “That album is an embarrassment to my life,” Dennis Wilson said tartly. “It should self-destruct.”
But it was his brother Brian who self-destructed more successfully. The voices in his head would multiply in the coming years, sounding by turns like his domineering father Murry, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, and others he doesn’t recognize. What they tell him is almost universally negative. Landy was fired in December 1976, but returned in the early 1980s after Wilson, 340 pounds and hooked on cocaine, overdosed. Landy ultimately began writing lyrics and, under their shared company Brains and Genius, claimed a 50 percent take of Wilson’s earnings. He “produced” Wilson’s 1988 solo record and is widely thought to have directed his first ghost-written autobiography — one which loudly sang Landy’s praises. Landy voluntarily surrendered his license in 1989, after being accused by the family of gross negligence.
The Beach Boys broke up for two weeks in late 1977. During a September meeting at Brian’s house, a settlement was negotiated which gave Mike Love control of Brian’s vote, allowing him and Al Jardine to outvote the other two Wilson brothers. The commercial, nostalgia-driven faction of the band advanced, while the experimental, vulnerable side receded.
Dennis Wilson, deeply addicted to alcohol, drowned in 1983. His 1976 solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, outsold the contemporary Beach Boys albums. “Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys,” he once said. “He is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.”
And this was true, at least for the few years until Brian Wilson became incapable and unwilling to fill the role. For a little while, at least, he was able to be John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Beatles’ producer George Martin at once: a gifted melodicist with a knack for hooks; an arranger of enormous sensitivities; and a producer able to employ even the studio as an instrument. It didn’t last because it couldn’t last: Every fire goes out after consuming all that sustains it. Especially those that burn brightest.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler