At one point in his new memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, the music legend writes, “People can survive everything best if they remember who they were.”
I Am Brian Wilson is one such remembrance in all its ragged glory. In Wilson’s own words, genius and madness go hand in hand, often on the same page. The Beach Boys leader’s story is well told by now, but reading his often blunt retelling is harrowing, especially as he describes years swaddled in drugs and alcohol, and controlled by the notorious Dr. Landy. But as much as the book delves behind the so-called madman, it also gets behind the genius. Wilson and writer Ben Greenman lay the story out simply and with limited sensationalism, including fascinating sections where Wilson recounts his creative process and the work behind so many classic songs.
The final chapter was written earlier this year and is entitled “Today!,” with the exclamation point marking the positivity — nagging internal voices, self-doubt, and even depression notwithstanding — with which Wilson now lives. It’s a far cry from the bleak introduction, “Overture” (excerpted below), which Wilson opens with a scene from 2004, at London’s Royal Festival Hall on the city’s South Bank, where he’s about to perform SMiLE, the album that was left unfinished for some 40 years as Wilson unraveled. We are introduced to the madness and the threatening voices, and his thoughts dive back to the “year of everything”: 1964.
ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON, 2004
It’s been hard and it’s been easy. Mostly, it’s been both. My friend Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night recorded a song, “Easy to Be Hard,” that I sing to myself in my head sometimes: It’s easy to be hard, it’s easy to be cold. It’s cold now. It’s the winter of 2004 in London, and I’m getting ready to go onstage at the Royal Festival Hall. Some of the songs I’ll be singing are about the sun and the beach. There’s not much of either of those in London right now. But there’s water—the Royal Festival Hall is right on the river—and some of the songs are about that.
When I got here I was walking around and heard someone mention that the hall was originally built in 1949 but redone in the fall of 1964. That was a big year, 1964. It was the year of everything. The Beach Boys toured around the world. We were in Australia in January with Roy Orbison and all over the United States in July. They called that tour Summer Safari, and we played with people like Freddy Cannon and the Kingsmen. When we weren’t touring, we were recording: “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “The Warmth of the Sun” at the beginning of the year, “Kiss Me, Baby” at the end of the year, and more songs than you can count in between. We put out four records—three studio albums (including a Christmas one) and a live album. And that was on the heels of 1963, which was almost as busy—three albums and constant touring, too.
I don’t go back and listen to that old music very much. But I do think about it, and I try to imagine what was in my head back then. I can’t always get a clear picture. Sometimes it’s pieces of pictures. It’s hard to get back to where you were, you know? Over the years I’ve played new music and I’ve played old music. I’ve played both here at the Royal Festival Hall—my band and I came in 2002 to play Pet Sounds straight through, and people loved it. That was in summertime. Tonight is different, though. Tonight is the moment I have been dreading for months, and imagining for years. Tonight, in the second half of the concert, we’re playing SMiLE, the Beach Boys album that never was, for the first time. What the hell was I thinking? Why in the world did I think this was a good idea? SMiLE was supposed to be the follow-up to Pet Sounds back in the mid-’60s. It fell apart for so many reasons. It fell apart for every reason. Some of the songs that were supposed to make up SMiLE came out on other records over the years, but the real album went underwater and didn’t surface for decades. Finally I got back to it and finished it up. In my sixties I did what I couldn’t do in my twenties. That’s what has brought me to London this time.
I’m sitting out in the theater. Everyone’s getting ready. What brought me here to London? It’s hard to keep my train of thought. There are so many people going back and forth, so many musicians. I hear them tuning up or trading licks, but I also hear them talking, both the musicians here and other musicians from the past. I hear Chuck Berry, who was one of the first artists to turn boogie-woogie into rock and roll. What would Chuck have thought about all these strings and woodwinds? He probably would have walked right past them and gone onstage with a pickup band he hired when he rolled into town. I hear Phil Spector, who did all those great records in the ’50s and early ’60s. Phil’s voice is scary, always challenging me, always reminding me that he came first. “Wilson,” I hear him saying in my head, “you’re never going to top ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ or ‘Be My Baby,’ so don’t even try.” But maybe he wants me to try. Nothing is ever simple with him, not when he’s in my head. Simple isn’t what he’s about. People say that we named Pet Sounds partly as a tribute to him: check the initials. I also hear my dad in my head. His voice is louder than the others. “What’s the matter, buddy? You got any guts? Is this all about you? Why so many musicians? Rock and roll is two guitars, a bass, and drums. Any more than that is just about ego.”
When I hear those voices, I try to shut them out. I’m just trying to get a feel for the room and how the songs will come alive inside of it. I’m also trying to get a feel for where I fit into all of this. Back in the old days with the Boys, I never liked going onstage. People used to write about how I seemed stiff. Then they started writing about how I had stage fright. It’s a weird phrase, “stage fright.” I wasn’t afraid of the stage. I was afraid of all the eyes watching me, and of the lights, and of the chance that I might disappoint everyone. There were so many expectations that I could figure out in the studio, but they were different onstage. A good audience is like a wave that you ride on top of. It’s a great feeling. But a crowd can also feel the other way around, like a wave that’s on top of you.
There are other voices, too, along with Chuck Berry and Phil Spector and my dad. The other voices are worse. They’re saying horrible things about my music. Your music is no damned good, Brian. Get to work, Brian. You’re falling behind, Brian. Sometimes they just skip the music and go right for me. We’re coming for you, Brian. This is the end, Brian. We are going to kill you, Brian. They’re bits and pieces of the rest of the people I think about, the rest of the people I hear. They don’t sound like anyone I know, not exactly, except that I know them all too well. I have heard them since I was in my early twenties. I have heard them many days, and when I haven’t heard them, I have worried about hearing them.
My whole life I’ve tried to figure out how to deal with them. I’ve tried to ignore them. That didn’t work. I’ve tried to chase them away with drinking and drugs. That didn’t work. I’ve been fed all kinds of medication, and when it was the wrong kind, which was often, that didn’t work. I have had all kinds of therapy. Some of it was terrible and almost did me in. Some of it was beautiful and made me stronger. In the end, I have had to learn to live with them. Do you know what that’s like, to struggle with that every single day of your life? I hope not. But many people do, or know someone who does. Everyone who knows me knows someone who does. So many people on the planet deal with some type of mental illness. I’ve learned that over the years, and it makes me feel less lonely. It’s part of my life. There’s no way around it. My story is a music story and a family story and a love story, but it’s a story of mental illness, too.
London is part of that story. I have often said that this city is my spiritual home. London audiences really appreciate my music. The SMiLE show is part of that story. It’s a way of bringing something back that looked like it would stay in the past. To calm myself, I try to meditate my way into the music. Music is the solution. Music takes what’s inside me and puts it into the world around me. It’s my way of showing people things I can’t show any other way. Music is in my soul—I wrote that once, and it’s one of the best lyrics I ever wrote.
I remember what I was thinking about: the past. Resurrecting SMiLE is both past and present. When we didn’t finish the album, a part of me was unfinished also, you know? Can you imagine leaving your masterpiece locked up in a drawer for almost forty years? That drawer was opened slowly. It came open a little bit at a Christmas party at Scott Bennett’s house, where I played “Heroes and Villains” on the piano, and then a little more when David Leaf told me to play it at a tribute show at Radio City Music Hall. And then it was pulled open almost completely by Darian Sahanaja. Darian is a singer and songwriter, just like me, except that he’s much younger, which meant that he loved the music we made but also had a new way of looking at it. He plays keyboards in my band and acts like a kind of musical secretary. At the Radio City show, which came a little after that Christmas party, my songs were performed by other people, like Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Vince Gill, and Elton John. Some were the big hits, but two were songs we had recorded for SMiLE, done the way we had originally imagined them. Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb, and David Crosby played “Surf’s Up” and the audience gave them—and the song—a long standing ovation. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. I was sitting on a stool at the side of the stage and David Crosby came off and said, “Brian, where did you come up with those fucking chords? They’re incredible.” I shook my head. “You know,” I told him, “I said good-bye to that song a long time ago.” Then I went out and played “Heroes and Villains” for the first time in more than forty years. I had promised at the party. The ovation was huge. The great George Martin introduced Heart, who played “Good Vibrations.” I couldn’t believe what he said about me, then and later on: “If there is one person I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would select Brian Wilson… . Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened… . Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.” The producer of the Beatles said that about me—it was hard to even imagine. I was so honored.
After that, people started to ask if I would ever think about performing the whole album. I said yes. I was happy to say yes, but there are times, like now, when I’m not sure I was right to be happy. I am sitting out here in the theater, meditating but not quite meditating. I’m aware of everyone going back and forth. At least a few of them want to stop and remind me about the way tonight’s show will work. I feel like I’ve been over it a hundred times. I know it backward and forward. We’ll start out with an acoustic set, then some material from my solo albums, then some early Beach Boys hits, then a few songs from Pet Sounds. Then there will be an intermission, and then the moment everyone has been waiting for—SMiLE, finally.
Excerpted from I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.