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It Wasn't All Fun, Fun, Fun

During that period, Wilson's spiral into depression and addiction -- he used LSD, cocaine, other drugs and alcohol -- continued. He became a shut-in, grew morbidly obese, got divorced, became a poster man-child for '60s burnout. Eugene Landy was hired to treat Wilson; the psychologist wound up taking control not only of Wilson's therapy but also of his business affairs, until Carl Wilson extricated his big brother. (Landy later lost his license for illegally prescribing drugs to Wilson.)

"It was a bad bunch of circumstances," Melinda Wilson says.

In 1986 she was Melinda Ledbetter, a blond Cadillac saleswoman who sold Brian a brown Seville. They began dating. The relationship lasted three years, until, she says, Landy "decided we were getting too close." Eventually they reconnected and married, and she led Wilson out of his decades-long fog -- getting him medical treatment, persuading him to tour regularly, to revisit "Smile," to work on new material. (He'll be recording a new album, "That Lucky Old Sun," next year.)

Did Melinda save her husband?

"A person in Brian's situation has to want to save themselves," she says. "I was in the right place at the right time to help him. It's like the concept that you can lead a horse to water but you can't get him to drink. . . . What he's missed out on is an environment where he feels safe. He didn't have that before with his family, his old band, his doctor, his first wife. But he finally has that."

Wilson says there's a simple, single reason for his creative renaissance: "My wife."

Says Elton John: "Melinda is obviously a great, great influence on Brian. He's got a great family life now, he goes to basketball games, he seems happy. He's leading as normal a life as Brian Wilson can."

This, of course, is the same Brian Wilson who once was convinced that one of his songs was responsible for an outbreak of fires; who believed that his brain was being monitored by Phil Spector. "I did at one point, yeah," he says. Why? "It's too hard to explain to you."

Early on, Wilson also built a sandbox in his dining room and put a piano inside. "We wrote songs as though we were at the beach," he says. "It was amazing how that worked. It put us into a place. And we were also taking drugs. That added up to some good music!"

Great music, even. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls Wilson "one of the few undisputed geniuses in popular music."

For years, Wilson deflected such superlatives, saying he was just a clever songwriter. He was too humble to accept such high praise -- or maybe he just didn't believe it. To this day he hears "Good Vibrations," one of the greatest singles ever recorded, and can't get past the flaws. ("It's a little bit flat in the choruses," he says. "I wish I'd taken more time and done it a little better.")

But now? He's willing to agree that he is "in some ways" a musical genius -- but, he adds quickly: "In other ways, no. I sometimes don't come up with music when I should. I've been called a genius, but I don't know. People admire me, and that makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have a purpose. I could not express how thankful I am to have that kind of thing in my life."

This is all something of a revelation, apparently.

"Brian didn't really have an understanding of what his music means to the world," Melinda says. "He's finally understanding that. He totally gets that now, and he's accepting who he is. It's getting a little bit easier. From time to time now, he'll even accept a compliment."

Brian Wilson has had a breakthrough: He's finally hearing those high harmonies of praise. A most welcome set of voices.

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