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It Wasn't All Fun, Fun, Fun
The Beach Boy's Hymns to the Dream State of California Belied The Nightmare He Was Living

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- Brian Wilson still hears voices.

They stalk him sometimes when he's on the concert stage, bedeviling him from inside his head. They ridicule and threaten the original Beach Boy, backing him into dark corners that don't exist. Watch closely, says his wife, Melinda, and you can tell when Wilson's schizoaffective disorder is having its way. His eyes become distant and glazed. Another auditory hallucination.

"You'll see him space out," she says. "He'll just get that look and you know the voices are bombarding him. He'll have a voice telling him, 'You're terrible, I'm going to kill you.' And then it'll go away. But that's Brian. That will always be Brian."

Such cruel irony: One of pop music's most masterful craftsmen -- a widely imitated artistic innovator who, at 65, should be surfing big waves of approbation, basking in their warm, embracing spray -- is still tormented by hecklers nobody else can hear. The manifestation of his mad-genius mystique continues.

"I've lived a very, very difficult, haunted life," Wilson says. He averts his sad, sunken eyes. You sigh.

This isn't quite the way the narrative is supposed to arc, is it? Shouldn't Wilson -- one of this year's five Kennedy Center honorees -- be in his triumphal late-career-comeback phase, exulting as he continues to be celebrated? Hasn't he had enough with the tribulations already?

He's survived drug addiction, depression, paranoia, divorce, gluttony, an abusive father, a litigious cousin, an all-controlling shrink and the deaths of his younger brothers, fellow Beach Boys Dennis and Carl.

He's emerged from an extensive and infamous period of reclusion with an explosive creative burst highlighted by the resurrection of "Smile," which, for nearly four decades, had been known as the greatest album never heard. (Finished and released in 2004, it's now regarded as one of the best albums of this decade.) Wilson is touring regularly, too, to widespread acclaim -- a remarkable feat, given that he quit performing with the Beach Boys and retreated to the studio for decades after suffering a debilitating drug-induced breakdown in 1965.

"I didn't think you'd ever see the resurgence of the creative Brian Wilson again," says his longtime friend Elton John. "No way. It's so great to have this renaissance; it's just a great gift for music-loving people."

And yet, even as Wilson has healed enough to rise from the ashes of one of popular music's most spectacular flameouts, he's continued to struggle with his mental illness. The widespread perception that he'd gotten well? Wouldn't it be nice.

"Things were rough for me from about 2002 to 2006," he says. "Rough enough that I should have been in a mental institution under heavy sedation. Things have started to get a little bit easier, but I'm not always in a positive, happy place. I still have some negative thoughts and negative experiences. But positive is starting to win."

Melinda, 61, who has been married to Brian for 12 years, says: "People don't really understand what Brian goes through. They don't know the obstacles he overcomes on a daily basis. And yet what he's been able to achieve? It's almost miraculous."

A Life in Measure

Lunchtime at the Beverly Glen Deli in a Hollywood Hills strip mall. It's gray and gloomy outside, not one of those splendid, sun-kissed Southern California days the Beach Boys liked to sing about. Wilson has taken over a back booth and asked you to sit to his left; he can't quite hear if you're on his other side. "I was born deaf in my right ear," he says.

Yet another cruel irony: Somebody who has composed, produced and performed so much superlative music -- all those shimmering songs with stunning chords and heavenly harmonies -- can't fully hear his own work. Very, very Beethoven. (Except that Wilson is more like the Mozart of pop, and openly admits to having borrowed from Bach in crafting the opening bars to one of his signature Beach Boys songs, "California Girls.")

Wilson is slurping down tomato juice and ignoring his single scoop of tuna salad. He knows the deli's staff by name because this is part of his daily routine. He's a complicated man trying to lead an uncomplicated life, which makes it easier to cope with both his illness and the immense pressure that comes with being Brian Wilson. "I feel like I have to keep proving myself," he says. "I find that to be one of the biggest challenges in my life, trying to keep living up to my name."

So. There are walks in a nearby park; sessions at his Yamaha keyboard; visits with his vocal coach; rides in his Mercedes -- sometimes to pick up his children at school (he and Melinda adopted two girls and a boy). "There's really only five or six things in my life that I do every day," he says.

There's something unnervingly childlike about Wilson. He seems to be 65 going on 12, particularly when he laughs. It's the uncontrolled cackle of an adolescent: loud, excessive and unbridled, without the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

He can be every bit as uninterested in self-reflection as a child, too. There are, apparently, topics that interest Brian Wilson (cars, chords, British concert audiences) -- and then there is everything else. Discussing his own life and emotions, he can be stingy, even cagey, his answers terse and evasive. He blames it on his inherent shyness. Plus, he's still learning to communicate after growing up in a family that didn't do it particularly well.

Q: Do you feel like you missed out on your childhood?

A: Oh, no. I had a good childhood -- except for my dad beating me up all the time.

Q: When you started out and were writing those happy-sounding songs, was that some form of emotional escapism, given the difficult relationship with your father?

A: Possibly. Partially in some ways, yeah. Maybe.

Q: How so?

A: Yeah.

Then silence.

Wilson constantly shifts utensils and dishes around the table, and his hands tremble when he lifts his juice glass, which threatens to spill all over his sunflower-yellow shirt. He speaks in a monotone and sometimes slurs his words. While he can be fully present and engaged, he is also prone to suddenly checking out of the conversation.

Q: Did you ever wish the band wasn't named the Beach Boys?

A: No. Never.

Q: Did you ever consider doing "Pet Sounds" as a solo project?

A: We're going to Washington and we're going to perform for the royal family.

(Later, he allows: "Taking drugs kind of spaced my head out.")

After Chaos, Safety

Forming in 1961 in the landlocked Los Angeles County community of Hawthorne, the Beach Boys quickly became a major force on the Top 40 chart. Their bright sound blended Four Freshmen-style vocal harmonies with the rhythmic proto-rock bump of Little Richard and Chuck Berry and, in time, the melancholy chords of Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector's expansive production style. The three Wilson brothers, along with cousin Mike Love and high school friend Al Jardine, specialized in scene-setting SoCal songs about surfin' safaris, little deuce coupes, and fun, fun, fun -- and wound up battling the Beatles for global pop supremacy.

As principal composer, writer and, eventually, producer (he also played bass and sang), Brian was the band's driving creative force -- to the point that Dennis declared: "Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys; we're just his messengers."

By the middle of the decade, depressed and under enormous pressure, Wilson stopped touring to concentrate on studio work. In 1966, the Beach Boys released Wilson's first fully formed studio masterpiece: the startlingly sophisticated song cycle, "Pet Sounds," an expansive, deeply spiritual, innovative pocket symphony about hope, loneliness, love and lost innocence.

But the album stalled commercially and was dismissed by Wilson's band mates ("Brian's ego music," Love called it). Wilson was devastated. "It was music that people weren't ready for," he says today. "I think I was way ahead of my time. But people have heard it over the years." Indeed, "Pet Sounds" has since been canonized -- lauded as a classic album by everybody from Philip Glass to Paul McCartney, who has opined that the majestic single "God Only Knows" is perhaps the greatest song ever written.

"Smile," of course, was meant to top "Pet Sounds," not to mention every Beatles album ever recorded. But Wilson abandoned the project in 1967 after battling his band mates over the challenging material he'd created with lyricist Van Dyke Parks. (Love's cutting critique at the time? "A whole album of Brian's madness.") "It was also ahead of its time," Wilson says of the project. "And we were getting too stoned on drugs; we thought we'd better quit. So we shelved it -- for 37 years." He giggles.

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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