It Wasn't All Fun, Fun, Fun

The Beach Boy's Hymns to the Dream State of California Belied The Nightmare He Was Living

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007; Page M01

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.

Beach Boy Brian Wilson, enshrined in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, author of classic songs
Kennedy Center Honors: Brian Wilson
Beach Boy Brian Wilson, enshrined in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, author of classic songs "Good Vibrations," "God Only Knows" and "Surfin' USA," and the creative force behind all-time classic album "Pet Sounds," is featured at this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

"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."

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