published: 8 /
Lisa Torem enjoys Brian Wilson's new biography which highlights his gifts as an arranger but also chronicles his struggles with mental illness
‘I am Brian Wilson’ was written by the iconic vocalist/arranger of The Beach Boys himself, with frequent New Yorker contributor, Ben Greenman. In this deeply personal memoir, Wilson relays his most heartfelt and exhilarating moments in an endearing, conversational style.
Wilson’s brothers, Carl and Dennis, helped create The Beach Boys sound, but suffered early deaths. His father, Murry Wilson, was the driving force behind his sons’ band, but his aggressive behaviour also left scars – Wilson describes with great detail how he and his brothers dealt with their father’s frequent outbursts and use of corporal punishment.
Although the Beach Boys became international icons for their American surf-inspired songs and groundbreaking albums like ‘Pet Sounds,’ which bowled over the Beatles’, Wilson’s own career began to disintegrate in the 1970s.
When Wilson began to hear voices in his head, the idea of continued touring became too much. Buried away from the public, he endured torment under the auspices of the controversial Dr. Eugene Landy. The psychiatrist kept Wilson on a strict diet of heavily prescribed meds, supposedly to solve his weight problems and mental health issues, over a series of years.
It was only after he met Melinda, a curious and caring car dealer (who would later become his wife) that a plan was devised to free him of Landy’s unscrupulous practices.
Has Wilson come to terms with his demons? Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of this memoir is that Wilson has appeared to have grown artistically despite the gratuitous bullying. And although he may never erase the “voices,” he has, through the blessings of his soul mate, been able to separate out some of the anxiety from his natural, creative gifts.
Wilson talks about admiring guitarist Jeff Beck, but feeling that they were out of sync when performing during a 50th year anniversary. He reminisces about Mike Love, his cousin and Beach Boys bandmate, who exhibited erratic onstage and backstage behavior, but could easily liven up the most sedate audience. In a sincere manner, he presents well-rounded descriptions of his personal and professional relationships.
He speaks glowingly of his current touring band; of Brian Wilson Band musical arranger, Paul von Mertens and and the inspiration he has gleaned from his other colleagues.
Wilson often uses song lyrics to echo his feelings; a great way add extra depth to his emotional moments. If there is a heroine in the story, it is definitely his wife, Melinda, who he claims shields him from painful messages by screening related popular press.
It’s interesting to witness Wilson’s reaction to the biopic ‘Love and Mercy.’ Wilson is grateful that the movie addresses difficult moments in his life; moments that he has had trouble relaying to reporters. He also feels grateful that the script deals so frankly with the subject of mental illness, as he hopes that the film proves to be a healing force for anyone struggling with the disease.
There are many reasons to read ‘I am Brian Wilson.’ If you have ever struggled with mental illness or know anyone else who has. If you are wondering how Wilson’s heroes – George and Ira Gershwin, Phil Spector, The Wrecking Crew, Paul McCartney, the Four Freshman, Frank Sinatra – inspired him to work judiciously at his craft. If you want to witness how Wilson, as a Beach Boy member, and as a solo artist, stacked up against his peers in his own words. You will come away with a greater understanding of his work habits and philosophies.
“What is a song, exactly?” Wilson asks. “It becomes physical and emotional and spiritual. It comes out into the world.” Wilson poses similar questions about the creative process throughout, and has a way of responding to each prompt with exhilarating sincerity.
But Wilson also addresses the specifics: What are the stories behind the production and recording of ‘Sloop John B.,’ and ‘Caroline, No’? How did collaborations with Scott Bennett, Van Dyke Parks and Gary Usher come about? Wouldn’t it be nice if all memoirs exposed their truths in such a genuine and introspective way?