Rock and Roll Book Club: 'I Am Brian Wilson'

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'I Am Brian Wilson.'
'I Am Brian Wilson.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Enthusiasm for Brian Wilson's 2016 memoir was tempered by the fact that no other star of his stature is less likely to be a reliable narrator of his own life. Even when he's there, you're not sure he's really...there.

Nor is he, we learn in I Am Brian Wilson. There's a lot the Beach Boys leader doesn't know, and he's very open about the gaps in his knowledge or understanding. You get the sense that he's sort of drifted through the last half-century, maybe more. Even the infamous two decades he spent under the thumb of his therapist, Eugene Landy, don't seem to have been all that different except that it was a doctor instead of his father yelling at him.

No artist is ever truly satisfied with his work, but Brian Wilson has endured more disapprobation than most — especially given that George Martin himself regarded Wilson as the greatest living genius of popular music.

Wilson first had to deal with the wrath of his father, a songwriter who both mentored and abused Wilson and his two brothers in the Beach Boys. Then, he had to face tension with his own bandmates over the bold new directions he wanted to take the Beach Boys' sound. No sooner had the band's masterpiece Pet Sounds (1966), a plausible candidate for greatest pop album ever, been released than Wilson started to grapple with his own self-doubt. His powers were slipping as he spiraled into depression and addiction, shelving the follow-up album that would ultimately become the most legendary unreleased album of the rock era.

The 2004 reconstruction and re-recording of Smile (which, note, Wilson himself consistently stylizes SMiLE) marked a crowning achievement. While no one could go back to 1967, the completed SMiLE finally gave the world a listenable version of what Wilson was envisioning, and it amazingly wasn't a letdown. For once, Wilson wasn't disappointed.

Written in collaboration with Ben Greenman, I Am Brian Wilson doesn't strain for unlikely heights. It's no Born to Run, and it doesn't try to be. Instead, Wilson and Greenman try to convey a sense of what it's like inside Brian Wilson's head today.

The book starts out with a chapter on Wilson's daily routine, including the chair where he sits and watches game shows. "I love being in the chair. If I'm in Los Angeles, I'll end up there 100 percent of the days. If I come into the room and someone else is sitting in it, I just stand nearby until they clear out."

It then drifts back and forth through Wilson's life, including an account of his youth that further clarifies the antic-filled Beach Boys songs were not based on Wilson's own experiences. "What was life in Hawthorne like? It was like life. I didn't know anything else."

Oddly given that it's his own book, Wilson consistently comes across as kind of hapless. He even recalls a joke played by collaborator Joe Thomas in the '90s, when the two were going to visit Jimmy Buffett in the Florida Keys.

"You know, Brian," says Thomas, referring to a chart-topping '80s hit the Beach Boys made without Wilson's involvement, "we're going to be close to Kokomo."

"Really?" asks Wilson. "Can we go there?"

Thomas starts laughing. "Kokomo's not real. It doesn't exist."

Wilson does write about making Pet Sounds, but if he remembers the details, he's not sharing them here. He was more interested in the reactions. "Lennon and McCartney were blown away. Marilyn [his then wife] was blown away. Carl was blown away. Other people didn't say as much about it, like Dennis and Mike."

Much of the book concerns all the Brian Wilson music you don't know — everything he's released over the past 50 years, both with and without the Beach Boys. Landy, he writes, used to plop him down at the piano and scream at him, and there's a sense that making music is always a little bit like that for Wilson. It's what he does, what he loves, but always there's someone screaming at you.

Wilson describes seeing Love & Mercy, the 2014 biopic, and confirms its essential truth. "Are you okay with it?" his wife Melinda asked after the couple saw a screening.

"I'm fine," Wilson said he replied. "Living it was so much worse."

As with that film, what you'll take away from Wilson's memoir is a portrait of a man obsessed with sounds — who will take over the record player at a party, endlessly re-playing the opening of "Be My Baby" trying to reverse-engineer the drum sound. Who, even today, will sit silently and work out complete arrangements in his head before describing how a track will unfold.

He commonly tours now, but live performance has never been his strength. Even in the studio, he's more delicate than powerful. He recalls being present at the sessions for Phil Spector's Christmas album, which he describes as one of the two or three greatest albums of all time, bar none.

He played piano on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," but he just couldn't bang the keys hard enough to break through that legendary Wall of Sound. Eventually Spector cut Wilson from the session.

I was disappointed, but I was cool about it. That was the business. You didn't cry over spilled milk. And we ended up cutting our own version of the song the next year, on our own Christmas record. I didn't play piano on that one either.


The Current's I Am Brian Wilson Giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's I Am Brian Wilson giveaway between 7:45 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018.

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