By Des Cowley.
I Am Brian Wilson: a Memoir
By Brian Wilson, hb, Hachette Australia
For many of us, the genius of Brian Wilson lies with Pet Sounds, one of the finest recordings of the past half century. That, and a handful of songs scattered across subsequent Beach Boys’ albums, many of them offcuts from the grand failure that was SMiLE. But such is the majesty of this music, such is its munificence that we’ve stuck by him, we’ve rooted for him through good times and bad, hoping against hope that the spark we once glimpsed will shine once more. Perhaps it’s been too much to ask, given that Wilson delivered, in a few short years, more than most will achieve in a lifetime.
The basic tenets of his story – which bear all the hallmarks of a modern-day tragedy – have been well and truly raked over in an outpouring of books, television documentaries and films. The cast is well-known to us: the tyrannical father; the saintly brother and the troubled brother; the philistine cousin; the evil doctor; the saviour. It is a tale involving the loss of innocence, madness and misunderstood genius. So what more can Wilson himself tell us that we don’t already know?
Early on Wilson signposts where he’s headed: “My story is a music story, and a family story and a love story, but it’s a story of mental illness, too”. For anyone who has followed Wilson’s progress in recent years, the voice in his book will be a familiar one. It can be simple and childlike: “I love watching Eyewitness News. The content is not very good, but the newscasters are pleasant to watch. They have nice personalities. They also give you the weather.” At the same time, it can be perceptive and wise, as when Wilson reflects on his state after jettisoning SMiLE: “I was afraid of failing, afraid my dad was right, afraid I couldn’t live up to the example that Phil Spector set for me. It was the depression creeping up on me that would eventually go over me completely, take away my spirit, and paralyze me for so many years”.
As could be expected, the twin negative poles of Wilson’s father Murray and the Svengali-like Dr Landy are dealt with in detail, often in more even-handed ways than we might expect. Wilson’s love for his brothers Carl and Dennis shines throughout, while Mike Love, unsurprisingly, comes across as a shallow and negative force, eroding Wilson’s musical and personal confidence.
There is a disarming candour to Wilson’s reflections, as he documents a life fuelled by anxiety and fear. He regularly hears voices in his head, which say horrible things about his music: “I have heard them since I was in my early twenties. I have heard them many days, and when I haven’t heard them, I have worried about hearing them.” His attempts to chase them away with drugs and alcohol, or later with medication, led to prolonged periods of inactivity, when the songs dried up. And, like any good country and western song, he has been saved by the love of a good woman, second wife Melinda.
While never reaching the same lofty heights, Wilson’s memoir contains elements of the strangeness found in Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace. Stories suddenly veer off, never to return. Asides crop up as if from nowhere.
Where the book comes most alive is when Wilson discusses the making of Pet Sounds, the SMiLE sessions, or even recent recordings. Here we get genuine insights into how music works for him, his innate ability to hear all the harmonies and instruments of a song fully realised in his head, even before sitting down to sketch out the melody. It is a particular genius that appears to isolate him from his fellow humans, locking him out of everyday things the rest of us take for granted. His re-engagement, over the past decade, with the masterpieces of his youth, has clearly helped him bridge that isolation, and make peace with the past and those he has lost, first and foremost brothers Carl and Dennis: “I love them and I miss them. But I am here. I am here for them. I am here for myself. I am here today. I push myself up out of my chair and head for the stage.”