- Historic Sites
Brian Wilson’s Wave
For the brilliant songwriter behind the Beach Boys, the endless summer gave way to a very hard winter. Now he is back, with a work that wants to be no less than a musical history of the American dream.
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
His comeback album, 15 Big Ones, was a half-baked effort consisting largely of covers of fifties rock hits, but it made the Billboard top 10 and led quickly to a more satisfying, albeit highly eccentric, collection of Brian Wilson originals titled The Beach Boys Love You . He lost weight and managed a return to the road as a touring member of the Beach Boys. Rolling Stone headlined a November 1976 cover story THE HEALING OF BROTHER BRIAN, but the healing seemed tenuous at best, and the piece emphasized some of Brian’s most traumatic moments: Murry’s death in 1973, Brian’s drug use, the collapse of Smile, his alienation from his wife. Landy would be gone by the end of the year, dismissed less for his bullying ways than for his exorbitant fees. Though Brian would have other therapists, none seemed able to keep him pulled together.
To see Brian Wilson performing with the Beach Boys during the late seventies and early eighties was to watch one of the most distressing contradictions ever on an American stage. While his band spent hours playing his stirring celebrations of “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Good Vibrations” to crowds of cheering fans, the man who had dreamed it all up sat motionless behind his piano. When the time came for him to sing a line or two, his once-crystalline falsetto came out as a baritone croak.
With his energies obviously ebbing, the rest of the Beach Boys struggled to grasp the golden thread that had run through their earlier work. But new songs about the beach, school, and cruising had none of the emotional fire of Brian’s early work, let alone his propulsive musical energy. And all the Beach Boys suffered. Split between an artistically ambitious, if party-hearty, faction (Dennis and Carl) and a more market-conscious but abstemious set (Mike and Al), and with Brian unwilling to weigh in on either side, the group fought so bitterly that at one point a restraining order was required to keep Dennis Wilson and Mike Love from attacking each other. (In the early eighties Dennis would find a new way to torment his cousin when the then-38-year-old drummer impregnated and then married Mike’s teenaged illegitimate daughter, Shawn Love.) Dennis Wilson, once the sun-kissed personification of the band’s Southern California of the mind, had by 1983 become bloated and rheumy-eyed from alcohol and cocaine. By the end of the year he would be dead, drowned in the ocean that had once inspired him to suggest a song topic to his older brother.
Brian Wilson, increasingly obese and strung out, was clearly miserable and seemed to be heading toward death too. As a last resort, the band in late 1982 called again on Dr. Landy. And again Landy’s round-the-clock method appeared to have a good effect. Forced onto a rigorous diet and exercise regimen, Brian shed weight quickly. Told to write songs, he composed a handful of cheerful, if simple, ones for the 1985 comeback album, The Beach Boys. When word arrived that he had been signed to produce his first-ever solo album, expectations soared.
Dr. Landy took control of Brian’s finances and career and even added his name to his song credits.
The resulting album, 1988’s Brian Wilson , featured some of the best songs he had written in two decades. One of them, “Rio Grande,” was an eight-minute suite whose structural daring and narrative sweep approached Smile ’s terrain. That Brian could produce such stirring music at such a late date was incredible enough. It seemed nearly miraculous when you began to realize what had happened to his life. For Landy had strengthened his hold on his client. “We’re partners in life!” he liked to tell reporters. Indeed, he had taken control of Brian’s finances and career and had even added his name to the credit line of many of Brian’s new songs. Wilson was forbidden to see virtually any of his old friends and family members. Even his daughters suspected that the messages they left at his house in Malibu never ended up in his hands.
Van Dyke Parks was invited to contribute lyrics for Brian’s new music, and he recalls that he was instructed to begin the process by making an appointment with Dr. Landy, who expected to be paid his hourly rate for the visit. Parks refused but was eventually allowed to see his old collaborator anyway. “Brian was medicated, Landy was voluble, and two assistants videotaped everything,” he says. Another old friend, Michael Vosse, tells a similar story: “He had one of those red White House-style phones he had to sit by so the doctor could call him. And he was supposed to call that number when he was thinking impure thoughts. These guys came in three times in less than two hours, with paper cups to hand him pills.... I’m surprised he didn’t nod out.”