The idea of genius is a somewhat ridiculed notion these days – spoiled by its overuse and association with delusional thoughts of grandeur. Although it often weighed heavy on him, Brian Wilson is heralded as one such genius. We explore his life and creative output.
“Brian Wilson is a genius”.
It was perhaps the first great viral marketing campaign in popular music. From the urban hum of Manhattan to the golden sands of California, any discussion of The Beach Boys would, invariably, include this adage. However, even today, Wilson is one of the most widely misunderstood figures of the era.
When one thinks of the Beach Boys, a warm, nostalgic vibe of surfing, beautiful women, and California sunshine may spring to mind. Yet under the surface lies a deeper, darker story. One of abuse, substances, self-destruction, and a clamouring desperation to escape the harsh perimeters that come with the poisoned chalice of fame. In his quest to escape the box which had been made for him, Wilson went inwards. In doing so, he extracted the very best, and unleashed the very worst.
Born in 1942 in Inglewood, California, Wilson grew up alongside his bandmates; his brothers, Dennis and Carl, his cousin Mike Love, and close friend, Al Jardine. The Wilson household was defined by the tyrannical hand of his father, Murry Wilson. In his own words, Brian’s upbringing was “violent” and “cruel”.
Despite this, Wilson developed a musical aptitude in childhood; in infancy, he could learn music by ear and recite complex melodies after only a few listens. According to his brother Carl, Brian could play ‘boogie woogie’ piano at the age of 10. Before Wilson’s twentieth birthday, The Beach Boys had formed.
Under the management of Murry, the band cultivated an image of care-free California surfers. Their songs covered skin-deep themes of sun, girls and sea. It was energetic, addictive pop music, and the band sky-rocketed to stardom. There’s just one problem: they didn’t surf.
Soon enough, Wilson became claustrophobic within this crafted identity. In 1964, he suffered his first mental breakdown, and ceased touring with the group.
In the wake of his breakdown, Wilson stayed in the studio while his bandmates toured Japan. It was here that Wilson’s great escape began to take shape. In 1965, The Beatles had incinerated their straight suits and pudding-bowl haircuts with the psychedelic sound of their Rubber Soul album.
Brian became hooked on the new sound, and his desperation to escape the confines of the pop mould only grew. By this point, Murry had been ousted as the band’s manager and had found a near-identical band to manage.
In late 1965, having already experimented with alternative sounds and recording methods, Wilson teamed up with Tony Asher to begin crafting the record that would take him to the edge of the cliff, and the one that would push him off: Pet Sounds. It was also during this period that Brian was introduced to the 60s most iconic vice, LSD.
Confined to the studio, while his bandmates were touring, Brian – fuelled by acid and a new circle of psychonautical artists – created his best, and most timeless work to date. While maintaining the feel-good, hypnotic, and melodic sounds of his earlier work, Pet Sounds is a masterpiece of record production.
Utilising everything from Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ to an eclectic range of instrumentals, to some of the industry’s most well-regarded session musicians, to farm animals. Pet Sounds is a tour-de-force of popular music. And so, he became regarded as a genius.
Wilson’s attempts to follow up were initially successful, Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains are equally masterful. However, his vision for ‘Smile’ soon took a turn for the worse, and Wilson’s mind lay in tatters by the end of 1967. A watered-down version of the album was released as Smiley Smile, to critical praise, but Wilson would never be the same again.
By 1968, the dream had become a nightmare. The band faced bankruptcy and had fallen into the dreaded position of ‘has beens’, with the emergence of edgier opposition in The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who. Wilson found himself addicted to food, alcohol, and several narcotics. That year, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
By the end of the decade, the band who had helped to define it were a million miles away from relevance. Through the 1970s, Wilson was a ghost; obese, hermitic, and agoraphobic. By the 1980s, he had fallen under the control of the despotic therapist, Eugene Landy; and it would be years until Brian had his freedom back.
There is a great tragedy in the tale of Brian Wilson. Like a musical Icarus, he went to great lengths in search of liberation, but ultimately fell crashing into the sea. The weight of his upbringing, self-destructive habits, delicate soul and fierce genius, were simply too much for one man to handle.