By Jason Rubin
Brian Wilson, the roundly acknowledged genius leader of the Beach Boys, is the ultimate rock and roll survivor. From physical and verbal abuse perpetrated against him by his father (which reportedly left him deaf in one ear), to crippling mental illness exacerbated by longtime drug addiction, to the Svengali-like therapist who robbed him of his freedom and money, to repeated litigation against him by his first cousin (and Beach Boy singer) Mike Love, to the many waves of changing musical trends and tastes over the course of his 55-year professional career, Wilson remains active, creative, and productive while many of his contemporaries are long since dead or dormant.
Improbably, so long after his first hit, 1961’s “Surfin’”, launched the Beach Boys (and, in many ways, California itself) to fantasy and fame, 2015 is gearing up to be The Summer of Brian. His 11th solo album, No Pier Pressure, was released on April 7, backed by a nationwide tour this summer; a live performance taped for PBS’s Soundstage series is currently being shown across the country; and on June 5, a feature film biopic, Love and Mercy, starring both Paul Dano (mid-1960s) and John Cusack (mid-1980s) as Wilson, opens in theaters worldwide.
A perfect – and perfectly tuneful – storm
Why the sudden perfect storm of activity and attention for a musician who turns 73 on June 20? The answers are many, but one of the main reasons is also the most perplexing: it was inevitable. Though he retreated from public and professional life on and off from about 1968 to 1988 (during which he almost died and was then under the spell of a controlling, exploitative therapist whose license was later revoked), since then Wilson has been a road warrior, touring with and without new product, earning his first two Grammy Awards, and continuing to compose, arrange, produce, and perform in a style that is his alone. There is nothing remotely hip about him and the Billboard charts are among the few musical institutions that almost never show him any love anymore. Yet his creative spark and his innate, preternatural musical skills have never left him (indeed they are what has saved and sustained him), and he seemingly refuses to retire.
Thanks to his longevity, a generation or two of musicians who found the Beach Boys’ music hopelessly naïve and irrelevant passed along and the subsequent generations have been outspoken about his influence on them. The vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes, the musical quirkiness of the Barenaked Ladies (who had a hit with a song titled “Brian Wilson”), and the neo-psychedelic swirlings of the Wondermints (who have served as the core of Wilson’s backing band since about 1998) all owe enormous debts to Wilson, while such old guard contemporaries as Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young have been unashamedly singing his praises.
Brian’s rise and fall and rise
Another reason is that his story is simply too good to be true, and yet it is. Love and Mercy will take viewers along as Wilson reaches his artistic pinnacle, producing 1966’s Pet Sounds, an emotionally wrenching and musically exhilarating song cycle that tops many “best album of all time” lists; when it appears as number two, it usually is eclipsed only by the album that both Paul McCartney and Beatles producer George Martin have said was inspired by Pet Sounds: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Its follow-up, Smile, which would have pre-empted Pepper’s production innovations, became the most famous unreleased album in pop history when Wilson shelved it amid growing paranoia and lack of support from certain band mates (chiefly Love, who also ended 2012’s successful Beach Boys reunion prematurely by announcing concert dates that didn’t include Wilson or the other surviving original Beach Boys members, Al Jardine and David Marks).
Love and Mercy picks up the story 20 years later as Wilson enters into a devil’s pact with Dr. Eugene Landy, the therapist who gave him back his health while helping himself to Wilson’s wealth. Eventually, Wilson is able to wrest control over his own life (and royalties), and with a new wife and family begins to rediscover his calling on earth: to make people happy by making music.
Wilson is often likened to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, who also succumbed to drugs and madness. But while Barrett packed it in after two intriguing solo albums, living as a recluse for decades until he died in 2006, Wilson came back from the dark side. Not in one piece, mind you. He still suffers from auditory hallucinations and is no doubt well medicated to enable him to function at such a high level. He has more money and fame than anyone could ever want. So why does he continue?
A necessary antidote
That brings us to the third reason. We need him. In a music industry where the songs are about simple emotions (I’m horny) and complex pleasures (threesomes, S&M, molly), Wilson on his new album (which also features Jardine and Marks, as well as early ‘70s member Blondie Chaplin) continues to write and sing about complex feelings (I’m still optimistic despite all I’ve been through) and simple pleasures (island escapes, a special love, Saturday nights). Wilson’s worldview is bereft of concerns about ISIS, police shootings, NFL players beating their wives, or immigration. It’s not that he’s not aware of these disturbing realities, it’s that his music is intended as an antidote to them. In Wilson’s world, it would be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. We’re picking up good vibrations. We wish they all could be California girls. And when it’s necessary, we simply go in our room where we can lock out all our worries and our fears.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so fitting that after a historically bad winter, we have The Summer of Brian Wilson to look forward to. After all, we all need love and mercy, and who better to bring them to us than the man whose life and career are defined by those very qualities?
Jason M. Rubin is a Boston-based journalist and author, whose debut novel, “The Grave and the Gay,” was published in 2012. To learn more about Jason, visit jasonmrubin.com.
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