Hang On to Your Ego

Review: Brian Wilson, ‘I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir’

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson / AP
• November 19, 2016 4:58 am


I came to love The Beach Boys as a typical '90s child, watching The Muppets’ "Kokomo" endlessly on Nickelodeon, fascinated by the twitching hula girls’ vacant eyes and Kermit’s spastic ukulele strumming, smooth steelpan sounds rippling across the melody’s placid surface. I guess I thought that bunny with the sunglasses was pretty cool. According to Muppet Wiki, his name is Be-Bop and he also scats.

I admit my artistic sensibility was embarrassingly underdeveloped at age six. I adored Ace of Base’s "I Saw the Sign," with its moody black-and-white video, the animated flames and floating ankhs (ankhs were pretty cool in the 90s. I can’t explain why.) I also admired Soundgarden’s "Black Hole Sun" video, mostly for the way the actors’ plastic rictuses melted in closeup like a Chuck Jones cartoon. I actually cried when Orlando Jones snapped their CD in half on the TV show SoundfX. Then there were my schoolmates’ deafening bus ride renditions of "a weenie whack, a weenie whack," set to the chorus of The Tokens’ "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." I remember tightly crossing my legs in reaction to the phantom pains when my friends explained to me the Lorena Bobbitt case. Castration as an idea hadn’t occurred to me at that age, and I certainly didn’t know Mike Love, a recurring villain in The Beach Boys’ story, was responsible for one of my favorite songs.

Brian Wilson has mostly reclaimed The Beach Boys’ musical legacy since then, emerging victorious from an extended period of decline brought about by substance abuse, mental illness, and the destructive influence of his abusive father Murry, antagonistic cousin Mike Love, and parasitic round-the-clock therapist Eugene Landy. Things have changed considerably since "Kokomo." Indeed, Pitchfork’s review of Capitol’s remastered versions of Sunflower and Surf’s Up claims "we’re coming off of a decade-long re-evaluation of the Beach Boys’ legacy. It just doesn’t stop." That was in the summer of 2000. Since then, we’ve been subjected to five new Beach Boys live albums, a studio LP, sixteen new Beach Boys compilations, seven Brian Wilson studio LPs, three Brian Wilson live albums, a Wilson biopic, and now a Wilson memoir.

Of course, Wilson’s early-aughts resurgence makes sense, given the slew of orchestral pop bands—Sufjan Stevens, The Polyphonic Spree, Arcade Fire—that dominated the indie world during that era. Wilson was a perfect fit for twee, and the hipster world flocked to this acid-damaged author of "God Only Knows" and "In My Room," two classic wimp anthems included in the playlist at the end of Marc Spitz’s 2014 investigation of alternative culture, Twee: The Gentle Revolution. Wilson was like a Daniel Johnston who made listenable music.

Blame Brian Wilson, then, for all the millennial craft beer bellies undulating along with weird combinations of glockenspiels and banjos, french horns and Jazzmasters, the annoyingly sincere beards bellowing in unaffected tones about their feelings that remain a staple of the indie world. I should know, because it was a way of life I tried out for a couple of years.

This lifestyle change set in around the end of my time at Berklee College of Music, and coincided with my growing interest in Sufjan and Animal Collective, another aughts breakout that garnered comparisons to The Beach Boys. Rebelling against fruitless days of lonesome six-hour practice room sessions and dorm room nights spent painstakingly transcribing jazz solos from records, I took refuge in this new school of irony-free bands and fancied myself as more than an instrumentalist, more than a drummer. In the weirdo-loving indie world that championed obscurity and weakness, I might be a gifted producer, arranger, or even a songwriter. My important revelation was that feeling, sincerity, and strangeness could trump actual musical skill.

At the time, I was drumming for a Sonic Youth knock-off that featured an electric cello. The Beach Boys barged back into my life as we embarked on a fourteen-day tour where we played to tens of people in bars and basements in Providence, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Nashville, Chapel Hill. I remember riding in the back seat of the rental SUV as we left Beantown with a trunk full of gear, listening to someone on Boston University’s WTBU play all of the outtakes from The Pet Sounds Sessions. We were crammed in traffic, inching our way through the thick, garbage fart of the city air. Taxi drivers angrily cranked down their windows and hocked loogies into each other’s mouths while cars crashed slowly all around us. My bandmates, who were prone to outbursts of onstage violence and blackout drunkenness, bickered in the front seats. Amid this apocalypse shone alluring light of aw-shucks sincerity. Turns out one of the guys from that kids’ band known best for their paeans to girls, surfing, and hot rods was some kind of secret genius and that the process of recording this album drove him crazy. Everyone knows crazy geniuses are the best types of geniuses. Though my decade-older bandmates were kind enough to book faraway gigs and get me a fake ID, the seeds of dissent were sown and I set out to become an eccentric pop genius myself. After all, in the age of sincerity, every voice deserved to be heard. How hard could it be?

I never got very good at creating songs, even though I had the good fortune to perform them for various DIY scenes and music festivals, opening for much better bands, earning enough to cover gas money and, on a good night, a six pack and some desiccated convenience store pizza, remnants of which will probably survive my body’s eventual decomposition. Self-proclaimed songwriters have an advantage over other musicians in that very few people want to actually devote themselves to the self-abasement and self-delusion required to commit lyric to melody, harmony to rhythm, to mistake obsession for inspiration and pretend that they might be the one-in-a-million talent to find a new way to package sentiment in a few minutes of verses and choruses. But I’ve found that if you have the gall to baldly mimic successful bands and strongarm talented musicians into playing your compositions, you can become a misunderstood artist in no time.

It worked for Brian Wilson, who combined his love of Gershwin, The Four Freshmen, and Phil Spector with his access to The Wrecking Crew, who considered him a great talent, but perhaps simply relished a chance to actually stretch out on a pop recording date. And while The Beach Boys and Brian deserve high esteem in American culture, their mythology has overshadowed their actual accomplishments. Take for instance, Trunkworthy’s breathless ode to Wilson’s song, "Surf’s Up," which asserts that "the composer/arranger/songwriter that served as the Beach Boy’s creative core, is pop music’s most deeply misunderstood genius." They go on to make the dubious claim that "classically trained musicians were overwhelmed by the complexity of his arrangements," as if slapping together some feeble glissandi made you Penderecki.

I am probably the ideal audience for I Am Brian Wilson. Like Brian, I am the son of a musician who never found his own success, I’ve struggled with depression and self-destructive impulses, and I share his distaste for performing for audiences. While I truly wanted to enjoy this book, I can only unequivocally recommend that curious parties stream the recent biopic Love and Mercy. Unlike most critics, I found it a bit mawkish and only superficially adventurous, but it does have the perk of allowing the viewer to ponder just exactly what makes the great Paul Dano’s face so utterly punchable.

The 2015 film also has the great advantage of relaying all the worthwhile information in this book. Shy of 300 pages, I Am Brian Wilson requires more effort than its length suggests. Trudging through his reflections on mental decline, one is assailed with weird, detail-free therapy-speak: "I couldn’t control my thoughts and I couldn’t control my body," or "I felt unsure as a producer because I felt unsure as a person." Late in the book, Wilson prides himself on his partnership with Michelle Obama’s Campaign to Change Direction, which hopes to destigmatize mental illness. It is a shame, however, that Wilson’s own experiences have left him completely devoid of insight.

Surely, Wilson had very little to do with actually writing this new book, especially if it’s anything like his last effort, the widely trashed Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, written with Todd Gold, now editor-in-chief of Comcast’s Xfinity, and a former ghostwriter for Drew Barrymore, Belinda Carlisle, Maureen McCormick, and Louie Anderson among others.

It’s hard not to sympathize with poor Ben Greenman here, Wilson’s new co-writer, who must have languished for hours on end as Wilson oozed in and out of consciousness in his La-Z-Boy (or "command center" as he’s fond of calling it), straining to remember what his wife dutifully fed him last night, much less any interesting tidbits about the songs we all know and love. Instead, they regurgitate anecdotes that have been floating around the mythology already, and offer up such compelling appraisals as "‘Steamboat’ kicks ass," or "that album has lots of sounds." Greenman did a nice job of capturing Wilson’s authorial voice, but is it a voice worth hearing?

As for the human angle, the book adds very little. No real revelations about his troubled family relationships, few lurid stories of his legendary drug abuse, zero epiphanies about his creative mind. Instead, we are treated to grueling passages like this:

I tried to eat the cake slowly. People say I’m the fastest eater in the world, but I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen who is the champion. But I am a fast eater. That’s one of the reasons I have always had trouble with weight. Also, I love sweets. My daughter Carnie cooks. She’s a great cook. She makes pudding. She makes fish.

Wilson also takes the opportunity to elaborate his victim narrative, airing grievances about Mike or Murry or Carl or Dennis not always liking his creative decisions and how deeply it wounded him. For a guy who stylized SMiLE with a small "i," he has an astonishingly fragile ego and an insatiable craving for approval. While Wilson deserves pity for his struggles with sanity, that pity is stretched to the breaking point when you realize how much he could afford to throw away on Landy’s exorbitant fees or that Murry’s duplicitous sale of The Beach Boys’ catalog of hits for $700,000 in 1969 still translates to over $4,500,000 in today’s currency.

Wilson does attempt humor. He recounts a bizarre episode where he defecated on a plate and brought it to his father for dinner, he tells a cute story about how much he likes New York pizza, and he confides in us his penchant for calling Paul McCartney "Pablo" with no explanation. He seems to enjoy telling us the celebrities he’s met with minimal detail. Sometimes, these spare vignettes amuse, as when he claims to have shown his modest karate moves to an unimpressed Elvis, or when he unwittingly asked Bono, "can you score me a Diet Coke" at the Ivor Novello Awards. Mostly, these episodes serve Brian's unsubtle agenda of self-aggrandizement, whether he's correcting Carole King's pitch in his home studio or, after signing Don Henley's copy of Pet Sounds, catching Henley before he left so he could amend the inscription from "To Don: thanks for all the great songs. Brian Wilson." to "good songs." Michael Jackson is a "very nice guy, very pleasant." John Paul II is "a good man." He even namedrops famous athletes: "In Maui once I came up a path and someone else was coming the other way. It was Magic Johnson. ‘Hi, Brian," he said. I waved, saying ‘Hey, Magic.’ I kept walking." He mentions that he once lived near Shaq, but "never really hung out with him." One thing that actually made me laugh was, I hope, accidental: the chapter "Echoes and Voices" ends with Brian recounting the loss of bandmate Markus Sundland in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, only for the next chapter, "Sun," to begin with the quoted lyrics, "catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world."

All of which is to say that Wilson, who once mandated that his studio musicians wear fire hats and contemplated bringing a horse into the studio, is not a 20th-century Mozart. He’s more like the musical equivalent of Bill Mumy’s Anthony Fremont in The Twilight Zone episode "It’s a Good Life": a child tyrant all grown up, wishing his enemies away to an eternal cornfield. Mike Love (if he weren’t such a foul buffoon) could be Don Keefer’s Dan Hollis, screaming for release: "won’t somebody take a lamp or a bottle or something and end this?!"

Don’t get me wrong. The songs on Pet Sounds are great, but you have to wonder, given all the hype and mythology and our love of shallow nostalgia, what we mean when we call it a classic or Wilson a genius. Consider what Zappa was doing in 1966, to say nothing of Miles. Wilson’s high reputation is evidence of our obsession with childlike innocence and the victory of boring poptimism.

Published under: Book reviews