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Book Review

I Am Brian Wilson

Tim Riley
Reviewer
NPR Critic and Emerson College assistant professor Tim Riley reviews pop and classical music for NPR's Here & Now and On Point, and has written for the Huffington Post, The Washington post, Slate.com and…
Tim Riley

The cover of “I Am Brian Wilson,” a new memoir by the Beach Boys musician. (Da Capo Press)

To see long excerpts from “I Am Brian Wilson” at Google Books, click here.

“I Am Brian Wilson”
A book by Brian Wilson and Ben Greenman

“Time jumps around so much that it’s hard to remember exactly what happened,” Brian Wilson says near the beginning of his disarming new memoir. “Plus, it’s been written about so many times that it’s almost like a story someone else is telling me instead of a piece of my own life.” Wilson, the piano-in-a-sandbox muse who wrote surf anthems for the Beach Boys, contends with both myth and history using his fragile, heartbreaking voice. His bittersweet story joined Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” atop best-seller lists just as Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.

Different Brian Wilsons populate his Beach Boys catalog: the teenager who dreams of autonomy in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the visionary who caught an era’s utopian ideals in “Good Vibrations,” the lover who proclaims the wisdom of insecurity in “You Still Believe In Me.” And many Wilsons populate overlapping stories of studio antics and drug use, familial pathology and mental imbalance that cloud his past five decades. Most think of him as the looming, bath-robed figure on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1976 that dubbed him a man-child hermit, rock’s teddy bear casualty of too many trips and too much musical genius (“The Healing of Brother Brian”). The Wilson we meet in this book looks back on that mid-’70s caricature with sympathy and dread, and a touch of fondness. As this gentle, over-sensitive voice emerges page after page, a larger picture emerges, and it’s all him.


I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir
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For the 2014 film “Love & Mercy,” director Bill Pohlad ingeniously cast two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) to play young Brian, intercut with an aging Brian to accent his fractured personality. With his late career surge and this book, Wilson now stands as a beacon of how a style that began in youth redeems its older giants through pop epics like “Smile” (rescued unfinished from 1966’s vaults and completed in 2004).

Movies can’t correct myths so much as reshape them, and “Love & Mercy” occupies a singular place in rock film: Its dramatization is more truthful than many documentaries, and Dano channels Wilson so artfully his vocal leads on “Good Vibrations” and “Surf’s Up” transcend mimicry. Dano’s Wilson has an endearing, Pillsbury Doughboy grin, off-angle due to his hearing loss in one ear. This bruised innocence steers Wilson’s narrative.

Here’s how Wilson describes the ocean: “I liked to look at it, though. It was sort of like a piece of music: each of the waves was moving around by itself, but they were also moving together. …” And songwriting goes like this: “Songs are out there all the time, but they can’t be made without people. You have to do your job and help songs come into existence.”

The darker figures in his life descend with near-comic force. Wilson’s father, Murray, landed the band its first recording contract, but soon resented his oldest son’s prodigiousness and acclaim. The band rebelled against him in its first year, and fired him as manager. Wilson confirms the once apocryphal story of serving a turd to his father on a dinner plate, which reveals how much rage shaped this naif. Wilson prints a letter his father wrote him in 1965, a chastened tyrant’s clinical business analysis of the band’s new challenges. This conflict, between Wilson and his father, between the band and its earliest champion, portends the later relationship Brian has with the overbearing “psychiatrist” Eugene Landy, who helped launch his first solo album, “Brian Wilson,” in 1988, where the song “Love and Mercy” first appeared.

Co-author Ben Greenman has captured Wilson’s voice so well every paragraph feels leavened by Wilson’s sophisticated naiveté. Much like his music, his voice hinges on stray insights, hidden corners of self-awareness that salve his mental wounds. As his best music suggests, his keen sense of music history, and deep affection for his brothers, buoy his best thoughts. That he’s the “only” Wilson brother left turns into a recurring theme. “I can get into a space where I think about it too much. I wonder why the two of them went away, and where they went, and I think about how hard it is to understand the biggest questions about life and death. It’s worse around the holidays. I can really get lost in it,” he says.

His love for brothers Carl and Dennis manifests through tales of great vocal tracks and studio bonding (he singles out Carl for “Palisades Park” and Dennis for “Do You Wanna Dance”). And he conveys a bottomless affection for fellow writers, especially when he gets to meet them in person:

Ellie Greenwich came backstage to see me. I hugged her. “Every single day I wake up and thank you,” I said. She looked confused. “You know,” I said, “for writing ‘Be My Baby’ for me.” That’s how I felt that it was just for me. There have been other songs that hit me almost as hard: “Rock Around the Clock,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Hey Girl.” But it’s hard to re-create the feeling of first hearing “Be My Baby.”

Wilson has no interest in trash-talking Mike Love, the other band member with a memoir this season (pass). In fact, for all the contempt Love ladled on “Pet Sounds” (with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows” and “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Meant For These Times”), Wilson comes off far saner, the victim as peacemaker. A 50th reunion tour in 2014 finishes without incident largely because of how Wilson commits to mending fences.

In the vast, spacious canyons of his imagination, where he stashes observations and obsesses about the corniest of records, Wilson spins a miraculous life story from tragic circumstances. Every page pins deathless comments onto music you once thought familiar, like this one about “Pet Sounds”: “The last word of the album is no [“Caroline No”] but the album is a big yes.”

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