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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


All hail to Brian Wilson, 65 years old today. Here's the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Wilson, Brian [1942 - ]
Brian Wilson, born in Los Angeles on June 20, 1942, became the founder of the Beach Boys, and one of four figures in popular music customarily called a genius. (The others are RAY CHARLES, PHIL SPECTOR and Bob Dylan.) Brian was the oldest of three brothers, the children of Audree and Murray Wilson, the latter a failed songwriter. They grew up in Hawthorne, a Los Angeles suburb, rubbing along with cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. Brian and Dennis were often beaten for tiny transgressions, the worst being to better Murray Wilson. Enraged, he would pluck out his glass eye at the table, ordering his sons to stare into its socket.

This dysfunctional family bequeathed Brian a fundamental insecurity and incapacitating self-doubt that led to a lifelong struggle, involving many lost years and intimacies, between floundering in sloughs of American despond and a rarified level of creative expression and musicality. The Beach Boys’ inception had to happen behind the parental back. When Mr. and Mrs. Wilson took a Mexican holiday in September 1961, the five teenagers rented instruments and started the group in their living-room.

They performed as The Pendletons (a surfer’s shirt-brand), Carl & The Passions and Kenny & The Cadets before seizing on the Beach Boys, a name débuted at the RITCHIE VALENS Memorial Concert at Long Beach on New Year’s Eve, 1961.

Father Murray took the song ‘Surfin’’ (written by Brian and Mike Love) to his music-publisher, who recorded it, issued it on local labels and saw it touch the US Hot 100. In early 1962 Murray took ‘Surfin’ Safari’ to Capitol and the record went Top 20. The follow-up, ‘Ten Little Indians’, flopped but ‘Surfin’ USA’ was a Top 3 smash in summer 1963.

Surf Music was not their invention: Dick Dale (‘King of the Surf Guitar’) had ridden the wave of guitar-instrumental records that were a major hit genre of the era, devising a guitar sound that supposedly simulated the feel of bestriding a surfboard. Nor did the Beach Boys pioneer ‘their’ vocal sound. They stood in a tradition of close-harmony groups and were influenced by its modernisation on Jan & Dean’s 1959 ‘Baby Talk’, which launched a California falsetto style embracing doo-wop nonsense syllables. But because Dennis Wilson was obsessed with surfing, the Beach Boys were first with songs that named and celebrated it, making it a universal metaphor for being young while giving them ownership of a particular Americana, as evocative as THE BAND’s backwoods Civil War dreamscapes at the other end of the 1960s. ‘When you’re talking states of mind,’ wrote Bill Holdship, ‘Brian Wilson invented California’.

For some time Brian Wilson thrived and grew artistically in this land of surf and honey. ‘Surfer Girl’ confirmed his talent for luxuriant harmonies above which his yearning falsetto steered a wistful course. These years gave us ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and the no.1s ‘I Get Around’ and ‘Help Me Rhonda’, the exquisite ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, ‘In My Room’ and more. Terrific hit singles also included ‘When I Grow Up’, ‘Sloop John B.’, ‘Barbara Ann’ and ‘God Only Knows’. Who’d have thought Charles Atlas could receive so sumptuously cool a makeover? (No wonder Dylan gave him a namecheck on ‘She’s Your Lover Now’.)

Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote most of the early lyrics, and Bruce Johnson, who also contributed songs, joined in 1965. But Brian’s music and input distinguished the group, and his Spector-influenced production was crucial to their increasingly complex recordings, hailed as ‘the perfect blend of teen consciousness and musical innovation.’ Bob Dylan said of Wilson in 1997, ‘That ear! Jesus, he’s got to will that to the Smithsonian.’ He must have meant his right ear, for Brian is deaf in his left.

Wilson’s first crack-up began on a tour of Texas, starting a long slide into stupor and derangement. Wilson quit stage performances in late 1964, though he hung around on the road with the others till 1967. In the studio his admiration for Phil Spector turned into obsessive one-sided rivalry. Bruce Johnston complained, ‘He used to play “Be My Baby” to us over and over and we’re going “Hey, Brian, we heard it already, so what?” Spector should have been bowing down in front of Brian, not the other way around.’

At home Wilson grew ‘very paranoid,’ said Marilyn, the wife who had to swap from student at his feet to grown-up taking care of him, and of business, surrounded by axe-grinding brothers, cousins and hangers-on, while Brian asked for drugs and the house filled with people to supply them.

What was remarkable was that he did so much in these years, rather than that he managed so little later. So strong was his work and its popularity that THE BEATLES’ 1964 conquest of America hardly touched the Beach Boys at the time. Their 1965 LPs Beach Boys Today and Summer Days (And Summer Nights) fired on all their distinctive cylinders, and Wilson triumphed creatively with the seminal Pet Sounds (cut 1965, issued 1966) and the single ‘Good Vibrations’ a massive hit (not least a UK no.1) in summer 1966 (part-written by Mike Love, who went uncredited, creating a resentment that would smoulder for decades and end in court).

Things collapsed suddenly. Pet Sounds was upstaged by Sgt. Pepper and a comparative flop in the US. Brian forced the others into many months of studio-work on Smile, an album that was to outshine the Beatles and the Beach Boys’ own past, but which Brian then abandoned. Ironically, while few could have been ingesting more LSD than Wilson, the West Coast ‘psychedelic revolution’ now made the Beach Boys passé. The ghost of Smile, issued as Smiley Smile, further damaged their reputation. It was the last Beach Boys album Brian Wilson would produce until 1976.

The group continued, and still had hits, survived an unsuccessful college tour with the Maharishi and abandoned short, hit-based sets for Progressive Rock. At home, meanwhile, Brian Wilson’s renewed breakdown, in 1967, left him swallowing drugs and junk-food, hearing lost chords and growing obese, stranded at the grand piano inside a box of sand that was intended to inspire but attracted more dog-mess than muse. His daughter Carnie was born in 1968, and Wendy in 1969, into a family as dysfunctional as the previous generation’s. As Marilyn struggled to cope, Murray Wilson sold his son’s songwriting catalogue for a mere $700,000. (In the 1990s Wilson won it back, plus ten million dollars in recompense.)

In 1976, Marilyn brought in controversial therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, whose intensive ‘24-hour therapy’ rescued Wilson from himself but not from Dr. Landy. First results were positive. Wilson shook off the torpor of his drugs habits and proved capable of work, giving interviews, performing on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and producing the albums 15 Big Ones and Beach Boys Love You, both huge American hits.

He relapsed. Marilyn and the children left in 1979 and the other Beach Boys, who had fired the overbearing Landy, whom they saw as a rival, were driven to recall him in 1980. More lost years of mayhem and madness followed, as brothers and cousins sued over business betrayals, Landy kept Wilson in sinister thrall and Marilyn divorced him. The Beach Boys stumbled on, but their 1980s were awful too, and in 1983, Dennis drowned while drunk.

In 1987, Brian re-emerged quietly on the WOODY GUTHRIE-LEADBELLY tribute album A Vision Shared with an affectionate, witty Black Pop ‘Goodnight Irene’; but when he finally made a solo album, in 1988, five of its mediocre songs were co-written by ‘executive producer’ Landy. 1991’s crassly titled Sweet Insanity, also co-produced by Landy, was refused release by the record company, though most people prefer it.

By the mid-1990s, a more precarious but plausible rehabilitation seemed in place. Dr. Landy had been banned by law from any contact with Wilson, who was trying to build a relationship with his daughters and resumed work with the Beach Boys after regaining his song-publishing and an amicable settlement of the Mike Love court case. Then came ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, a brilliant, affecting TV documentary portrait of Wilson the musician and his struggle against his own mental instability, filmed by musician-producer DON WAS.

Was explained: ‘People have heard the phrase “Brian Wilson is a genius” for years. I wanted someone who’s not a musician to walk away with some understanding of why. Everything regarding his personal life in the movie relates to the music. Everyone has some sort of emotional stake in Brian’s music. This is the important thing, not the sordid details and the gossip.’

The film succeeded so well, capturing so intimately Wilson’s extraordinary talent and tragedy, that it stands now as a part of his legacy as valuable as anything from his golden past. Since this return to the heights, Wilson’s resumption of touring has been a remarkable, sustained achievement, as he has gone around with a large set of accompanying musicians, recreating note for note entire studio albums live: something that in theory seems pointless and far less exciting than the spontaneity of free musical interaction, yet which has proved thrilling to huge crowds; and not merely thrilling but very moving too, just to witness so fragile a figure pulling off such triumphs with such sustained musicianship and such command of himself and his masterworks.

His connections with Bob Dylan have been brief but the more recent of the two proved interesting. First, on January 20, 1988, at the thrash for the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame’s third annual round of inductions, Dylan played guitar behind a number of people (safely surrounded by hordes of other musicians), and this included playing behind Brian and Carl Wilson and Mike Love on a performance of ‘Barbara Ann’. Three years later, in a Los Angeles studio, Dylan dropped in on one of Wilson’s sessions for the doomed (unreleased) Sweet Insanity album; Bob shared the vocals with him on Brian’s pastiche song ‘Spirit Of Rock’n’Roll’. Wilson commented afterwards: ‘Now he is crazy. He couldn’t even find the microphone!’

[Brian Wilson (with Bob Dylan): ‘The Spirit Of Rock’n’Roll’: LA, early 1991; unreleased. Bill Holdship: ‘Lost In Music: Brian Wilson’, Mojo, London, Aug 1995.]


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