Brian Wilson is afraid of many things, but taking his clothes off in a room full of strangers is not one of them. A few weeks before the East Coast leg of his first solo tour, the fifty-six-year-old Beach Boy is relaxing at the New Age-y Burke Williams spa in Santa Monica — relaxing, at least, as much as Wilson knows how. "The message kind of freaked me out," he confesses, pacing naked across the tile floor, oblivious to the stares of several men lounging in robes nearby. "Something came over me. I started getting nervous. I had to get out of there." The muscles in his face, knotted into an expression of raw panic, soften as he lowers his hulking six-foot-two-inch frame into the Jacuzzi. "This is better; this is cool," he says with a sigh and a smile. "This is good."
Then Wilson's mood shifts again. He becomes giddy. "We're like kings!" he shouts to his friend and collaborator Andy Paley. "It's so cool how we got this going. We had the idea. We drove down here. And we're enjoying it. That's how life should be: easy."
The irony, of course, is that life rarely is easy for Brian Wilson. The brains behind the Beach Boys, Wilson wrote eighteen Top Ten hits before he turned twenty-five, songs about cars and girls and loneliness. He was the shy suburban genius, deaf in one ear, in love with the epic romance of Phil Spector and the propulsive fun of Chuck Berry; the sounds he made defined the possibilities of America in the Sixties while also hinting at its dark side. But in 1999, Wilson might be less celebrated for that blaze of creativity than for the crash that followed — his late-Sixties descent into drug abuse, mental illness and paranoid seclusion has provided one of rock's most tragic story lines.
Even in the Nineties, a decade during which Wilson broke free from his controversial live-in therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, and settled down with a new wife, Melinda, and two adopted daughters, life has been, in his words, "pretty rough going." There have been lawsuits — nine of them, including a nasty battle with his cousin, Beach Boy Mike Love, that resulted in Wilson's handing over $5 million and future royalties on thirty-five songs. And there has been loss — both his mother, Audree, and his youngest brother, Carl, died last year. (His other brother, Dennis, drowned in 1983.) Now Brian, the most famously troubled Wilson, is also the last one left. "I don't like to think about that," he says. "It makes you feel this kind of lonely thing inside. But I can handle it. I always figured I'd stick around awhile."
Wilson is proud of his survival skills. He once told Mike Douglas that it comes with the name. "I'm Wilson," he said with typical terseness. "Maybe that's where I got the will." And despite an ongoing battle with depression and the voices in his head that have haunted him for years, Wilson is hardly the wreck of a man you often read about. In conversation he is gracious, funny and candid, sometimes to a fault. He is a keen observer who forms fast impressions of people and situations based on their "vibes," and he has a gung-ho enthusiasm for life. One day, passing a crew of skateboarders while driving in Santa Monica, he wonders whether it's too late too learn. "I only tried surfing once, and the board almost hit me in the head," he says with a chuckle. If Wilson behaves more like a mischievous adolescent than a well-adjusted middle-aged man, he also carries himself with the hard-won dignity of someone who has faced down his share of demons. "The guy is incredibly strong," says his friend and biographer David Leaf. "He has resources much deeper than people realize."
Dividing his time between Beverly Hills and a second home outside Chicago, Wilson takes life at a slow, steady pace. He clings to a routine: hiking, playing piano, watching TV, eating out. Brian Wilson loves to eat. He's also excited about his return to touring — "It makes me feel masculine, like a good man" — and about some recent songs he's recorded with Paley that he describes as "some of the best material I've done in a real long time."
"I'm just now getting back into life," he says in the Jacuzzi. "I sort of went out of bounds for a couple of years. My head was in a sling, and just recently I've been seeing the light a little bit — the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm hoping I can have a little run, like a run of happiness and creativity, because I've been ripped off of some happiness for a while now."
Then, as Wilson often does when the conversation turns serious, he changes the subject. "You guys want some steam? Let's try the steam," he says.
"Nah, it's too hot for me," answers Paley. "I'm wimpy. I'm like a little girl."
Wilson pulls himself from the Jacuzzi and walks off, dripping water behind him. "Don't you know, Andy," he says, turning back, "we're all little girls."
BRIAN IS BACK! The slogan was devised in 1976 to accompany the release of 15 Big Ones, a Beach Boys album of originals and rock covers that marked Wilson's re-entry into the group after several years of living "like some kind of maharishi in the hills ... snorting cocaine," as he described it at the time. There was no evidence that Brian was really back, but the Beach Boys needed their leader to help jump-start a career that was stuck in the sand. The album scored a Number Five hit, "Rock & Roll Music," but Brian soon disappeared back into his bedroom, and he produced only one more Beach Boys record after that.
Echoes of "Brian is back" have accompanied all of Wilson's various returns since — from the 1988 campaign orchestrated by Landy at the time of Wilson's first solo album to the strained encounters he had with the media around the time of Don Was' 1994 documentary, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, and his collaboration with Van Dyke Parks on Orange Crate Art the same year.
In 1998, Wilson made yet another return, to promote his second solo album, Imagination. Spearheaded by Melinda and producer Joe Thomas, formerly a pro wrestler known as Buddy Love, the project was envisioned as a way to revitalize and reshape Wilson's image — not as the loony genius who made such pop masterpieces as Pet Sounds but as a commercially viable adult-contemporary artist.
"Brian is a different person than he was when Pet Sounds was done," says Thomas, whose production credits also include Chicago's Peter Cetera and Alan Parsons. "Musically he's different; he listens to different things. How would you like to be remembered for hitting a home run in the 1973 World Series, but the rest of your career is oblivious?"
Thomas and Wilson met four years ago in Nashville when the producer was recording Stars and Stripes, a country tribute to the Beach Boys. They are an unlikely pair — Wilson the fragile artist and Thomas the beefy Midwesterner who wears cowboy boots and a mullet haircut. But in 1996, their wives bought sprawling homes next to each other in the rolling countryside of St. Charles, Illinois, and a studio was installed in Wilson's basement to record Imagination.
The Wilsons chose St. Charles almost by chance. "Joe and Brian were in the studio in Chicago one day, so Chris [Thomas' wife] and I went shopping, because they were looking for a house," explains Melinda, 51, sitting with Brian in a small, comfortable room off the studio in St. Charles. "We saw this place with a basement that was unfinished, and we thought, 'Why not?'
"It's good to get out somewhere, away from everything, where you can work," she says. "It doesn't matter about the weather, doesn't matter about traffic. If Brian doesn't want to work, he just goes upstairs, and when he feels like it, he comes down. Most artists are not people who can do a nine-to-five trip."
She turns to her husband. "Don't you think that's why this is cool, Bri?"
"Yeah, yeah," he says.
Later, over dinner, Wilson feels differently, and he admits that he misses L.A.: "It's home, where I've always recorded, and there's just something about the vibe there. I like the L.A. vibe."
Imagination, which credits Thomas and Wilson as co-producers and arrangers, offers little evidence of Brian's creative spark. Though he contributes some of his finest vocals — especially on two ballads, "Cry" and "Lay Down Burden" — the album's saccharine soft rock doesn't hint at the subtle magic of a classic Brian Wilson production.
Imagination sold only 120,000 copies, but something strange happened while Wilson was promoting the album with a string of Midwest concerts last spring: He discovered that he likes to perform. "It's a weird thing," he says. "At first I thought it would scare the pants off me, and it did. But after about ten minutes, I started to get into it. I got a lift from all the people. I got courage."
This summer, Wilson is making his first sustained attempt at touring since 1964, when he abandoned the Beach Boys on the road after suffering a nervous breakdown on a flight to Houston. His Chicago show in March was a heroic event, as Wilson led his thirteen-piece band through a forceful hour-and-a-half set that included Beach Boys classics as well as more-obscure gems like "Kiss Me, Baby" and the Pet Sounds instrumental "Let's Go Away for Awhile."
"If you would have asked me in 1979 if Brian Wilson would be on a solo tour twenty years from now, I would have said, 'Absolutely not,'" says Jeff Foskett, a singer who toured with the Beach Boys in the Eighties, at a time when Brian occasionally joined the band onstage. "This was when Brian was all greasy hair with a beard, three cigarettes in his mouth at the piano. Every once in a while he'd stand up, do a pirouette, then sit back down again — so far out."
Foskett jumped at the chance to sing on Wilson's tour. "It's amazing not only that he's doing it but that he's so into it," he says. "I spoke to him on the phone the other day and he was saying, 'I can't wait to get out there and kick some ass.' To me, it's amazing — like, 'This is Brian Wilson talking?'"
ON A HAZY spring afternoon in L.A., Brian Wilson stands in the towering double doorway of his home off Mulholland Drive, two fidgety hands extended in his customary greeting. He's wearing a polo shirt, faded jeans and baby-blue Adidas. His face looks tan and happy; his darting green eyes are intense but also distant, as if he's sizing you up from a long ways away.
Wilson heads through a white-marble foyer to the family room, an airy space decorated with procelain angels, ceramic ducks and a painting of a dog and her pups. The big screen is tuned to CNN's coverage of the Columbine High School shootings. "That really knocked me out for a couple days," Wilson says, falling back on a leather couch and clutching a pillow.
It's hectic at the Wilson house today. There's a film crew setting up by the pool, and the kitchen is full of barking dogs — the Wilsons have five, including a pair of Yorkshire terriers named Paul and Ringo. Wilson's youngest daughter, fourteen-month-old Delanie, screams from the top of the stairs; her two-year-old sister, Daria, escapes the clutches of a nanny, jumps onto her dad's lap, then jolts off and starts pounding the keys of his antique Kingsbury upright piano.
"I live in a house full of strong women," Wilson observes.
Walking across a patch of lawn in the back yard, Wilson pauses to take in the view, which looks east, away from the ocean and over the San Fernando Valley. "I lived on the beach for nine years," he says. "Listening to the waves pound on the shore every day and every night for nine years. That's a lot to handle."
These days, life is more settled than at any time Wilson can remember. Yet despite his strong bond with Melinda — who, one friend says, "probably saved Brian's life" — most of Wilson's other significant relationships are a portrait of family dysfunction. His connections with Carnie and Wendy, his longestranged daughters from his first marriage, are still fragile. And after years of personal tensions and creative disputes, his wavering loyalty to the remaining Beach Boys — his cousin Mike Love, high school classmate Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston — is a major source of anxiety. Wilson says it feels strange that there are three competing tours this summer: his own solo tour; Mike Love's tour, which uses the Beach Boys name; and Al Jardine's tour as the Beach Boys Family and Friends, which features Carnie and Wendy. With the death of Carl, the band's best singer and its longtime peacekeeper, Brian says it may not be possible to reunite the Beach Boys again, but, he adds sadly, "it sure would be nice."
Over the course of several days, you learn to adjust to Wilson's mercurial moods and unpredictable rhythms. He speaks in energetic bursts, then lapses into silent stretches. During one interview, he abruptly gets up and leaves the room. A half-hour later, he's back: "It isn't easy for me. So many things have scared me in my life — I've got fears, lots of stuff. I mean, boy, just all the records that have scared me. So many records just rocked my world, man. It's heavy."
Asked what records have scared him lately, he pauses, bouncing on his toes. "What a Fool Believes," he says, referring to the Doobie Brothers' 1978 hit. "That's a scary record."
Wilson also changes his mind a lot. This morning he was bent on flying to Las Vegas to see Chuck Berry play at Caesar's Palace; this afternoon he says he'd rather stay home and watch The Wizard of Oz with Daria. "You just never know what to expect with Brian," says Melinda affectionately. "He's like somebody I've never known. Every day — every hour — can be something different. So I've learned to be flexible."
BRIAN MET MELINDA Ledbetter in 1986. The statuesque former fashion model worked at Martin Cadillac in Santa Monica, and one afternoon Wilson and Landy walked onto the lot. It was one of the fastest deals she ever made. "And he bought the ugliest car," Melinda says, giggling, as she sits on the sofa next to her husband. "Honey, I always thought that was an ugly Seville, that color brown."
"I liked it," Brian counters.
"You just wanted to get it over with, didn't you?"
"A lot of people are that way," he says."I'm not the only one who's that way."
Landy phoned Melinda a week later to set up a date with Brian. "His life was pretty choreographed," she says. "But I just thought Brian was, like, the sweetest guy I had ever met. I thought, 'I gotta go see what this is all about.'"
At the time, Landy asserted almost total control over Wilson's life. The psychologist — who once served as a consultant on The Bob Newhart Show — monitored Wilson's phone calls and kept in touch with him via a beeper that Wilson wore at all times. When Landy wasn't around, he had a team of assistants, known to Brian's friends as the "surf Nazis," to take Wilson jogging and supervise recording sessions. "It was a scary, weird scene," remembers Paley.
Brian and Melinda dated for three years, until Landy cut the relationship short. "He was overmedicating Brian and doing a lot of things that doctors shouldn't do," Melinda says. "I was questioning things, and that pissed him off. But I had seen something that was so wrong — it was like someone taking a child and abusing them, and none of the neighbors wanted to know about it."
Melinda tried to get Wilson's family to fire Landy, but she says it wasn't until they learned that Brian had redrafted his will to include the psychologist that Carl Wilson took action. "You have to realize, Carl, just the sweetest guy in the world, procrastinated," she says, her voice straining with frustration. "His mother was old and didn't know what she could do with Brian if she got him back. Carnie and Wendy were busy being Wilson Phillips, just as he was busy being a Beach Boy when they needed him. Finally, when Carl found out that the will had been changed, he decided he needed to do something."
In 1989, the state of California revoked Landy's license on the grounds that he had illegally prescribed drugs to his patient. Still, it wasn't until 1991 that a court issued a separation order and Landy was forced out of Wilson's life.
Brian and Melinda hadn't spoken in almost three years when, in 1992, they ran into each other — almost literally. "I was driving down Pico Boulevard one day and I nearly ran over him," Melinda says. "He had gone across the street from his studio to sneak a cigarette and I almost hit him, so I stopped and we just started to see each other again. It was like fate."
The couple married three years later, on February 6th, 1995, Brian's ex-wife Marilyn's birthday. "He said, that way, he'd never forget the date," Melinda says with a laugh. "Everybody said, 'Doesn't that offend you?' I said, 'No, that's just Brian.'" The ceremony took place at sunset in a small hillside chapel near the ocean. Carnie and Wendy sang one of their father's sweetest songs, "God Only Knows." Brian even overcame his nerves and danced with the bride.
"Our story is a good story," Wilson says, holding Melinda's hand.
Melinda has been instrumental in helping Brian get to a place where, he says, "I feel some emotional security; I have a chance to start over again." He sees a psychiatrist and takes two medications to level out his depression and silence the auditory hallucinations that still sometimes cause him to drift in and out of conversation. "His depression never really goes away," Melinda says, "but environment has a tremendous amount to do with your wellbeing, and that's why I think Brian's on his feet again. He's got the right doctor, and he's got a home life."
Melinda Approaches Brian's career with the same zealous determination with which she's dealt with his health, stepping in as his de facto business manager. "When I sold cars, I used to think, 'Why am I doing this?'" she says. "'Why am I dealing with these assholes every day? Why did God put me here?' And now I know why — the music business is basically negotiating, and that's what I did every single day when I sold cars. There's not a lot of common sense in the music business, so I've been able to step in and put the commonsense aspect into Brian's career."
In addition to bringing in Joe Thomas and coordinating Brian's tour, Melinda is working with a screenwriter on a biopic about Brian's life that she hopes will star Jeff Bridges. (An A&E biography on Wilson premieres on June 20th, his fifty-seventh birthday.) After the current tour — which travels through the East Coast in June, then goes to Japan and the West Coast — Melinda plans to release a live Wilson album and then return to St. Charles in the fall so Brian can record a second album with Thomas.
Though Wilson seems more eager to finish the material he's done with Andy Paley than to return to St. Charles, Melinda says he's obligated to do another record with Thomas. She calls the Paley — Wilson material "great therapy" but says his vocals are not up to par and believes the production isn't good enough to be released commercially. As is often the case with Brian's career, Brian doesn't seem to be the one calling the shots. "I'd like to stay here in L.A., but we built the studio, so I guess I have to go," he says simply.
This kind of shrugging acquiescence wasn't always Wilson's way. His ex-wife, Marilyn, has said it's the result of years of "being worn down," first by his tyrannical father, Murry, the band's early manager, and then by the Beach Boys themselves, who never approved of the esoteric direction Brian was going in on Pet Sounds and the epic, aborted follow-up, Smile. "The main difference between Brian Wilson in 1999 and Brian Wilson in 1966 is that in '66 he had the confidence that comes with years of success and the competitive fire to prove he was the best," says David Leaf. "Over time, as people challenge you, as people constantly question your ideas and your instincts, it wears you down. The people around Brian stopped believing in him, and if the people around you stop believing in you, you stop believing in yourself."
Paley, a staff producer at Sire Records, says that trend continues. "Everybody disregards what this guy says," says Paley, who is frustrated that he and Wilson have not been able to release their material. "That's the key to Brian Wilson — everybody ignores him, and he just can't stand up for himself. He has no confidence in that way. And the sad thing is, when he does stand up for himself, he's usually right."
Asked whether Wilson is still capable of making great records, Paley goes to the boombox in his hillside home office and plays rough versions of two beautiful Wilson-Paley songs: a magical ballad, "This Song's Gonna Sleep With You Tonight," and a horn-propelled rocker, "Desert Drive."
"Left to his own devices, without being second-guessed or third-guessed, he comes up with brilliant stuff," Paley says. "I've seen it happen, and it will continue to happen. The only person he has to prove anything to is himself. If he feels like kicking himself in the ass and writing some incredibly beautiful thing, he'll do it. I've seen him do it."
"SHE'S GIVING ME good vibrations/I could really use a vacation." Brian Wilson is singing and laughing as we head down Wilshire Boulevard in his black Lincoln Navigator. It's 6 P.M., which means dinner time, and Brian is hungry. "Let's eat!" he exclaims. "We're really gonna eat." "We're on the way to Brian's favorite restaurant, the Daily Grill. "They have the best steamed vegetables in all of L.A., the absolute best," he says.
Dinner is a high time with Wilson, "a little ritual you can have with your friends and family every day," he says. Brian doesn't bother with the menu; he orders what he wants when he wants it, even if that means getting a side of whipped cream to go along with his Cajun steak. Tonight, between the hamburger platter and the bread pudding, a woman approaches and tells Brian how much his music means to her. She speaks into his deaf right ear, and he doesn't hear her. Startled by his lack of response, the woman shuffles off while Brian munches on an ear of corn without ever knowing she was there.
After dinner, as the sun fades over West L.A., Wilson sits on a bench outside the restaurant. His face is washed out; he looks tired. He stands up, leans against a railing, stretches. "How can I make things easier, how can I simplify my life?" he wonders. "All I want is just to take it easy and have a little fun."
Asked what makes him happy, he says, "I could crack a joke, make some music. That's all, really."
He begins to sing lines from an un-released song he wrote called "Soul Searchin'," the last track that Carl recorded lead vocals for, and then falls silent. "I wish someone would just tell me everything is going to be OK," he says finally. "I think I'm supposed to feel happy, but there's always this undercurrent in my stomach, this feeling that everything is fucked."
SPIRITS ARE HIGH at the Wilson house the next afternoon, and Brian feels like showing off some new songs. Sitting with Paley at the baby grand that's next to Daria's red plastic slide in the living room, he picks out the languid chords to the Four Freshmen's "It's a Blue World," one of his favorites. Then he moves into some of the material he and Paley wrote together, with Paley supplying the melody as Wilson pounds out the rhythm with his strong left hand. He starts with a gentle ballad, "Must Be a Miracle," with a delicate descending melody that Brian describes as "kind of a cool Chinese thing," then goes to a chugging rocker, "Chain Reaction of Love," which Wilson says would be a great song for "the Boys."
Wilson describes the collaborative process. "It's like ass-sniffing, you know — like two dogs," he says. "Like 'Hey, what's going on here?'"
"Like, 'Hey, hey, what you got?'" Paley adds.
"That's the attitude. Exactly!" Wilson says.
Several of the Wilson-Paley songs, recorded with Wilson's own money, have found their way onto a bootleg CD, but there are no plans to release the music commercially. (Melinda says she'd like to see the two go back into the studio in St. Charles to rerecord more-polished versions of the songs.) Most of it is rough and unvarnished — full of quirky chord changes, odd instrumentation and mesmerizing autobiographical lyrics that sound like postcards from Wilson's lost years. It's not Pet Sounds, but it is some of the most exciting music Wilson has made in a long time.
After running through a soulful gospel number, "God Did It" — with its Beach Boys-style harmony line, "Aah-oom, God did it, aah-oom, God did it" — Wilson steps back from the piano. He's beaming.
"You won't believe how cool this gospel tune is going to be when it's finished," he says proudly. "It's gonna be unbelievable."
"How long do you think it would take to finish?" asks Paley. "A week?"
"Two," says Brian.
"What would we do the second week?"
"We'd work hard."
This is the Brian Wilson people hope still exists: absorbed in his music, inspired, possessing a self-confidence he rarely shows. Despite all the disappointments, indecision and self-doubt, right now, sitting at the piano in his living room, he is in charge.
"I feel like I'm on the verge of something," he'd told me earlier. "I don't know what, but I've got that feeling. If I do another record, it's probably going to scare the hell out of some people. I do another record, it's probably going to scare the hell out of some people. I don't want to scare people with my music, but it's tempting."
His voice rises with excitement: "I could probably do a vocal so fantastic that people are shaking!" He laughs nervously, stands up, then sits down again. "It's part of my nature to scare people. And I haven't done it in a while."