The Beach Boys: The Healing of Brother Brian
Everybody assumes that bigfoot, the legendary man-beast who stalks America’s Northwest, is one mean son of a—son of a something — just because he’s huge and hairy and elusive and reclusive. Just because he makes few public appearances, and even on those occasions he’s all naked and gross looking, they assume he’s antisocial.
But maybe he’s really just a shy guy. Maybe he’s really gentle and sensitive and spends most of his time at home in bed because the public’s so rough and grabby. Christ, he can’t even wander out into the nearest clearing, to pick flowers or look at the blue sky, without some asshole snapping his picture and splashing his name across the front pages.
Reason I bring all this up, a few months ago I think I may have met Bigfoot in person —not in the Northwest but in southern California — and actually talked to him. Or it may have been Brian Wilson. It looked like either one —this huge, hairy “person” standing at the entrance of a rambling Spanish mansion in fashionable Bel Air.
Probably it was Brian Wilson. Recently several sightings of this abominable Beach Boy had been reported in the Los Angeles area, and some of these reports seemed quite authentic. Also, Sandy Friedman, the Beach Boys’ PR man who was accompanying me, claimed the Spanish mansion belonged to Brian, and certainly the figure at the door exhibited some of his famous traits. For one thing he kept yawning, and even before we crossed the threshold he explained that he could only spare 20 minutes, that he had to take a nap. It was 11 a.m.
As he spoke, his face betrayed little emotion — no smiles, no pain — but what he had to say was amiable, to the point and often quite personal. I conducted this preliminary interview under the assumption that I was, in fact, speaking to Brian Wilson; if it was Bigfoot, I hope the critter appreciates an honest mistake.
Right now there’s the new album, the tour and the TV special. Why all this burst of energy at this time?
I can only consider how my energy has bursted. I have refrained from sexual experience. I’m trying out this yoga — I read a book. It showed how if you repress sexual desire, not your kundalini but a similar type of energy is released when you don’t have sex. It’s been a couple months now I haven’t had any sex. That’s just a personal answer.
Very personal, I’d say.
BRIAN: Yes. Also because it was spring. To tell you the very truth, it was springtime. It’s just like they always say, in spring you start hopping, and we started hopping a little before the first of spring — we got our album and stuff.
This is the first spring in a long time, though.
BRIAN: Yeah, right. Well, we started hopping a few springs ago but we really hadn’t been serious about it like we were this time.
Maybe it was the combination of spring and the sexual repression.
BRIAN: Yes, I think that that was probably it.
Do you find it difficult to get into writing?
Yeah. Lately I have found it difficult as heck to finish a song. It’s a funny thing. Probably not much of a song left in me, you know, if any, because I’ve written so many, some 250 songs or 300 or whatever it is. And it just doesn’t seem as vast [yawn], the creativity doesn’t seem as vast. That’s why we did a lot of oldies-but-goodies this time on our album. That got us going, as a matter of fact.
I haven’t yet heard this album. Are you going into some new areas?
Not that I can think of. The only areas would be into Transcendental Meditation, using that as a base. We believe in it, so [yawn] we feel it’s our responsibility, partially, to carry the Maharishi message into the world. Which I think is a great message. I think the meditation is a great thing.
You’ve just recently become more involved in that yourself, haven’t you?
Yeah. I meditate and I also think about meditation. Which is funny. I think about Maharishi, about just the idea of meditating. It gives me something.
Do you think that might help you write more?
Oh, yeah, I think that’s gonna be the answer. As it progresses, I think that I’m going to gather more peace of mind, I’ll be able to gather my thoughts a little easier. I won’t be as jangled in the nerves. I think it’s going to aid in my creativity.
This difficulty in writing songs — would you describe it as a writing block?
Well, I have a writing block right now. Even today I started to sit down to write a song, and there was a block there. God knows what that is. Unless it’s supposed to be there. I mean, it’s not something you just kick away and say, “Come on, let’s go, let’s get a song writ.” If the block is there, it’s there.
Another thing, too, is that I used to write on pills. 1 used to take uppers and write, and I used to like that effect. In fact, I’d like to take uppers now and write because they give me, you know, a certain lift and a certain outlook. And it’s not an unnatural thing. I mean the pill might be unnatural and the energy, but the song itself doesn’t turn out unnatural on the uppers. The creativity flows through.
Well, why don’t you do that?
I’m thinking of asking the doctor if I can go back to those, yeah.
But you believe writers really do run out of material.
I believe that writers run out of material, I really do. I believe very strongly in the fact that when the natural time is up, writers actually do run out of material. [Yawn] To me it’s black and white. When there’s a song there’s a song, when there’s not there’s not. Of course you run out, maybe not indefinitely, but everybody runs out of some material that writes for a while. And it’s a very frightening experience. It’s an awesome thing to think, “Oh my God, the only thing that’s ever supplied me with any success or made us money, I’m running out of.” So right there there’s an insecurity that sets in. This is why I’m going through these different experiments, sexually and all, to see what can happen, to see if there’s anything waiting in there that I haven’t found.
Is there much else you could do if you didn’t write songs?
No, not really. I’m not cut out to do very much at all.
[At that point Brian says he really has to take his nap but that we will talk again. After he leaves the room, Sandy Friedman starts making frantic erasure motions and whispers, “Don’t believe that stuff about uppers; he’s not taking uppers.” But he didn’t say he was taking uppers, I explain, he said he wanted to take uppers. Friedman smiles and does the erasure thing again. “He’s not gonna be taking uppers.”]
This may have been, as the trades predicted, the bitchinest summer ever for the Beach Boys, what with their new album, their tour, and Brian Wilson finally getting out of bed. But as far as I’m concerned these last four months have been one endless bummer. I couldn’t seem to come up with a new handle to their venerable rock legend. Let’s face it, the Beach Boys are probably the most thoroughly written about, mythicized, analyzed, agonized over and deeply probed pop group in America. And this summer especially we’ve had Beach Boys up the ass: dozens of heavy feature articles in major magazines and newspapers; a dazzling, hour-long TV documentary; a three-month concert tour of stadiums and fairgrounds throughout the United States and Canada; release of 15 Big Ones, the first album of new Beach Boys material in 42 months, in honor of the 15 years they’ve miraculously played, strayed, prayed and stayed together; and a scholarly sounding paperback entitled The Beach Boys: Southern California Pastoral, in which Cal State professor Bruce Golden puts the guys right up there with Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Milton as masters of the pastoral form.
Well, why not, it’s a great legend, and just like nearly everything the Beach Boys ever recorded, I can never stop listening to it. Mainly it’s about Brian Wilson, the partially deaf boy wonder turned mad genius who tuned his one good ear into the drone of middle-class America and heard the lost chord of God. Until it drove him nuts, and finally silent.
So in June, when the word started spreading that Brian was ready to talk for the first time in half a decade, I flew down to Los Angeles to conduct an official Rolling Stone interview. But it didn’t work out exactly. Brian was ready to talk, all right, just as he was ready to walk or ready to start dressing himself; but there could be no definitive Brian Wilson interview because Brian Wilson was not yet definitively himself. Therefore I also talked to the other Beach Boys and to Brian’s mother, his wife and his shrink. Plus in late 1971 I’d interviewed Brian’s father Murry, while he was still alive, and I threw a little of that in somewhere.
The raw material, I think, is pretty good — some really touching stories, some laughs, hopefully some answers. But focusing it, as I mentioned, was a bitch. First I tried a musical analysis thing, portraying the Beach Boys as “primitivists” like contemporary composer Carl Orff. Both Orff and the Beach Boys ignored the virtuosic contrivances of established music and returned to the common, simple rhythms and harmonies of the people. They both orchestrated this folk element with layers of brilliant tonal color and ambiance to produce a music of incredible spiritual purity. I mentioned this to the Beach Boys and none of them had ever heard of Carl Orff. Which in a way, I thought, reinforced my theory but also sort of soured me on it.
Finally, in late September, I returned to Los Angeles at the suggestion of Brian’s shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy. He wanted me to see Brian’s progress since June. That day disturbed me a great deal, but it did provide an update and ultimately a focus for the story. For this in one sense is a story of gurus, of old and new methods of personal growth in the promised land called California. Brian’s father was a guru of sorts, a frustrated songwriter and ruthlessly aggressive man who heard in his three sons the music he could never articulate himself, who as their manager drove them to such heights of success they eventually fired him. Then Brian took over as guru to the group, teaching the others his genius art of composing and producing, teaching them so well that when he eventually ascended to his bedroom, they could carry on his work with the public hardly noticing. Later came the Beach Boys’ professional gurus — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM and Dr. Landy of Dr. Landy.
I’ve no idea which method works best and I really don’t care. But if you’re seeking peace of mind and body, positive energy and a little spiritual glue, let me strongly recommend adding some Beach Boys music to your day, perhaps when you get up and just before dinner. It’ll give you something.
She’s so gosh darn cute, the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her short platinum hair, you wish they all could be California girls like Audree Wilson, mother of Carl, Dennis and Brian and den mother to the Beach Boys since their first days in Hawthorne, California. More amazing, she was the wife of Murry Wilson, by all reports an extremely difficult man, as work-driven as she was playful, as rough as she was easy. A small, quiet, funny woman surrounded by fighting men, she spent much of her time and understanding bridging gaps and soothing wounds. Now the old man has died and the young ones have long since moved away to grow old themselves; so Audree sits alone these days in an elegant, hillside home above Hollywood, with the view and the pool and the shiny Jag in the driveway, and tries to adjust to the strange new peace that plagues her every hour.
AUDREE: The way it really started, Brian, he started singing when he was just a little bitty guy, three years old. He’d sing right on key. He loved to hear me play the piano, he loved the chords. And he’d say, “Play that chord again.”
Brian just always had this incredibly marvelous talent. The other boys were a little slower, they were kinda like slow bloomers. Brian started writing arrangements when he was around 14. He loved the Four Freshmen — I know you’ve read that over and over — and he would make these incredible arrangements, sorta like them but he’d add what he wanted. And we’d sing the first two parts on the tape recorder, then play it back and sing the other two parts with it. That was great fun.
Did he ever lake formal piano lessons or anything like that?
AUDREE: Brian took accordion lessons, on one of those little baby accordions, for six weeks. And the teacher said, “I don’t think he’s reading. He just hears it once and plays the whole thing through perfectly.” Anyway, at the end of six weeks he was supposed to buy a large accordion, but we couldn’t afford it. And that’s all the training he ever had.
Brian is deaf in one ear. Was he born that way?
AUDREE: We don’t really know. Brian thinks it happened when he was around ten. Some kid down the street really whacked him in the ear. However, it’s a damaged ninth nerve, so he could have been born that way; it’s called the ninth nerve and there’s nothing they can do about that. I think it makes him more incredible.
The way he arranges, produces and records — the ambiance and total sound — is something that two ears can really appreciate. He’s never heard that and I guess he never will.
AUDREE: Ah, he hears. [Audree laughs in amazement.] He doesn’t maybe hear like we do, but he does.
So when did your sons start to record?
AUDREE: My husband was in the machinery business, big lathes from England, and the people from whom he imported them were here to visit us. And we took them to Mexico City. When we left, the refrigerator was completely stocked and we gave the boys enough money to buy whatever else they needed. We came back and here they had gone out and rented a bass, a big standup, as tall as Al for sure, and drums and a microphone. They had used every bit of their food money. And they said, “We want to play something for you.” They were very excited about it, and I thought the song was darling — never dreaming anything would happen.
And that song was “Surfin’.”
Well, then they signed with Capitol and they started making a lot of hits. How did that change your life at home ?
AUDREE: Well, it was really very hectic. Telephones never ever stopped ringing. And I was doing all of the book work. I was making all the forms for the musicians’ union and I was going to the bank and being so careful that all five of them got exactly the same amount to the penny. And I remember cooking dinner and we’d have to leave. I remember dinners not even being eaten because we had to fly out to wherever they had to appear.
How did they handle this success?
AUDREE: Well, being a mother, I thought they handled it so beautifully for being that young. But their father had a strong hand as far as… well, they didn’t always listen to him. Later he’d say, “Why didn’t you listen to me?” And they’d say, “Well, I guess we were punks.”
There was a night during or after the Australia tour when they decided they didn’t want their father to manage them.
AUDREE: It destroyed him.
Did you understand why they…
AUDREE: Oh, I understood perfectly. That was a horrible time for me. He was just destroyed by that and yet he wasn’t really up to it. He’d already had an ulcer and it was really too much for him; but he loved them so much, he was so overly protective, really. He couldn’t let them go. He couldn’t stand seeing anyone else handling his kids. Those were terrible days, frankly, and he was angry with me. You always take it out on the closest one. He was angry at the whole world.