Brian Wilson’s memoir I Am Brian Wilson goes deep into the life of the pivotal member of the Beach Boys, who is often acknowledged as one of pop music’s most influential songwriters.
Rather than take on a linear approach, I Am Brian Wilson, which was co-written with New Yorker writer Ben Greenman, who recently co-wrote music book memoirs with George Clinton and Questlove of the Roots, progresses thematically, drawing experiences from Wilson’s life on subjects like family, fear and home.
While Wilson released another memoir about his life in 1991, the book (Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story) was reportedly published and heavily influenced by Dr. Gene Landy, who had been assigned to Wilson as he dealt with his mental health issues, but exerted an unhealthy amount of control over his life.
Now 74, Wilson provides insight and a hindsight perspective into the extremely fraught and complicated relationship with his father and the bonds between himself and his brothers and fellow Beach Boys members Carl and Dennis.
The book is also packed with countless insights into Wilson’s recording legacy as a solo artist and as a member of the Beach Boys. In particular, it provides insight into his much discussed recordings — the initially aborted SMiLE as well as Pet Sounds, often referred to as one of the most influential pop recordings of all time — as well as the influences of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on his work. Here are some of the other things we learned from I Am Brian Wilson.
1. Wilson is upfront in addressing his mental health issues in the book
Much of the attention around Wilson in recent years has surrounded his mental health issues and he doesn’t shy away from addressing them almost immediately in the book in the first chapter, Fear. Wilson is frank about the struggles he’s had to endure over the years, which began with a mental breakdown on a plane in Houston in 1964. Wilson, who also battled drug addiction, is critical of the hold Dr. Gene Landy had over him for many years. Landy’s overbearing influence was dismantled by Wilson’s second wife Melinda. However, Wilson still deals with the issues up until the present day and he often hears threatening voices while he is performing onstage. Wilson believes the voices came from his use of LSD, but his doctors have disputed this attribution. “Sometimes they just skip the music and go right for me,” Wilson says of the voices he hears. “'We’re coming for you, Brian. This is the end, Brian. We are going to kill you, Brian.'” Wilson spoke of his mental illness issues in a recent interview about I Am Brian Wilson with Wendy Mesley of CBC's The National.
2. Phil Spector was a particular inspiration to Brian Wilson’s musical approach.
It’s well-known that Wilson was fascinated with producer Phil Spector’s pioneering production methods, taking every opportunity he could to hang out around the producer. In I Am Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy recalls the first time he hears the famed Spector Wall of Sound on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in the fall of 1963. “I think I said something out loud, even though I was the only one in the car. I said, 'What in the heck?' and then I pulled over to the side of the road and listened to the rest of the record so I could hear the chorus again.” Shortly after hearing the song, Wilson would drive directly to Spector's studio to meet him and the two discussed music. "I think I learned the most from listening to Phil Spector's records," Wilson writes. "I always say he's the one who taught me how to produce records." Additionally, in the late ‘90s Wilson would meet “Be My Baby” songwriter Ellie Greenwich backstage after a show, conveying to her how he felt she had written the song specifically for him. “Every single day I wake up and thank you,” he told a confused Greenwich.
3. Wilson failed music class in high school
Wilson actually failed music in high school because he didn’t know how to write classical music. Despite this, Wilson talks favourably about classical composers and thinks of Bach when people ask him about what musicians he identifies with. “I would have been like Bach, using counterpoint, layering things," Wilson writes. "Of all the composers, he’s the one who makes the most sense to me.” Although his music school teacher Fred Morgan failed him, Wilson admits Morgan provoked him to look at music differently. The two would reconvene at a high school reunion after Wilson had gained success with the Beach Boys. Morgan told him, “You failed my class, but you scored big in music.”
4. Recording "Good Vibrations" was one of the highlights of his life
Wilson says there were more than 80 hours of tape dedicated to all the vocal parts and early takes of “Good Vibrations,” making it one of the most expensive songs ever produced at the time. “The whole thing took about seven months, and the cost was gigantic, more than fifty thousand dollars. At the time, a Cadillac DeVille cost around five thousand.” But for Wilson, it was entirely worth it. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It’s hard to say that one song is the top floor of the building you’re trying to build ... but nothing’s higher than 'Good Vibrations.'”
5. He’s aware of the Barenaked Ladies song “Brian Wilson”
Wilson writes that performing the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson” was the “strangest song” his band played while on tour with Paul Simon. The song by the Canadian band was brought to Wilson’s attention by members of his own band. Wilson had been unaware of the song’s existence before that. In a bit of a meta moment in the book, Wilson describes the song as "about a guy who is trying to write a song and can’t and he compares himself to me when I was under the treatment of Dr. Landy." Wilson appears to give the song his blessing, saying, "I was cool with playing the song if we did a good job."