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brian wilson’s story – in his own words

I AM BRIAN WILSON is a rather long and vague postscript to  Love and Mercy, the 2014 film that tracks the famous Beach Boy’s mental illness from its onset in the mid 60s to the 80s, whilst he was in the care of the famously negligent Dr Eugene Landy.

Wilson’s sometimes prolific drinking and drug-taking was replaced under Landy’s regime with a steady diet of prescription medication which led to chronic apathy borne out of surrendering his will to that of the controlling doctor. Wilson eventually escaped the treacherous relationship with Landy with the help of second wife Marilyn. The film Love and Mercy is really an ode to their love.

This memoir features long tedious passages about the minutiae of Wilson’s present day, a long with details of his inspirations that, undiluted and free of intoxicants, are trivial at best and extremely tedious at worst.

The book becomes plagued with many intolerably boring passages, which leaves the reader feeling sleepy (this reader, in any case). Fortunately it picks up a bit but much unnecessary detail makes it a hard slog to get through.    

I AM BRIAN WILSON charts Wilson’s musical influences, chief among these another disturbed genius:  producer Phil Spector, creator of the famous ‘Wall of Sound’.

Wilson cites the Spector produced ‘Be My Baby’ as a song that inspired him greatly as a musician and Spector is introduced in the memoir on page two as a scary but challenging mentor, with perhaps echoes  of his domineering father. Spector is given a final elbow at the book’s conclusion with Wilson assessing his own Hollywood Bowl performance in 2016 as being ‘as big as anything Phil Spector ever recorded.   

You don’t have to be a  Dr Freud to realise that, while Wilson ostensibly forgives his father for the harsh treatment that he and his brothers received from him, some hurts just don’t go away, and become redirected and then aimed on to others.

Whilst Landy is an obvious and deserving target for Wilson’s anger, Spector comes across as being slightly less so. Wilson was in awe of Spector’s producing prowess and Spector replaced his father Murray Wilson as his mentor and the man that he had to live up to. Wilson senior was, himself, a talented songwriter and his bullying ways with his son was a driving force in the success of the Beach Boys.

The memoir reveals that Wilson used the influence of the Wall of Sound to painstakingly create his own sixties masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Wilson layered the vocals to achieve a more sophisticated and larger sound and added a number of seemingly haphazard and less than traditional effects.   

The question has to be asked what has motivated Wilson to add to the already thousands of words written about himself and the band? Was his 2016 Kennedy Centre tribute not enough? Or was it the competing memoir by his cousin and former band mate Mike Love?

Perhaps, Wilson just wished for his fans to know that he is not simply a ‘cartoon nut who went into his bedroom for years while his band mates travelled around the world making music’ (Wilson, 2016:275).  He seems intent on letting the reader know that he is no longer lacking in personal autonomy, especially after the Landy years.

When you read an autobiography that declares on its cover the genius of its author (a soundbite also used on the marketing posters from Love and Mercy),  you’re made painfully aware that years of ingesting myriad drugs has not wiped out the artist’s ego, rather the contrary. Yet Wilson’s ego is just as fragile as it was over fifty years ago when he first began writing music, in spite of all the kudos that he has received over many years.

This should come as no surprise to me after reading recent memoirs about other music greats such as Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, in which the subjects come across as whinging children still competing for the prize of the coolest cat in town. Now in their 70s this just seems, well, unseemly.  More to the point, an idiot savant who sits down at a piano to give a virtuoso performance does not ask people afterwards if they liked what was played. In this respect, Wilson is no idiot. Just a man who is  still desperately  craving approval.  

I AM BRIAN WILSON , by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman, is published by Coronet.

Joy Minter’s review was originally published on her website-      


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