The funny, sensitive musician has reflected that he lost his sense of humor in the 60’s. Combined with his own insecurities and mental fragility, his quest for drugs-and-music-drenched enlightenment took a fearful and paranoiac toll. Which makes the redemptive story of Love and Mercy all the more amazing. (view Part 1 here)
In Smile Brian was reaching for music that would take the listener into totally new spiritual experiences–transcendent, epic and yet intimate at the same time. Brian was no philosophical-art-student John Lennon, but in Van Dyke Parks he found a Lennonesque collaborator to put lyrics to the great art and music in his soul.
For months they pulled drug-fueled all-nighters at Brian’s famous piano in the sandbox and conceived a musical mosaic to guide listeners on a journey through American music, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in Diamond Head. It would incorporate the elements of earth, air, fire and water as an image of ego death and oneness with the all.
On one of the instrumental tracks Brian worked to created the musical experience of fire–“a dark, booming, reverb-drenched blur of sound.” An “eerie whine that grew into a giant conflagration…the weirdest was the crash and crackle of instruments smoldering for the final time.” Listening to the final cut of “Mrs. O’leary’s Cow,” the musicians marveled at what Brian had produced.
Then, a couple of days later, a building across the street from the studio burned down and there seemed to be a rash of fires in the LA area.
The agony of defeat
Brian, who believed that music was a spiritual force and that as a composer/producer he possessed spiritual power, was terrified that he was responsible. He claimed he destroyed the master. “That would have been a very bad vibration to let out on the world.” He has since wondered if maybe they got into a drug-induced experiment in witchcraft. (serious stuff starts @ 0.35)
Brian and Van Dyke continued to load up on drugs and produce snippets of Smile that reached for the transcendence of their chemically induced enlightenment, but the musical/spiritual experience proved more and more elusive. In their quest for spiritual music they had intentionally abandoned reason and reality. And their minds were so fogged they could not connect the snippets of music, thirty seconds of this, a minute of that, into cohesive, coherent songs or an album.
AV Club asked Brian in a 2005 interview, “’What gave you the idea to compose so many small bits of music?’
Brian: ‘Well, we were taking drugs, you know? And the drugs inspired us to make music. We got too deep into it because of the drugs, that’s all. That’s how it was.’”
He began to believe that the devil was coming after him via his father who was bugging his home, his shower faucet. That Phil Specter was making movies to harass him. He summoned a friend to his home for a meeting in his swimming pool so they wouldn’t be overheard. He began to distance himself from friends. Frustrated by Brian’s erratic behavior Van Dyke walked away too.
In the spring of 1967 Brian abandoned his great work. The fire episode had really terrified him. He knew Mike Love didn’t like it. He also feared Mike was right: it was too artistic and intricate for their audience.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
As the 60’s wound down the drugs-and-new-consciousness worldview hit the wall of reality. The day the music died. Innocence was lost. Jimmy Hendrix overdosed and drowned in his own vomit; people died violent deaths at the great rock festivals; Hight-Ashbury was becoming a slum. Brian, failing as an artist, a husband and a father of two little girls, increasingly took to his room. So his family brought the recording studio to him, installing it in his living room. But Brian continued to withdraw, eventually taking to his bed for the better part of three years.
“And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil [“columnated ruins” would domino and crash]…Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave [“the joy of enlightenment, seeing God”]. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
“…That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling ‘consciousness expansion’ without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too.
“What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole lifestyle that he helped create. A generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old mystic fallacy of the acid culture: the desperate assumption that somebody, or at least some force, was tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
This, it seems, is a big part of what landed Brian in bed. When your deepest beliefs don’t bring you the “total experience” and “total love” you long for, what is left? Apathy.
From Smile, “Is it hot as hell in here? Or is it me? It really is a mystery
If I die before I wake I pray the Lord to take my misery.
Back to Love and Mercy
With the help of a therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian made it out of bed. But to watch him on the Mike Douglas talk show in ’76 is to weep for what was lost. Clearly agitated (from uppers?) he acknowledges in Part 1 of the youTube videos that there was something to the 60’s belief that drugs were a Messiah and also acknowledges his addiction. But it’s his musical performance that is hardest to watch. That soaring voice ravaged by drugs and alcohol (@ 1:38). His pitiful attempt to go back to the formula in hopes of gaining an audience.
Brian’s faced his God Only Knows fears when his wife left him in 1979 (the children needed a normal life). The Beach Boys “fired him” in late ’82, in hopes that he would take his addictions and mental health seriously enough to go back with Dr. Landy. His brother Dennis drowned while high on booze and cocaine in 1983. When Brian overdosed in 1983, Landy was called in to save his life, which he does, but then, like the Borg villains of Star Trek Next Generation, he gradually begins to assimilate Brian into his megalomaniacal life.
In 1991 Diane Sawyer headed a remarkable expose of Landy’s abuse. (@6:53-7:40, cut off from his children 8:28-10:44)
In Love and Mercy (trailer below) the 80’s narrative arc shows how Melinda, the Cadillac sales woman (and now Brian’s second-wife), helped deliver him from Landy’s creepy clutches. Although sensitively portrayed by John Cusack, his performance can’t adequately convey Brian’s mental state because the real Brian is so further damaged from all the drugs Landy gave him to treat him for a mental illness that Landy misdiagnosed.
To watch videos of Brian over the years since Landy’s treatment (like the Diane Sawyer interview above) is to see more prescription drug damage than he inflicted upon himself. His face and eyes rarely express emotion. He rarely answers questions in more than two simple sentences. He has become a distracted and erratic version of his young genius self.
Not even Brian can always watch his younger self. He accompanied Rolling Stone interviewer Jason Fine this year to a documentary about The Wrecking Crew, the famous studio musicians whom he directed for “Good Vibrations.”
“He sat pressed against the back of his seat, impassive, while his younger self bounced around the tiny studio with vigor and purpose. After 45 minutes, Wilson bolted. I found him on a bench in the lobby. ‘That was a real ball-puncher,’ he said. ‘A heavy nostalgia thing. I had so much energy, I had it so together,’ he added. ‘I’d love to have some of that back.’”
When Brian is asked in interviews if he has any regrets he always says, “I would never have taken LSD.”
“My home life was most tumultuous,” he said. “Marilyn [his wife] complained that the LSD had changed me… I didn’t see it then, but she was right. The change was gradual. Like a slow allergic reaction. I slept later. I was subject to wider, more unpredictable mood swings, crying one minute, laughing hysterically the next for no reason. I ate tremendous amounts of sweets. I refused to be sociable.”
The Dissolve interviewed him about Love and Mercy: “Do you feel like people are going to understand you more by watching the film?
“Wilson: I think they’re going to identify with me and what I went through, and see the drugs I took. And that’s not going to make them want to take drugs, because if they saw what it did to me, they wouldn’t dare go near drugs. They wouldn’t even go near drugs. Nobody would.”
Brian could probably fill a book with all his regrets. After forty-two years he is still “anxious, depressed” and gets “scared a lot.” He still battles the voices.
The real-life redemptive arc of his story culminated in 2004, long after the movie Love and Mercy ends. After 38 years, he overcame all his fears and self-doubts to bring a completed version of Smile to a live stage in London. It was a great critical and popular triumph. He even won his first grammy for the studio album track of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” It’s been the most improbable third act in popular music history. Sadly, Dennis and Carl have died and he and Mike Love are “divorced and not speaking.” None of the Beach Boys are on stage to celebrate his great critical and popular triumph with him. (Here is a fine documentary that summarizes much of the Love and Mercy story and the triumph of the Smile–a prequel and sequel to Love and Mercy.)
In 2012 the Beach Boys reconciled and reunited for a successful 50th anniversary tour. Brian wanted to plan another tour. Instead Mike Love, who controls the Beach Boys brand, fired him from the band. Again. How much can one heart take?
Hunter Thompson blasted “the desperate assumption” of “someone or some force tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” Then when life in the shallows left behind that “cresting beautiful wave” became too tedious he blew his brains out. But Brian has found the strength to keep loving his wife and children and keep writing beautiful music. He has clearly rejected the gospel of drugs and music as the pathway to spirituality. Maybe he has settled for a gospel of simply music? Or maybe he’s discovered something closer to the gospel of his childhood, when he sang lead for the church choir as an eight-year old…
In 1988 Brian wrote what has become his signature song, “Love and Mercy”:
I was standin’ in a bar and watchin’ all the people there, Oh the loneliness in this world well it’s just not fair
I was praying to a God who just doesn’t seem to hear, All the blessings we need most are what we all fear.
Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight, So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight
After Katrina he released a charity CD with a new song he wrote for the storm victims:
Walking down the path of life I feel His presence day and night
Touch me, heal me, wash my sins away
Was he trying his hand at a new-for-him musical genre? Was he lifting up his own prayer? God only knows…
More @ my presentations on Brian Wilson and the Quest for Cool here