California Music Month: Celebrating Brian Wilson

Thursday, April 8: 12:17 p.m.
Posted by Cory Frye

In commemoration of California Music Month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and K·Swiss pay tribute to the artists, groups, and movements that helped shape its sounds.

It’s hard to imagine California without Brian Wilson. He may not have been the one to put the state on the map, but he did much for our perception of it as a surfer’s mecca under a perpetual summer sun. Back in the ’60s, the Beach Boys’ intricate harmonies vividly evoked an endless paradise. The music they made continues to thrill generations of fans worldwide — even the ones surrounded by land, with nary a beach in sight.

Appropriately, Wilson was born in the summer, on June 20, 1942, in Inglewood, California, the eldest child of Murry and Audree Wilson. He was joined two years later by a brother, Dennis. The growing family then moved seven miles south, to the city of Hawthorne, where final Wilson brother, Carl, arrived in 1946.

Visitors to the house at 3701 West 119th Street would have instantly seen how important music was to the Wilson family. It went way beyond the piano in the living room. Murry was something of a composer himself, although not as successful as his oldest son would prove to be. Audree was often recruited to harmonize; her voice was one of the qualities to which Murry had initially been drawn. All three children were singing by the time they were old enough to talk. And every Christmas came something of a grand finale, when the Wilsons would gather at the home of Murry’s sister, Emily “Glee” Love, and the holiday would transform into a show. Family members were grouped by age and performed before a capacity living-room audience. It was here where Brian first joined his voice with that of his cousin, Mike Love.

In 1961, the Wilson brothers and Love moved beyond these private showcases to their first professional gig, at a Hawthorne High School talent show. Soon after, the budding group picked up Al Jardine, one of Brian’s old Hawthorne classmates and football teammates, and became The Pendletones.

It was this configuration that would record “Surfin’,” written by Mike and Bryan at the suggestion of avid wave-catcher Dennis, who openly raved about the craze then sweeping beaches all over California. The boys practiced it while Murry and Audree were vacationing in Mexico; they used grocery money to rent the necessary equipment. When the elder Wilsons returned, Murry was miffed, but he heard promise. The group soon found itself in a genuine Beverly Hills studio, waxing the track for real. In late 1961, “Surfin’” was released on the tiny X label, credited to the “Beach Boys.” The name stuck, and the single led to concert dates and even surfaced on the national Billboard Pop chart, climbing to #75.

The next few months were a whirlwind. Jardine briefly left in early 1962 and was replaced by 13-year-old David Marks. That summer the Beach Boys were signed to Capitol Records, and thanks to the songwriting, subjects, production, and that exquisite vocal blend, the hits came fast. Here are just a few: “Surfin’ Safari” (#14), “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (#3), “Surfer Girl” (#7), and “Be True to Your School” (#6). By the end of 1963, the group had amassed seven Top 40 singles, many of them double-sided. Everything Brian touched seemed golden, even the songs he didn’t record himself. “Surf City,” which he co-wrote for Jan & Dean, gave the pop duo their — and his — first #1 record. (The Beach Boys would land four chart-toppers in all, ending with the late-career “Kokomo” in 1988.)

Despite the accolades, the pressure was getting to the 22-year-old bandleader. In 1964, he suffered a nervous breakdown on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston and retired from touring. He was replaced by Glenn Campbell, who later achieved fame as a country star, followed by Bruce Johnston, who became a permanent member of the group.

Freed from the road, Brian began experimenting with the pop form (among other recreational delights that came with the ’60s) and the possibilities of the studio. He was growing beyond surf ditties, and his music was becoming more complex. This was due in part to artistic maturation, but also to his attempts to unlock producer Phil Spector’s exquisite “Wall of Sound” technique and the competition he felt with The Beatles, who had taken Billboard’s upper notches by force. In 1965, they released “Rubber Soul,” an album whose breadth challenged Brian. Inspired, he responded with what’s commonly regarded as the Beach Boys’ peak as well as a pop-music cornerstone: “Pet Sounds.” The sessions were grueling, last nearly a year. But to hear “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” and “Caroline, No” in their finished form is to know perfection.

If only Brian himself were that together. Instead, he was slowly unraveling, retreating into himself, and suffering from paranoia. “Pet Sounds” follow-up “SMiLE” fell apart and was shelved for nearly 40 years. Wilson sank deep into depression and addiction, increasingly isolating himself from his band and the world. The hits, which had once flowed as surely as the ocean, stopped coming. By the 1970s, Brian Wilson was merely a shadow in the lineup, an occasional contributor but hardly the confident captain of old.

Rescue attempts were made. Many failed, until 1975, when therapist Eugene Landy was brought in. He took charge, banishing members of Wilson’s indulgent inner circle and instituting an aggressive health program that often found the now-dangerously-overweight artist huffing and puffing up and down a beach. It seemed to work. In 1976, Wilson was back playing with the band again. Unfortunately, Landy’s growing influence and his patient’s increasing dependence resulted in the doctor’s dismissal that December. Not surprisingly, Brian fell back into his funk and didn’t emerge until Landy returned some seven years later. This time the two worked together until 1991, long after their doctor/patient relationship had become toxic and crossed myriad ethical boundaries.

But something miraculous happened during that period: Brian began making music again. He released his first solo album in 1988…and hasn’t stopped since. He even managed to revisit and complete the long-abandoned “SMiLE,” with assistance and encouragement from power-pop band The Wondermints, in 2004, resulting in Wilson’s first-ever Grammy, for Best Rock Instrumental (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”). His most recent album, 2008’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” captured him in a reflective mood, pondering the music he made with his brothers and a few chosen others in a nostalgic California glow. His latest project finds him reaching even further back, to the unfinished works of George Gershwin, one of earliest influences. “I’m proud to be able to do it,” Wilson told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to do them justice.” With his history, we’d like to think he’s more than up to the task.

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