Before I started to read Peter Carlin's latest book about Brian Wilson, I asked myself if there could possibly be anything else to write about. Wilson's life has been dissected and analyzed by numerous authors over the years and most people are aware of the story behind the famed musician who created the California sound, rode the wave of success, plummeted to the depths of despair and depression, then reemerged as a universally-respected rock icon. You don't have to be a Beach Boys scholar to know the Brian Wilson story. It's become a part of American folklore.
I've read several books about The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson (one of the best being David Leaf's "The Beach Boys and the California Myth"), and have always found the story to be somewhat compelling. It's a true-to-life American success story about five young high school students from middle-class Hawthorne, California who were swept to superstardom practically overnight and, despite a tumultuous ride along the way, had gone on to achieve the status as one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever to emerge from the 1960s, along with being the only American band to truly rival The Beatles. It's a story of success, but success comes with a price, and the one who paid the most for attaining fame and fortune was Brian Wilson. As it turns out, Brian became a victim of the monster he created.
But does Carlin's book reveal any new information about the Wilson saga that has not already been explored? Not particularly, but he has done exhaustive research along with numerous interviews, plus has unearthed new documents and recordings that add more detail to the existing story. Transcripts of family altercations were used to emphasize the stressful environment that Murry Wilson (father of band members Brian, Dennis and Carl) created at home and in the studio. The book explores the all-to-fragile mind of Brian Wilson and how he gradually and painfully succumbed to the demands of being the creative force behind the Beach Boys. Carlin examines the various stages that led to Brian's mental and physical collapse including the turbulent relationship with his father, the pressures of touring, the weight placed upon him to keep producing hit records, and eventually, dissention within the group because of their disapproval of his new music. Combined with his continued substance abuse, these issues caused enormous stress for Brian, eventually forcing him to abandon his work on the legendary "Smile" album. They also contributed to his withdrawal into a very dark world of anxiety, paranoia, depression, alcohol and drug abuse.
As Brian's life began spiraling downward, the band's fortunes also followed in the same path. Carlin takes an in-depth look at the late 60s and the tough times that the band had to endure. With Brian no longer at the helm, the hits had all but dried up, and by 1968, just as a new generation was beginning to flower, The Beach Boys were suddenly considered passé and unhip. While the band was struggling to survive, Brian withdrew even further, spending most of his time in bed, with his weight ballooning up to an unhealthy 340 pounds. Carlin writes, "For some people the answer seemed all too obvious: Brian was going to die. His family and the Beach Boys either felt powerless to do anything to change his direction, or didn't have the energy to try."
At the request of the Wilson family, Dr. Eugene Landy, a noted psychologist was hired and put Brian on a 24-hour regimen that took control of every aspect of his "physical, personal, social and sexual environment." Wilson has been quoted as saying that Landy saved his life, but as it turns out, Dr. Landy was interested in more than just Brian's health. He took advantage of Wilson's fragile condition to reap the financial rewards of his musical talents, but in 1992 the Supreme Court in Santa Monica ordered Landy to permanently disengage himself from Wilson's life after it was discovered that he was prescribing too many psychotropic drugs, which proved to be harmful to his patient.
As Carlin points out, Brian's life took a major turnaround after being freed from the clutches of Landy. He resumed an active writing and recording schedule, began touring with a new band and finally, after close to 40 years, had the ambition to complete his long-abandoned musical project "Smile."
The story behind the turbulent life of Brian Wilson is a fascinating one, filled with joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy and finally, as Carlin states, redemption. Although there are no new revelations to add to the Wilson saga, Carlin, through his extensive research, has filled in the gaps and created a superb memoir that is both moving and enticing. It's a true American success story, but one that came with a heavy price.