The front door of Brian Wilson's three-story, beachfront home in Malibu stands invitingly open on a recent cool morning.
From the entrance, you can see through the house to the ocean, where the fog is still blocking any trace of sunshine. The legendary--but long-troubled--Beach Boy is dressed in a sport shirt, jeans and moccasins, and he seems relaxed and upbeat.
On any given day, Wilson wakes up about 8 a.m., runs two or three miles along the adjacent Pacific Coast Highway, then returns home and slips alone into his yellow Corvette convertible. He then heads to the West Los Angeles office building/recording studio that he shares with Eugene Landy, the controversial psychologist he credits with rescuing him from years of depression and drug use. Frequently, he'll visit his gym, meet with his attorney and go to the movies.
Does this sound like someone's prisoner?
Brian's brother Carl thinks this daily show of self-sufficiency is just an illusion.
To him and other family members, Brian may be able to do the rudimentary things for himself, but Landy is the one who makes the crucial decisions in his life--including financial ones.
The family members have gone to court to separate Brian from Landy, who they claim has brainwashed Brian to gain control of his millions. They're asking that an independent conservator be appointed to oversee his affairs. Brian is contesting the legal action, insisting that he is competent to run his own life.
Even in the early-morning calm of Wilson's home, the tension stemming from the court fight hangs over him like the fog over the ocean.
Stopping by a piano in a small downstairs room, Wilson--who is about 6 foot 3 and a trim 190 pounds--begins playing a song that he wrote recently for the Beach Boys. The tune has a classic good-time feel, somewhere between the instant accessibility of Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" and Wilson's own "Fun, Fun, Fun."
Suddenly, he stops playing and frowns.
"I should give the song to the Beach Boys, but I don't know," he says, a flash of anger in his tone. "Those yokels, those idiots go and ruin my life. . . . My relatives have definitely assaulted me with the conservatorship case. It has cost me so much money and so much anxiety."
Wilson looks back at the piano keys, as if replaying the song in his mind. He looks at the visitor's tape recorder and barks, anxiously: "Don't play (the song) for them. . . . I should give it to Crosby, Stills & Nash or Michael Jackson . . . anybody you can conceive of could (record) it."
Nobody ever captured the myth of teen-agers frolicking carefree in the Southern California sun and surf as seductively as Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys did in such early '60s hits as "Surfer Girl," "California Girls" and "I Get Around."
Glenn Frey has said one of the things that lured the former Eagle to Los Angeles from Detroit was all the good-time images in Beach Boys records--images framed with complex vocal harmonies that Brian had learned from Four Freshmen records and irresistibly appealing, yet also sophisticated melodies.
Those feel-good records about an endless summer made the Beach Boys the biggest rock group in the world until the Beatles came along. But it was another dimension of Beach Boys music that cemented Brian Wilson's reputation as a mastermind of contemporary pop.
In such poignant songs as "In My Room" and "Caroline No," Wilson stepped back from the cheerful teen imagery to deal with issues of self-doubt and, ultimately, loneliness. Even if Wilson didn't write most of the lyrics, the themes--and the marvelous design of the Beach Boys' musical framework--usually reflected his viewpoint.
From "Don't Worry Baby" in 1964:
\o7 Well, it's been building up inside of me
For, oh, I don't know how long
I don't know why\f7 ,
\o7 But I keep thinkin'
Somethin's bound to go wrong\f7 .
Don Was, the respected record producer whose credits include Bonnie Raitt's Grammy-winning "Nick of Time" album and Bob Dylan's "Under the Red Sky" album, says Wilson's albums with the Beach Boys stand as a "textbook" on making records.
In the '60s, however, much of the pop world was confused by the sudden melancholy strain in Wilson's work. In retrospect, it's easy to see where the sadness came from.
The Beach Boys wasn't just a group to the outside world, it was a family. The saga began in Hawthorne in 1961 when Brian Wilson, younger brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and high school chum Al Jardine joined together in a band. After a few false starts, they parlayed Dennis Wilson's idea of a song about surfing into a hit single called "Surfin."
Between 1962 and 1966, the Beach Boys registered more than a dozen Top 20 singles, most of them written, arranged and produced by Brian. But the strain was too much. His own obsessive urge to come up with new hits and more inventive music contributed to a nervous breakdown--and he turned to drugs, including LSD, to ease the pressures and pain.