The Strange Life Of Brian

Every family has a crazy, lovable old uncle or grandpa. Rock and roll has Brian Wilson. Bounding about his house off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, Wilson is seized by the desire to play a particular oldie of his, "Caroline No," on the living-room piano. The song has been on his mind lately--it's one of the high points of a new documentary about Wilson's music, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times. He sets down his Diet Coke can on the Young & Chang grand and takes a seat. He's dressed all in black; his hair is neatly combed, and his lined face shows every bit of his 58 years. Wilson tries out a couple of chords to loosen up, then starts singing the Beach Boys' classic paean to lost innocence: "Where did your long hair go/Where is the girl I used to know/How could you lose that happy glow?/Oh Caroline, no."

Then, abruptly, he cuts the song off. "That's enough of that!" he says briskly, as if he'd made a halfhearted attempt to do his homework and was now ready to play. His hands start running fluidly over the keys, picking out a melancholy descending melody. Maybe it's a fragment of something he once heard, or maybe it's just the sound he's hearing in his head at this exact moment.

For more than 80 years, Wilson has set the standard for eccentricity in the pop world, and it has informed his music in ways that are almost impossible to understand. His complex harmonies and orchestral experiments on the Beach Boys' 1966 album "Pet Sounds" gave rock a new legitimacy and inspired the Beatles to record "Sgt. Pepper." It's uncontestably one of the greatest reek records ever. In the '70s, he dropped out of the Beach Boys, committed himself to bed for four years and let songs fly in and out of his head without bothering to record them. In the '80s, the Beach Boys hired psychiatrist Eugene Landy to get him productive again. Landy took 24-hour control of Brian's life, cowrote some of his songs and allegedly worked himself into Brian's will as his chief beneficiary. An ugly legal battle over conservatorship followed. Brian's family sued Landy. Beach Boy Mike Love sued Brian. Brian sued the publishing company that owned his songs. Yet he never officially broke from the Beach Boys. "Goddamn characters," says Brian. "It was a very, very bizarre kind of relationship. Nobody would ever want to have that but me."

Wilson has been free of Landy since 1991--a restraining order forbade Landy from making contact--and amazingly, he's heading into the most productive phase of his later life. "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" is a tender portrayal of Wilson's life and music, full of candid interviews with the subject himself and reverent testimonials from Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The film opens in San Francisco Sept. 1, and in other cities later in the month; it also airs on the Disney Channel Sept. 11 and 21. Director Don Was, the producer who's worked with Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan, conscientiously tried to illuminate Brian's strange musical brain. In one bizarre scene that never made it into the film, Wilson arranged a radical rendition of the classic "Proud Mary." "Brian said, 'OK, at this point, everybody drops out for 25 bars, except the drummer'," Was recalls. "There were probably 12 guys in the room. Twenty-five bars is a really long time. It's over a minute. Everyone thought, 'This guy's gonesville.' But he knew exactly what was going on. He heard it all completed in his head, and as he did subsequent overdubs, he filled up the space brilliantly."

Was's film isn't the definitive portrait of Brian (brother Dennis, who accidentally drowned in 1988, is never mentioned), but it's the definitive study of Wilson right now. Even though it's a retrospective, all the old songs are given moving new interpretations. On the soundtrack, Brian's recurring themes of innocence and loneliness in songs like "The Warmth of the Sun," "'Til I Die" and "Wonderful" are heightened by the scratchy husk of age in his voice. In October he releases a new album with Van Dyke Parks, his collaborator on the ill-fated late-'60s project "Smile" (an unfinished album Brian dubbed "a teenage symphony to God"). "Orange Crate Art" finds Brian comfortably mellow, layering his vocals in a jazzy style that harkens back to an early influence, the Four Freshmen. "We worked for two years," he says. "He would crack the whip. I'd say, 'Van Dyke, I don't think I can get this note.' He goes, 'Come on, try it falsetto.' I'd try it and go, 'Yeah, you're right'."

Great clarity: Wilson's quirks have their downside. Sometimes he laughs loudly--"Ha ha!"-when no noticeable joke has been made. He forgets song titles, names, people. At the end of his NEWSWEEK interview, he stood up and handed the reporter a beautifully stitched blue-and-white blanket he'd had covering his lap. "You want this? You can have it," he said. Really? He thought a second, then shook his head: "No, actually, you can't." It's not just his famed drug-taking in the '60s and '70s. Wilson is a diagnosed manic-depressive, and some days the balance of anxiety and medication tilts out of whack. He gets dizzy, and he can't work or focus. Don Was says, "It happens, and I work around it. And he works around it."

But Wilson also has moments of great clarity about his life and work. He loves to talk about "Pet Sounds," and hear others talk about it. "What do you like in 'Pet Sounds'?" he asks. The answer is this: Wilson wrote about incredibly sad feelings--sorrow and loneliness--yet he expressed them so beautifully that he helps the listener transcend them. Wilson thinks about this. "Yeah," he says. "There's a lot of love in it. People need that. You can't throw away love." Wilson smiles. There's nothing crazy about that.

Join the Discussion