Author:Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman
This is Brian’s second attempt at an Autobiography. ‘Wouldn’t It be Nice’ released in 1996 was a rip-roaring read at the time and I remember borrowing it from the library. It was an extraordinary and gripping story – an unflinching account of his horrendous childhood, a dizzying ride to fame and equally dizzying fall from grace and recovery. This was pretty much pre-Internet and I had no reason to doubt that Dr Eugene Landy had saved Brian’s life and that Brian was now as lucid and funny as he had been in 1966 and not only did he make beautiful music he had a real knack with an anecdote. He had emerged from 20 years of sweet insanity with all his marbles intact. Basically a Californ-aye-ay Shane MacGowan but with better teeth.
During the 00s, as Brian properly re-emerged into public life it transpired that the original book was very much (ghostwriter) Todd Gold putting wordy vocabulary and flowery turns of phrase into Brian’s mouth that belied his monosyllabic interviews, using stories from his own research rather than Brian’s own recollections and including an awful lot of praise for Dr Landy and his…ahem..unique approach to therapy. Apparently Wilson, or at least ‘his people’ have disowned the earlier book and ‘I Am Brian Wilson’ is now supposed to be “The Real Brian Wilson” speaking for himself.
If you’ve seen or read any recent interviews with Bri you’ll know he’s a man of few words these days. Supposedly the book is based on a series of telephone interviews with Brian and I suspect the writer had a considerable job on his hands – if he really did get all this out of Brian (a tell-tale tweet to Van Dyke Parks suggests not) then he deserves a medal. It’s not chronological, instead it’s a series of recollections grouped into broad themes (‘Home’, ‘America’, ‘Family’ etc). Ben Greenman has tried, perhaps too hard, to make the book sound as Brian would write it today (It’s no co-incidence that working titles for his records have included Dumb Angel and Adult Child). The photo panels include a teenage school essay from Brian called ‘My Philosophy’ and the book reads as if the same 15 year old Brian is recalling his future life with the same juvenile writing skills and vocabulary. He’s perhaps gone too far the opposite way to Todd Gold’s book and makes Brian sound…for want of a better word…a bit thick.
The disjointed approach might prove to be a confusing read for someone relatively new to Brian and the Beach Boys. Vast swathes of his back story are missed out, and Ben doesn’t really paint much of a picture of the various personalities that come and go – so newcomers will be left wanting to know more about his family, the other Beach Boys and odd references to things like The Radiant Radish (Brian’s short lived health food store) are dropped in without explanation. Notably, he is a lot more charitable toward his father Murray Wilson – at least trying to understand why he was so cruel to the Wilson boys, but a lot less charitable toward Dr Landy.
As a long term fan I didn’t learn much new apart from some detail around his later solo work and recent tours but there are some nice little titbits here and there which still make it an essential read for Beach Boy nuts – it’s fun to read his views on the terrible sleeve artwork on some of the later Beach Boys albums and the ropey production on the ‘Imagination’ album etc. He paints a picture of a typical modern day for Brian which seems to revolve around going out for breakfast, sitting in his chair (the command centre as he calls it) watching TV game shows and going out for dinner. He writes a lot about food! – there is a whole page about a Pizza he had in New York and getting a frozen one delivered via Fed-Ex. Bless.
Some fans on Beach Boys forums argue that the current Mrs Wilson (Melinda) has as much control over Bri as the late Dr. Landy had (nicknaming her MeLandy) – interestingly the photo credits are all for ‘BriMel’ which suggests she’s got her financial stake sorted and there’s a telling line which will only fuel the more uncharitable souls on the fansites “Without her, I might have still been the last surviving Wilson, but I wouldn’t have been completely alive..Listening to (Melinda) was one of the best decisions of my life”.
I’m sure Mrs W means well but nevertheless I do think that Brian’s management perhaps present a bit of glossed over version of reality lest if affect touring revenue and record sales – watch any live footage from recent years and he grins like a man who’s been drilled beforehand to ‘SMiLE’.
Ultimately this would have worked much better if was just presented as a highlights of the interviews Greenman had with Brian (like Paul Du Noyer’s ‘Conversations With McCartney’) instead of maintaining the increasingly implausible pretence that we’re supposed to imagine Brian Wilson sat down at a typewriter and wrote this book- that only adds to the nagging sense that the reader isn’t really getting close to the real Brian and that there are other stakeholders having their input. I suspect he’d be better served by a properly researched, non-partisan Biography which I’m sure somebody will write one day.
What’s certain is that sadly the Brian that you can hear directing the Wrecking crew on the Pet Sounds/Smile out-takes is long gone, but if this book is to be believed Brian is surrounded by people that love and care for him, and he’s happy touring (even though he’s announced his retirement more than once) and still wants to make a stripped-down rock and roll album or get the old pedal organ out and do another Smiley Smile.
Gawd bless yer Brian Wilson.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Brian’s earlier “Auto”-biography Wouldn’t it be Nice -written with Todd Gold while Wilson was under heavy sedation courtesy of the late Dr. Landy. They probably need to co-exist as complimentary to each other – I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth but there are now two versions of it to consider for the time being.
One thing you’ve learned
Landy got Brian to have a facelift in the 80s