An Excerpt From Beach Boys' Brian Wilson's Long-Awaited Memoir
The following is an excerpt from the new book I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson (Da Capo, 2016):
Mornings start at different times. In summer I wake up pretty early, sometimes as early as seven. It’s later in the winter—when the days are shorter, I sleep longer. I might not get up until eleven. Maybe that happens to everyone. It used to be worse. I used to have real trouble getting up in the winter, and even when I did, I might stay in bed for hours. These days it’s a little easier to start the day, no matter what the season.
When I wake up these days here in my house in Beverly Hills, I head down the back staircase to the den. That’s where the TV is, and also my chair. It’s a navy-blue print chair that’s been there forever. It used to be red. It’s been covered and recovered because I have a habit of picking at the upholstery. When I go on the road, I take another chair with me, a black leather recliner, so that I can have the feel of home. I have them set it up on the wings of the stage and I sit there instead of in the dressing room.
Some people reach for coffee first thing in the morning. I don’t. I’m not a coffee drinker. That doesn’t mean that I’m alert on my own all the time, though. My nighttime medications make me drowsy, and it’s hard to get started. There’s a little hangover from the pills. When I get to the chair, I’ll sit there for half an hour or so. Then I’ll go out to the deli for breakfast. Breakfast has changed over the years. When I was less concerned about my weight, it might be two bowls of cereal, eggs, and a chicken patty. These days it’s a veggie patty and fruit salad or a dish of blueberries. Most mornings Melinda will come into the room, and she only has to take one glance to tell what kind of mood I’m in. She’s been with me long enough to know what the good moods look like, and what the other moods look like.
She doesn’t say anything in the mornings usually. She lets me sit. If the mood lasts until afternoon or evening, she’ll ask me about it. “What’s bothering you?” she’ll say. Usually it’s that I really miss my brothers. Both of them are gone—Carl for almost twenty years, Dennis for more than thirty. I can get into a space where I think about it too much. I wonder why the two of them went away, and where they went, and I think about how hard it is to understand the biggest questions about life and death. It’s worse around the holidays. I can really get lost in it. When it gets bad, Melinda sits near me and goes through the reality of the situation. She might remind me that Carl’s been gone for a while, and that even when he was alive, we didn’t spend so much time together. Toward the end of his life, we saw each other maybe once a year or so. “Of course you miss your brothers,” she’ll say. “But you don’t want to miss them so much that it puts you on a bummer.” And she’s right. I don’t.
Other times it’s something else. Maybe it’s the voices in my head. Maybe it’s one of those days when they’re telling me terrible and scary things. If it’s one of those days, Melinda goes through the reality of that, too. “The voices have been saying they’re going to kill you for years,” she says, “and they haven’t done it yet. They’re not real, even if they seem real to you.” She’s right about that, too. On days when Melinda’s not here to talk to me, I try to remind myself of what she might say. I always remember to take a walk. That clears my head. I can usually get myself calm with a good walk.
Today, in the chair, I’m in a pretty good place. Things don’t seem so heavy and nothing’s getting me down. There’s a special event coming up. There’s a screening of a movie. It’s called Love and Mercy, and it’s a movie about my life. Not my whole life; it doesn’t go as far as this chair or this book. It’s a movie about my life and my music and my struggles with mental illness, both in the ’60s and later on. The movie covers thousands of days. Some of them were good days. Some were great. And good days grew out of bad, which is one of the main points of this movie and my life—much of it is about the love story between me and Melinda, and how she got the ball rolling to get me out of the hellhole that Dr. Landy had created for me. Melinda and I had been working on the movie for years, off and on, trying to get one made that told as much of the truth as possible. It took almost twenty years to finally get it done. Can you believe it?
The screening for the movie isn’t today. It’s soon. But today is a regular day. I’m going to get cleaned up, comb my hair, and go out for breakfast. There’s a stoplight on the way to the deli that stays red forever, almost nine minutes. Later I might go see my son Dylan play basketball. He’s eleven, and he’s a great little player. I used to see more of his games; it’s gotten harder since I had back surgery. Dylan also plays the drums a little bit. That helps him get tension off his chest. It might be a good idea for me to teach him piano.
When I wake up in my house in 2015, I am happy to be here. When I woke up in my house more than two decades earlier, I wasn’t sure how I felt. The doctor had just gone out the door. The doctor was Eugene Landy. The patient was me. “I am leaving because I lost my license,” he said. “Bye, Brian.”
I didn’t say anything. I was glad to see him go. His back, moving away from me, was like a tide going out. Dr. Landy’s leaving was my freedom. Through history there are stories about tyrants who control entire countries. Dr. Landy was a tyrant who controlled one person, and that person was me. He controlled where I went and what I did and who I saw and what I ate. He controlled it by spying on me. He controlled it by having other people spy on me. He controlled it by screaming at me. He controlled it by stuffing me full of drugs that confused me. If you help a person to get better by erasing that person, what kind of job have you done? I don’t know for sure, but he really did a job on me.
Sometimes memories come back to me when I least expect them. Maybe that’s the only way it works when you’ve lived the life I’ve lived: starting a band with my brothers, my cousin, and my high school buddy that was managed by my father; watching my father become difficult and then impossible; watching myself become difficult and then impossible; watching women I loved come and go; watching children come into the world; watching my brothers get older; watching them pass out of the world. Some of those things shaped me. Others scarred me. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. When I watched my father fly into a rage and take a swing at me, was that shaping or scarring? When I heard voices in my head and realized that they weren’t going to go away anytime soon, was that shaping or scarring?
When I sit in the chair in my house, I try to watch everything. I have always been that way. I try to listen to everything also. I have always listened to sounds in the studio and sounds in the world, to the voices in my band and the voices in my head. I couldn’t stop myself from taking all those things in, but once they were in me, I couldn’t always handle them. That was one of the reasons I made music. Music is a beautiful thing. Songs help me with my pain, and they also move through the world and help other people, which helps me, too. I don’t know if that’s the whole story, but it’s part of it. The struggles I have faced—from the way my dad was, to the arguments in the band, to the mental health issues that have been around as long as I can remember—are all things I have tried to deal with in my own way. Have I stayed strong? I like to think so. But the only thing I know for sure is that I have stayed.
Adapted excerpt from I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.