Everyone’s favorite musical mad scientist reveals a troubled yet hopeful life.
Famously, as depicted in the recent film Love & Mercy, Wilson stopped touring with his band, the Beach Boys, after suffering a panic attack while on a flight to Houston in 1964. He did not retreat—not yet, anyway—from music, spending the next year thinking about what kinds of songs he wanted to write and whether pop had any sonic boundaries beyond which one could not travel. “I couldn’t really think of any limits,” he writes, and so emerged “Pet Sounds,” “Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” and other resonant wonders. At the same time, and ever since, Wilson has battled mental illness, a malady with a clear genetic lineage, as well as the effects of abuse at the hands of his father, his psychiatrist, and the less angelic voices in his head. Chasing down his sonic visions is a matter that Wilson treats with some mystery. As he writes, he saw bits and pieces of melody go swimming by like goldfish: “They dart one way and you see a little flash of orange, but you don’t really know whether they’re coming or going.” Wilson writes as he speaks, haltingly and with a kind of sideways hesitancy born, he tells it, from being deafened by a blow from his father’s fist—which has had one salutary effect, though giving him a lopsided appearance, namely that he writes in mono: “I can only hear out of one side, which means that it’s already mixed down.” Readers seeking a tell-all will find instead delicate, thoughtful reflections on how music is made as well as wistful remembrances of Wilson’s dead brothers and band mates Carl and Dennis. When the usual villain of the Beach Boys story, Mike Love, is mentioned, it is only briefly, and then usually in connection to some legal action or another.
As a study in creativity, superb, though as memoir, partial and a touch reluctant. Whatever the case, essential for any Beach Boys fan.