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Shored Up

Brian Wilson returns from hell to inhabit a self he hasn't seen since the '60s

As Brian Wilson waited to board a plane in Los Angeles one morning in December 1964, he glanced over at his wife, Marilyn Wilson, who appeared to be gazing at fellow Beach Boy and Wilson cousin Mike Love. The sight greatly upset Wilson, who was suffering through the typical newlywed spats. It didn't help that he was already experiencing mood swings and didn't like touring or flying, anyway. Five minutes into the flight to Houston, Wilson started crying and making shrieking noises. He screamed into a pillow, spun out of his seat and sobbed on the cabin floor. Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Al Jardine tried to comfort him, but couldn't.

"We were really scared for him," says Jardine. "[We were] concerned for him because he was so upset. He obviously had a breakdown. None of us had ever witnessed something like that." (Curiously, Love doesn't recall the incident. "I don't know if it was because I wasn't there or some other reason," he says. "[I] might have been in another part of the plane. I think his brothers were closer to that than I was at the time.")

Upon landing in Houston, Wilson insisted on being flown back to L.A. Eventually, he got off the plane and spent the afternoon in his hotel room, regaining his composure. Wilson, according to most accounts, went on to perform that night. Ron Foster, then a member of the Houston band the Detours, places the concert at the Music Hall. It would be Wilson's last regular performance as a Beach Boy for almost 12 years.

Yet staying off the road had its benefits. While not touring, he was able to focus on composing and producing. His growth in those areas was exponential. Throughout 1965 he pushed the pop genre in unforeseen directions, what with catchy, radio-friendly songs, introspective ballads and complex fare that challenged conventional pop. In 1966 he teamed up with lyricist Tony Asher and created Pet Sounds. The incredible production stunned the popular music world and remains one of the greatest albums of all time. "We wanted to bring love to people as best we could," Wilson said in a recent phone interview. "We think people need love, and it's a loving album."

The breakdown on that morning of December 23 has taken on the proportions of pop-culture myth. Entertainment Weekly perversely ranked the breakdown No. 33 of its 100 Greatest Moments in Rock, right behind John Lennon's murder. While calling such occurrences "great" is morbid and tasteless and trivializes personal tragedies, actually seeing such moments as special makes sense, especially as it pertains to an enormously talented musician whose frail psyche defined many of his greatest songs, and one who is still recovering from a wretched past.

Wilson wasn't an entertainer, at least not in the Elvisian sense. Profoundly deaf in his right ear, most likely the result of hard slap from his abusive father, Murry, Wilson found loud concert volumes hurt his good ear and caused buzzing in his bad one. He suffered from stage fright; performing took away from what he really wanted to do: make records.

He had removed himself from the road once before, in mid-1963. Since Wilson had total authority over his albums -- and was the first major rock figure with such power and the only one who was writing, arranging, producing and performing on his own albums at the time -- he was under tremendous pressure to produce hit material. He needed time to work on records, not to tour. But he was pulled back onto the road not long after he left it. Beach Boy David Marks was fired in the summer of '63, and Wilson's services were required.

As 1964 came to a close, the Beach Boys were in the second year of a four-year run as America's most successful band, taking pop music to levels unmatched by any other group at the time. Then the demands of masterminding a mega-act and coping with personal problems, many stemming from childhood, began to overwhelm Wilson.

On a flight to Australia that November, Wilson suffered what has been described as a mild panic attack. The only thing that kept him calm was thinking about his then-girlfriend, Marilyn. He telegrammed her from the airplane and asked her to await his phone call. Upon arriving in Australia, he telephoned Marilyn and proposed. On December 7, 1964, Wilson and Marilyn were married, and a few days later he was back in the studio. Sixteen days after his wedding, Wilson suffered that nervous breakdown, his first, on the flight to Houston.

Foster, now an oldies disc jockey with ABC Radio Networks in Dallas, says he finagled himself backstage and met Beach Boy Dennis Wilson that night. Dennis, being his usual affable self, let Foster into the dressing room before the show. Though unaware of the day's events, Foster sensed an uncomfortable aura in the room. As the Boys were teaching him the chords to "The Warmth of the Sun," Foster couldn't help noticing Wilson. "He was just kind of staring off into space," Foster says. "He wasn't rude. He didn't tell us to get out or anything like that. He was just kind of like staring off into the corner like he wasn't there."

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