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."
Foster witnessed the concert, which he says Wilson played and performed in, from backstage and says it seemed like "just a regular Beach Boys concert." It was hard to hear the band over all the screaming teenagers, anyway. Yet Beach Boy Jardine is of the minority that says Wilson did not perform. "He just stayed in his room and went home."
In any case, Wilson returned to L.A. the next day. He was sobbing when his mother picked him up at the airport; he spent that day with her pouring out his soul. He'd sent word that he didn't want to see his father. The Beach Boys were left to finish their Southwest tour without him.
After Wilson had pulled himself off the road permanently, ace session guitarist Glen Campbell -- yes, the Glen Campbell -- replaced him for a couple of months. Then Bruce Johnston became the sixth Beach Boy. Wilson performed only on television and for special concert appearances. "He just knew he could not go on the road," said Marilyn Wilson on A&E's Biography. "That was just not his thing. And the truth is, he was right."
Wilson stayed at home and made records for the Beach Boys while the band toured. Concert attendance was unaffected by Wilson's absence. "Beach Boy fans were pretty loyal, and they were hearing Brian and seeing Brian on the records," says former Beach Boys promoter Fred Vail. "The fact that Brian wasn't doing every concert date was not always that major of a deal."
The follow-up to Pet Sounds was the single "Good Vibrations," a sonic masterpiece. By this time, Wilson had become the premier producer in rock and roll. He was also the genre's most adventurous composer.
But all was not well. In the 17 months after the fateful flight to Houston, Wilson suffered two more breakdowns. Already experimenting with marijuana, he began to indulge in LSD in early 1965, and over the next 18 years, his use of various recreational drugs escalated to dangerous proportions. The effects were tragic. "Brian was so sensitive," Carl Wilson told the Beach Boys fanzine Add Some Music in 1981. "He was such a delicate balance. He was just the wrong person to go popping LSD."
By mid-1967, drug use and personal problems caught up with Wilson. After aborting the legendary Smile album in 1967, Wilson became reclusive. His behavior, which had always been a bit eccentric, became increasingly bizarre. Stories of Wilson's unusual antics from the late '60s through the early '80s are legendary. Eventually his marriage dissolved, his voice deteriorated, and on more than one occasion, his life appeared to be in jeopardy. Yet he emerged from his room every now and then and released a brilliant song, such as "'Til I Die." "We didn't know what was wrong with Brian," says Love. "He had a mental illness. Back then, he didn't know, nor did we, what the situation was, and we didn't know how to act or react to it."
That was then. Today, Wilson can be seen as a survivor. He has endured drug addiction, mental illness, the mind control and bullying of a Svengali psychologist and lawsuits from fellow Beach Boys. His brothers Dennis and Carl are dead. Against all expectations, Brian is the last Wilson standing.
Family can be one explanation why. He has established a relationship with his daughters, Carnie and Wendy, who hardly knew him for more than 20 years. Wilson also remarried in 1995 and has adopted two daughters. Reports from those close to him say he has never been happier.
Music has also played a large part in Wilson's recovery. In 1998 he released his second solo album, Imagination, which like his first, 1988's Brian Wilson, showed flashes of brilliance but still couldn't be considered his top-shelf stuff. Last month Wilson released Brian Wilson: Live at the Roxy Theatre, a double CD available only at concerts and via his Web site, www.brianwilson.com. A reunion with the Beach Boys is not in the works. "It is easier to write for my own self than for the guys," he says. "Those days are over. The '60s are over, you know. I did it pretty good then, but I'm doing it just a little differently now."
Last year Wilson embarked on his first full-fledged solo tour, which garnered almost uniformly positive reviews. Now, there is cautious optimism surrounding Wilson. No, his voice isn't the same, not that many care. Wilson is 58, not 23, and after everything he has survived, fans and the media appear willing to give him a break. "Just to get Brian to do anything nowadays is a real treat," says Vail. "It's such a far cry from what the situation was ten or 15 years ago."
On Wilson's current tour, things look like they've come full circle. He presents something of a career retrospective. The two-and-a-half-hour concert includes a number of his best Beach Boy songs, some solo material and, in selected cities but not Houston, a 30-minute symphonic overture arranged by famed Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks. The highlight is when Wilson performs the entire Pet Sounds album, including tunes such as "Here Today," "That's Not Me" and "I Know There's an Answer," which have never before been performed live by Wilson or the Beach Boys. On a stage that includes the L.A. retro outfit the Wondermints, Wilson, hitting notes he hasn't touched in years, is giving fans something they've waited 34 years to hear.
Brian Wilson with The Pet Sounds Symphonic Tour performs Tuesday, July 25, at the Aerial Theater. For ticket information, call (713)629-3700.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.