Brian Douglas Wilson turned 77 in 2019, and he has lived many lives within his years. He’s one of the founding members of The Beach Boys, and he is hailed as a musical genius in many quarters. However, he’s also struggled with mental illness, drug addiction and long bouts of crippling depression. What’s more, Brian has revealed in recent years that he’s extremely unlikely to ever perform with the band again – and he’s explained exactly why.
The Beach Boys’ classic 1961 line-up consisted of Brian, his brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine. Brian wore many hats in the early days of the band. He was the songwriter, producer, bassist, keyboardist and co-lead vocalist alongside Love. And this effectively made him the group’s leader and creative focal point.
The band defined what would come to be known as the “California sound,” which was a pop-rock style that originated in the early 1960s and focused lyrically on youth-culture tropes such as surfing, girls and fast cars. This was quite ironic for The Beach Boys, though, as only one member was truly a surfer: drummer Dennis Wilson.
“I recall Al having a surfboard,” Mike Love told Rolling Stone in 2018. “But we sing about it a lot better than actually did it.” David Marks, who joined the band in 1962, even jokingly asked, “Who likes having their face jammed into the bottom of the ocean?”
The Beach Boys went on to become one of the biggest bands of all time. From the 1960s to the 2010s, in excess of 80 of their singles charted, with more than 30 reaching the top 40 in the U.S., which is a record for an American rock group. They’ve sold more than 100 million records worldwide and in 1988 the band entered the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Moreover, the group have been cited as a major influence by an array of popular artists as diverse as ABBA, Weezer, Ramones, Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, R.E.M., The Eagles, Lana Del Ray and Radiohead. Indeed, in 2017 the website Quartz used the AllMusic database to compile a definitive list of the most influential artists of all time, and The Beach Boys were in sixth place.
However, the path of The Beach Boys over the past 58 years has been anything but straightforward. For one thing, Brian lost both his brothers along the way: Dennis Wilson passed away in 1983 at only 39 years of age, while Carl Wilson died at 51 in 1998.
Carl was the youngest of the three Wilson brothers. He’d smoked cigarettes since the tender age of 13 or 14, however, and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997. He passed away in February 1998 from complications caused by to the disease, only two months after his mom Audree had died.
Dennis Wilson’s death was more lurid, due in part to his descent into substance abuse and his association with cult leader Charles Manson. In 1968 Dennis picked up two female hitchhikers in Malibu and took them back to his house on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. They spoke of their guru “Charlie.”
The women were, of course, members of the Manson Family. The group subsequently wound up staying in Dennis’ house, and Dennis struck up a friendship with Charles, whom he felt had real musical gifts. Wilson even recorded some of Manson’s songs in his brother Brian’s studio and introduced Manson to some industry friends.
One of those friends was Terry Melcher, a music producer who lived at 10050 Cielo Drive. A year later, Manson would send some of his followers to this house, perhaps thinking Melcher still lived there. The current occupants of the home were actress Sharon Tate and some friends, whom Manson’s devotees brutally murdered. The following evening they also killed the LaBianca family, who lived nearby.
Prior to this, Dennis had become only too aware of Manson’s unpredictable nature and violent tendencies and so had put a stop to their friendship. Dennis had simply relocated to another house and left the “family” at his old home, knowing they would leave after the lease ran out. And in the years following the Tate/LaBianca murders, he refused to speak about Manson.
Biographer Mark Dillon noted in Fifty Sides of The Beach Boys that “some attribute [Dennis Wilson’s] subsequent spiral of self-destructive behaviour – particularly his drug intake – to those fears and feelings of guilt for ever having introduced this evil Wizard into the Hollywood scene.” By 1983, in fact, Dennis was homeless and was leading a nomad lifestyle.
On December 28, 1983, Dennis drowned in Marina Del Rey after drunkenly diving into the water to find items he’d discarded overboard from his yacht three years earlier, including a picture frame from his wedding photo with Karen Lahm. It was a dreadfully sad end for a man who was unable to overcome his emotional demons and addictions to alcohol and heroin.
In addition to the deaths of some of their founding members, The Beach Boys have also experienced in-fighting and intense personal rivalries. The tension has been so bad at various points that some of the band have gone years without even speaking to each other. In fact, some have gone so far as to enact legal proceedings against one another.
The group of course experienced massive success early in their career with a simple sound that evoked a sense of easy-going fun. But they subsequently became known for pushing the boundaries of popular music by pioneering experimental and psychedelic rock sounds in their hits.
It wasn’t long, however, before this change in musical style began to expose cracks in the band. Brian endured a nervous breakdown in 1964, which in turn led to a preoccupation with drugs such as LSD. And these substances forever changed Brian’s attitude to the music he wanted to make.
Brian wanted to create new, innovative pop music heavily influenced by psychedelia. While listening to The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul and smoking a joint, he reportedly stated that he intended “to make the greatest pop record ever.” The result was the 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds, the 11th Beach Boys studio album.
Over the decades, Pet Sounds came to be viewed as one of the best pop albums in history. At the time of its release, however, it was a commercial flop – and one that created long-lasting tensions between band members, especially Brian and co-vocalist Mike Love. Indeed, it was Love who was most outspoken about his distaste for the change in the band’s musical direction.
According to The Guardian, Love wanted to stick to the formula that had initially made the group so successful and referred to Pet Sounds as “Brian’s ego music.” The latter’s new tracks, which were increasingly melancholy and thematically sophisticated, did sometimes fail to connect with the fanbase. And Love even called some of the lyrics, which delved deeply into Brian’s self-doubt and loss of innocence, “nauseating”.
Following Pet Sounds, the group released one of their most famous singles: “Good Vibrations.” While the song was a hit, though, its recording process was again unorthodox. Brian recorded various disparate pieces of music that represented a feeling, which he then combined like a mosaic.
This then led into the production of their next record, Smile, which wound up becoming one of the most infamous unreleased albums in music history. Wilson endlessly tinkered with songs and brought in other writers, producers and talent managers, which left the original Beach Boys feeling pushed out. In the end, the project was abandoned after close to a year of recording sessions.
Over the subsequent decades, relations between band members would continue to sour, with Mike Love and Dennis even obtaining restraining orders against each other. Brian’s struggles with mental health problems also continued. Indeed, he was institutionalized in 1968 and became a recluse for several years in the early 1970s.
Relations between Brian and Love continued to be strained as well. For example, in 1992 Love sued Brian for defamation of character, due to how he’d been represented in the latter’s memoir Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story. Love also sued Brian for lost royalties and was awarded $2 million.
In addition, his lawsuit saw Love be awarded credits on 35 of the band’s songs. Then, after the death of Carl Wilson in 1998, Love was able to lease the rights to touring under the Beach Boys name, along with a supporting band often made up of new musicians.
This led to a schism in the band, with Love, Johnston and David Marks continuing to tour as The Beach Boys, while Brian Wilson and Al Jardine pursued solo careers. Love even sued Jardine in 2003, as he’d been using the band’s name to promote some of his tours. It took half a decade for the resulting legal battle to reach its conclusion.
Brian went on to enjoy a late career renaissance as a solo artist. In his mid-70s he launched a huge tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds and played more than 160 concerts across the world. Rolling Stone wrote, “It’s a gruelling… run that would punish the most disciplined performer, let alone a reclusive senior citizen suffering from a serious psychiatric disorder and back pain.”
The true reason why Brian Wilson said the world will never see The Beach Boys on stage again stems from the unhappy end of their historic 2012 reunion tour, which celebrated the band’s 50th anniversary. This was the first full tour since 1965 to feature Brian Wilson and the remaining surviving members of the classic line-up: Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks.
The tour itself was a roaring success, with fans of all ages ecstatic to see the classic line-up back together again. The group played 50 dates in North America alone, as well as many more in Europe, Asia and Oceania. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, in fact, with band relations reportedly as good as they had been in years.
But then Love announced that The Beach Boys would be playing some dates in South America with a line-up that only included himself and Bruce Johnston from the classic lineup. This took Brian by surprise, who’d said that the reunion “blew away all my expectations.” However, he was completely unaware that Love had set these new concerts up.
It led to Love writing an October 2012 piece in the Los Angeles Times in response to the outrage of fans, who believed that Wilson had been “fired” from the band. “Let me get right to it: I did not fire Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys,” Love stated. “I cannot fire Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys. I am not his employer… This tour was always envisioned as a limited run.”
Brian responded with his own open letter, in the very same newspaper. “As far as I know I can’t be fired – that wouldn’t be cool,” he wrote. “What’s confusing is that by Mike not wanting or letting Al [Jardine], David [Marks] and me tour with the band, it sort of feels like we’re being fired.”
In fact, Brian and Love reportedly didn’t speak for the next five years. In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, when asked if he could envision a scenario in which the group reunited, Brian replied, “The Beach Boys might get together again – but not with me.” He added that he was happy and focused on his rejuvenated solo career.
In the same interview, a reflective Brian contemplated some of his strongest memories from his 50-year history in the music business. He revealed that listening to Pet Sounds “brings back a lot of memories, mostly good, but it throws me off balance.” Clearly, there are plenty of conflicting feelings attached to that record for Brian.
Brian then spoke of his brothers Carl and Dennis, as well as his father, with whom he had a notoriously troubled relationship. “I miss my brothers, I miss hearing Carl sing and I miss my dad so much, even though he died in 1973,” Brian admitted. “It takes me back to those places, and it’s very emotional”.
So it certainly appears that for Brian there may be too much water under the bridge for him to consider performing with The Beach Boys again. Nonetheless, fans were given a glimmer of hope during a 2018 Q&A at the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles, which was reported by Rolling Stone.
That exchange, which was part of promotional duties for a new live album entitled The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, saw the five surviving members in the same place again for the first time since 2012. The interview was moderated by film director Rob Reiner, and all the band members were apparently in good spirits.
Love was very complimentary of his cousin Brian at the event. He waxed lyrical about Brian’s song-writing abilities, for example, saying, “Nobody was more masterful at chord progressions than Brian.” After the Q&A, he went on to talk to Rolling Stone about his relationship with Brian, saying they “connect on a pretty primordial level.”
With such a long history of bad blood between Love and Brian, though, as well as numerous other factors including that they’re all well into their 70s now, it’s little wonder Brian seems so certain that he’ll never play with The Beach Boys again.
However, as with anything in life, perhaps it’s really a “never say never” situation. Maybe the right set of circumstances could align, and the band may see fit to give it one last go? After all, they’ve reunited before after seemingly permanently damaging their relationships, so another classic Beach Boys tour could well still be a possibility.