Brian Wilson’s Victory over Adversity
Posted on May 8, 2017
This is a few weeks late. I was committed to some travel columns when he came to Boise, but I can’t not write about Brian Wilson, one of my early musical heroes.
The former Beach Boy played at the Morrison Center on April 6. This isn’t intended to be a review of the concert. It’s too late for that, and other Statesman writers are far more qualified to write reviews. I’ll include some impressions from the concert, but this is less a review than an overcoming-adversity story. Those who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse can learn a lot from the life of Brian Wilson. His is a success story for the ages.
Success in the usual sense came to him early. He was virtually a kid when the Beach Boys, of whom he was a founding member, started making hits. The first time I saw them was when they played at, of all places, the Boise High School auditorium. We won’t get into how long ago that was except to say that I was still a student there.
Actually, it wasn’t surprising that they played at a high school auditorium. The Morrison Center, Taco Bell Arena, CenturyLink Arena, the Idaho Center and other venues we enjoy today didn’t exist then. The auditorium was one of the larger venues around, and the Beach Boys were one of the hottest groups in the country then. Every seat was filled.
My most vivid impression of the show that night was how effortless Wilson made it look to play music. He played bass as if he were on autopilot, rarely looking at his guitar. He sang his signature falsetto parts as easily as you or I hum in the the shower, without grimacing, straining or breaking a sweat. His voice when he was young was a phenomenon. No one else, with the arguable exception of his brother Carl, could come close to making the high vocal parts that were so much a part of the Beach Boys sound sound as good as he did.
How wrong impressions can be. Performing onstage was anything but effortless for him. What the audience at Boise High didn’t know that night, and audiences wouldn’t know for years, was how ill he was. His memoir, “I Am Brian Wilson,” details a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Drugs, alcohol and an incompetent doctor compounded it. Mere stage fright, though he certainly experienced it, is insignificant compared with the other demons that haunted him.
Then as now, it took courage for him to join his brothers, cousin and a friend who comprised the band at their performances. Even now, he has to psych himself into going onstage for every show.
One of the symptoms of his illness is that he hears threatening voices that are only in his head. They compete with his own voice and that of his bandmates. A serious problem in a group known for intricate vocal harmonies, but not the only problem. When he was a child, a kid in his neighborhood hit him in the ear with a pipe. He’s been deaf in that ear ever since. If his stage monitor isn’t placed perfectly for his good ear, he can’t hear himself or the other band members singing above the instruments and the voices in his head.
Effortless? Anything but.
As if that weren’t enough, he had to overcome the abuse of a violent father and the Beach Boys’ troubled history. His illness often alienated him from the group, leading him to stay home and write songs while the band toured without him. He lost both brothers, one to heavy drinking and an accident, the other to lung cancer.
In 2012, his cousin Mike Love, who owns the Beach Boys’ name, opted to tour without Wilson and founding members Al Jardine and David Marks. This would be like Ringo Starr touring as the Beatles without John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Wilson shook it off and started his own band, the one that played in Boise last month, and it’s as good or better than any Beach Boys band.
I went to see them because he was one of the last geniuses on my bucket list. I’d seen three of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan and others, but not Brian Wilson. Not since he was a kid yet to prove his genius.
His current band is what the Beach Boys of that time may have wished they’d been. In addition to the usual drums, bass and guitars, the 12-piece group has a grand piano, multiple electronic keyboards, percussion, a xylophone, harmonicas, woodwinds …
At their worst, they sounded okay. At their best, they sounded magnificent. Wilson can’t hit the high parts anymore, but Matt Jardine, Al’s son, covers them. (Al is in the band, too.) Vocal harmonies were one of the best things about the Beach Boys, and at times in the Morrison Center they all but enveloped you. One song had nine harmony parts, arranged by … who else?
When the group played “God Only Knows,” the beautiful Brian Wilson ballad that McCartney says is one of his all-time favorite songs, you didn’t have to look far to see tears streaming down faces.
I have mental illness and addiction in my family so I know something about the difficulty of overcoming them. The percentage of those who do is small.
Wilson is one of those who has. He’s fragile and his voice isn’t what it used to be. He limps on and offstage, sometimes leaving before a song is finished. He clearly isn’t the kid who once made performing look easy. But at 74, he’s put together a band that more than makes up for the limitations of age and illness and does justice to the music he’s created.
He deserved credit just for walking onstage at the Morrison Center. But he did much more than that. He overcame his demons, made his audience feel young again, gave us goosebumps and moved us to tears. If that isn’t overcoming adversity, nothing is.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org