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Brian Wilson — A Powerful Interview

When we consider the most iconic, influential and well-known music groups in American pop culture, one name that undoubtedly comes to mind is The Beach Boys. This harmonious sensation, featuring the musical talents of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine, swept the 1960s generation with memorable hits including “Kokomo,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfin’ USA” and “California Girls.” While the group as a whole was a huge success, lead singer Brian Wilson stands out in the minds of fans and critics alike as the musical soul of the fabulous fivesome.

However, early in The Beach Boys’ performing career, despite their growing popularity, Wilson became increasingly uncomfortable appearing on stage and took a behind-the-scenes role as the group’s creative leader. His musical innovation hit a high note in 1966 with the release of the Pet Sounds album. The compilation, which music legend Paul McCartney has called his “favorite album of all time,” put the boys on the map as one of rock-n-roll’s most talented acts. The album was soon followed by the group’s largest selling single, the chart-topping platinum hit “Good Vibrations.”

Still, as The Beach Boys’ success grew, so did Wilson’s seclusion. In the late 60s and early 70s, he sank into a morass of drug use and depression, reportedly spending weeks to months at a time in bed. His overeating supposedly led his first wife, Marilyn, to padlock the refrigerators. In 1976, Wilson’s family engaged the help of controversial psychiatrist Eugene Landy. While the Wilsons ultimately rejected Landy’s methods and control over his patient’s life, Wilson did recover his musical productivity and began recording and even performing on stage again.

As time went by, he embarked on a solo journey, launched with the album Brian Wilson in 1988. Subsequent projects included The Wilsons, an ensemble with daughters Wendy and Carnie, two-thirds of the Grammy-nominated pop group Wilson Phillips. Then in 2004 Wilson astounded the pop world with his re-recorded version of SMiLE, a legendary unreleased Beach Boys album abandoned in 1967 because of creative differences with other group members. The project garnered him a Grammy for best rock instrumental with the track “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (Fire).”

Thus, while Wilson’s plaques and awards may be covered in gold, his road to success has been paved with anything but. His mental health struggles have been legendary, even appearing in the lyrics penned by current-generation rock stars (as with the Barenaked Ladies’ musical quip, “Lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did…”). However, not until recently has Wilson discussed openly that his experiences go far beyond simple depression and drug use to a mental condition called schizoaffective disorder, which involves ongoing hallucinations, paranoia and other distortions of reality. Recently, Wilson sat down with ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and senior health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, to talk about his music, his mental health, and the love and family that these days bring him contentment and sanity.

Chet Cooper: Tell me about the beginning of the band The Beach Boys. How did you get together and where did it start?

Brian Wilson: It started in Hawthorne, California, where we grew up, outside of Los Angeles. I rented some instruments along with my brothers Carl and Dennis, my cousin Mike and my friend Al Jardine. We played a little and realized our voices blended well combined with the instruments. My Dad had also been a music producer and a publisher, and he got us a connection for some studio time. And the rest is history.

Gillian Friedman, MD: So you had a little inside knowledge about what was necessary to break into the business.

Wilson: Yeah, my dad taught me a lot.

Friedman: How did you choose the name Beach Boys?

Wilson: We didn’t. When we cut the first album we were going to call ourselves The Pendletones, after a type of sweater everyone was wearing. Russ Regan, a promoter for Candix Records, came up with the name The Beach Boys.

Cooper: And when you got older were you going to change it to The Beach Men?

Brian: (laughs) We considered it, but we didn’t want to confuse our listeners, so we kept it the way it was.

Cooper: What led you to choose surfing as the theme of your songs and the theme of your band?

Wilson: Because my brother Dennis said surfing was the new thing, the new fad. He was the surfer in the group.

Friedman: So you weren’t all surfers per se?

Wilson: No, I was never a surfer. I never learned.

Cooper: Do you ever think of trying?

Wilson: No—I’ve gotten along this far without it.

Cooper: Because we were planning to take you out tomorrow and go down to San Onofre Beach.

Wilson: (laughs) Okay, I’ll tell you what—in that case, I’ll ride a big wave for you! No, surfing was just what we thought people would want to hear.

Friedman: Did you ever expect, when you started recording, that the group would become such a big hit?

Wilson: No way, I had no idea about that.

Cooper: Was there some crazy piece of luck that propelled you, being in the right place at the right time?

Wilson: A lot of it was my dad. He took us to a really good recording studio and helped us out a lot. But he was also pretty tough at times. He scared me so much with his yelling—he would be yelling and poking fingers in my chest, screaming, “Get in there and kick ass and make a good record.””All I could say was, “Okay Dad, all right.” But then we’d go ahead and cut something great like “Good Vibrations” or “California Girls.”

Friedman: At what point did your schizoaffective disorder start to appear?

Wilson: Well, for the past 40 years I’ve had auditory hallucinations in my head, all day every day, and I can’t get them out. Every few minutes the voices say something derogatory to me, which discourages me a little bit, but I have to be strong enough to say to them, “Hey, would you quit stalking me? F*** off! Don’t talk to me—leave me alone!” I have to say these types of things all day long. It’s like a fight.

Friedman: Do you think the voices were part of what made it difficult for you to go on stage for many years?

Wilson: Yes, because when I was on stage I could hear voices telling me negative things about myself. Even today, when I sing I have to force myself not listen to them. But when the concert is over, the voices come back.

Cooper: How old were you when the voices started?

Wilson: About 25.

Friedman: So you were already a successful musician when they started.

Wilson: Right. I believe they started picking on me because they are jealous. The voices in my head are jealous of me.

Cooper: How long did it take after they started before you really understood what was going on?

Wilson: Oh, I knew right from the start something was wrong. I’d taken some psychedelic drugs, and then about a week after that I started hearing voices, and they’ve never stopped. For a long time I thought to myself, “Oh, I can’t deal with this.” But I learned to deal with it anyway.

Friedman: When did you start getting treatment?

Wilson: Not until I was about 40, believe it or not. A lot of times people don’t get help as early as they should.

Cooper: Has treatment made your life easier?

Wilson: A little bit. It has made my symptoms bearable so I don’t have to go screaming down the street yelling, “Leave me alone, leave me alone,” and that kind of thing.

Friedman: Does anything else accompany the voices?

Wilson: Yes, I get intense fear, too. It comes and goes. You get the feeling and it goes away.

Friedman: Do you remember any of the intense fears you’ve had?

Wilson: No, not really—they are so bad that I’ve blocked them out. I try very hard not to remember them. But I do know they’ve raised my stress level and made me feel depressed a lot. I have to take medication to treat the depression.

Cooper: What has depression been like for you?

Wilson: Well my depression goes pretty low, pretty deep. I get depressed to the point where I can’t do anything—I can’t even write songs, which is my passion.

Cooper: Is there anything that brings it on? Anything that seems to make the depression hit harder?

Wilson: Now I get it mostly in the afternoon. I dread the derogatory voices I hear during the afternoon. They say things like, “You are going to die soon,” and I have to deal with those negative thoughts. But it’s not as bad as it used to be. When I’m on stage, I try to combat the voices by singing really loud. When I’m not on stage, I play my instruments all day, making music for people. Also, I kiss my wife and kiss my kids. I try to use love as much as possible.

Friedman: Have you ever gotten so overwhelmed by the voices and the depression that you’ve felt you didn’t even want to be alive anymore?

Wilson: Yes, I have, but my friends constantly assure me I’m going to be okay, that they’re on my side and they’re my allies. They tell me they are my guardian angels and they will help me through it.

Cooper: Some people who have a condition with voices or depression worry that if they take medication for it, the treatment will dull them creatively.

Wilson: Well, it does dull you a little bit at first, but once you get used to it, it doesn’t bother your creative process.

Cooper: Do you feel that you are able to produce more creatively because you have some relief from your symptoms?

Wilson: Absolutely. I used to go for long periods without being able to do anything, but now I play every day. And finishing the album SMiLE two years ago was my biggest accomplishment ever.

Friedman: Unfortunately, the general public really doesn’t understand psychotic illness very well. They don’t understand how someone can be intelligent, thoughtful and creative and also have voices. They can’t quite put that together.

Brian Wilson - interview with Chet Cooper and Dr. Gillian Friedman

Wilson: You’re right. I know there are a lot of brilliant people who have my condition.

Friedman: And contrary to the common perception, when you are walking down the street, most of the time you wouldn’t know who has a mental illness and who doesn’t. It’s not something you can glean from just seeing somebody. But I think the public has a particular stigma about it. Has there been any situation where you have felt uncomfortable talking about your illness?

Wilson: No, I don’t think so.

Friedman: Well, good, because I think it is very important—especially for people who are known for being intelligent and creative—to let the public know that there is nothing necessarily scary about somebody who has a mental health condition.

Wilson: I say, “We shall overcome.” I use that all the time. We shall overcome all of bad notions people have, the preconceived notions.

Cooper: Do you see a counselor who helps you?

Wilson: Yes, I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist once a week for 12 years now, and he’s become a really close friend of mine. We talk and he helps me out. He tells me, “Well when you hear the voices, why don’t you make a joke and say to them, ‘How are you doing, Voices? How are you doing today?’ You know, talk humorously to them.” I tried that out and it works a little bit.

Friedman: So it sounds like a really important part of it for you is not just getting the medication, but also having somebody to give you support and practical techniques you can use.

Wilson: Absolutely.

Cooper: In terms of your medicine, is the regimen complicated?.... Continued in PDF version Order Here.

foreword by Dahvi Fischer

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Brian Wilson issue include Letter from the Editor Health and Happiness; Congressman Etheridge — Volunteerism for All; Headlines — AT&T, A&E, Accessible Tent, Fibromyalgia; Humor Global Warming; Employment — The ADA and People with Hearing Loss; Google — New Accessible Search; Freedom For Life — Accessible Adventure; Staglin Family Vineyard — Good Wine & Good Causes; Schizoaffective Disorder — What You Need to Know; Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home; Book Excerpt — You're Stronger Than You Think; Events and Conferences...subscribe


More excerpts from the Brian Wilson issue: (2006)

Brian WilsonA Powerful Interview

Dr. Ernst Katz — 70th Anniversary of the Jr. Philharmonic

Aloha— Hawaii's first ABILITY House

Shoshannah Stern — Ready for Prime Time

Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home

Book Excerpt — You're Stronger Than You Think

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Brian Wilson - interview with Chet Cooper and Dr. Gillian Friedman