It's a warm June afternoon in New York City, and Brian Wilson is casually leaning back in a chair in a luxurious midtown hotel room. His arms are folded, and he occasionally looks at his watch. It's the body language of someone who's guarded, standoffish. When he speaks, however, it's a different story.
A few days earlier, the singer-songwriter and founding Beach Boy celebrated his 74th birthday and when the subject comes up, his eyes widen. "It was the greatest birthday of my life," he says, uncrossing his arms. "We went to a place called Peter Luger's [Steakhouse]. You gotta go there; you will fucking love it. I had the greatest steak dinner that I ever had in my whole life." He waits a beat and raises his voice. "In my whole life!"
Wilson has spent a lot of time thinking about his whole life lately, as he worked on I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir, his second autobiography, following up 1991's Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story – a book that landed him legal trouble with his bandmate and cousin Mike Love. "I wanted a book that tells the truth," he says of the need to write a new memoir. "It doesn't bullshit."
In it, he writes about the distance he felt from his domineering father, who managed the group, as well as the admiration he had for him. He talks about the ups and downs he and his brothers, Dennis and Carl, his cousin Mike and the rest of the Beach Boys have weathered over the years. He addresses his mental illness – and his relationship with the domineering Dr. Eugene Landy, as depicted recently in the movie Love & Mercy – writing that he feels safest and most at peace in a navy-blue chair at home. And he broaches the toll LSD took on him.
When Wilson speaks with Rolling Stone, looking back on his life, relationships and music, he alternates between speaking frankly and with wonder. His voice occasionally quivers as he finds the right words, which sometimes take bizarre turns except for when the subject that seems to matter most to him, family, comes up. When he's done talking, he stands up and puts out his hand forcefully. "Squeeze it," he says bluntly, unprompted. "That's what my dad taught me."
What did you want people to learn from your life story?
I want people to realize that drugs can be very detrimental and dangerous. I talk a lot about my bad experiences on drugs in the book for that reason.
What are your regrets with drugs?
I've told a lot of people don't take psychedelic drugs. It's mentally dangerous to take. I regret having taken LSD. It's a bad drug.
You also talked about mental illness. What do you want people to know about your mental-health struggles?
Well, just that the struggle for mental health is the result of bad drugs.
That's sometimes true. How did you allow yourself to open up about that subject?
It was tough for me. It took a lot of inner strength to go through it. I just prepped myself. I said, "Brian, I know you can do it."
When you were working on the book, what did you have to work the hardest on to get right?
My relationship with my dad. It was tough for me because he was the first male figure in my life. So I was scared of him.
You seem to have very conflicted feelings about him; he was abusive but you loved him. How did you get to the point where you could accept the good with the bad?
It was tough. My dad was quite the slave driver. He made us mow the lawn and when we were done, he'd say, "Mow it again." That's just the way it was. "Mow it twice. Do it right." He was just one of those crazy dads.
Right. But you wrote that you love him.
I love his music. He wrote some very beautiful music.
Was it hard to come to a positive place with his memory?
No, not really. It came very naturally.
You're a dad. What did you take from your father that you put into your own life as a dad?
I learned to be a little kinder with my kids. I haven't laid a hand on my kinds. Not one hand.
When you wrote about your first marriage, you said you did it to be like him – it was partially because your dad got married.
I just sat there and said to myself, "God, what a blessing it was to have a father that could teach me little tricks." Like being a perfectionist. He taught me how to be a perfectionist.
When you were going through the book and thinking back on your life, what made you the happiest?
When I met my wife, Melinda. The night we recorded "Good Vibrations" at CBS Studio in Los Angeles was the biggest moment of my life. Recording "California Girls." When I first saw the ocean, when my dad took me and my brothers down to the ocean. I've had a few high points in my life.
You wrote in the book that the ocean terrified you when you first saw it.
Right. It's a very big body of water, which scared me very much.
What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?
I learned that I had a lot of courage. I had the courage to face up to my ... [pauses] There's a "Serenity Prayer" for Alcoholics Anonymous. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change the things I can't." I've been sober now for three-and-a-half years. My doctor told me to knock off the alcohol. "You've got to stop drinking alcohol." And I did; I stopped. I feel a lot better, too.
What else struck you about your life when you were writing the book?
My relationship with my brothers and my cousin and Al [Jardine], the way we worked together, the way they sang. I'm very proud of Mike Love for singing. He's a great singer, one of the greatest rock & roll singers that ever lived. Very exciting singer. A lot of energy. It just really surprised me very much when he sang.
What about your brothers?
My brother Carl is probably my favorite singer. "God Only Knows." "Darlin'." He was incredible. I miss hearing him talk, the things he has to say.
What about Dennis?
I miss hanging with Dennis. We used to hang, snort cocaine together for a couple years in the early Eighties. We had a good time. And then he drowned, of course, in 1983. And Carl died in 1998. My mother died in 1997. My dad died in 1973. And when I die that will be the end of the Wilsons.
When is the last time you spoke with Mike Love?
About three-and-a-half years ago. I haven't spoken to him since our 50th anniversary tour. I assume he's still touring, as usual. I don't know how to explain it.
Is that a relationship you hope to repair?
I would like to sometime, yeah.
How would you go about mending fences?
Well, by producing a few records for him and making sure that he gets a good song to sing.
You've been playing Pet Sounds live as a solo artist recently. That record turned 50 this year. Has it taken on a new meaning for you?
Yeah. It reminds me of the harmonies that we did. My favorite part of music is harmony. That's the part of music I like the most. I like the full harmony.
What music inspires you now?
I listen to Sixties and Seventies music. Those two generations: the Sixties revolution and the Seventies revolution. I listen to them a lot. I find them to be very good listening enjoyment. The music that speaks to me most is the Beatles, John and Paul's songs. Oh, and "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes. I hear that every now and then.
You recently turned 74. What are your thoughts on retirement?
Retirement? Oh, man. No retiring. If I retired I wouldn't know what to do with my time. What would I do? Sit there and go, "Oh, I don't want to be 74"? I'd rather get on the road and do concerts and take airplane flights.
Are you working on new music?
Yes. I'm just as creative as I was 50 years ago but I don't work as fast. I work a little slower. I'm going to make an album December. I'm going to call it – so far, this is just a working title – Sensitive Music for Sensitive People. I think that's a good title and a good starting point.