Book Review: “i am Brian Wilson”

brianwilson“i am Brian Wilson” has to be one of the most honest and forthcoming autobiographies ever written by a musician, but to call it simply an “autobiography” would be to sell it short. To some, it could be considered a self-help book, because there is inspiration in Wilson’s words. I’m not talking about the same inspiration that one might get from listening to a Beach Boys song, I’m talking about the kind of inspiration you get from knowing what a person was up against, both real and imagined, and that they were able to work it all out in the end. To some, the book is going to be a historical testament not only to the Beach Boys, but to the emerging music scene in America in the 1960’s in general. Some will view it as a love story, a love story not only between Brian and his wife Melinda, but a love story between Brian and his world, his music, and his triumphs. I think the best way to describe “i am” is to describe it as a manuscript, because it’s not “organized” with a flow, it’s doesn’t follow a typical linear timeline, and neither does life itself. And this is what I found so compelling about it.

The book is written much in the way a conversation can take place and go off on a tangent, stay there for a while, jump back before the start of the dialogue, and end up back in the middle. It’s fragmented, but not in a bad way, because that’s how we think. It could have been organized more uniformly by Ghostwriter Ben Greenman, but therein lies the appeal. Right in the middle of a thought, another thought is triggered, investigated, and left behind for the reader to contemplate. The book starts off with its dedication to Melinda: “God only knows what I’d be without you.” Indeed, had it not been for the gentle but firm intervention of Melinda, Wilson might have just faded into a distant memory. As Brian tells it, “Without her I may have been the last surviving Wilson, but I wouldn’t have been completely alive.”

If you saw the biopic “Love and Mercy” you’ll know the tale of how a chance meeting at a Cadillac dealership eventually led to the salvation and resurrection of Brian Wilson. The title of the book is a reference to his decades-long unfulfilled album SMiLE. The “i’ was purposely not capitalized, according to Brian, “because the album was partly about forgetting the ego.” So, interwoven into his whole tale is the love story between him and Melinda that the movie depicted as ending at a vacant lot in Hawthorne, but really ended “with me marrying Melinda and being with her and being happy that I was with her. It ended with adopting kids and making more records.”

As you start to read, you really feel less an observer, and more of a participant in his journey. Brian’s style of writing is very matter-of-fact, without judgment, almost boyishly analytical. It’s amazing that after all he’s been through that the inner boy in him still shines through.

These are just the facts of his life, and he lays them out there for us. He speaks of his mental health issues in a way that doesn’t so much elicit a sense of pity, but a sense of relief that someone of his legend has the fortitude to discuss these things, while framing them inside the history of this great composer and the early rock scene. In a word, it’s brutally honest. Brian speaks very openly about his battles with mental illnesses and the “doctor” who tried to help him, but in the end turned out to be the biggest thing standing between Wilson and his goals, “nine years of bullshit” as Brian puts it. He’s able to talk about it because “it was much harder living it”.

If you read his first book, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” you’ll be somewhat familiar with the story. There is the chapter dealing with the abuse, both physical and mental that Brian had to endure. I’ll admit that after reading “Nice” all those years ago, I walked around with the impression that Murry Wilson was just the most horrible person on the planet. After reading “i am”, my opinion of him has changed, through Brian’s attempts to “understand” his father, and learn how to deal with it. After all, only the Wilson brothers had to deal with it, not us. Most people would just either block the memories, or write very disparagingly about the negative experiences. Brian manages to find the silver lining in even the darkest clouds, and that is the huge inspiration I speak of.

Brian Wilson is America’s Beethoven, or Mozart, or Lennon and McCartney, however you want to view it. You may view him as the author of many simple, almost elementary songs, songs that mostly focus on sun, sand, cars, and girls. But if you really know about Brian Wilson, you know he didn’t just write pop songs. Brian authored what is arguably the most important album in the history of modern music, Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds is now recognized as the masterpiece that Brian intended, and that is the album that inspired The Beatles to compose one of the most seminal albums in the history of rock music: Sgt. Pepper. Pet Sounds was never as commercially successful as Pepper, but its influence was so great, that to this day it’s still acknowledged as the wellspring of creativity for The Beatles psychedelic period. Without Pet Sounds, God only knows where we’d be musically.

If you only read one book this year, it should be Brian’s book. “i am Brian Wilson” will lift your spirits and give you some great insights into the songs, and the mind of a musical genius. Thanks for taking us along on your journey Brian, we wish you well!

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Ivor Levene

About Ivor Levene

Ivor Levene likes to interview musicians, write about music and musicians, play music, listen to music, read about music, photograph musicians, and anything else you can think of with music. He has been involved with the music scene for over thirty years and his posts have appeared all over the place! Ivor says "I'm going to write about music as long as I have something to say".
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