Take a Sad Song and Make It Better: The Brian Wilson Version

David Hinckley
8 min readFeb 22, 2024

About 20 minutes after the death of Brian Wilson’s wife Melinda on Jan. 30, his family asked a court to place the 81-year-old musical icon in the care of a conservatorship, warning that he can’t take care of himself.

Since this isn’t the first time that’s been said about Brian Wilson, it might sound like simply the latest verse in a long, melancholy ballad about the lifelong struggles of the tormented genius behind the enduring music of the Beach Boys.

Brian Wilson on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” performing “I Get Around.”

I was not a friend or confidante. But from having talked with Wilson a number of times, I’m pretty sure the story is more complicated and perhaps even a little sunnier than that.

I also claim zero expertise in psychological analysis. What I can say is that Brian Wilson didn’t stop battling his demons, and he seemed both proud of and satisfied with the music he created, for the Beach Boys and beyond. Those are not unhappy things.

Since his documented tribulations included a jealous, abusive father, a nervous breakdown, depression, several unpronounceable cognitive diagnoses, drugs, alcohol, compulsive eating and manipulation by people claiming to help him address all of those things, no one would argue he got all the enjoyment his talent should have afforded him.

They’d be more likely to measure him against Keith Richards in the rock ’n’ roll edition of the “exactly how has he lived this long” sweepstakes.

Brian Wilson ca. 2005.

But he was performing live until July 2022, and I can attest that as of October 2021, the show didn’t make you worry about him. While his voice wasn’t in 1964 form, he was still playing songs he cared about, which isn’t a bad thing at 79.

“I’ll never stop making music,” he said in 1988. “It’s always in my head.”

Unfortunately, he added two years later, the music had company. “Sometimes I hear voices,” he said, “that are saying, ‘I want to kill you.’ “

That’s not good.

Wilson was not always your normal linear interview. Once he left his seat and stretched himself out on a couch. At one point he became fascinated with the shape of a picture on the wall behind me. At another point he pulled a handful of crumpled bills from his pocket and carefully smoothed them out. In the middle of an interview at a New York hotel, he asked how far he was from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, because he’d just decided he wanted to visit there.

When he was still under the 24-hour surveillance of Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychologist who was paid more than $400,000 a year to oversee Brian’s life and steer him away from everything corrosive, Landy would walk in and out of Wilson’s interviews, sometimes prodding him to do something like remember a date.

Landy, a pleasant enough fellow who wore bluejeans and Grateful Dead T-shirts, later became a villain in the Wilson story. He was forced out in 1992 amid accusations of overmedicating Brian and trying to weasel his way into Brian’s musical life and bank account. The relationship ended with Brian’s family obtaining a restraining order, though Brian himself continued to speak fondly of the man he always called “Doctor Landy.”

Brian’s 1988 debut solo album — a critical hit and a modest seller.

Landy moved in with Brian for the second time in 1982, and by 1987–88, he seemed to have gotten some results. Brian, who had previously ballooned to nearly 300 pounds with a sedentary and reclusive life, looked trim and healthy. He detailed his vegetarian diet. He finished his long-simmering self-titled solo album and credited Landy as an executive producer — though many of the artists and production people said Landy’s obsessive interference was more hindrance than help.

After Landy’s departure, his oversight functions largely passed to Melinda, Brian’s second wife, whom he married in February 1995. Among more important things, she sat by his side in interviews, occasionally prompting him or chiming in. When he mused that the other still-active Beach Boys “hated” live shows because the audiences only wanted the same 15–20 hits every night, Melinda chimed in, “Brian is the lucky one.”

After Melinda died, Brian’s family told the court he had dementia that had advanced far enough so he could not tend to his own basic needs.

Some around him, including his late brother and fellow Beach Boy Carl, had felt that was the case as early as the mid-1960s, when Brian’s behavior famously became erratic even as he was writing and producing music like the revered Pet Sounds album. Once reports leaked out that Brian demanded everyone wear fireman’s hats when they recorded “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” or held business meetings in a swimming pool, it became an article of rock ’n’ roll faith that Brian was kinda nuts.

“There are times when I wish my life weren’t so open,” he said in 1988. “There’s scary stuff that hurts me. And when you’ve been hurt, it’s tough to open up.”

Dr. Landy, he said, had shown him that “everyone goes through the b-s trip where you think ‘I’m failing, I’m a loser.’ What Dr. Landy put in me is a success mechanism — in life, not just in music. You can be a winner. Everyone has it in them to be a winner.”

Which did not, he explained, mean always getting your own way or always being better than everyone else.

When he began composing music, around the age of 10 or 12, his reference points were his first musical favorites, George Gershwin compositions like “Rhapsody in Blue” and the harmonies of the Four Freshmen or the Hi-Los.

The Beach Boys were not, however, aiming for jazz-influenced pop harmony. “Carl and Alan [Jardine] liked rock,” Brian said. “Mike [Love] liked rock. I liked ballads. We found a happy medium.”

That wasn’t a big stretch, since Brian also loved Chuck Berry and R&B vocal group songs like the Del Vikings’s “Come Go With Me” or Johnnie and Joe’s “Over The Mountain,” which Brian singled out as “a great record.”

A reissue of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” with writer credit to Chuck Berry. The original release credited Brian.

Some early Beach Boys records came directly from the Wilson brothers’s rock ’n’ roll radio station of choice, Los Angeles’s KFWB. “ ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ was a Chuck Berry song,” Brian noted. “We just changed the lyrics.”

The challenge as he moved more into his own music, he said, was getting on record what he heard in his head, a stream of sounds as diverse as “I Get Around” and “In My Room” that were woven into kin by the harmonies. “I had to make it sound easy, but it was difficult,” he said. “The intro to ‘California Girls’ might be where I came closest.”

He said several times around 1990 that he didn’t listen to his old music, “because I want to look forward.” He also said several times that he did listen to it and in fact was refining it for CD release. “My voice on the recording of ‘Good Vibrations’ is too thin,” he said at one point. Another time he said “I’d take Pet Sounds down about four notes. But that record was the best thing we did. And I didn’t hear it in my head. It was created as we went along. I wanted songs like ‘Don’t Talk’ and ‘Caroline No’ to come across in my voice. I was disappointed it didn’t sell better.”

A topic somewhere in every conversation was Phil Spector, the producer on whom Wilson went to school in his Beach Boys days. He loved what Nelson Riddle arranged for Frank Sinatra, Brian said, but for what he heard in his own head, Spector was the North Star.

“What I did wasn’t as good as Spector,” Brian said. “I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t.”

Brian submitted two songs to Spector around 1964. The first was “Don’t Worry Baby,” with its echoes of “Be My Baby.” Spector rejected it, which was bad for Brian’s self-confidence and great for the rest of us, since the Beach Boys’s version is arguably their best single.

The second was “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister,” which Spector rewrote into “Things Are Changing (For the Better).” “That was the only song we worked together on,” Brian said, and if it’s safe to call his interaction with Spector less than satisfying, he was publicly philosophical. “I didn’t expect to get a letter saying ‘Good job, Brian,’ or anything like that,” he said in 1991.

Truth is, he said another time, “When [Spector] called me to his studio, I was in awe of him. I was scared the whole time.”

Now that was a feeling he recognized.

“Much of my life is scared,” he said in 1991. “God says if you’re scared, you’re scraping bottom and you know you’ll come back up.”

And so he did, multiple times, seemingly with few grudges against any antagonists.

He did have an edgy relationship with Love for years, particularly when Love kept suing him for co-writing credits. After Love declared during the Beach Boys’s 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction that Mick Jagger was afraid to go on the same stage with the Beach Boys, Brian called Love “an a — hole for cutting Mick Jagger. . . . What the f — — was that?”

On the other hand, Brian also said he preferred Love’s voice to Jagger’s.

In the end, Brian Wilson’s life, like his music, doesn’t lend itself to neat or tidy analysis. While you don’t wish dementia to be the final verse for anyone’s life, you also know the definition of that life will be what came before. In Brian’s case, that’s reflected in something as seemingly incidental as the way he split the setlist evenly in his last concerts between later solo recordings like “Love and Mercy” and his Beach Boys classics.

The Beach Boys 1965: Clockwise from bottom: Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson.

He said he started writing more reflective, complex songs — Pet Sounds kind of songs — around the time “when I realized that my life had become my career.” He also never dismissed “409” or “Surfer Girl” or “The Warmth of the Sun” as simple ditties of his youth.

“There are a lot of average records,” he said in 1991. “The Beach Boys did not make average records. The Beach Boys helped people make sense of life.”



David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”