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.
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.
Cooper: In terms of your medicine, is the regimen complicated?
Wilson: Not really. I take Luvox for depression, Klonopin for anxiety and Clozaril to help with the voices and help me sleep at night.
Cooper: It sounds as though that’s a real successful combination for you.
Wilson: Oh yeah, it’s great medicine for me. It’s not too strong, and it works.
Friedman: What are some of the other things that help you get through the day, besides your music?
Wilson: Let me explain what my secret is. I walk five miles a day in the morning, I eat really good food, I get a little sleep at night—four or five hours, sometimes six if I’m lucky—and I use my love with people. I use love as a way to get along with people.
Friedman: Explain to me what that means—using love as a way to get along with people.
Wilson: Well, I sing for people and play songs for them on my synthesizer. I talk to people about music and love.
Cooper: How do you handle bad times?
Wilson: With my will power—or, as I call it, Wilson Power. I go through bad vibes, of course—everybody does—but I get through them because I have just enough will in my last name to do that.
Friedman: (laughs) What about arguments? If you get into an argument, does it stress you out?
Wilson: I used to argue with my wife several years ago, but we are cooling out a little bit. It’s too stressful to argue.
Cooper: What did you use to calm down that arguing? What have you figured out?
Wilson: Love. These days, I try to focus on love. I try to straighten out our problems with love.
Cooper: So I understand you have really close relationships with your family.
Wilson: Yes, they’re the light of my life. Nothing brings joy into my life like my children. I have two girls by a previous marriage who are in their 30s, and now I have nine- and eight-year-old girls and a little two-and-a-halfyear-old boy. And they are all beautiful kids. My children and my music are my two greatest loves.
Cooper: That’s great. Musically, what are you working on now?
Wilson: I’m recording the song “Rave On,” originally by Buddy Holly, and also “Proud Mary” by John Fogerty. You remember “Rave On,” right?
[Wilson goes to the piano and sings the first few stanzas.]
Friedman: Wow, that was fantastic!
Cooper: No stage fright with us?
Wilson: (laughs) No, not today.
Friedman: I understand you’ve also been asked to participate in the Staglin Music Festival, a concert to raise awareness about mental health issues, and they want you to speak a little about your experience with schizoaffective disorder.
Wilson: Yeah, we are going to do an hour-and-a-half concert at that show, trying to raise half-million dollars. We are very happy to be part of that cause.
Cooper: It’s very important. I’ve noticed that you have been involved with many other organizations as well.
Wilson: Yes, we’ve worked with the Carl Wilson Foundation, which helps people who have cancer. It was founded in honor of my brother, who died of lung cancer in 1998. And we raised a lot of money for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. I agreed to make a personal phone call to anyone who contributed at least $100. We raised $250,000—that was a lot of phone calls!
Friedman: What a tremendous undertaking! It must have been so exciting for people to get that phone call from you.
Wilson: Yes, they were thrilled. I told people that if they donated, they could ask me any question they wanted and I would answer it.
Friedman: I know that you had just performed at Jazzfest in New Orleans a few months before the hurricane hit. It must have been devastating to think about all the loss in that great city you’d just visited.
Wilson: Oh, it was terrible. When it happened I was so concerned about everyone there.
Cooper: Have you been back to New Orleans since that time?
Brian: No, unfortunately I haven’t
Friedman: I also saw that you were named the 2005 Person of the Year by the organization Music Cares, a group that helps provide mental health treatment for musicians who can’t afford it—a great example of the industry taking care of its own.
Wilson: Yes, I was so honored to receive that award. This year’s winner was James Taylor.
Friedman: Of course, he’s another person who has been through a lot of depression and has talked about how important treatment has been for him to be able to do what he wants to do musically.
Cooper: So he has Wilson Power, too!
Wilson: (laughs) Yes, more Wilson Power.
Friedman: It sounds as though you’ve really worked through your stage fright and really get a lot out of performing these days.
Wilson: Yes. I was nervous my first couple of years of performing solo—I didn’t think I’d ever be able to perform on stage again. But I finally overcame my fear.
Friedman: The public is surprised sometimes about performers who get nervous going on stage. A couple of years ago, we interviewed Donny Osmond, who also had stage fright so bad that he thought he was going to have to quit one of his most successful shows, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Wilson: Really? He was going through all that?
Friedman: He said it was paralyzing. And I remember seeing him in that show, right about the time it was the worst for him—and of course he was wonderful. You would never have known how much agony he was going through. He’s outwardly so outgoing, but inside he was tormented by anxiety in a lot of social situations.
Wilson: Is he better now?
Friedman: Yes, he got some good therapy, and now he’s a big advocate for other people who have anxiety problems. In your case, after so many years of not performing in public, what do you think the turning point was for you?
Wilson: In 2004, when we premiered SMiLE in London. That was the big turning point.
Cooper: What about it made it easier for you to get onto the stage again?
Wilson: Well, we were so well received that it made me feel confident about my concerts.
Cooper: So you needed some really positive reinforcement.
Wilson: Yeah, I needed some support from my fans to keep me going.
Friedman: What sorts of things get you impassioned now, beyond your music and your family?
Wilson: Humor. It lightens my day when people are funny.
Cooper: Do you have a favorite joke?
Wilson: No, but I have a favorite prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the Alcoholic’s Anonymous prayer.
Cooper: Do you participate in 12-step programs?
Wilson: I went to about 40 AA meetings, but I was too afraid to talk. I was so scared when my turn came that my voice started shaking. But after a few minutes I was okay.
Friedman: You mentioned that you first started hearing voices after taking some psychedelic drugs. What happened with your drug use after that?
Wilson: Well, I took a lot of amphetamines and a lot of downers. The cocaine and marijuana and all the rest of the stuff I took really messed with my brain. I couldn’t tell reality from fantasy. Drugs will mess with your head! If there is one thing I could go back in my life and change, I wouldn’t have taken drugs. But it’s too late to turn back now.
Cooper: Was it difficult to get off of them?
Wilson: Yes, it took some will power and some strength. It mostly took the help of my friends.
Cooper: How long have you been clean now?
Wilson: For about 20 years.
Friedman: Fabulous. Do you have any routine that keeps you off the drugs?
Wilson: Mainly, I don’t hang out with people who take drugs.
Friedman: That’s so important. You know, the mantra of all of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is people, places and things. If you want to stay clean, steer clear of the people you did drugs with, the places you did them, and any things that make you think of drugs. I think you hit upon the one thing that’s most difficult for people with drug problems when they’re trying to get sober—having to form a whole new set of friends sometimes.
Wilson: I think that’s right.
Cooper: Was there anything else that you ever wanted to do with your life?
Wilson: I wanted to have a bigger appetite.
Friedman: A bigger appetite?
Wilson: (laughs) Yeah, I didn’t eat enough food in my life. I needed a bigger appetite.
Friedman: (laughs) No, seriously, have you ever wondered what you would have taken up if you hadn’t become a musician?
Wilson: I’d be a major league baseball player.
Cooper: Did you play well?
Wilson: Oh yeah, I played a lot of ball. I was really, really good.
Cooper: What position?
Wilson: Center field. I had a good arm—I could throw really well.
Friedman: Do you ever have any regrets about not being able to pursue your baseball career?
Wilson: (laughs) No. I am happy with things the way they are.
Cooper: Well, your fans are obviously happy you didn’t lean towards baseball. And besides, your passion for music seems to be quite therapeutic for you.
Wilson: Yes, definitely. And to be honest, your asking me about the problems I have in my head—that was therapeutic. Thank you very much.
Friedman: Thank you for sharing that Wilson power with us!
foreword by Dahvi Fischer