Labeled by the press as a musical genius while still in his 20s, Brian Wilson would produce more than two dozen Top 40 hits as a member of the original Beach Boys. Yet substance abuse and mental health issues would force the singer-songwriter-composer to withdraw from the world just as his professional star was reaching new heights.
As the Beach Boys began to skyrocket, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdon
Born in 1942 and raised in Hawthorne, California, it was during high school that Wilson, his two younger brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine would form what would become one of America’s greatest rock bands, the Beach Boys. Started as a garage band in 1961, the group’s blended harmonies, sophisticated arrangements and innovative recording techniques would propel their music to the top of the charts and provide impetus to the growing youth culture quickly embracing the look and sounds of Southern California surf life.
With father Murry as manager and Wilson — almost completely deaf in his right ear following a physical head trauma as a child — in the role of songwriter, producer and frontman, the Beach Boys first album, Surfin’ Safari (1962), introduced the band’s early sound. Subsequent albums Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe (all 1963), the seminal Pet Sounds (1966) and chart-topping platinum single “Good Vibrations” would turn them into international music celebrities. But by 1967 Wilson had suffered a nervous breakdown and had become so uncomfortable appearing on stage he quit touring, retreating to a more background, creative role.
He turned to drugs to battle his depression
As the Beach Boys success continued to skyrocket in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wilson sank further into seclusion, turning to heavier and heavier drug use — particularly cocaine and hallucinogens such as LSD — in an effort to combat the worsening depression that could render him unable to get out of bed for days. In rare public appearances, he was photographed dressed only in his bathrobe as alcohol abuse and overeating pushed his weight past 300 pounds. He would ultimately be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a mental health disorder resulting in ongoing hallucinations, depression, paranoia and sometimes mania.
“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,” Wilson told Ability magazine in 2006 of his symptoms. “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.”
A psychologist helped Wilson take charge of his health and became very involved in his life
So worried had his family become that by the mid-1970s Wilson’s then-wife employed psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy in an effort to help Wilson control his drug dependency and take charge of his overall health. Monitoring the singer-songwriter 24 hours a day along with a team of assistants, Landy would help Wilson gain some control over his physical and mental health, but would also be accused of exploiting his control over his patient during the almost 15 on-again, off-again years Wilson was in his care. Landy became so involved in every aspect of Wilson’s life he would be listed as a collaborator on the singer’s 1988 solo album, had Wilson’s memoir dedicated to him and was named a beneficiary in his will.
In 1991 Wilson’s family sued Landy, obtaining a restraining order against the doctor. Landy would eventually lose his license to practice psychology in California but remained close to Wilson throughout the rest of his life. Wilson credited Landy with helping his recovery through medication and forced abstinence, resulting in his return to performing and producing new music. Their relationship was the subject of the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy, starring John Cusack as Wilson and Paul Giamatti as Landy.
Wilson continues to struggle but has also ‘been able to live a wonderful, healthy and productive life’
Wilson’s friends credit his ongoing wellbeing to his second wife, Melinda, whom he married in 1995 and has five adopted children with. “She got him to see the right doctors,” longtime Wilson friend Jeff Foskett said to People in 2012. “She’s provided a family environment for him. They actually do things together.” Though Wilson admits he continues to struggle and still occasionally sees a therapist: “On my good days I feel creative, I laugh a lot, I go to my piano and play… Some days I don’t feel creative and I don’t talk to anybody.”
Stepping away from the music again is not a consideration, says Wilson. “Oh, man. No retiring,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “If I retired I wouldn’t know what to do with my time. … I’d rather get on the road and do concerts and take airplane flights.”
Though his creative and performing output continues to be strong, he is aware his mental health must always come first. Wilson postponed dates on his 2019 Pet Sounds and Greatest Hits Live Tour after back surgeries caused him to feel “mentally insecure,” according to a press statement. The Beach Boys icon had been in the studio recording and rehearsing with his band when his mental health issues “crept back,” he said, causing him to struggle “with stuff in my head and saying things I don’t mean.”
“It is no secret that I have been living with mental illness for many decades,” Wilson added. “There were times when it was unbearable but with doctors and medications I have been able to live a wonderful, healthy and productive life with support from my family, friend and fans who have helped me through this journey.”