Bad vibrations

By SAM TAYLOR, Daily Mail

Last updated at 22:48 07 July 2006

The Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson's descent into drug-addled madness is well chronicled. A new book reveals the reason: a father who whipped and humiliated him, stole his limelight - and cheated him out of millions

From the rear of an expectant crowd, a man in late middle age with broad shoulders, a prominent belly and a weathered face moves slowly towards the front. He is steered to a few seats reserved for VIPs in front of the makeshift stage. His expression is neither happy nor hostile, but almost entirely passive.

Voices from the crowd call his name, but Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys legend, doesn't look up. He seems detached from the world around him. Or maybe just lost in the memories of what once happened to him here. The crowd has come to witness the unveiling of a plaque marking the spot of the Wilson family's former home, but for Brian it is a day of mixed emotions.

The modest house on West 119th Street in Hawthorne, California, is no longer standing, a highway intersection long since concreted over its shaky foundations, but the space still echoes with the raw memories of a painful past life. It was here, it is said, that Wilson's father, Murry, once hit him so hard that he destroyed all the hearing in his eldest son's right ear.

Miraculously, that innocent young lad grew up to become one of the goliaths of contemporary music - a turbulent and tormented journey which is charted in Catch A Wave, a new book released this week. His genius skilfully manipulated exquisite harmonies into such classic hits as Good Vibrations, Surfin' USA and the romantic anthem Help Me Rhonda.

But unlike his adoring fans, Brian Wilson's partial deafness meant he would never be able to hear his own compositions in stereo.

It is unsurprising then that he was a little subdued when he finally rose to accept the accolade on that sunny afternoon last summer. After all, was his past really something for him to celebrate?

Lots of stories are whispered about Brian Wilson. Some of them comic; some less so. In the grip of one of his many mental breakdowns, he would regularly insist that business associates attend meetings in the deep end of his Californian swimming pool.

His reasoning was that it was impossible to bug a swimming pool and that someone floating half-naked in 12ft of water would be more honest than someone in a suit and tie.

A self-destructive side with roots in a childhood in the hands of a domineering, grasping father

On another occasion, he decided that it would be inspiring to feel the beach beneath his feet while composing, so he had a huge sandbox built in his living room and a truckload of sand shovelled in to fill it up. There it stayed until his dogs started using it for their own, less creative, purposes.

Shy and socially awkward as a boy, Brian's battle with his demons and insecurities grew more acute with age. His excessive drug-taking often ended with him wandering semi-comatose down the highway dressed only in his bathrobe.

One night, Paul McCartney and his late wife, Linda, watched as the man they thought of as a musical genius put a goldfish bowl over his head then accidentally smashed into a wall.

Embarrassed, Brian locked himself in his bedroom for the rest of the evening. When Paul tried to entice his friend back out, all he could hear from behind the locked door was the heartbreaking sound of a man snivelling softly to himself.

These tragic tales give a tiny glimpse into his distressed world. And the truth is that his self-destructive side has its roots not in his sudden pop success but in a childhood in the hands of a domineering, grasping father who continued to haunt him even after his death.

Like a lot of men who were brought up during the 1920s Depression, Murry Wilson had taken a few knocks in his life and he emerged from the experience hardened and determined to grab what he could.

As soon as he figured out that his best opportunity had come in the form of his talented offspring, he intended to exploit the situation.

Never destined to be a star himself, Murry nonetheless harboured delusions of musical fame and fortune. He would spend hours at the family piano composing sentimental tunes that he believed would deliver him from his humdrum existence working for Goodyear Tyres.

One day, a gruesome accident at the factory cost him his left eye, prompting him to leave and set up his own tool shop, where he ruled his employees with a rod of iron.

His wife, Audree, couldn't have been more different. Her motherly nature appealed to everyone; her tiny home immaculate, a meal always on the table.

She adored her boys and tried her best to shield them from their father's anger - but it wasn't easy. Murry never let her forget who put the bread on the table.

Brian, their first child, was born in 1942 and was swiftly followed by Dennis and then Carl, three names that would eventually become the backbone of a band who spawned dozens of Top 40 hits.

From a very young age, Murry insisted the boys follow his orders with rigid precision. Confronted by a child who had violated a direct order, he would scream and roar "I'm the boss", before whipping them with his leather belt.

'We had a crappy childhood'

"He was bad news," says Ted Sprague, a friend of Brian, who spent countless hours in the Wilson family home. "He taunted the boys mercilessly. It was just a relentless barrage when Murry was around." If the public humiliations didn't achieve the desired effect, Murry had more quiet, more vicious ways of getting the job done.

When the boys were young adults, they told murky tales of their past that raised many shocking questions.

Is it really possible that a father would attempt some twisted form of character building by plucking out his artificial eye and forcing his sons to stare into the jagged inside of his blood-red socket?

Or that he would beat his eldest son with a rough plank of wood?

Carl, perpetually non-confrontational, never confirmed or denied anything. Dennis was more candid. "We had a crappy childhood," he declared in 1976, three years after Murry's death.

Brian, certainly the most vulnerable of the brothers, said of his father recently: "I was so afraid of my dad that something got inside of me and I just started making great records."

Somehow, he learnt very early on that music was the most reliable way to win a respite from his father's rage. So when the brothers were lying in their beds at night, Brian would lead them in three-part renditions of old hymns. The songs were learnt at the Sunday services they attended with their mother, a ritual that Brian valued - not least as it offered a sanctuary from Murry, who wasn't religious.

Those Sunday afternoons stayed with him and he later went on to write the spiritually-inspired God Only Knows, a song that Paul McCartney proclaimed to be the greatest song ever written.

By the time the boys hit their teens, they were regularly harmonising together, along with their cousin Mike Love and neighbour Al Jardine. Brian worked away quietly on his compositions, the rest of them happy to follow his lead - a trend that was to set the pattern for the rest of their lives.

But back in 1961, it was Dennis who inadvertently stumbled across the focus for their core sound, brought alive by his experiences surfing the waves down on the Californian coastline.

Their first single, 'Surfin', captured a mood and went to No2 in the charts. The Beach Boys were born - with Murry as self-appointed manager. "Everyone else will screw you over," he said, with unintentional irony.

Failed as a father

Three years later, 22-year-old Brian married Marilyn Rovell, his 16-year-old girlfriend, and her steady love provided some emotional stability in his life.

But it also made things more complicated. As his success as songwriter and composer grew, the demands and criticisms from Murry became more intense. Vast quantities of hallucinogenic drugs, marijuana and cocaine provided an easy way out - and Brian embraced them all.

Not long into the marriage, Marilyn gave birth to their first daughter, Carnie. But while Brian loved his daughter dearly, his own childhood experiences weighed so heavily on him that he refused to take any responsibility for raising her or their second daughter, Wendy. Marilyn told a reporter: "He once said to me: 'I want you to discipline the kids. I'll do it all wrong.'"

Without a caring, paternal role model to guide him, Brian started regularly abandoning his young wife and children and heading off to sleazy hang-outs, from which he would eventually stagger back, stoned and drunk.

One awful evening, he returned home and lunged at little Carnie to give her a hug, but forgot that he was holding a burning cigarette in his hand.

The ember sizzled into her skin and her screams were still echoing in his ears the next morning when, hung over and horrified, Brian locked himself in the bathroom and shaved his head as a badge of shame.

Still, when the young child retaliated by throwing her dad's vodka and cigarettes away, shouting "None of my friends' parents smoke and drink", he spun round and whacked her. Realising too late what he had done, he ran away sobbing, unable to face the family again for days.

Despite his marriage to Marilyn enduring for 15 years, the emotional wounds that built up between Wilson and his daughters never really healed until the girls were well into adulthood. Brian knew that he had failed as a father. But then he'd had a good teacher.

As their manager, Murry Wilson spent his sons' royalties on producing his own records, insisted on handing out promotional photographs of himself entitled Murry 'Dad' Wilson to confused fans, and cushioned his lifestyle with whatever took his fancy - houses, cars and, some say, women.

Even though the group managed to dethrone him in the mid-1960s, he continued to exert his influence, turning up at recording sessions and shows unannounced and barking orders at Brian. As a result, only three years after the Beach Boys' first performance, Brian refused to tour with the band ever again. Instead, he worked alone in the studio, composing hit after hit, aided mainly by session musicians.

The innovative Pet Sounds album, for instance, was composed and recorded while the rest of the band were touring Japan. When they arrived back in America, all he wanted from them were some additional vocals.

As dysfunctional families went, they were in a league of their own

Ironically, the deepening split that Murry had been instrumental in creating gave Murry the impression that, as the Sixties drew to a close, the band was finished. Looking to protect his own interests, as always, he sold the rights to all the biggest hits of that decade.

He pocketed a cheque for $700,000 (£381,000), a fraction of their eventual value, which currently stands in the tens of millions of dollars. There was nothing the boys could do to stop him, as Murry had long ago awarded himself publishing rights.

When he finally died of a heart attack aged only 55 in the spring of 1973, neither Brian nor Dennis attended his funeral. Ten years later, Dennis was also dead, drowned while diving off the side of his boat, his body bloated with alcohol. Carl followed him in 1998, riddled with lung cancer.

As dysfunctional families went, they were in a league of their own. By the 1980s, Brian weighed more than 24 stone and was consuming a dozen eggs and a whole loaf of bread for breakfast. He refused to wash or dress and rarely rose before 6pm. With his wife and children gone, there was little to distract him from his demons.

In desperation, his family gave him over to the care of a psychiatrist called Eugene Landy, a man who appointed himself as Brian's unofficial 'creative' father. Like Murry before him, Landy had no intention of letting go once he had a hold of Brian.

For eight years, he milked his charge of millions of dollars, controlling his every move - even down to choosing which women he was allowed to date.

On one occasion a local woman called Melinda Ledbetter sold them a car and Brian had been rather taken with her. Seeing her as no threat, Landy called her and set up a liaison with Brian. Soon they were friends, going out to dinner or the movies and talking on the phone on a fairly regular basis.

But they were never alone and when Landy thought they were getting too close, he stopped the relationship. Brian was helpless. "I'm a prisoner and I have no hope of escaping," he once told an old friend, Gary Usher.

Usher described Brian's tales of feeling so trapped when he woke up in the morning that he would scream into his pillow until his throat was too raw for him to speak. He also confessed that he once tried to commit suicide by walking straight out to sea - until one of Landy's men chased him down and pulled him back to shore.

It eventually took a court judge to remove the disreputable psychiatrist's grip from his life. Still, he remained as spaced out as ever, and when he was crossing the road in Los Angeles one morning, he narrowly avoided being hit by a car. The driver stopped to see if he was OK and it was Melinda Ledbetter, the woman Landy had removed from his life.

Soon, they were dating again and they eventually married on February 6, 1995 - a day Brian chose because it was also his first wife's birthday, which meant the date would be easy for him to remember.

Meanwhile, Carnie and Wendy, Brian's daughters from his first marriage, had been writing music, and approached their father to record some songs with them. The project allowed the girls, particularly Carnie, to reconnect with their father.

His relationship with his older children re-established, Brian decided to give fatherhood another go. He and Melinda adopted two young girls from an unmarried mother in the Midwest.

"Little kids are an inspiration," he said of his second-time-around parenthood. "As soon as we got our daughter Dari, I started writing tunes. Three or four songs right after her arrival. Really, there is no way to describe how I've been feeling."

He had finally discovered how rewarding it was to be a good father. West 119th Street is now long behind him, yet he still fears that he is about to be punished.

"I keep thinking I am going to get assassinated like John Lennon did. I have to go somewhere and think about that for a while and say: 'Well, is that really probable?'"

In 2004, 40 years after he wrote his first hit, Brian Wilson received a tenminute ovation following a performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London. In the audience was his old friend Paul McCartney cheering him on, one survivor to another.

ADAPTED from Catch A Wave by Peter Ames Carlin published today by Pan Macmillan at £18.99. ° 2006 Peter Ames Carlin. To order a copy for £15.99 (plus £1.95 p&p) call 0870 161 0870.

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