Brian Wilson's Songs

A brief conversation with the reclusive musician and a changed path

Brian Wilson's Songs
Illustration by Johanna Goodman

I have one tattoo: the five-note melody line to "God Only Knows," splayed conspicuously across my right shoulder. I've worn it long enough that I often have the luxury of forgetting its presence, the proximity of something so beautiful.

One afternoon in May, I have a handful of minutes to interview Brian Wilson, the brilliant, troubled recluse who wrote that Beach Boys opus and so many more. But as he waits politely for my questions, it seems far more urgent to explain why I have his notes printed on my body—how they honor his act of kindness many years ago, one that changed my family forever. I will stutter onward, because I have waited six years to thank him.

My parents are very much the modest, proud working class of rock lyrics. They live in Northern California and were devoted public school teachers; my father led his district's underfunded bilingual language department, teaching English to impoverished Mexican immigrants. He used rock music— especially his lifelong favorites, the Beach Boys—as a crucial part of his program, often transforming stodgy school assemblies into sing-along spectacles. His wide-eyed students learned Chuck Berry and English sentence construction in equal measure and flocked to him for further rock tutelage long after leaving his classroom.

Courtesy Brian Wilson

Music also served as his great bond to his only child. Hours of shared guitar and trumpet practice in the living room, interspersed with listening sessions fueled by his John Peel–worthy scholarship, kept us close—especially when he suffered a near-fatal brain tumor in 1993. We passed the months of sterile hospital hours comparing '60s rock trivia with forced levity. He would emerge from those surgeries in full remission, although the altered alchemy of his brain left him susceptible to fits of severe depression.

For decades, he also worked as a singer/songwriter; he'd toured the West Coast festival circuit and self-released albums of his sweet folk rock (including one that inexplicably featured Tommy Lee). Around 2003, he had been signed to an independent label and received radio airplay across America, and his artistic goals seemed realized. But the label's actions eventually turned dishonorable—and in the fall of 2005, he only had a few weeks left in his contract, which was triggering the very worst of his depression.

"If this attempt fails, too, I'm done," he said tearfully as I listened silently down a phone line. "I lose. I won't try again."

Our talks had evolved into this dismal routine, and these comments had become repetitive but no less distressing. His misery, and the artless reality of failed dreams, was frightening. I wasn't ready yet to view my parents as unrealized, much less as defeated.

One October evening, I had a response for my father. The day before, I had read about a Hurricane Katrina relief challenge under way on Brian Wilson's website. The premise: Donate to the national relief effort, and in return, Wilson would make a personal phone call—a noble, bizarre invitation from a deeply sheltered musician. Perhaps he'd been buoyed by the recent completion of Smile, his long-delayed "teenage symphony to God" that prompted his late-'60s nervous breakdown.

I suggested to my father that he participate—in this nadir, he needed a resilient artistic spirit, a few words of encouragement. He'd identified with Wilson all his life, having grown up in a Southern California town neighboring the Beach Boys' Hawthorne, and shared his isolation of having a father disapproving of his creative accomplishments. We submitted a donation and, as requested by Wilson's coordinator, specified times spanning 20 hours over two weeks. He called me every evening to inform me chipperly that Brian hadn't called yet, but he certainly would tomorrow.

But time passed, and our spectacular plan became a failure—my father had been let down by both his record label and his hero. He tried to shield me from his sharp disappointment, but his blue period was palpably worse than ever. And the latest letdown had been triggered by my idea.

Miles away, in my college radio station's workroom, I investigated. According to a triumphant press release from the Wilson camp, he had completed all calls. I sent a missive to the only e-mail address I had, writing abrasively, tripping over my fingers' furious pace as I demanded an explanation; in coda, I belittled Brian and the program organizers' professionalism. It served a bitter resignation of my futility, and that which I'd caused my dad to feel more deeply.

Two nights later, I discovered a response from Brian Wilson's wife, Melinda. With a verbosity to rival mine, and shreds of text highlighted in red, she called my letter "nasty," insisted that her husband had indeed tried to call, and declared that my behavior had marred his sincere attempt to help in a national crisis.

In that horrible moment, the whole series of events felt hopeless, and I felt culpable. Brian hadn't called, and I'd added a poisonous dimension to his charitable efforts. And though he didn't know about this exchange, my father was no better for it.

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