BRIAN WILSON IS STANDING IN THE LIVING ROOM OF HIS modest Malibu home, ignoring the banter of surfers hanging out on the public beach below his balcony. “I want to play something,” he says. Turning to his cassette player, he inserts a tape and pumps up the volume. Suddenly, the bass-drum thump of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” drowns out the dudes below and sends the former Beach Boy into a meditative trance. Eyes closed, Wilson, 49, sways back and forth to Ronnie Spector’s voice, gently snapping his fingers on beat. Several bars into the Phil Spector classic, he opens his eyes and abruptly shuts off the music. “That’s all I need to hear,” he says. “You know, I listen to that song just about every day. It gives me energy and inspiration, and I put it on when I’m experiencing mood shifts. You should try it. Play the song and put your face right into the speaker, but don’t play it too loud. Just let the song’s vibes caress your face.”
His methods may be unusual, but it’s not surprising that Wilson, the noted recluse who was the founding genius of the Beach Boys, would want to try a little tenderness. His life has never been simple, and it has seldom been happy. As a child, he was viciously beaten by his father. At the height of the Beach Boys’ fame, he was, by his own account, “a zonked-out zombie… who took a drug trip and never returned.” For most of the past three decades, he has struggled with much-publicized mental problems—at one point, he kept an adult-size sandbox in his living room. Beginning in 1975, he was placed under the 24-hour-a-day care of a psychologist, Eugene Landy, who prescribed an unorthodox treatment that included padlocking Wilson’s refrigerator to curb his monstrous appetite. The 13-month treatment was only temporarily effective. By 1982, six years after Landy was dismissed as Brian’s therapist, Brian’s eating disorder inflated his drug-ravaged body to 340 lbs. “I was eating two New York steaks for breakfast each day at that time,” recalls Brian. It was Landy, rehired by the family in 1983, who successfully brought Brian’s weight down to 195 lbs. by 1986.
Now Brian’s life may be about to take another dramatic turn: Against his wishes, members of his family—including mother Audree, daughters Carnie and Wendy (of Wilson Phillips fame), brother Carl and cousin Stan Love (cousin Mike’s brother)—have asked Santa Monica Superior Court to declare Brian incompetent and appoint an impartial conservator to handle his affairs. Brian, who is competent enough to drive a yellow Corvette, make daily trips to the gym, regularly attend AA meetings and compose material for a solo album in progress, vehemently denies the charge. The case is scheduled to go to trial next month.
It is a bitter feud, with charges of greed and manipulation on both sides. The family alleges that Landy has exercised unethical and avaricious control over Brian since 1983. and they are consequently seeking control of Wilson’s personal and financial affairs. Brian, meanwhile, is comfortably supported by real estate investments and substantial songwriting royalties. “I believe Brian has been brainwashed,” says Mike Love, who still sings and tours with the remaining Beach Boys but is not participating in the suit. “Gene Landy has imprisoned Brian by controlling his every movement and playing on Brian’s weaknesses as an addictive personality.” Carl Wilson, who authorized his attorney, Barry Langberg, to speak for him, is convinced that Landy is simply a parasite. “Landy has made an astronomical sum of money off Brian,” says Langberg, who adds that “Brian is impaired in his ability to exercise independent judgment. We have all kinds of evidence to that effect, which I can’t discuss in detail. And Landy has taken full advantage of that, and that’s why this proceeding is going forward.” (The suit alleges that Brian is unable to properly provide food, housing and clothing for himself.)
There is no question that Landy’s relationship with Brian has been, for a therapist, unusual. From 1983 through 1986, for example, Landy and a team of assistants again provided Brian with 24-hour monitoring and therapy, for which Landy earned $420,000 per year. In 1986 Landy became Brian’s business partner and went on to become executive producer of Wilson’s eponymously titled 1988 LP. Complaints from the family, in the meantime, caused the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance to withdraw Landy’s license to practice psychology in the state for two years. (Landy is now reapplying for his license and is eager to begin practice.) Despite the professional setbacks, Landy maintains he was undeniably important to Brian’s well-being. “His family has to recognize that I saved Brian’s life,” says Landy, 57. “Brian’s alive and Dennis [Wilson, Brian’s younger brother who drowned in 1983 following a day of heavy drinking] isn’t. They wouldn’t let me treat Dennis, and he’s dead now.”
Brian Wilson could have easily suffered the same fate and describes why in his new autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, written with a coauthor. In the book, Brian discusses in graphic detail how his father, Murry, a failed songwriter, once flogged him with a two-by-four. “That two-by-four caused deafness in my right ear,” says Brian. “Childhood and adolescence were very sad times in my life, because I always had to turn my head to hear things, trying to imagine where those voices were coming from.” The sins of the father weren’t easily forgiven. “Killing him crossed my mind at the time,” says Wilson, “but it was never more than a thought. How could you kill the man that gave you life?” Brian claims that his mother never protested the beatings and says that she now refuses to speak to him. (She could not be reached for comment for this article.) “The fact that my mother is involved against me in this conservatorship suit really scrambles my brain,” says Brian. “I hate to say this, but I don’t think she loves me.” And does he love her? “Somewhat,” he replies.
The source of his mother’s alienation, Brian believes, is Landy. “I think my family has immensely overreacted to Gene Landy,” says Brian. “He has no control over my thoughts or mind. We are partners who have been through hell together and have come into the light. He is the greatest doctor, the greatest psychologist I ever met. He saved my life 10 times over.”
Mike Love agrees—to a point. “Gene might have saved his life,” he says, “but he went from psychologist to life manager, and that’s way beyond the bounds of standard ethical procedures.” Particularly rankling to Love are the facts that Landy has become involved in guiding Brian’s musical career and that Brian will not write or record with the Beach Boys. “Gene doesn’t want us around Brian, because were he to record with us again and be successful with the Beach Boys, it would prove that he doesn’t need Landy anymore,” says Love. “Brian has been with him since 1983 and hasn’t had any success, while we’ve enjoyed one of our biggest records [the vapid 1988 hit “Kokomo”] since then.” Love, who very much wants to collaborate with Brian again for a much-needed Beach Boy renaissance, adds, “The thing about Landy is that he has all the ambition of a rock musician but none of the talent.”
“I think that their ulterior motive is to gel me to write with Mike again,” says Brian, “but I don’t think I want to do that at this point. Maybe later, but not now. I’m not in that frame of mind.” Landy is convinced, however, that Love is blind when it comes to Brian’s musical interests. “Mike wants commercialism, and Brian wants art,” says Landy. “Mike would write a song about the Vietcong if he thought it would sell. Mike still wants sand, surf, sun and screwing in his songs. Brian grew out of that phase in 1966 with Pet Sounds.”
One of the saddest aspects of this saga has to be the crushing effect the suit must be having on the already fragile relationship between Brian and his daughters, Carnie, 23, and Wendy, 22. “I was never comfortable as a father,” Brian admits. “I was too drugged out to be a father, and that’s something I regret. Il weighs heavily on my mind.”
If the courts grant the family’s request and name a conservator, Brian says he will learn to live with the decision. But he also believes that any separation from Landy will not be permanent. “I think we’ll end up together,” predicts Brian. “But I don’t need him to guide me anymore. I only need his friendship.”