July 20, 1998 12:00 PM

Over the years former Beach Boy Brian Wilson has managed to become as famous for his dark moods as for his sunny musical paeans to California. A day after learning Frank Sinatra had died, Wilson is still troubled by the news. “I’m a bit low because of Frank,” he says in the dim light of his basement recording studio near Chicago, where he and his family now live part-time. “I didn’t know him, but I really loved his singing.” He broods for a moment, but then the clouds part. “But I guess I’ll be okay,” he says. “Yeah, I’m okay!”

In fact, Wilson, 56, is more than okay. Happily married to his second wife, Melinda, 51, since 1995, he has two adopted daughters—20-month-old Daria, and Delanie, 6 months. He has also mended his fractious relationship with Carnie, 30, and Wendy, 28, his daughters from his first marriage (and two-thirds of the now-defunct pop trio Wilson Phillips). And just when you thought the vibrations couldn’t get any better, last month Wilson released Imagination, his first collection of new songs in 10 years, which he’s planning to promote during a national tour this fall. “He’s finally living the life he deserves,” says Carnie. “He has his freedom and a sense of peace. As much as he can feel, anyway.”

The seas have rarely been calm for Wilson, whose best-known work with the Beach Boys, one of the seminal bands of the ’60s (“Surfin’ USA,” “California Girls,” “I Get Around”), transformed the California coast into a symbol of youth, innocence and fun, fun, fun. But Wilson’s success on the pop charts could not stem the onset of chronic depression, which led to 20 years of erratic behavior, including dangerous binges on drugs, alcohol and food. Help seemed to arrive in the early ’80s with Dr. Eugene Landy, a Los Angeles psychologist who restored Wilson’s physical health by putting him on a strict diet. But Landy also took control of his finances, creativity and freedom before a lawsuit brought by Wilson’s family prompted Landy to remove himself from the musician’s life in 1991.

Then last December, Wilson suffered the loss of his mother, Audree, and two months later the death of his baby brother Carl, the Beach Boy guitarist who lost a bout with cancer at age 51. (Dennis Wilson, Brian’s other brother and bandmate, drowned in 1983). “I’m the last of the Wilsons,” says Brian. “And it’s scary. But being scared is the biggest driving force I have. When I’m scared, I perform.”

Indeed, Wilson coproduced, cowrote and sings all the vocal parts on Imagination, which Billboard has called “a real treasure from a towering figure.” “This album represents a rebirth for me,” says Wilson. “There’s no way for me to describe just how comfortable I’ve been feeling lately.”

Wilson’s new wave of happiness arrived in 1995 after he married Melinda, a former model and car saleswoman. The couple now divide their time between Beverly Hills and landlocked St. Charles, a suburb an hour west of Chicago, where they built a six-bedroom house on 2.5 acres next door to Wilson’s co-producer, Joe Thomas.

And though he misses L.A., he also knows St. Charles’s grassy, open environs make a perfect setting in which to raise Daria, adopted in 1996, and Delanie, adopted this past January (both from the same unwed mother). “With Carnie and Wendy, I was into the Beach Boys and wasn’t a very good dad,” admits Wilson, who partly blames his rocky first marriage. “My wife and I were always fighting, and I thought they didn’t like me. I more or less left them alone.” Now he is determined to do things differently. “Brian won’t change diapers,” says Melinda. “But he feeds the kids and helps Daria find her binky in the middle of the night.” Adds Wilson: “I’ve learned how important family is, and believe me, I’m not going to let anything mess it up. Little kids are an inspiration. Right after we got Daria, I started writing tunes.”

As a boy, terror inspired his genius. The eldest of three sons born to Murry, a heavy-equipment shop owner and frustrated songwriter who died in 1973, and homemaker Audree, Wilson grew up in Hawthorne, Calif., near Los Angeles. Frequently beaten by his father, the teenage Wilson took refuge in music. “My dad scared me so much that I actually got scared into making great records,” he says.

Unable to separate the strands of fear and joy driving his music, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown in late 1964 at age 22. And while his music became more sophisticated—peaking with 1966’s Pet Sounds and the triumphant “Good Vibrations”—Wilson spiraled downward. “I more or less said screw it and psyched out for a while,” he says. By 1967, the depressed and obese musician retreated to his Spanish-style Bel Air mansion, where he spent the next nine years in drug-addled seclusion, dismissed as a nut. (At one point he placed his piano in a sandbox so he could feel the beach between his toes as he wrote songs.) Fellow Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who replaced Wilson on tour in 1965, never believed it. “Brian’s too intelligent to lose his mind,” he says. “Seeming schizo was his way to be left alone.”

In 1976 the Beach Boys and Marilyn hired Dr. Landy to get Wilson back into the recording studio. The prodigal producer made two Beach Boys albums, one of which put the group back into the Top 10. But at the end of 1976 the group eased out Landy, who reportedly charged $200 an hour for his round-the-clock services, and Wilson slid back to his destructive habits. “He got screwed up on coke in the early ’80s,” Carnie says. “I remember my mom [whom Wilson divorced amicably in 1979] calling me at camp and saying, ‘Your dad’s in the hospital, and he’s got a 50 percent chance of living.’ ”

Desperate to stop Wilson from killing himself, the band rehired Landy—along with his crew of live-in minders—in 1983. And if Wilson soon seemed healthier than he’d been in years, friends and family members were disturbed to see Landy take control of his patient’s music, money and relationships. (Landy declined to be interviewed by PEOPLE.) “I had two assistants telling me what to do,” Wilson recalls. “I wasn’t very happy. It’s usually easy for me to express my feelings in music. But I think I subconsciously tried to sabotage my voice.” Wilson’s family alleges that Landy kept Brian in a haze of prescription drugs. Wilson defended his therapist at the time. But once his family filed suit and in 1991 reached an out-of-court settlement that called for Landy’s lengthy separation from Wilson, he seemed delighted. Recalls collaborator Andy Paley: “He called and said, ‘I can do anything now. Let’s make some music’ ”

Wilson, who now controls his moods with a single antidepressant, Luvox, prescribed by his current psychiatrist, also renewed his acquaintance with Melinda Ledbetter, whom he had met when she sold him a Cadillac in 1986. They had dated on and off before drifting apart in 1989. (Melinda suspects Landy thwarted the relationship to retain control over Brian.) But in 1992 she and Wilson bumped into each other on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. and quickly resumed their romance. “I’ve never had a relationship with a girl like we have,” he says. “She’s a partner who’s also a best friend.” And while Melinda acknowledges her husband’s “vulnerability,” she disputes anyone who calls him crazy. “He’s probably the most sane person I know. He just can’t deal with the world’s insanity.”

Wilson’s mind and soul were challenged last February when Carl died only weeks after their mother passed away at age 80. The brothers’ long estrangement made the loss all the harder. “He and I didn’t really talk for 25 years,” says Wilson. “We couldn’t deal with each other.” Business disputes—as well as Wilson’s 1991 autobiography, which prompted defamation lawsuits by the other Beach Boys—drove the brothers farther apart. “But he was always in my heart,” Wilson says. To Melinda, Carl and Brian never escaped their past. “They came from a dysfunctional family that had a hard time communicating,” she says. “The only real tension was trying to figure out how to love each other.”

The brothers reconciled in time to watch the Super Bowl together last January. But by then Carl’s cancer had spread to his liver; two weeks later he was gone. “It really freaked me out,” Wilson says. Carnie recalls that during Carl’s memorial service, “Dad fell into my mom’s arms and said, ‘Carl’s gone! He’s gone, and I don’t know where he went!’ ” Now, Wilson tries to accept his losses philosophically. “I needed to get through Dennis’s death and Carl’s too, and my mom’s and my dad’s. And when I die, my family will need to go through my death. It’s a sad subject, but you’ve got to push like all hell to get out of those bad feelings.”

Yet Wilson can’t deny the bad feelings dividing him from the surviving Beach Boys. Singer Mike Love—who in 1992 sued Wilson and won coauthorship rights to many of the band’s early hits—has said he hopes Wilson will record with the band. But Brian’s manager Irving Azoff dismisses the idea. “They’re dreaming,” he says. Adds Wilson: “I don’t think of myself as a Beach Boy anymore, I guess. Well, maybe a little bit.”

And here in his studio, more than 700 miles from the nearest ocean, the Beach Boy-in-exile can’t help dreaming of the sea. “I might go to the beach a few times this summer just to soak the ocean in,” he says. “Just to get my body drenched with salt water and feel good.”

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