Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: 'I Am Brian Wilson'

The big problem with pop-artist autobiographies is that pop artists are much better at stringing together phrases like “ooooh baby” and “yeah, yeah, yeah” than composing compelling prose. A few songwriters have been versatile enough to produce really well written autobiographies (Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Kristin Hersh, Stuart David, etc.), but most should probably stick with the “oooh babies.”

Brian Wilson is an interesting exception. His persona is one of charming, and rather inarticulate, sincerity. He is a pop star with a true “voice” beyond his singing one, and though I do not expect or even want compelling prose from Brian Wilson, I still want to read his story as told by him because it is such a fascinating and intensely personal one.

I Am Brian Wilson fits the bill perfectly. Wilson wrote his book with the assistance of the versatile Ben Greenman, and its too-articulate and linear prologue chapter had me worrying that I’d be reading Greenman’s voice instead of that of the show’s star. With the first proper chapter, that articulateness evaporates and the linearity splits like an egg to allow Brian’s ping pong-ball mind to bounce out. One moment he is waxing nostalgic about the old children’s show Beany and Cecil, the next he is remembering the 1973 Holland sessions, the next he is leaping ahead 25 years to discuss his solo album Imagination. Greenman seems to play the role of stenographer rather than co-writer as Brian unleashes his flood of memories, opinions (favorite albums: Rubber Soul, A Christmas Gift for Your from Philles Records, and Tommy—great choices, Brian!), and creation stories. Serious fans will swoon when he discusses marvelous oddities such as “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, and “In the Back of My Mind” with the same attention he affords “California Girls” and “God Only Knows”.  The utter lack of pretense in the prose captures that familiar slightly flat, slightly sad, often rhapsodic voice with true authenticity. A definitive passage has Brian describing how he once dressed up as a mummy to amuse a cousin in the hospital and clarifying that “I wasn’t really a mummy.” That absence of guile, that innocence, that subtle and perhaps unself-aware humor is what makes Brian Wilson’s complex music so uncomplicatedly beautiful and him so lovable.

Of course, I Am Brian Wilson would fail as the Brian Wilson story if it did not deal with the darker corners of his life, and Wilson wanders through these areas fearlessly. He basically leads the story with a run down of all of his troubles with drugs, family, isolation, weight gain, and chemical withdrawal, and discusses each more thoroughly and with trademark honesty as the tale continues. He goes into depth about the two most dreaded figures in his life—father Murray and Svengali “doctor” Eugene Landry—but does so without a trace of bitterness and a loving portion of balance, acknowledging that both of these men did Brian a little bit of good as well as a fair share of harm. He wastes almost no space on his clashes with Mike Love, though.

Bitterness, like articulateness, has no place in a Brian Wilson autobiography. Love, music, and an immensely sincere man’s true voice are what you should expect and what I Am Brian Wilson delivers.
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