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"This period is important," confirms Andrew G. Doe, author of The Complete Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys, "because it allowed Brian to write in his home, without pressure from the band to be commercial. More importantly, we know now that Brian didn't just spend three years in bed."
Doe confirms the comparison of the archive's breadth to that of Dylan's "Basement Tapes," the major difference being that the folk legend's home recordings saw eventual release nearly a decade after they were laid to tape. Wilson's remain sequestered.
Back in 1968, Wilson had completed his last full album production with the Beach Boys on the brilliantly understated Friends, whose summer release was followed by a disastrous recording session of Jerome Kern's Broadway classic "Ol' Man River." Session tapes reveal Wilson conducting the Beach Boys to such extreme perfectionism that both he and the band seem at the end of their rope with one another. Wilson soon thereafter checked himself into a mental institution, where he was prescribed Thorazine for severe anxiety disorder.
Mixing pills with booze, pot and cocaine, he became increasingly withdrawn. He returned to the studio that fall, though from this point onward, Wilson rarely finished a single track. "Carl [Wilson] took over where Brian stopped," recalls engineer Stephen Desper, acknowledging the youngest Wilson brother's role in completing select Brian Wilson tracks for subsequent Beach Boys releases. For those that remained on the cutting room floor, however, it's hard to know whether Wilson was being purposely lo-fi or if he just didn't care anymore.
Around this time, Wilson suffered another big emotional blow when his notoriously tempestuous father, Murry Wilson, sold the publishing rights to his son's back catalog to Almo/Irving Music for the astonishingly low price of $700,000. (Today the catalog's estimated value is well over $100 million.) In short order, the Beach Boys left Capitol Records, signing with Warner Bros. in 1969, with their advance payment contingent on the delivery of Smile by 1972. It never happened.
The Beach Boys' 1970 album, Sunflower, peaked at an all-time low for the band, stopping at No. 145 on the Billboard charts. Wilson's diminished role in its production was apparent to public and critics alike. He contributed just three originals to the Beach Boys' 1971 Surf's Up album, including its title cut, a leftover from the ill-fated Smile.
Unlike Sunflower, the critics embraced Surf's Up, and the Beach Boys promoted it in a tour with psychedelic rock gods the Grateful Dead.
Album cut "'Til I Die" remains one of Wilson's most poignant, if tragic, songs. Some saw its haunted vocal harmonies and intense lyrics as a sign of Wilson's sometimes-suicidal leanings. Stories abound of Wilson's threats to drive his Rolls-Royce off a cliff; one friend remembers Wilson digging a grave in his own backyard and asking wife Marilyn to push him into it.
Rieley says that much of this was simply Wilson's offbeat sense of humor, often abandoned once the prank was acknowledged. "The one-dimensional side of Brian," Stanley Shapiro confirms, "looks like a zombie. But out of the blue, he'd astonish you with the things he'd say."
Shapiro was a lyricist who worked with Brian Wilson and Tandyn Almer in the early '70s to rewrite the Beach Boys' Friends album for an unrealized A&M Records project. (Four tracks were completed.) During the same time, Wilson worked on a number of other side projects, including tracks with Redwood, an early incarnation of Three Dog Night; notorious sessions with Charles Manson before the latter's murder spree in 1969; an unreleased country-western album with Beach Boys promo man Fred Vail; and a strange spoken-word album with poet Stephen Kalinich titled A World of Peace Must Come.
A 1973 single titled "Shyin' Away" by American Spring — featuring Wilson's wife, Marilyn, and sister-in-law Diane Rovell on vocals — was produced by Wilson in a converted chicken coop in Otho, Iowa, whereafter the unpredictable Beach Boy headed to a nearby bar to run lights for a local pub-rock band. Back in California, the musical genius who gave the world "God Only Knows" could be found many nights in his bathrobe, behind the counter of the Radiant Radish, the West Hollywood vitamin store he co-owned, tallying receipts.
When the Beach Boys moved camp to the Netherlands in 1972, Wilson reluctantly joined, though not before missing several flights out of LAX due to reported paranoia of flying. In Holland, Wilson's work on the next Beach Boys album was once again scant, left largely to Carl Wilson and the rest of the group to complete.
According to Brian Wilson himself, days were spent locked away in his cottage listening to Randy Newman's seminal Sail Away album, in which Wilson heard a kind of magic realism that inspired him to craft Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale). Later released as a bonus EP with the Beach Boys' Holland album, Mount Vernon tells the story of a musical Pied Piper who appears to a family of young princes and princesses but disappears forever when they stop believing in him — a thinly veiled allegory of Wilson's deteriorated relationship with the Beach Boys. "I wrote it about Mike Love," Wilson confirmed to me in 2003 for a documentary I co-directed for the Carl Wilson Cancer Foundation.