One hour before the Beach Boys performed their final U.S. show for their 50th-anniversary tour in July, the band was backstage with family and friends at Harveys Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nev., fueling up on catering and happily sipping margaritas. But frontman Brian Wilson didn't seem to be in much of a celebratory mood. After snacking on a cookie and picking at a steak ("It's tough," he said quickly), the legendary songwriter ambled up to the stage. There he sat in a plastic folding chair, closed his eyes and meditated. "I get really nervous before I go up onstage," he explained later. "But once [we start playing] and I hear the band start to sing, everything is cool."
The fact that he's even still playing at all is rather remarkable. It's no secret that Wilson, 70, an icon of pop music, has suffered from mental illness for decades. "I feel good," he says. "I really do feel good these days." In fact with his band celebrating a hallmark anniversary, the critically hailed album That's Why God Made the Radio
earlier this year and their new Greatest Hits: Fifty Big Ones, Wilson is happily nostalgic. "This whole year," he says, "has been very emotional and-what do you call that word?-sentimental."
He has a lot to look back on. Raised in Hawthorne, Calif., Wilson grew up with an abusive father who also happened to encourage him to pursue music. While in high school, he and his two brothers Carl and Dennis (both now deceased), along with their cousin Mike Love and pal Al Jardine, formed the Beach Boys, breaking through with their first single "Surfin.'" With their lush harmonies and sophisticated orchestrations, the group was America's answer to the Beatles, eventually releasing 36 Top 40 hits. "It's been a thrill!" he says of the reunion. "We hadn't been together for a long time."
Wilson's life wasn't always as sunny and cheerful as his Beach Boys classics: In the '70s he was a drug-addicted recluse and eventually tipped the scales at more than 300 lbs. And for years he's been coping with schizoaffective disorder. "On my good days I feel creative, I laugh a lot, I go to my piano and play," says Wilson, who takes medication and occasionally sees a therapist. "Some days I don't feel creative and I don't talk to anybody." His wife of 17 years, Melinda, 66, says some of his biggest challenges come from auditory hallucinations. "He hears voices," she explains. "I can tell if it's good voices or bad voices by the look that comes over his face. For us it's hard to understand, but for him they're very real. I have to bring him back down to reality and say, 'They're not real; they're not going to hurt you.' And then he'll say, 'Yeah, yeah, I got it.'"
According to pals, Melinda (mom to their five adopted children, Daria, 16, Delanie, 14, Dylan, 8, Dash, 3, and Dakota Rose, 2) has been his saving grace. "He's better than he's been in his whole life, and you have to attribute that to Melinda," says Jeff Foskett, Wilson's friend for more than 30 years and a member of his band. "She got him to see the right doctors. She's provided a family environment for him. They actually do things together. They have Thanksgiving meals and Christmas time."
On most days at the family's sprawling Beverly Hills home, Wilson (also dad to singers Carnie, 44, and Wendy, 43, from his first marriage) is usually playing the grand piano in his second-floor music room, listening to the 1960s rock channel on his satellite TV (he mutes Beach Boys songs) or keeping an eye on the children from his favorite red chair in the kitchen. "The kids understand that he's a different kind of daddy" says Melinda. But "he's an amazing dad in the respect that he absolutely knows everything that's going on" One thing he can't keep track of: their numerous dogs. "I can't even think [of their names]," he admits. "And the dogs are loud!"
Wilson escapes the chaos at home by heading to his favorite restaurant, the Beverly Glen Deli, where he religiously eats twice a day. (Sample lunch order: smoked salmon, baked beans, orange juice and apple pie.) Afterward he'll take a brisk walk in a nearby park. Cruising home in his Mercedes coupe, the Grammy winner-who isn't much for casual chatting-pays careful attention to the radio dial, stopping to listen to the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" and the Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears." When Madonna
's "Into the Groove" comes on, he listens attentively. What does one of America's greatest living songwriters think of the Queen of Pop? "I've never listened to Madonna
," he says. "I don't really like it."
He's more positive discussing the Beach Boys reunion and even his relationship with singer Love, 71. Though the cousins have battled in court over the band's music (Love plans to tour as the Beach Boys without its chief songwriter), "he's been great," says Wilson, who adds, "He's a great MC and it's been going good." Friends and family say the same about Brian. "If he weren't having a good time, he wouldn't be there," says Melinda. "He takes himself out of a situation if he's not enjoying it."
Music, of course, is what makes him happiest. Noodling around on his keys at home, he lights up; his anxieties suddenly seem to disappear. "The only thing he's interested in is music," says Foskett. "He doesn't talk about anything else."
At an age when most are retired, Wilson won't sit still. "I want to make a rock and roll album inspired by Chuck Berry and Phil Spector," says Wilson, who will still hit the road on his own. "It's something that gets me off of my ass!" Meanwhile he's consulting on the script for a movie based on his remarkable life: "They haven't got the guy yet. I hope it's someone good!"