05/09/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
IN SOME MUSICAL CLANS, GETTING TOGETHER FOR A SING AROUND the piano is as normal as breathing. Not so in Brian Wilson's family. When the Beach Boys' troubled genius sat down at the keyboard in his beachfront Malibu living room recently to harmonize with his daughter Carnie, it was a decidedly momentous occasion. No one was more aware of that than Carnie, 26. As the voices of father and daughter entwined and soared together, the younger Wilson wrapped her arms around Brian, 51, as if she didn't want the moment, or her father, to slip away.
She knew how easily he could and once had. Haunted by his tortured childhood—according to Brian, his late father, Murry, who managed the Beach Boys, subjected him to near-daily beatings and relentless sexual humiliation (he once forced him to defecate on a newspaper in front of his mother)—Brian spent much of the past three decades lost in a world of drugs and mental problems. At one point he ballooned to 340 pounds, built an adult-size sandbox in his living room and refused to venture outside his home.
Nor did Carnie and her sister Wendy, 24, ever venture inside. For almost 20 years they scarcely talked to their father. When the girls achieved musical success of their own, as two-thirds of the group Wilson Phillips (Chynna Phillips, daughter of the Mamas and the Papas' John and Michelle Phillips, rounds out the trio, which went on hiatus last year), they would sometimes run into Brian "at big dinners and things," says Carnie, but the contact was always fleeting. Finally, against Brian's wishes, the girls joined Brian's mom, Audree, his brother Carl and cousin Stan Love in a 1990 lawsuit to bar Eugene Landy, the controversial therapist who had virtually controlled Brian's life for eight years, from seeing their father. Though settled out of court, the action strained their already fragile relationship with Brian even further.
In the past 18 months, however, a delicate rapprochement has begun. Brian has started to come out of his shell. "That is the thing that made [a reunion] possible," says Carnie. "He's outgoing. He doesn't dwell on the past. He's focused on the positive."
And Brian and Carnie have found common ground in their music. Last year the two united with bass player Rob Wasserman to record a song for his latest album, Trios. Although the project also features such notables as Elvis Costello, Edie Brickell and Neil Young, the Wilsons' collaboration on the ethereal "Fantasy Is Reality/Bells of Madness," stands out. "On most records there's rarely any real emotional connection between artists," says Wasserman, "but here you have a musician father and a musician daughter who haven't had any communication at all in years and years. That emotion comes through."
Nor did the irony of the lyrics (When I hear the bells of madness ring/ I will listen to the silence/ Love is louder than anything/ And peaceful in its violence) go unnoticed. "Because it was this song, it means a lot," says Carnie. "That love would be stronger than violence. I can hear my dad in the echoing phrase 'Fantasy is reality.' I'm sure it's something he used to say around the house when I was little."
It is all too clear that Brian's struggle for mental health has been difficult. His memory is sketchy and his behavior sometimes eccentric. (Greeted by an unfamiliar visitor, he retreats into a wooden phone booth in his living room to compose himself.) But Carnie's presence is obviously therapeutic. He perks up when she enters a room, becoming suddenly talkative, even playful. And Carnie doesn't blame him for his absence during her childhood. "Dad took off because he was so deep into drugs," she explains. "He didn't want us to see him like that."
Still, rebuilding their relationship will take time. It was only after working on Trios with Brian that Carnie ever visited her father's home, the one he has lived in since divorcing the girls' mother, Marilyn Rovell, in 1979. Wendy, who was excluded from Trios because of the format, still hasn't been there. "She feels a little sad sometimes, a little left out," admits Carnie. "But even so, she has been extremely supportive." And both daughters hope a full family reunion will happen soon. "Wendy and I are doing demo tapes for our debut album as a duo, and I hope Daddy will provide background harmonies," Carnie says wistfully. "I know that one day we'll all work together."
F.X. FEENEY in Malibu