In 1986, I recorded with Brian Wilson. I was a young singer at the time and thrilled to be hired (along with two fabulous women) to sing on his album-in-progress. This was during a difficult time in Brian’s life when he was struggling to get back into his music. A couple years later, he would come out with his critically acclaimed solo album. But in 1986, he was in the midst of his struggle with music and his longtime therapist, Eugene Landy.
I tend not to speak ill of people, so I’ve never written anything about my experiences working with Eugene. I doubt there are a dozen people in the world who have ever heard me say more than, “Yeah, I recorded with Brian Wilson back in the 80’s.” But after watching LOVE & MERCY, I feel more at ease in sharing my reflections.
The other reason I feel more at ease is because I saw the film one week after posting my essay on WHEN TO LEAVE – HOW TO STAY. When I run into such seemingly coincidental synchronicity, I pay attention. So here we go, a trip down memory lane…
When I think of Brian, I remember him sitting at a piano in a recording studio. Back then, I didn’t own a camera and never thought to ask anyone to snap a shot. As a result, I don’t have a single photo of me with Brian. But then, I also don’t have any photos of me performing in musicals with Anthony Quinn, Michael York, and Ellen Greene, or with any of the iconic stars that appeared on THE LOVE BOAT during my eighteen episodes (the final season) on that show. Such was life before smart phones and selfies! But in the pictures I hold in my mind, I see Brian Wilson at the piano, plucking out harmonies for The Beach Girls.
Yes… you read that correctly: The Beach Girls. I cringe at the memory.
It was Eugene’s great idea to surround Brian with three buff female singers and record an album. It was a dream gig: over a month of session work with the legendary Brian Wilson! Unfortunately, that also included daily interactions with one of the most manipulative people I have ever met: Eugene Landy.
I remember it the way I remember physical pain, which is to say, not clearly. I remember feeling angst but now how that angst felt. I remember having ugly confrontations, but I don’t remember the contents of those confrontations. I cannot begin to imagine how Brian must have felt dealing with this abusive manipulator every day for decades.
Needless to say, Paul Giamatti’s brilliant performance in LOVE & MERCY, triggered some emotions for me. When I watched the scene where he screams at John Cusack to “put his hands on the piano and write,” my heart broke. Was this what happened between Brian and Eugene when they left our recording sessions? I was horrified.
I have fond memories of Brian—fragile, quiet, barely able to speak—sitting at the piano, lost in his music and the harmonies in his head. I also have vague but pleasant memories of shooting a music video at an old-fashioned drive-in burger joint where we lip-synched our parts while roller skating with trays of hamburgers and fries. I wish I had a sharper recall, but my long term memory has never been particularly keen. Ah well. I’d like to think we had fun that night. I wish I could believe that Brian did, but I know better.
When we were all working together, Eugene controlled everything: the sessions, the money, the lyrics, Brian, us. The only thing he stayed out of—mostly—were the harmonies. That was Brian’s domain. But even then, he hovered and controlled. Always controlled. Eventually, Eugene ran through his budget. He pulled every psychological trick he could think of to guilt and coerce us into staying and working for free, but by that time I had already decided the situation was too toxic for me to continue. It wasn’t easy. I was young. Even my singing teacher (a celebrity in his own right) pressured me not to quit. But I knew I needed to go. I remember saying, “The Beach Girls could end up on the cover of People Magazine, and I would still be happy I left.” That’s when I knew—
If I could wish Brian and The Beach Girls success and still be glad that I was no longer a part of the group, then it was definitely time to leave.
As I watched Paul Giamatti play his scenes with Elizabeth Banks, I remembered how it felt to be on the receiving end of Eugene Landry’s forceful personality. What I experienced was only a tiny fraction of what Brian endured daily for decades, and yet, as young woman in her mid-twenties, I was amazed that I was able to stand up to him the way that I did. It wasn’t easy, but I learned some valuable life lessons.
So, those are my recollections. I’m sorry they aren’t clearer. Then again, maybe I’m not.
If you found some value in this mindful musing, please share: A little empowerment goes a long way.