Drugs, diets and coercive control: the sad story of Brian Wilson’s conservatorship

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Brian Wilson in 1968 - Getty
Brian Wilson in 1968 - Getty

In the summer of 1990, Brian Wilson – the troubled genius of the Beach Boys – appeared at a San Diego fan convention. Also in attendance was Peter Reum, a former therapist who already knew Wilson. Reum had already heard rumours that Wilson was heavily medicated – drugs administered by Wilson’s Svengali-like psychotherapist, Dr Eugene Landy, and a team of sinister handlers – and saw videotapes of Wilson’s poor physical state. In the flesh, Reum’s fears about Wilson were confirmed.

He recognised the symptoms of excessive psychotropic medicine-taking: facial twitching and paralysis, tremoring hands, an inability to stay tuned-in to basic conversation. The long-term effects could be devastating: nervous system breakdown, physical deterioration, and even death. Reum reached out to Carl Wilson, the star’s brother and Beach Boys bandmate, to help free Wilson from Dr Landy’s control.

The doctor-patient relationship went back to 1976, when Landy first put Wilson under his aggressive treatment program – 24/7 supervision and total surrender to Landy’s methods.

Philip Lambert, a music professor at City University of New York and a writer on Brian Wilson, explained: “Landy deserves some credit for rescuing Brian from a downward spiral in the mid-1970s, then again in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the therapist himself eventually spun out of control.”

While pop fans this week are celebrating Britney Spears’ escape from a conservatorship, back in 1992 Wilson escaped into a conservatorship – a legal ruling that helped prise him from the grip of Eugene Landy.

In 2014, the biopic film Love & Mercy told Brian Wilson’s story. It starred Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson in different periods: plummeting into mental illness in the Sixties, and escaping Landy in the Eighties. Landy is played with oily, odious malevolence by Paul Giamatti.

The film credits Brian Wilson’s second wife, Melinda, for instigating the attempt to free him. “Perhaps the truth lies in some combination of these (and other) events,” Philip Lambert said.

In the film, Melinda – played by Elizabeth Banks – discovers that Landy has inserted himself into Wilson’s will. It’s true that at one stage Eugene Landy stood to inherit up to 70 per cent of Wilson’s fortune – which Landy was (supposedly) surprised to learn himself.

Love & Mercy is noted for its accuracy – particularly the faithful recreating iconic moments and much-told stories from the Beach Boys’ heyday, such as the meticulous, highly innovative recording of Brian Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. The later stories, said Philip Lambert, were faithful to Brian and Melinda’s version of events – the story as they wanted it told.

“After I first saw the film, I had to just drive around for a couple of hours to clear my head,” Melinda told the New York Post. “Then I remembered that what Landy did to Brian was even worse. You don’t get a sense of it in the movie, but it happened on a daily basis, for years.”

The Beach Boys, 1962: (L-R) Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, David Marks - Michael Ochs Archives
The Beach Boys, 1962: (L-R) Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, David Marks - Michael Ochs Archives

Brian Wilson’s mental health problems began back in the mid-Sixties. He recalled first hearing voices after taking psychedelic drugs. The voices plagued him forever after (“All day every day, and I can’t get them out,” he said four decades later). He was terrified that the devil, disguised in the form of other people, was coming to kill him.

Trapped by the success of his own genius in the wake of Pet Sounds – and tormented by the voices in his head when he performed live – Wilson drank, ate, and drugged himself into near-oblivion. As rock ‘n’ roll legend goes, he spent two years in bed.

It was Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, who contacted Dr Eugene Landy, described by Brian Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin as a “hustler-turned-psychologist”.

With his perfectly white teeth and immaculately coiffed hair, Landy specialised in treating dysfunctional Tinseltown types. Landy also did a strong line in self-promotion; clearly, he had designs on the spotlight himself.

Landy declared that Wilson needed 24/7 therapy for at least two years and put together a team, which included himself, a physician, a nutritionist, and handlers to monitor Wilson’s every move.

Landy had success. He put Wilson on a diet – even padlocking the fridge. He shooed away Wilson’s druggy pals, though Wilson was sometimes permitted a joint as a reward for good work.

Peter Carlin described Landy’s endgame: for Wilson to emerge as “a resocialized, detoxified, superproductive artist and citizen”. During an appearance on Saturday Night Live, Landy stood off-stage and held up prompt cards, reminding Wilson to smile.

Wilson with 'hustler-turned-psychologist' Eugene Landy, 1976 - Michael Ochs Archives
Wilson with 'hustler-turned-psychologist' Eugene Landy, 1976 - Michael Ochs Archives

Brian Wilson was back in shape and recording and playing live with the Beach Boys again. They even had a snappy PR slogan: “Brian is back”. Landy shared column inches with Brian in Rolling Stone.

But there were sinister behind-the-scenes stories: that Wilson was only allowed his dinner if he did as he was told; or worse – that one of Landy’s entourage stood over him at the piano with a baseball bat.

“I feel like a prisoner, and I don’t know when it’s going to end,” Wilson said in a 1976 interview. If he tried to escape, Wilson claimed, Landy might put him “on the funny farm”.

There was already suspicion about Landy in the Beach Boys camp. Landy at one point had suggested taking a percentage of Wilson’s earnings. Landy certainly didn’t go out of pocket. His monthly fee bumped up from an already eye-watering $10,000 to $20,000. In an effort to get Landy fired, Beach Boys manager Stephen Love (also the Wilson brothers’ cousin) showed Brian his monthly bill. “And Brian was so appalled at how much he was paying this guy, he actually took a swing at him!” said Love.

The Beach Boys had a hugely successful 1977, but there were tensions over money, musical direction, and ego. Brian spiralled again into drink, drugs, depression, and self-destruction. He was under immense pressure to craft new songs per the band’s lucrative record contract. His marriage broke up. He plied himself with steaks and junk food – hitting 24 stone at his peak – and at one point attacked his own doctor. He went missing, apparently hitchhiking to San Diego, and wound up in hospital.

Paul Giamatti as Eugene Landy in Love & Mercy - Francois Duhamel
Paul Giamatti as Eugene Landy in Love & Mercy - Francois Duhamel

The Beach Boys tricked Wilson into re-joining Landy’s program: they told Wilson that he was fired from the band and that his money was all but gone; he’d be out on the streets unless he re-joined Landy. Landy agreed to treat Wilson again, but demanded complete control and no interference.

The treatment began again in 1983. Landy set Wilson up at a beachside home in Malibu, right at the edge of the Pacific, and put him under round-the-clock supervision. Landy diagnosed him (wrongly) as a paranoid schizophrenic and manic depressive.

Every social interaction was recorded by Landy’s minions – on audio or video tape – and every movement reported back. (Wilson called his handlers the “Surf Nazis”). Landy forced Wilson to carry a beeper for on-demand contact. Wilson was also cut off from family and friends, including his mother and daughters, Carnie and Wendy – two thirds of pop group Wilson Phillips.

When Rolling Stone visited Wilson’s home for an interview, the journalist noted there was a constantly-ringing phone in the dining room, like a Batphone especially for Landy. Wilson said that without Landy “I wouldn’t know how to live.” In the same article, Landy claimed that he and Brian Wilson were “partners in life”. Certainly, they became partners professionally and financially – Landy’s name found its way onto Wilson’s official documents. Landy boasted: “I influence all of his thinking. I’m practically a member of the band.”

Not satisfied with being a self-appointed Beach Boy, the not-so-good doctor steered Wilson into a solo career. Landy naturally took an executive producer credit on Brian's first solo album.

Wilson and AI Jardine performing in 1976 - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Wilson and AI Jardine performing in 1976 - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Landy milked Wilson for a reported $430,000 per year. Fees included $35,000 for professional services, $300,000 for career advice, and $150,000 for representing Wilson at corporate Beach Boys meetings. When Landy wanted more money, Carl Wilson reportedly gave away some of Brian’s publishing royalties.

Landy even controlled Wilson's love life. After Wilson met Melinda Ledbetter in a car showroom – where the film Love & Mercy begins – it was Landy, not Wilson, who called to ask her on a date. Landy’s minions stalked them on dates and Landy checked in every hour. Three years into the relationship, Landy cut Melinda off entirely.

“I live in a strange hell,” Wilson told a writing partner. “I’m a prisoner and I have no hope of escaping.” Wilson claimed that he tried to kill himself by swimming out to sea – but one of Landy’s men fished him back out.

Peter Carlin likened Landy’s control to the fraught relationship between Wilson and Murry, his abusive father and former Beach Boys manager. Melinda agreed. “There was a total parallel between Murry and Landy,” she said. “Because Brian came from such dysfunction, it was hard for him to recognise how dysfunctional the situation with Landy was.”

Love & Mercy details Brian’s relationship with his father, who was bitter over his son’s success and talent. In one scene, Murry sells the rights to Wilson’s songs without his consultation. “It seems far-fetched, like cinematic villainizing,” said Philip Lambert, “but that actually happened.”

John Cusack as Wilson and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter in Love & Mercy - Francois Duhamel
John Cusack as Wilson and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter in Love & Mercy - Francois Duhamel

Wilson worked with producer-songwriter Andy Paley on his solo album. Paley recalled strange incidents during the process: Wilson being manipulated with the promise of milkshakes; constant interruptions from Landy; and Landy forcing them to use his own insipid lyrics.

“Anything good we got out of those sessions was done totally on stolen time,” Paley said. “Landy was always checking in, phoning in directions, basically never wanting to give Brian any breathing room. It was a hassle and many times heart-breaking because we'd do something good, finally, and then Landy would swoop in and dive-bomb it.”

Landy certainly believed in his own hype. As he said in a 1988 interview: “Brian Wilson is a perfect example of the fact that in my field, I’m an artist.”

In that same interview, Wilson made alarming, slurred, barely coherent comments about why it was basically fine to be imprisoned by Landy. “Well, life is a prison in itself... everybody has to have a little imprisonment to understand this is where we are.”

Mike Love – who feuded with Wilson himself over credits and royalties – spoke out: “Landy thinks that Brian is the goose that laid the golden egg.”

In February 1988, the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance brought charges against Landy – for sexual misconduct with a female patient and misconduct and gross negligence with Wilson.

Lost soul: Brian Wilson in 1977 - Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo
Lost soul: Brian Wilson in 1977 - Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

The Los Angeles Times wrote an expose, investigating the relationship between Wilson and Landy. In the same edition, Wilson wrote a statement defending Landy. Rolling Stone noted that Wilson “spouts out lines Landy has fed him like a robot”.

Landy claimed that the doctor-patient relationship was long since dissolved. Now, they were just partners. They had set up a company together, Brains & Genius. Others around them saw it differently. Even the Surf Nazis were concerned about his over-medicating of Wilson – which Landy prescribed illegally through a psychiatrist.

In 1989, Landy was forced to surrender his license to practice psychology. Now the pair really were just creative and business partners. Landy claimed a third of the $250,000 advance for Wilson's 1991 autobiography, Wouldn't It Be Nice. The book was packed with bizarre stories designed to vindicate Landy as an all-knowing psychology genius, and the Beach Boys as toxic idiots.

In 1990, Wilson's family filed a suit to appoint Brian a conservator and separate him from Landy for good. In February 1992 the Superior Court of Santa Monica ruled that Landy must remove himself from Wilson’s life. A lawyer named Jerome Billet was appointed his conservator.

Brian Wilson’s legal battles didn’t end. There were lawsuits against Irving Music over song rights and against Mike Love over royalties. Wilson also brought a $10 million lawsuit against Jerome Billet for allegedly mishandling those cases. More positively, Wilson received a proper diagnosis after parting ways with Eugene Landy – mildly manic-depressive with a schizoaffective disorder.

Landy died in 2006. Brian Wilson didn’t entirely regret the association. “I still feel that there was benefit,” he later said. “I try to overlook the bad stuff, and be thankful for what he taught me.” He also recalled that Love & Mercy left him feeling “exposed”. As he told Rolling Stone: “Whatever the film shows, it was much worse in real life.”

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