When Wilson Went on the Lam

In June 1978, Beach Boy Brian Wilson — without telling his wife or bandmates — decided to escape his life and hitchhike to Mexico. He wound up in San Diego, according to Steven Gaines’s biography Heroes and Villains, which describes a confused pop-star millionaire wandering the city, “barefoot and unwashed.”

“He was on a binge,” according to Stephen Love, brother of Beach Boy Mike Love. Wilson’s wife since 1965, Marilyn Rovell, referred to the incident in later divorce papers, saying, “He told me he wanted to know what it feels like to be a bum. [He was] playing for drinks in San Diego bars.”

Someone from a local recording studio recognized Wilson and attempted to get him to record a track, unaware that Wilson was living on the street near downtown’s Laurel Street Bridge.

“The cops found him in Balboa Park under a tree with no shoes on, his white pants filthy, obviously a vagrant, with no wallet, no money,” according to another Love brother, Stanley. Wilson was taken by ambulance to nearby Alvarado Hospital, and a doctor called Mrs. Wilson to inform her that her husband was being treated for alcohol poisoning.

Mrs. Wilson had already sent a private detective to San Diego to search for her missing husband after someone at the local recording studio called CBS, the Beach Boys’ one-time label, with news of Wilson’s vagrancy. Marilyn Wilson, with Stephen and Stanley Love, came to San Diego to take Brian home but decided to leave him at the hospital for a few days for treatment.

Wilson flew straight from the hospital to meet the rest of the Beach Boys and record the group’s debut for Caribou Records at Florida’s Criteria Studios. He was quickly supplanted as producer by Bruce Johnston after it became evident that Wilson was incapable — or unwilling — to do the job.

Brian Wilson returns to San Diego tonight to play the House of Blues.

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