By Jason M. Rubin
The recent death of longtime guitarist Nicky Wonder just the latest setback for pop genius Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys and undisputed genius of American pop, has led a life both blessed and cursed. The victim of physical and verbal abuse as a child, he grew up sensitive, introverted, yet also competitive. His desire to succeed and to distinguish himself, coupled with his rapidly developing musical abilities, drove him to become a hitmaking wunderkind; he was only 23 when he became the most admired and respected pop auteur in the music world when in 1966 he released his masterpiece, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, followed by the #1 single “Good Vibrations.”
Yet before he reached the top of the mountain, he stumbled, suffering a nervous breakdown in late 1964 while on tour. After that, he retired from the road and concentrated on mastering the recording studio; his singular focus resulted in the aforementioned classics. Still, his time at the top was short: creeping paranoia, escalating drug use, and increasingly eccentric and erratic behavior caused him to abandon Smile, the album that would have represented the next stage of evolution in Wilson’s relentlessly experimental approach to music-making
Through decades of unchecked descension into mental illness, with periods of being either undermedicated or overmedicated, he courageously resurfaced in 1988 with an impressive solo album, the first LP to bear his own name. It would be another 11 years before he returned to the road; remarkably, with so many of his contemporaries having died, he continues to record and tour, all the while fighting his ever-present demons. His official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, which includes auditory hallucinations. (The 2014 biopic, Love and Mercy, dramatizes Wilson’s long struggles with mental illness.)
In June of this year, however, Wilson was forced to postpone his upcoming tour dates because he was feeling “mentally insecure” following a series of back surgeries. In a note to fans, he wrote, “It is no secret that I have been living with mental illness for many decades. There were times when it was unbearable but with doctors and medications I have been able to live a wonderful, healthy and productive life with support from my family, friends and fans who have helped me through this journey. [Lately] I’ve been struggling with stuff in my head and saying things I don’t mean, and I don’t know why. It’s something I’ve never dealt with before and we can’t quite figure it out just yet.”
Wilson was to open his tour at Lynn Auditorium the following night, but instead flew back to Los Angeles for treatment. The tour finally recommenced on August 7 in New York (and returns to Lynn Auditorium on January 24, 2020). However, at the eve of the tour occurred yet another setback. The night before it kicked off, longtime guitarist Nick Walusko (aka Nicky Wonder) died in his sleep.
Walusko was a founding member of the Wondermints, a neo-psychedelic power pop band that formed in Los Angeles in 1992 and became the core of Wilson’s backing band when he began touring in 1999. The guitarist appeared on a number of Wilson’s solo albums, including 2004’s SMiLE, which was Wilson’s triumphant and complete new recording of the aborted 1967 Beach Boys album. Walusko was 59 years old. A cause of death has not been released.
In a statement released on social media, Wilson said, “Today is a sad, sad day. It is with my deepest regret to tell you that our beloved Nicky Wonder passed away last night in his sleep. We are in a state of shock as you can imagine. But we are going to honor him with tonight’s show. Nicky was my favorite guitar player ever. I always loved the way he used his fingers. He was a real Rock and Roll guy and great singer too. He was a friendly and very nice person and he was really, really funny. He had the best sense of humor. We are all crying today, he will be missed beyond words.”
Speaking of the 2004 SMiLE album, the recording and the subsequent tour featured the contributions of a group called the Stockholm Strings & Horns. One of the group’s cellists was 29-year-old Markus Sandlund. After the tour was finished in December of that year, he travelled to Khao Lak in Thailand, where he was in the path of a tsunami caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. His body was not found until the following May.
“I have been devastated since I heard the news that Markus is missing in Thailand,” Wilson wrote on January 4, 2005. “We have sent an agent to see what we can find out, but as of today we have been unable to locate Marcus in the area. My prayers go out to all of the victims and their families and I would ask you to say a prayer for Markus’ safe return.”
In another horrible incident, Scott Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist in Wilson’s band (keyboards, guitars, tuned percussion, and vocals), raped a woman after a show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2014. He was found guilty and in 2016 was sentenced to five years in prison, but he was released after 14 months because of good behavior. The following year, Bennett and the victim agreed to an undisclosed civil settlement.
Bennett has never rejoined Wilson’s band, and the only thing Wilson’s camp has ever publicly said about the matter was this statement at the time of the arrest: “What has happened between my former keyboard player Scott Bennett and the Rogers County District Court in Claremont, OK is a matter between them. I have no further comment.”
In spite of all these setbacks, Wilson soldiers on. He is 77 years old, one of a dwindling handful of major artists from the early ’60s who are still alive and working. How much longer he can continue is uncertain; this writer has believed that each of the last five or six tours would be his last. Certainly he has earned the right to rest and enjoy the rewards of his remarkable career. And yet, by focusing on the good vibrations, and not the bad, he seems surprisingly capable of weathering the storms that come from living a rock and roll life.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.