Wilson Phillips Makes Peace With the Past

ByABC News

June 24, 2004 -- From the outside, the childhoods of the musical trio Wilson Phillips seem like they would have been filled with celebrity and "good vibrations."

Carnie and Wendy Wilson are the daughters of Brian Wilson, the genius songwriter of the Beach Boys, icons of the carefree spirit of California.

"We would go on the road in the summers, with the Beach Boys," said Wendy. "And I guess you could say that was a glamorous lifestyle, but we really didn't know any better."

Chynna Phillips is the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, whose anthem "California Dreaming" came to symbolize the hopes of a generation.

But their family histories are a blessing and a curse. Along with their birthright, they carry an incredible burden: a childhood often lost to the dark side of rock 'n' roll.

United by a Shared Pain

Brian Wilson's own childhood had been scarred by a needy father who beat him. And even though he had succeeded as a musician, he had fallen into a life-threatening battle with depression and addiction, and could only be a phantom father.

John Phillips also fell into a drug-induced spiral. It's often said that he was known for two things: his songwriting and his partying.

"You talk about drug addicts and there's a certain arena of drug addicts, and then there's the diehard, take-it-to-the-grave addicts," said Chynna. "That's where my father was."

Chynna's parents divorced when she was just 2, and her mother was soon appearing on the covers of magazines, in the arms of stars like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. But they "weren't necessarily father figures to me," she said. "They were my mom's boyfriends."

Like Wendy and Carnie, Chynna says the thing she missed most was the charming but erratic father who would sometimes show up and sweep her off her feet.

The three little girls were playmates. Behind the smiles, they were united by a shared pain. And so, they turned to make-believe — forming a band called The Satellites and spending hours harmonizing together.

A Dreaded Doctor

When Carnie and Wendy were 10 and 11, their mother and father broke up. Dr. Eugene Landy, a controversial psychologist, was brought in to help Brian Wilson tame his demons — but family and friends allege eventually that Landy brainwashed him and took over his life.

Landy moved into Wilson's house while Wilson lived in a nearby rental. Landy took a co-writing credit on some of his songs. And, Carnie and Wendy say, he made Wilson cut all ties to his family.

Wilson's family and friends had to go to court to get Landy away from Wilson. But Wilson still didn't call his daughters.

In a 1991 Primetime Live interview, Diane Sawyer asked him why he hadn't called them and he told her: "I can't answer that question. I am guilty for not being a good father. I was druggy when I should have been a father."

‘Wow, Dad Called’

As the three girls grew into teenagers, each manifested their hurt in different ways: Wendy turned inward, Carnie turned to food, and Chynna turned into a wild child.

All three girls struggled to find their place. They found an answer in music.

In their late teens, the three childhood friends reconnected, and worked up eight bars of a song. They decided to follow in their parents' footsteps.

After four long years of recording demos, they made history with a debut album that sold 10 million copies. But still, their dreams were not fulfilled — because their dreams all included their fathers.

In their second album, Wendy and Carnie reached out to their father through the lyrics — to beg him just to call.

In her interview, Sawyer asked Wilson if he would ever call his daughters again. "I have been waiting for the right time to call them," he said.

Shortly afterwards, Carnie remembers receiving a call on her answering machine. "I think he said, 'Give me a call back.' and I thought, 'Wow, Dad called.' "

A New Sound

But it was a tumultuous period, full of emotional stresses, the exhaustion of constant touring and bad choices with men.

The band split up. The three young women, who had shared their pain growing up together, grew apart. That second family they developed disappeared as they created their own real-life adult relationships.

"Sometimes I wonder — I think to myself, I wonder what would have happened to Wilson Phillips if we had stayed together," said Chynna.

But at the same time, she said, she's glad she made that decision. She — and the sisters resolved issues in their lives and found nice men, too.

Chynna married actor and family man Billy Baldwin. Wendy married producer Dan Knutson. And Carnie married Rob Bonfiglio. His last name is Italian, and it means "good son."

Wendy, Carnie and Chynna reunited recently. Twelve years after their last album, they have released a new one.

It's called California — they're singing the classic hits of the '60s, with some songs written by their parents.

For them it is the perfect marriage of who they are and where they come from. It is their attempt at rewriting the soundtrack of their lives for themselves — and their children.

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