Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) interview
Keiron Pim One of pop music’s all-time legends is coming to East Anglia next weekend. Keiron Pim spoke to The Beach Boys’ founder Brian Wilson – but characteristically, he didn’t say much in reply.
You can sense when someone isn't listening to you on the telephone. Brian Wilson sounds distracted and goes quiet.
Across the Atlantic, all the way west across America, somewhere in his Los Angeles mansion someone is hollering in the background. “We're going to have to wrap this up,” says Brian. “Are we?” “Yeah.” “Okay then, thanks very much for your time.” “Thank you!”
In truth we had barely got going. As a passionate admirer of his work with the Beach Boys, the offer of a phone interview was an offer I couldn't refuse, even though I knew in my heart it was unlikely to yield much information. I was the latest in a very long line of people merrily queuing up knowing full well they were likely to be frustrated but determined to give it a shot. After all, it's not every day you get offered the chance to speak to a genius. The only problem was, he didn't say much back to me.As we talked I could picture that characteristic look on his face, wavering between wide-eyed innocence and an expression akin to that of a rabbit in headlights. One of my colleagues got it well when she said she thinks of him as being like Ozzy Osbourne without the swearing. Another, on hearing I would interview Brian, said: “Good luck - I thought he'd lost his marbles years ago.”
The precise location of Brian Wilson's marbles has been a source of curiosity since the 1960s. Many journalists have interviewed him since in the hope of understanding him, getting him to open up. In the event we spoke for just a few minutes, the idea being, according to the breezy publicity officer who spoke to me before handing the phone over to him, to “talk about the fun summer shows we've got coming up in the UK”.
This tour comprises only three dates - an outdoor concert at Kenwood House in London next Saturday, then Ipswich's Regent Theatre on Sunday, June 29 and a finale at London's Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, July 1. It will be Brian's eighth tour of the UK and comes at a time when his stock is as high as it has been since his creative zenith in the mid-1960s.
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But as anyone who has seen him on television or in concert will know, while he remains able to articulate the most nuanced of emotions through his songs, in conversation he is stilted and staccato. Most of his answers are delivered with an air of relief after a momentary pause, as if he had to rustle through the disorganised file of stock responses in his head and then felt a frisson of joy at stumbling on the right one.
So in reply to the question “On which piece of music did you find hardest to realise the sound that you had in your head?”, we get “Ah… Lucky Old Sun. Yeah!” In what way? “I tried to get the songs to sound each one differently.” Looking back on your career, Brian, which song fills you with the most pride? “California Girls.” And why? “I dunno, I just think it's a great achievement in music.” Brian, can you tell me a bit about what you'll be playing on the tour?
“We are going to be playing Beach Boy and Brian Wilson songs.”
And how are you feeling about touring?
“Very good, very positive. I think it should be a really good tour.” Last time you played in Ipswich, in 2004, I was struck by how emotional an experience it was; there was so much love going towards you from the audience. “Yes, there was. It makes me proud you know, to be an entertainer. It makes me very proud.”
That gig was part of the revelatory tour in which he showcased for the first time the Smile album, of which more later. Brian spent most of the concert planted behind his keyboard, to which were attached two autocues providing the lyrics and the occasional scripted comment: “Good evening Ipswich United Kingdom.”
Aside from the stunningly inventive music, what was so remarkable was the support for this fragile man, most immediately from his 11-piece band - it was hard to imagine a tighter-knit musical safety-net - but also from the audience. Waves of affection and admiration emanated from the theatre towards the vulnerable figure on stage. It was like this throughout the tour.
The band, when it's not backing Brian, is the LA power-pop group Wondermints. He is quick to pay tribute to them. “They are just tremendous musicians, great singers, made my stage show a lot better and made me feel like I was really supported.”
Complicated songs such as Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains are carried off with an effortless air. These compositions hailed from the fervid spell in 1966 when his already fragile mental health went into meltdown. Given those well-documented traumas, does he still think much about that period of his life?
“I prefer not to think about it. I prefer to think about the current stuff.”
So would he rather be touring new material instead of getting up on stage and playing the old songs?
“Not really, because I like the old stuff too.”
He has always been known as a perfectionist. He drove himself and his bandmates to distraction in the mid-60s with his attempts to perfect Smile, which assumed mythological status as the great 1960s album that never was, a lost classic representing the pitfalls of the psychedelic era. For anyone who had marvelled at the poignant beauty and sheer musical audacity of Pet Sounds, or been intrigued by the hints of brilliance in the salvage job entitled Smiley Smile, this was the Holy Grail. When it was finally recorded in full and released in 2004, Smile received universal praise. But being a perfectionist, was he entirely satisfied with it?
“Yeah. I think it was a well done album and I'm very proud of it.”
During the initial attempts at recording Smile, lyricist Van Dyke Parks' surreal songwriting drove a wedge between Brian and more conservative Beach Boys, specifically his cousin Mike Love, who is generally - and perhaps unfairly - cast as the prime reactionary force stymieing Brian's attempts to chart unexplored musical terrain. Mike rejected out of hand the oblique poetic line “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield” from the sublime song Cabinessence, supposedly advising Brian not to mess “with the formula - surfing and cars, Brian”.
Parks and Brian have recently worked together again on That Lucky Old Sun, which has been hailed as proving that, rather than living on 40-year-old glories, Brian's brilliance remains intact. Anyway, the idiosyncratic Smile embodied the chasm between Brian and the rest of the band. He was always the main man, the creative force. His brother Dennis once said: “Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys. He is the band. We're his messengers. He is all of it. Period. We're nothing. He's everything.”
Brian founded the band in 1961 with Dennis and their younger brother Carl, Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. Mike and Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965 when Brian stopped touring after his first nervous breakdown, continue to tour a version of the Beach Boys but anyone looking for the real heart of the group would be better advised to see Brian's show.
Pet Sounds is arguably where things began to diverge. The Beach Boys' initial commercial success was rooted in all-American tales of surfing, hotrods and cute girls - witness Surfin' USA and Fun Fun Fun - rather than in introspective, awe-inspiring psychedelia. Pet Sounds is recognised today as one of the cornerstones of pop music but on release in America it sold poorly, adding to Brian's existing depression. Songs like Caroline No and I Just Wasn't Made for These Times explored his disappointment at the world, his alienation and sadness, delivered in a plaintive, girlish voice, often ascending to a sinuous falsetto that could break your heart. If The Beach Boys superficially personified the American teenage dream, at the heart of their soul-warming music was a recurrent sad note, evocative of the moment when the evening's over, the hotrod's engine dies down and the neon lights flicker to darkness.
Dennis had perhaps the greatest raw talent in the band aside from Brian. His 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue was rereleased on Tuesday packaged with his 'lost' follow-up, Bambu.
How does Brian feel about this gradual recognition for his late brother? “Well, very proud actually. I'm proud of him and I think he's wonderful. He was a good singer.”
Carl and Dennis are long gone; Carl died from cancer in 1998, Dennis drowned in an alcohol-related incident in 1983. Somehow Brian outlived them. That seemed unlikely for much of the 1960s and '70s. His gargantuan drug intake - LSD, marijuana, amphetamine and cocaine - shattered his mental equilibrium permanently, his weight ballooned, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he began hearing voices in his head. He is much recovered but in 2004 he confided to American TV host Larry King: “I can still hear things like 'I'm going to kill you', but I don't hear very many other kind of thoughts. Just usually negative thoughts…”
The mental health issues dated to his childhood, however, and owed much to his tyrannical father Murry In his autobiography Brian wrote that “playing the piano… literally saved my ass. I recall playing one time while my dad flung Dennis against the wall… That was just one of many incidents when I didn't miss a note, supplying background music to the hell that often substituted for a family life”.
Be it the drugs or the upbringing, the result was a dysfunctional personality. Stories of his eccentricity are legion and have been repeated ad nauseam. His revival during this decade has been wondrous and unexpected. It is a far cry from the 1970s and '80s when he lived under the influence of the controlling Dr Eugene Landy, whose method of therapy involved restricting Brian's contact with his family and friends and demanding complete obedience. In short, he has suffered more than most for his talent. I wonder whether he might have preferred a happy life to a brilliant one. The 'genius' tag has attached itself to him for the past 40 years, I suspect rather like a millstone at times. So does he ever consider this to be a burden; how does the word 'genius' make him feel? “It makes me feel I'm very clever or smart.”
And do you agree with them, Brian?
“Yeah, I do. Yeah!”
t Brian Wilson plays Ipswich Regent Theatre on Sunday, June 29. Tickets are £50 and can be booked through www.livenation.co.uk or through a 24-hour credit card hotline on 0844 576 5483. All tickets subject to a booking fee.