Brian Wilson

by George Varga | Jun 27, 2001
Brian Wilson "What does music mean to me?"

Brian Wilson repeats the question, sounding both intrigued and almost incredulous. After a quick calculation, the man who`s profoundly influenced everyone from The Beatles and Social Distortion to Barenaked Ladies and the French electronica duo Air offers his answer.

"Only about 90 percent of my life," he says before reconsidering. "Maybe 200 percent of my life."

Wilson`s math may be exaggerated, but not his enthusiasm for his recently revitalized career.

From the Beverly Hills home he shares with his second wife and two young daughters, the rock legend and erstwhile leader of the Beach Boys speaks excitedly about his upcoming album, which may include a tribute to his musical hero, producer Phil Spector.

And he sounds almost giddy about his two-month North American concert trek with Paul Simon. It`s Wilson`s most extensive tour of major venues ever.

"Today, I`m very comfortable on stage. Before, I used to get butterflies," says Wilson, whose warmth and candor on this occasion belie his reputation for being guarded and distant.

"I love performing, because I like the way I go over," he continues. "I go over pretty well. The strength of the material carries the show. I`m not a real superhuman performer, but the material is what people like to hear. When it comes to music, we`re perfect; me and my band are perfect! We don`t have to strive, we just keep getting better every night."

Wilson`s renewed confidence should delight fans of the man whom Beatles` producer Sir George Martin has hailed as the "one living genius of pop music." It also comes as a welcome surprise.

Indeed, since achieving stardom in the early 1960s with the Beach Boys, Wilson has spent more time battling personal demons than crafting his luminous, note-perfect songs about endless summers, heady love and the fragility of existence.

The trauma from growing up in a family led by an abusive father was exacerbated by the pressures of becoming a rock star, and a millionaire, when Wilson was just out of his teens. His subsequent drug problems only magnified his travails, too often taking him away from music. He has released just two solo albums of all-new material, 1988`s "Brian Wilson" and 1998`s "Imagination."

Incredibly, he has not only survived, but is in better shape than many friends and fans - himself included - would have believed possible. And he`s now poised to assume his highest public profile since such classic, Wilson-driven Beach Boys` songs as "California Girls," "I Get Around" and "Good Vibrations" were blasting from radios, record players and juke boxes across the nation in the halcyon days of the `60s.

Wilson and his superb, 10-piece band perform on his tour with Simon. The former leader of Simon & Garfunkel was so impressed by Wilson`s performance at the March taping of an all-star TV special honoring the former head Beach Boy that Simon asked him to team up.

"I knew right away it was a good idea," Wilson says of the joint tour, which began June 9 in Seattle and is scheduled to conclude July 24 in New York.

"Paul called and asked if I`d like to do a tour with him, like he did with (Bob) Dylan (in 1999), and we said: `Sure, we`d be honored to.`"

Simon and Dylan did several duets together at each stop on their tour. Will Wilson and Simon do likewise?

"We won`t sing together, because my wife (Melinda) and I don`t want (me) to do it," Wilson replies. "We have a little mobile (tour) bus, and I get off stage at 9:15 p.m. and go on to the next city. With the Beach Boys, it was all by airplane. I prefer buses, because it`s not as scary."

To capitalize on his tour with Simon, Wilson`s double album, "Live at the Roxy," is being re-released, with two additional songs, "The First Time" and the lovely, Tin Pan Alley-styled ballad "This Isn`t Love." Rather than make the album available only through his Web site - as was the case when it first came out last year - "Live at the Roxy" is being released on the independent Oglio label and distributed by ADA, a division of Warner Bros.

The album and tour will receive an additional boost July 4, when TNT will air the debut telecast of "An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys."

Filmed at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the two-hour special features performances of Wilson`s songs by such admirers as Elton John, Aimee Mann, Matthew Sweet, Ricky Martin, the Go-Go`s and the reunited vocal trio Wilson Phillips, featuring his daughters Wendy and Carnie.

"It was the biggest honor of my life! I`ve never had a better time," he says of the TV special. "When Elton sang `God Only Knows,` I almost cried. And when Vince Gill sang `Surf`s Up,` that blew me away. It was also the first time I`d met Paul Simon."

The special also has David Crosby gliding through a trio version of Wilson`s "In My Room." But Crosby`s vocal partners, Carly Simon and Jimmy Webb, both sound challenged by the exquisite ballad`s technical demands.

"I don`t know the reason why," says Wilson, who plans to start work on a new album in September. "My songs are simple to record."

But "simple" is a relative term for Wilson, who set a standard in the `60s by combining the jazzy vocal harmonies of the Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry-styled guitar riffs with increasingly ambitious production touches and a deceptively simple-sounding yet sophisticated melodic approach.

Usually, Wilson explains, he lays down up to eight vocal tracks for each of his songs, a process that`s both simple and painstaking.

"You just have to get the first one right, so it`s not sharp or flat, and then the next one and all the rest come easy," he says. "But getting the first one is very hard."

Does his songwriting approach differ now from when he wrote hit after hit in the `60s?

"It`s pretty much the same," he replies. "First comes the key, then the chord pattern, then the melody, then the lyrics. That`s how I`ve been writing for almost 40 years. It`s a little bit harder now, because I`m not as young and energetic, and my level of enthusiasm had gone down a little. But I still like writing."TOURS AND DETOURS

Wilson, who turned 59 in June, has become an exercise enthusiast - the better to sustain himself on and off stage.

"I work out every day," he says proudly. "I run four miles in about two hours. I do it in sections, not all at once."

Prior to his 1999 and 2000 solo tours Wilson`s performances were few and far between, with or without the Beach Boys.

It was in late 1964 that he swore off touring, after a nervous breakdown on a flight to a Texas gig with the band he`d co-founded in 1961 with his brothers, Carl and Dennis (both now deceased) and their cousin, Mike Love.

"I couldn`t write music on the road," Wilson says. "So I quit the road in favor of writing and producing some good records for the Beach Boys. But I got a thrill out of performing with them. We were a very big group in the `60s."

Wilson made sporadic guest appearances at Beach Boys` concerts through 1976. He then went 20 years without performing with the band, and hardly ever on his own. His long hiatus from touring ended in 1999.

"My wife and my managers got together with me one day a few years ago," Wilson recalls. "And they said: `Look, you ought to get a solo career going and do some solo concerts.` I said: `No, no one will want (to hear) me.` They said: `They will.` I said: `No, they won`t.` They said: `Damn it, they will! They`ll love you, and you`ll sell tickets.` So we got a band together."

Asked why he thought people wouldn`t come to hear him perform, the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee sounds almost embarrassed.

"I didn`t think I was famous enough as a person," he says. "I`m a legend with the Beach Boys, not as a person."

Come again?

Wilson, of course, was the heart and soul of the Beach Boys. He wrote nearly all their best songs, and created the group`s masterful 1966 album, "Pet Sounds," with studio musicians while the Beach Boys were on tour. The band couldn`t exist without him, and does now in name only.

"I was `the genius behind the Beach Boys,` but I wasn`t the best Beach Boy," Wilson says. "Carl and Mike sang real good. We were all good."

Never mind that the band now includes just one original member, Love. And never mind that Wilson performs superior versions of many of the same songs that the current Beach Boys lineup does, or that he wrote and recorded the definitive versions of those songs as the band`s mastermind.

"I think we`re both keeping the Beach Boys` name alive," Wilson says. "Mike is keeping the name alive, so he`s doing something good."

Does he communicate with Love, who sued Wilson twice in the past decade for defamation of character and songwriting royalties?

"I don`t talk with him very much," Wilson says. "I just don`t want to."

However, Wilson did record at least one still-unreleased song with the Beach Boys, including Love, about four years ago. Co-written by Wilson and longtime collaborator Andy Paley, the doo-wop flavored "Soul Searching" features the last lead vocal by Wilson`s brother, Carl, who died of lung cancer on Feb. 6, 1998.BRIAN`S SONG

Wilson radiates a childlike innocence. He also projects a combination of insecurity and youthful confidence, sometimes in the same sentence. He seems grateful to have regained some control of his life, but is hesitant to take too much for granted. And he sounds both nostalgic and emotionally raw as he recalls his abusive father, Murry.

"The one thing my dad taught me is that when you go into a project, don`t quit halfway through," Wilson says of his deceased dad. "Following through is the key.

"I miss (Murry`s) leadership and his ballsy personality," he continues. "He was a very ballsy guy, and he had a lot of authority in his voice. He helped me get off my (butt) and get going."

But doesn`t Wilson have unpleasant memories about his father?

"Yeah, I do," he says. "He used to beat me up a little bit too much. Basically, if I was late or didn`t mow the lawn, he`d spank me. But that`s about it. He didn`t spank me too much."

Perhaps not. But Wilson`s 1991 autobiography, "Wouldn`t It Be Nice," included chilling anecdotes. Wilson wrote that his father once punished the teen-aged Brian, his eldest son, by forcing him to defecate on the kitchen floor in front of his mother. In another instance, his dad struck him in the head with a wooden board, causing him to become deaf in one ear.

"He hit me with a two-by-four," Wilson says matter-of-factly.

How much has his father`s actions affected Wilson`s approach to parenting?

"Not much, because I`m a much different person than my dad was," he replies. "The way I look at my family is, I had two daughters (Carnie, 33, and Wendy, 31) in my first marriage, and two adopted daughters (Daria, 31/2 and Delanie, 3) in this marriage, and I`m much more attuned to my daughters now. In the `60s, I was attuned to the Beach Boys and my friends."

And, unfortunately, to drugs, which Wilson abused off and on until the early `80s.

Recalling that period, he says: "Marijuana makes you lazy and not want to do anything.

"LSD? It makes you (get) too much into the music, to a point where it`s not very fun."

Did there appear to be anything positive about drugs that initially prompted him to use them?

"Drugs can improve your ability to concentrate, and be creative, but not all the time. Sometimes, the reaction you get from drugs is not a good one," he says, before adding a cautionary note.

"I stopped using drugs 18 years ago. My doctor told me I was going to die, so I quit. All I do now is take a little mild medicine for anxiety and to sleep, or as an anti-depressant."

Wilson hopes to record his next solo album in September. It will include new songs, his "slowed-down" version of Creedence Clearwater`s "Proud Mary" and, perhaps, a song or two honoring Spector, the "Wall of Sound" pop-music producer.

What remains to be seen is if the album will include any of the nearly 80 songs Wilson has recorded in recent years with Paley, with whom he first collaborated on the lovely 1988 song, "Love and Mercy." Featuring such guest musicians as former Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton and ex-Cars` guitarist Elliot Easton, a number of those songs have been traded on the Internet by fans eager to share any new music by Wilson, including "Rodney on the Roq," the upbeat new theme song Wilson co-wrote for veteran radio host Rodney Bingenheimer`s weekly show on KROQ-FM in Los Angeles.

"Some of this stuff is out there on bootlegs, which is frustrating to Brian and me because it`s not done yet," notes Paley from backstage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, where he performed recently as part of Wilson`s band.

"We`ve written stuff that sounds like it`s from every stage of his career, from `Pet Sounds` and `The Beach Boys Love You` to the present. Brian`s the kind of person who becomes extremely energetic and creative when he`s in a good mood, and he`s in a really great mood right now. We`ve already worked up one new song, `Desert Drive,` which we may play later on this tour."

However Wilson`s next album turns out, he seems determined that it will at least partially pay tribute to his biggest musical idol.

"I look at the future as a way to capture Phil Spector`s music," Wilson says. "He`s the last one on my list, the last hope for anything great to happen. I want to represent his music in a different way, and do a version of `Walkin` in the Rain` or `Be My Baby.` That`s a good idea! I should do a tribute album to Phil Spector."

(SIDEBAR: Simon says)

By George Varga

Copley News Service

Making an album may be a straightforward process for some musicians. But for Paul Simon making an album is almost like writing a book or a play.

From New York, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discussed the making of his last album, "You`re the One," and his painstaking approach to creating and honing his music.

"I started two years ago," Simon said of "You`re the One," which in January earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, but lost to Steely Dan`s "Two Against Nature."

"Then I took a long break, five months in the middle, and went on tour with Bob Dylan. So I only spent about 16 months on the album, which is on the short side for me."

Did you work for a week, then take a week off, or was it constant?

"Not even a week on and off, just periods of recording. I recorded with the drummer (Steve Gadd) and set up rhythms and keys, and then thought about sequencing (of songs) and about guitar parts, and made up instrumental parts. Then I recorded those and made them into duets with (guitarists) Vincent (Nguini) and Mark (Stewart), and then continued the sequencing.

"That went on for about a year. And then I began to write lyrics for some of the songs where the instrumental tracks were complete and the structure was set. Then the album grew to maybe seven songs, and I began to think about the bridge that needed to be constructed between songs.

"And I began to think about the overall shape of the album and (people`s) attention spans, and how to keep it hypnotic and keep the dream aspects of the album uninterrupted, so that - at least in my mind - the album could be a complete piece of work, as opposed to random songs. That`s sort of the way I think when I work."Do you build everything off of the drums and rhythms?

"That is one of the constants. Sometimes I begin with another premise. I could say: `Well, it would be really great if I had a song in F-minor.` Because the song that`s before it is in, let`s say, F-major - which it happens to be on `You`re the One` - or in some key I want to relate to in some way. Because it`s mostly on instinct, and that`s where I want to go.

"The first four songs on `You`re the One` are meant to flow as a unit. Then there`s a pause between the fifth and sixth songs, and I change the direction and movement for the next four songs, more toward ballads. Then it pauses again, (for) an even longer length of time. And then the last three songs are like a unit. So in my mind, it`s like three acts."

Do you construct all your albums this way?

"I approach them similarly. How to construct them is a process, and it`s still evolving, but I`ve been thinking that way for a long time. It`s just that I learn more as I do it, and I apply whatever I do and think I accomplished on my work before, or whatever I didn`t accomplish.

"I try to take those pieces of information into account, and try to go in an area that was particularly satisfying. Those are ways of beginning an album. F-minor is kind of awkward on guitar, but in another way it`s very rich, the same as C-minor. See, all the keys have their own quality and every key has a different sound. It`s part of a larger picture, of how you make a piece of work and what you infer from the inexplicable move that you`ve made.

"You think: `Why`d I do that? I don`t know, but it`s interesting. Where should I go from there? And having done that, does it need a conclusion?` For example, the song `Darling Lorraine` (on `You`re the One`) tells a long story - that`s why it`s a story-song. And `Old,` which comes right after it, is short and punchy, and isn`t a story. It`s a quick little joke about time, and helps finish up the emotional feelings of `Lorraine.` It washes `Lorraine` from the memory, and puts you in a mind to go to another place.

"Anyhow, that`s how I think, (though) it may be pure projection on my part."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: George Varga


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