Great Conversations: Brian Wilson

Singer/songwriter Brian Wilson, founder of The Beach Boys.

The release of the new biographical drama "Love & Mercy" got me thinking back a bit. During my time at Venice Magazine I was lucky enough to meet and interview most of my heroes from the world of film. Fortune smiled on me further when a few musical idols were thrown into the mix, as well (see previously-posted chats with Lou Reed, Quincy Jones and Robbie Robertson). When I learned in October of 2002 that I was going to interview legendary Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, I was elated. I had gotten to literally stand next to Wilson nearly a decade earlier, at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, while he gave a private recital, just Wilson and a white Steinway, for a small gathering of people (including Robert Redford, who stood at my right elbow) in a Park City tavern, celebrating the premiere of Don Was' documentary "Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," which took a candid look at Wilson's tumultuous life. It's one of those memories I know will flash before me during my final moments, if that cliché turns out to be true (and let's face it, most of them do).

Wilson's wife led me into the music room of their home in hills above Bel-Air, a lovely, but unpretentious place. The music room was equally elegant in its simplicity, just a baby grand in one corner and a couple chairs flanking a couch. Brian Wilson struck me then as he had in 1995: an intensely shy, private man, who was more comfortable behind a keyboard than interacting one-on-one with a stranger. Once he was in the safe zone of his music, however, his mood became lighter, and his personal style took on a sweet, almost child-like nature. A gentle soul, coupled with the heart and mind of a musical genius. Good vibrations, indeed.


Type the name Brian Wilson into any Internet search engine, and you'll be overwhelmed with data that establishes him as America's rock and roll wunderkind. Often referred to as the Mozart of pop, the Orson Welles of rock, the George Gershwin of his generation, Brian Douglas Wilson was born June 20, 1942 in Inglewood, California, the eldest of three boys. At the tender age of 20, the musical prodigy founded the legendary group The Beach Boys, comprised of himself, brothers Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love and family friend Al Jardine. The Beach Boys went on to become of the legendary groups of the 1960s, with their all-American songs about girls, surfing, and cars. Unlike their contemporaries, like Jan and Dan and other Southern California "beach bands," Brian Wilson's songwriting grew more complex with the passing years (In My Room, a major hit for the Boys in 1964, was years ahead of its time, as was Good Vibrations, the first pop song to utilize the obscure instrument known as the Theremin), reaching its zenith in 1966 with the now-legendary Pet Sounds album. Credited by the Beatles as the album that inspired them to conceive and record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, Pet Sounds fused experimental music, complex sound mixing and engineering techniques influenced by the "wall of sound" designs of legendary producer Phil Spector, and some of the most memorable songs in the history of pop music: Wouldn't it be Nice, Sloop John B, and God Only Knows, among them.

While Wilson soared professionally, his personal life was like something out of Dante's Inferno. Described in detail in Wilson's harrowing 1991 autobiography Wouldn't it be Nice, his father Murry, himself a composer, musician, and longtime manager of The Beach Boys, was abusive to his wife and three sons to an almost psychotic extent, a volatility that lasted until his death in 1973. Brian Wilson started doing drugs in the '60s, along with most of his contemporaries, but indulges so heavily in narcotics, drink and food, that by the time the mid-'70s rolled around, his weight had ballooned to over 300 pounds, and he'd become a virtual recluse, rarely leaving his house. The drug abuse, mental illness, and his general erratic behavior caused him to be fired by the Beach Boys, divorced by his first wife, and become virtually persona non grata in the music world he had helped shape.

Following intensive therapy in the late '70s and early '80s, Brian Wilson got sober, shed the excess weight, and went back into the studio, recording a series of critically-lauded albums. Wilson's comeback was documented in Don Was' film I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, a hit at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. To prove that the acorn never falls far from the tree, daughters Carnie and Wendy Wilson became best-selling pop artists themselves, teaming with fellow rock and roll offspring Chynna Phillips, daughter of Mamas and the Papas' John and Michelle Phillips, forming the band Wilson-Phillips in the 1990s.

Although still not on speaking terms with the surviving Beach Boys (Dennis drowned in 1983 after years of drug and alcohol abuse; Carl succumbed to lung cancer in 1998), Brian Wilson is a major force again in the music world, having released the best-selling CD Pet Sounds Live earlier this year. Recorded during four sold-out performances in London, the disc features Wilson and his band performing the entire, legendary album from start to finish, sounding every bit as fresh as it did 36 years ago. Currently at work on a new album entitled Proud Mary, Brian Wilson sat down with Venice Editor Alex Simon to discuss his extraordinary life as one of rock and roll's greatest survivors.

Tell us how you got the idea to perform the entire Pet Sounds album live.

Brian Wilson: Well, my wife, my manager and I were throwing ideas around one day, and it was just one of those off-the-cuff remarks that made sense. You know, "What if we did this..." And that was it. So we did four shows in London and we took the best of the four shows and made the album out of it.

Cover of the Pet Sounds Live CD.

Let's go back to 1966 and talk about how Pet Sounds evolved.

Tony Asher, who was my collaborator, and I just sat the piano and we wrote spontaneously together. It was a fantastic process that took over a year, but was worth every minute of it. One of the great creative times of my life.

Rock music's enfant terrible, Phil Spector, circa early 1960s.

It was very advanced in terms of how you mixed the sound and engineered the entire record. Who influenced your style?

One man: Phil Spector. I learned pretty much everything I know from listening to his stuff. He was a genius with rock and roll. I learned how to combine instruments to make a third sound, and also the use of echo, which was very important.

Pet Sounds was influenced by, and influential to, the Beatles.

Yeah, it was sort of my answer to Rubber Soul and their response to Pet Sounds was Sgt. Pepper. They really wanted to top us, and they did. It's just the way it works; it goes two ways. But Paul McCartney, who's a good friend of mine, says God Only Knows remains his favorite song to this day.

Wilson with longtime pal Sir Paul McCartney.

Tell us about Paul.

He's just the greatest, one of my all-time favorite people and musicians. He's a very open guy, very cool guy. Very real.

Do you like to write during a particular time of day?

Not really. I can write any time of day, although sometimes the night is more fun. I'm not sure why. (laughs)

Reading your book, it struck me that so many creative people have had incredibly dysfunctional childhoods. Do you see a connection between creativity and dysfunction?

Not really, no. I think that creative people are going to be creative, no matter what. I think how you're raised can affect how that creativity comes out, but in the end, we all are who we are.

Wilson in the studio during the Pet Sounds sessions, 1965-66.

But if you had grown up in a "normal" family, do you think you would have become a musician?

(pause) Probably not. Who knows? It's so hard to say. My dad put the fire of hell under my ass to be a musician. But I was definitely born to sing, to be an artist. I mean, from the time I was a little kid, I was banging away on that piano we had in the living room. That was the piano that I wrote Surfer Girl and Be True to Your School on. That was the greatest piano I ever played.

Do you fell like you've made peace with your father, finally?

I'm at peace with my dad, yeah. I can't get him back, so I just let him go. I'm sorry I never spoke to my mom about him, now that she's gone. My mom and I were never that close, and I feel kind of guilty about that. Once the Beach Boys took off, I just never talked to her that much, never called her that much. I regret that now.

The Beach Boys, circa 1964. L to R: Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson.

Do you and any of the surviving Beach Boys still talk?

No we don't, unfortunately.

While I was watching I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, the parts where Carl spoke about you led one to believe that you guys had reconciled.

We were just starting to get close again, and then he was diagnosed with cancer. Then (snaps his fingers) he was gone.

Cover for the original Pet Sounds LP, 1966.

Did you feel that after Pet Sounds came out and took the world by storm that you were almost competing with yourself?

I wanted to prove that I could write really great music, not just surfing songs, and not just rock. I just wanted to get a good pop album together.

I thought some of your most interesting stuff came after Pet Sounds, even though it wasn't as well-received.

Yeah: Smile, Friends, Wild Honey. We made some really cool albums. But it's true, they never got as big as Pet Sounds did. It was frustrating, because I thought those records, and a lot of my solo stuff, contains some of my best work, but it's like so many people just wanted me to write about cars and girls, and after a certain point, you're just now there anymore, you know? (laughs) I mean, I wasn't there anymore since Pet Sounds, and that was 1966!

Since you've conquered your demons, and have had a very healthy and productive last 20 years, how has that changed your work as an artist?

I think I'm more aware of my singing now. I used to just sort of sing and not think about it. Now, I try to be more cautious about what I sing, and what I write, because lyrical content can be dangerous, if you're not careful. If you write the wrong kind of song, you can set off a chain reaction. So I try to be very aware of my lyrics, as well.

When you write is it for yourself, your audience, or both?

Both, I think. And my new collaborator Steve Glennich is a total genius. We've written five songs together in the last half month. It's unbelievable what's been going on between him and me, just great creatively.

There's a great story in your book about an encounter you had with Elvis Presley.

Yeah, around 1969 we were recording in the same place as Elvis, and I asked him if he'd come across the way to our studio. He shook my hand and goes "I've heard a lot about you. How you doin', Duke?" He called me "Duke," don't ask me why. (laughs) So I figured okay, Elvis is like me, a joker, so I'm going to play a little joke on him. I knew he was a black belt, so I faked a karate chop and a kick at him. He blocked them both easily and I started cracking up, to show him I was kidding, but he didn't think it was funny and said "Hey Duke, don't do that." I said "Hey man, I'm just kidding around." So we talked about music for a few minutes, about "Good Vibrations," and then the conversation sort of died down, so, to liven things up, I threw another karate chop at him. He backed up in his chair, says "I'm a little worried about you, Duke," and then signaled to his boys that they were leaving. I never saw him again. I regret that. He was quite an artist.

It's amazing when you look at the casualty list of all the musicians from the '60s. You're one of the last giants still standing. How does that feel?

Well, it's good for my ego, I guess. It makes me feel good, feel proud. It's inspired me a lot in my work. Most of all it's made me realize that I still have things to accomplish before my time is up. That's what it's all about: savoring every moment.