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"Your Imagination" has its genesis with Dahl, a long-time Chicago radio figure who in 1979 helped usher in the age of the shock jock by blowing up a large cache of disco records in Comiskey Park. In 1988, Dahl conducted an on-air interview with Wilson -- who came with Landy and his handlers, people Dahl refers to as "surf Nazis." Later Dahl's joke-rock band, the Dahlphins, recorded with Joe Thomas (who introduced the DJ to Wilson) and wrote lyrics for "Your Imagination."
"That [line] was mine," he says. "That's my favorite line." His original lyric for the song -- later rewritten in parts by Wilson and Thomas together for Imagination -- was intended as a sort of editorial about Wilson's image in the '90s. "Originally," Dahl says, "I had it a bit more cathartic. What I was trying to go for in that lyric was the fact that a lot of what you think he should be is your imagination. I guess one of the biggest things that Brian has to overcome -- personally, he's overcome quite a bit, since the first time I met him ten years ago, he's almost a totally different person -- but professionally, he still has to live up to Pet Sounds, which... How do you ever do that? There tends to be a freaky element of Brian Wilson fans who almost don't want him to succeed. They want Pet Sounds to be it. They've stayed in this place in the past, and he's moved through that."
Wilson hasn't completely ignored his past. Imagination has two Beach Boys covers: the graduation-day hymn "Keep an Eye on Summer," originally written in 1962, and the classic "Let Him Run Wild," which Wilson rerecorded because the vocals on the original were, he says, "too girlish and whiny." Those were the only older songs he was interested in revisiting. Indeed Wilson says he won't listen to Beach Boys songs today. "If I ever have a radio, I play the oldies-but-goodies stations. I don't really play it too much, though. I don't really like to wallow in the mire. I never play the Beach Boys' stuff in my house. Never, never play our stuff. Because I think that if you do that, it's like sitting around masturbating all over your own stuff" -- here, he makes a jerking-off motion with his fist -- "'We're great, we're great.' Skip that, you know?"
In the last year, Wilson lost both his mother, Audree, and his brother Carl, the guitarist behind the Beach Boys' early surf-rock hits and the lead singer on Wilson's perhaps most touching and beautifully crafted ballad, "God Only Knows." Written in a similar vein, the ballad "Lay Down Burden" addresses Carl's battle with lung cancer; Wilson declines to speak about him, except to express sadness that Carl won't be a part of the remaining Beach Boys. Wilson's emotional energies are focused instead on his two adopted daughters, 19-month-old Daria and 6-month-old Delanie. Melinda Wilson notes that, in light of Brian's drug- and Landy-polluted past, a number of doctors and associates "had to go to bat" to prove that he's fit to adopt children. "I'm still OK," Wilson says. "I'm still able to function and talk and carry on. After all I've been through, this would have to be bordering on a miracle." It's something he'd like to write a song about: "I'd like to write more about what I'm really going through," he says. "'Happy Days' is the closest I've come, but I think that I can beat 'Happy Days.'"
But he's stingy on the details. "It would just be a song that takes, spells out what happened in my life." He pauses, laughs quizzically, and then cops out. "And I just think that people would really dig it." But that past -- "the ups and downs," as Wilson puts it -- is also why he refuses to read the reviews and interviews about Imagination. "I have bad habits," he stresses, in fear of revisiting somebody's retelling of his history. "I'm not reading stuff about me."
Yet he is curious about how the general public views his work. He asks about how well last year's Beach Boys The Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set sold, and Melinda notes that he's paying close attention to how Imagination is performing. "He wouldn't call up Irving [Azoff, the Giant Records owner who signed Wilson] and say, 'What's the album at today?' But he does it to me the minute he gets up. 'So what did it do? Where is it?'" In its first week of release, Imagination did decent if unspectacular business, selling approximately 18,000 copies and entering the Billboard album chart at No. 88. The following week, sales dove to 9000 and the record fell to No. 146. It sold better overseas, moving 60,000 copies in two weeks.
In the fall Wilson plans to perform live to promote the record, hitting approximately 30 cities in the United States, with tentative plans for European dates. Wilson already did a dry-run solo performance at a high-school auditorium in St. Charles on May 9. (The show was taped for a VH1 special.) Ironically, Wilson will be on the road competing with his old band, the remaining Beach Boys in perhaps their most pathetic incarnation yet -- without a Wilson in the group and billed as "Mike Love and America's Band."