Brian's Song

Listening to the distant echoes of a pop-rock genius

Brian Wilson is easily confused. Ask him something that's even slightly ambiguous, and he'll respond with the verbal equivalent of a blank stare.

"What?"

"Again, please?"

He's been dazed and confused for so long: Brian Wilson (second from left, sleeping) with the Beach Boys back in the day
He's been dazed and confused for so long: Brian Wilson (second from left, sleeping) with the Beach Boys back in the day

"What, now?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

"What do you mean?"

It's not that Wilson, a singer, songwriter, producer, and visionary whose work with the Beach Boys represents a high-water mark for popular music in the 20th Century, is being purposefully obtuse. He's unfailingly polite, and when he finally gets a handle on a query that previously baffled him, he rushes to reply in the uninflected bark of an obedient spaniel. Of course these responses often fail to address the matter at hand, but the poignancy of his efforts promptly squelches any frustration an interrogator might otherwise suffer. After all, he's clearly trying as hard as he can, and if communicating with him requires his conversational partners to rephrase their questions again and again and again, so what? They're the ones who want to talk, not him. He'll do so when he's told he should, and without complaint; Brian is no whiner. But introspection is difficult for him. He comes across like an eager-but-overwhelmed six-year-old struggling to hold his own while sitting at the grownups' table.

This, ladies and gentleman, is Brian Wilson in the year 2000.Right now Wilson is in the midst of an extremely ambitious undertaking for a man who, at various times during his nearly four decades in the public eye, has suffered from severe stage fright and de facto agoraphobia: He's on a nationwide tour, playing the entirety of Pet Sounds, the 1966 Beach Boys album that's widely viewed as his masterpiece, alongside a symphony orchestra. The idea behind the jaunt wasn't his; one gets the sense that Wilson's conceptualizing days are long past. Nevertheless he declares it to be a good one, using language that suggests an old 45 prone to skipping at the hook.

"I like it because I think the sound is very loving and tender," he says. "Some of the songs on Pet Sounds, as you know, are very loving. And you know, it's just a very, very, very loving album with an orchestra. It makes the songs more loving. And that makes me more loving."

Prior to this year, Wilson had never performed many of his Pet Sounds compositions live, but the question of whether finally getting the chance to do so has been especially satisfying is too complicated for him to get his arms around. The best he can do is confirm that the only Pet Sounds ditties ever included in sets by the Beach Boys (originally Brian and his late brothers Dennis and Carl, plus cousin Mike Love and family friend Al Jardine) were "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" -- predictable, since they came the closest to being hits. But Wilson knows which track he most enjoys performing: "Caroline, No," one of the most preternaturally gorgeous pop-rock tunes ever written. (He penned it with former ad man Tony Asher.) "It's got a lot of love in the melody," he announces, returning to the previous theme like a magnet to steel. "It's good to sing because it brings the love out of me. It brings a little teeny bit of love up."

Perhaps that's true, but for most listeners, "Caroline, No" is crushingly melancholy, a tale that somehow turns a lover's decision to cut her hair into an agonizing repudiation of an entire relationship via lyrics such as "Break my heart, I want to go and cry/It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die/Oh, Caroline, why?"

Wouldn't the love that song generated in you be tinged with desolation, maybe, or regret?

After a pause Wilson says, "Pardon me?"The Brian Wilson story has become so entangled in myth that there's no longer any real possibility of finding the truth. Some accounts portray him as an idiot savant years before LSD and cocaine began rattling around in his brainpan. In Waiting For the Sun, a history of the Los Angeles music scene, author Barney Hoskyns writes that, after seeing a self-deprecating sign extending "apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald" onetime Capitol Records executive Nik Venet had posted on a recording booth, Brian wanted to know, "What does this Fitzgerald guy play, and what did Venet do to him?" Later, however, Hoskyns shows Wilson confidently overseeing Pet Sounds sessions so complex that they left observers slack-jawed.

Scenes like these have been played out in countless books, biographies, and telepics about Brian and his band, including the recent ABC-TV miniseries The Beach Boys: An American Family. But despite decent notices and a pair of 2000 Emmy nominations, the program doesn't earn Wilson's endorsement. He's miffed at the prominence the production gave to Charles Manson, an acquaintance of his brother Dennis -- "That was a commercial fuckup; I didn't really like that at all" -- and denigrates the performance of Frederick Weller, the actor with the burden of portraying him.

"I thought the guy who played me didn't do it right," he says. "I thought he was way out of character.... He just wasn't the right kind of person. He was a little more rough than me. I'm not a rough-type guy, you know?"

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