Brian's Song

Listening to the distant echoes of a pop-rock genius

The same cannot be said about Wilson's solo recordings, but they do have their moments. While Brian Wilson, supplemented in its new incarnation with more than a dozen bonus tracks, is a too-self-conscious comeback effort, it sports the bouncy "Love and Mercy" and a handful of equally exuberant offerings. Similarly 1995's Orange Crate Art, which paired Wilson with Van Dyke Parks, his collaborator on the aborted Smile project (arguably the most famous non-album in rock history), fails to match impossible expectations but remains pleasantly elegiac, providing often-lovely front-porch music. Imagination, which is severely marred by Thomas' hackneyed production, isn't nearly as impressive; the 1998 effort is memorable only for "Happy Days," a twisted suite that shows Brian actually trying to stretch. If only it were better.

That leaves 1995's I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, a Don Was­helmed CD released in conjunction with a documentary on Brian, as the most intriguing of Wilson's post­Beach Boys discs, because its remakes of tunes like "Caroline, No" and "The Warmth of the Sun" can't entirely conceal the toll the years have taken on him. The mask slips frequently, revealing the still-fragile Brian behind all the he's-doing-great spin-doctoring.

"I've had some good times -- but mostly bad times," he says matter-of-factly. "Because of the pressure. When you're famous you've got to keep up your name. And it's hard to do. But if you really, really want to, you could just hit a home run. And all you've got to do then is just run the bases."The Pet Sounds tour may not have cleared the fences, but neither has it struck out. Reviews have been mostly positive, and the mere presence of Wilson has inspired rapturous reactions from boosters who never thought they'd be able to see him perform. "There have been standing ovations everywhere we go," he says. "I can't believe it. It blows my head."

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

Yet the old insecurities linger. "I don't consider myself to be that great a singer," he concedes. "I have a good voice, but I can't sing that good." (He judges his voice to be "about the same" as it was when he was younger and laments that his crooning on "California Girls" is "out of key a little bit.") Likewise he declines to call himself a great songwriter, reserving that tag for Carole King and Lennon and McCartney, and insists that he made no tangible advance in pop-music production. In his words, "I think Phil Spector was the one who inspired everybody, and he inspired me, too. Everything I did came from him." Only after prodding does he allow that "the Beach Boys had their own little sound."

At regular intervals Wilson offers reassuring comments about his mental and physical health (for example, "I think I can start getting going on my life again"), but they seem de rigueur, as if he's just telling people what they want to hear. An aura of sadness is always present, just as it was when the Beach Boys really were boys.

Brian Wilson is 58 years old, and he continues to be revered by music lovers, critics, and peers young and old. But he means it when he says, "I can't imagine how it feels to like me that much."

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