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?"

Unfortunately Wilson himself is of little assistance when it comes to finding truth amid the melodrama, in large part because his public statements over time have tended to reiterate those of whoever's supervising his activities at the moment.

During the early '60s, when he was spitting out classic singles like "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Little Deuce Coupe," and "Be True to Your School" (not to mention the painfully honest "In My Room") at a fearsome clip, he was nothing but deferent toward his manager-father Murry, a slave-driving brute who tried to live out his songwriting dreams through his talented son; only later did he give his dad the boot. Then, throughout much of the '70s and '80s, he talked up Dr. Eugene Landy, a controversial therapist who virtually took over Wilson's life, even going as far as claiming credit for coproducing Brian's self-titled 1988 solo debut and for cowriting several of the disc's tracks. Three years later, after no shortage of legal wrangling, Wilson cut his ties with Landy, whose name appears nowhere on the just-rereleased edition of Brian Wilson; the sole coproducer listed is Fleetwood Mac brainiac Lindsey Buckingham, who said in 1993 that "God Only Knows" is one of his three favorite songs. (The others, incidentally, are the Nelson Riddle­ arranged rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin" by Frank Sinatra and "Louie Louie," by the Kingsmen).

"How's the mix on it?" Wilson asks about the reissue, adding, "I only have one ear, so I can't hear stereo." His deafness on one side was a condition from birth and not, as has been widely reported, a result of his father hitting him in the head with a two-by-four. Which, by the way, Brian still says Murry did.As Brian Wilson knows, the public has had a great many chances to see him at his worst. By the mid-'70s, after innumerable dalliances with mind-expanding drugs that seemed to shrink his, he was reclusive, dangerously obese, and only intermittently coherent. But handlers such as Dr. Landy pushed him back into the spotlight anyway, under the theory that doing so would motivate him to mend his ways. Hence a dazed, bloated Wilson was seen in a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live being dragged to a beach for a supposedly comic attempt at surfing. On the same program, he also croaked out an agonizing solo rendition of "Good Vibrations" during which Landy, according to the Timothy White book The Nearest Faraway Place, stood just outside the view of cameras holding up cue cards that read "RELAX" and "SMILE."

Today Wilson seems embarrassed by these images and the perceptions they cemented among fans. He says the single biggest misconception about him is "that Brian Wilson hung out in his bedroom for a long time. That's not true. I was recording and going to my friends' houses and stuff."

In addition he was frequenting Tower Records on West Hollywood's Sunset Strip, where his visits became legend among employees from that era and afterward. One morning, according to Tower lore, an assistant manager arrived to unlock the back door only to find a wobbly, incoherent Wilson urinating on the knob. Late another evening, after employees ready to close up shop had turned off the lights and ushered out what they thought was the last batch of customers, they found Wilson huddled in a corner, sobbing and repeating, "It's such a big store. It's such a big store...."

Wilson doesn't recall these specific events, but he doesn't deny them, either. The period, he says, is "kind of a blur, because it was so bad. I went through such a bad trip that I don't even remember what it is I went through."His unsteady condition didn't stop Wilson from occasionally making music that was worthy, albeit much simpler than the work for which he's most prized. In conjunction with Capitol, Brother Records, the Beach Boys' personal imprint, has begun reissuing many of the group's mostly forgotten '70s discs in two-for-the-price-of-one packages, and the finest of them demonstrate that even a debilitated Brian was better than none. Because Brian's participation in 1972's Carl and the Passions and Holland was extremely limited, the platters are interesting mainly for the ways in which they shine a light on the talents of Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al. But 1977's The Beach Boys Love You is a legitimately good record in its own sloppy, eccentric way, replete with wild celebrations ("Let Us Go on This Way"), bizarro tributes ("Johnny Carson," which begins with the lines, "He sits behind his microphone/He speaks in such a manly tone"), and extraordinarily naked balladry ("Let's Put Our Hearts Together," which teamed Brian with his first wife, Marilyn).

Considering these attributes, Wilson's claim that Love You is the Beach Boys salvo he likes best isn't as peculiar as it first seems -- but his stated rationale certainly is. He says Love You tops a crowded field because it features "Ding Dang," a goofy, fragmentary throwaway that clocks in at around 50 seconds and the sole lyrics (aside from "dings," "dangs" and "wooos!") of which are, "I love the girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly." Brian gets excited at the mere mention of the tune, announcing, without an iota of irony, "It's a little more exciting than Pet Sounds, you know?"

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."

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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