Everybody's trying to get a smile out of Brian Wilson. He's nearing the end of a photo session, sitting on a stool in the spacious, cluttered garage of his Los Angeles home, and his face is like iron. The photographer is running him through a series of poses -- arms crossed over his chest, a hand cupped over his ear -- in an attempt to loosen him up, but the expression on his face remains rigid. Wilson is dressed casually, a rhapsody in blue: blue polo shirt, blue jeans, and a trendy pair of powder-blue PVC Adidas sneakers. The canny photo assistants compliment the shoes in an effort to break down his defenses, but Wilson isn't budging.
Apart from the Wilson family photos gracing the living rooms, there's scant evidence on the first floor of Wilson's home that a former member of the Beach Boys lives here. Wilson understands the importance of the band he helped create: Possessed of a virtuoso skill for orchestral songcraft, multilayered production, and bittersweet harmonies, he encapsulated joy, loss, and self-doubt in the space of a three-minute single. And he understands that his influence still informs pop music today, insinuated into the works of cult acts like Cornelius and the High Llamas, as well as mainstream bands like R.E.M. and the Barenaked Ladies, who honored him in song last year (albeit poorly) with their single "Brian Wilson." The legacy is nice, but it's not going to put a grin on his face any faster.
Wilson has two questions to answer with his new album, Imagination, released by Giant Records in June, four days before his 56th birthday. The first is how his music stands up to his seminal work with the Beach Boys. The second is whether he's sane enough to make a record without being manipulated, cajoled, and forced. The questions come up because Brian Wilson is, in many respects, the ultimate '60s casualty. The influence of associates with dubious intentions compromised his music; the influence of notoriously massive drug use compromised his psyche, which contributed to a nervous breakdown in the mid-'60s and the limited use of his faculties in the years since. Yet on Imagination his talent sounds uncorrupted, if less inventive than his '60s work.
As for his psyche, Wilson appears, on a sunny summer afternoon, more eccentric than broken. His eyes dart restlessly throughout the conversation, sometimes widening and sometimes rolling back, as if he were about to nod off. Occasionally he asks to have questions repeated or forgets a question just as he's beginning to answer it. But in general he's lucid and enthusiastic, particularly when the topic is the process of making music itself. "Is this Friday?" he asks. It is. Breathlessly, he explains his plans for the next day. "Tomorrow, which is Saturday... tomorrow, I'm going to go to a music shop, where they sell musical instruments, and I'm going to buy a real expensive, great instrument that has all kinds of beautiful stops on it. And it's going to inspire chords, which is going to inspire melodies, which is going to inspire words, which is going to inspire production!"
Imagination, Wilson's first solo album of original songs in ten years, reflects the excitement that he's feeling. Its 11 songs are generally cheerful and summery. On one level Imagination is merely breezy, lightweight, adult-contemporary pop, yet, at the same time, it clearly bears the imprint of Brian Wilson, pop genius, and that's no small point. Its finest moment, the closing "Happy Days," has the hallmarks of a classic Wilson composition: Taking a sorrowful dirge that he sketched out in 1970, he produces a minisuite that moves cinematically from minor-key depression into a shimmering, summery declaration of his own redemption. In his finest voice in years, he sings with genuine incredulity, "Oh my gosh, happy days are here again."
And indeed, just hearing the real Brian Wilson on a Brian Wilson record is an achievement in itself. Lack of creative control over his own music has been Wilson's curse now for 20 years. By the mid-'70s the Beach Boys were famous mostly for decade-old hits like "California Girls" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," but Wilson was still a brilliant songwriting force. Love You, released in 1977, was a uniquely engaging commingling of typical Beach Boys romantic themes and song structures with a quirky, synthesized groove that borrowed from disco's electro-funk without hopping on its bandwagon. (Wilson says that it's his favorite record as a Beach Boy. It's also now out of print.)
But around the same time, he fell under the care of Eugene Landy, a Svengali-like psychiatrist and collaborator who had Wilson constantly monitored and heavily medicated (reportedly upward of 30 concurrent prescriptions) and who controlled most aspects of his personal and musical life until 1991. Landy's heavy hand ruled over an ambitious but disappointing self-titled comeback album released in 1988. Brian Wilson featured a gorgeously harmonic opener ("Love and Mercy"), but much of the rest of the record featured mediocre attempts to recapture the Beach Boys' glory ("Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long") and closed with a sodden, lengthy epic ("Rio Grande").
The next year's follow-up, another Landy collaboration, titled Sweet Insanity, was even worse. It remains unreleased, and for good reason: Even with a Bob Dylan duet, the album's paper-thin synthesizer sound and Wilson's perfunctory vocals service mediocre songs, culminating, astonishingly, with "Smart Girls," an embarrassing stab at hip-hop that intersperses samples of Beach Boys songs with Wilson's rapping. ("My name is Brian and I'm the man/I write hit songs with a wave of my hand!") By the early '90s, Wilson's life reflected the opening line of "Heroes and Villains," a song originally recorded for 1967's unreleased Smile: He'd been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.
In 1994, Wilson suffered the indignity of paying $5 million to Beach Boy Mike Love, who sued for coauthorship of 35 songs previously credited solely to Wilson. But with Landy professionally and personally removed from his life by 1991, Wilson started the slow path toward something close to recovery. On two 1995 albums, he set out to prove that he was still alive and functioning. Orange Crate Art reunited Wilson with his Smile-era collaborator Van Dyke Parks for a winning, underrated collection of summery chorales. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times was a documentary soundtrack produced by Don Was in which Wilson provided unenthusiastic vocals on remakes of older songs. More recently, Beach Boys keyboardist Bruce Johnston was reportedly encouraging Wilson to work with Sean O'Hagan, the maestro behind the British experimental-pop group the High Llamas, but Wilson says he never seriously considered it.
Instead Wilson opted to work with Joe Thomas on Imagination. Thomas, a country-music producer, first met Wilson during the making of Stars and Stripes, a 1996 collection of Beach Boys covers sung by country artists. Wilson went so far as to build a home studio near Thomas in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, where he spent a year working on the album.
In the hands of Thomas and Wilson, Imagination strives for the lush, symphonic feel of the Beach Boys' late-'60s work, though the songs are much simpler: the flighty, upbeat "Sunshine" and "Dream Angel"; mournful ballads like "Cry" and "Lay Down Burden"; and the brash, soaring pop of "Your Imagination" and "South American." Although he occasionally hints at tempestuous emotional experiences, lyrically Wilson's album focuses squarely on love and newfound happiness, going so far as to declare on "South American" that he's "Doin' lunch with Cameron Diaz."
Wilson claims never to have met the actress. ("I saw her on television the other day for the very first time," he says. "She's a really nice-looking girl.") The lyric was written by Jimmy Buffett, and Imagination does carry the unfortunate baggage of the proven mediocrities with whom Wilson chose to work, like Jim Peterik of Survivor, Buffett, and Carol Bayer Sager, who rewrote the lyrics to an unreleased 1978 song, "Sherry She Needs Me," as "She Says That She Needs Me." The change was made, Wilson says, "because my wife didn't want me singing about a Sherry." (Melinda Wilson, his second wife, whom he married in 1995, says in response: "Hey, do you know any wife who wants her husband singing about an ex-girlfriend?")
If Wilson's collaborators seem a bit overeager to present him as a youthful, fun-loving guy (in other words, a Beach Boy), it wouldn't be the first time he's sung a half-lie: After all, the man who glorified '60s surf culture never surfed.
Reviewers have compared Imagination with Pet Sounds, and it sounds worse in comparison. Comparisons are a reflex, though, and Wilson knows it. "They're gonna try to tear it down," he says. "Well, you know what? It is another Pet Sounds. It's Pet Sounds '98." And if some people refuse to believe that and don't buy Imagination? "There's no way that would happen. Because I think that after hearing Pet Sounds, they're gonna want to know more about what I do in music."
"I just had a very big inspiration when I met Joe Thomas," Wilson says. "He made quite a lasting impression on my brain, my mind. I hit it off with him right away when I met him." Wilson says he followed that inspiration into the studio, but Thomas demurs. "As much as Brian loves the praise and adulation," Thomas says, "he misses the fact that he can't turn on the radio and hear a new song [written] by himself. I think that's the one thing that's missing in his life." There's a verse on the album's first single, "Your Imagination," that makes the same point:
Another bucket of sand
Another wave at the pier
I miss the way that I used
To call the shots around here
It's a lovely line, filled with hope and ambition and Beach Boys innocence, merged with a hint of Wilson's famed lyrical melancholy. If Imagination is his comeback album -- and it's being sold as such -- it's the record's crucial line. But it's not a declaration that Wilson is comfortable making himself. "I didn't write that line," he says. "Steve Dahl wrote that line.... I don't identify with that line at all. I don't put my name on that line."
"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."
A further irony is that, while Brian Wilson has spent the past two years trying to escape his past, the Beach Boys have done brisk business cannibalizing it, licensing songs heavily, offering weak-kneed versions of the group's '60s hits on stage, and coughing up worn self-parodies like "Kokomo." A year ago, during a show in California's Bay Area, Love claimed that the band wouldn't do any of their car songs -- "409," "I Get Around," and so forth -- because they didn't want to perform tunes that celebrate "gas guzzlers"; the group had inked a deal to promote the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Fine, but earlier this year the band put its name on Salute to NASCAR, a collection of those same car songs, assembled to celebrate the stock car racing organization's 50th anniversary. The record was sold exclusively at Union 76 gas stations.
Brian Wilson knows that people wonder about his mental stability. "I think they think I might be trying to get through something that I'm going through," he says. "That I'm having a problem letting myself feel good, because I've had a lot of hard knocks. It's not so easy to let myself feel good with people, because I get -- I got hurt. But that's just me, that's just something I had to go through. It might look like I'm going through something, but I'm really not going through too much. I think I'm gonna be OK."
"People just need to understand that this is a guy who's damaged," says Steve Dahl. "And like a prizefighter, he's working his way out of it. It's the 12th round, and he still has a chance to get the decision. I don't think the healing process is completely over yet. He's past the rough stuff now; he just needs to keep going out there and keep working at it."
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Joe Thomas says that about seven or eight songs were left over from the Imagination sessions and that there are plans to work together on a new album. But Wilson says he has no interest in working with Thomas again ("for my own personal reasons"), and instead speaks enthusiastically about his next project: He wants to make a rock 'n' roll album, just to see if he can. "Rock 'n' roll, as I see it, is energy that I need so much, so badly inside of me. The energy to produce a rock 'n' roll record, to produce an album of rock 'n' roll." Why rock? "Because I like rock 'n' roll. Because everybody likes it. People say, 'I know you can make great records, but can you rock?' Anybody can rock! Anyone can rock 'n' roll. If you can count to four" -- he pats out a rhythm on his thighs with his palms -- "bom, bom, bom, bom -- you're rockin'."
He already has one of the songs written, called "How Could We Still Be Dancing." Asked to sing a bit of it, he gamely complies. Pausing for a moment, he leans back against the couch and gathers his thoughts. Then, patting out another rhythm, he sings:
How could we still be dancing
After all these years?
How could we still be laughing
After all those tears?
"It's a very good song," says Brian Wilson.