Archive: Brian Wilson
A 2014 encounter with the “Pet Sounds” maestro
The news that Brian Wilson will be paying a visit to Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre on July 25 next to play “Pet Sounds” in full prompts me to pull this interview with the Beach Boy from the back catalogue. It was 2014 and Wilson was set to play Live at the Marquee in Cork, hence why he was on the promotional roundabout and taking time away from playing the piano and doing his exercises. Those well-publicised run-ins with drugs and depression over the years mean that Wilson is a rum interviewee, but there is still no escaping the fact that the man at the other end of the phoneline was the dude who created “Pet Sounds” in all its glory. Tickets for his forthcoming Dublin show go on sale this Thursday from €75.00 (plus Ticketmaster sandpit taxes and charges) a pop.
Researching for an encounter with Brian Wilson is guaranteed to give you the fear about what’s ahead. The clippings from previous interviews with the Beach Boy are soundtracked with a loud honk of the caveat emptor horn.
The well-publicised battles with drugs and depression over the years left a detrimental mark on the creative genius responsible for some of the pop’s most enduring and timeless classics. There’s no doubt that he has seen a darkness and it has cast a long shadow.
As a result, interviews can occasionally take unexpected turns or simply hit a wall of “yes” and “no” answers. An interview with Wilson will not be another run of the mill occasion.
So, you start with an easy one. How does a day in the life of Brian Wilson go? The pleasant, polite man with the very loud voice (due to deafness in his right ear) on the other end of the phone answers with gusto and we’re off.
“Most days when I am at home, I get up in the morning, I comb my hair, I brush my teeth and then I go to the deli down the street to have my breakfast before I go to the park to do my exercises. At the deli this morning, a man was talking to me about “Pet Sounds”. When I come back to the house, I sometimes go to the piano. When I’m inspired, I go right to the piano, I don’t waste any time.”
In his pomp, Wilson never wasted any time either. But in his pomp, Wilson worked himself to the bone. Between 1963 and 1966, he was involved in writing and producing eleven Beach Boys’ albums and a long run of singles.
That crop included “Pet Sounds”, a record still capable of sending shivers up and down your spine. It’s a record loaded with sunnysideup endorphins to make you marvel at what pop music is capable of doing.
That innings would have done for most mere mortals, but Wilson wanted to go higher and further still after “Pet Sounds”. He turned to acid and marijuana to amplify the creative process and pursue further greatness. He enlisted new lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks to help him take the following album “Smile” to another dimension, but he cracked under the self-imposed pressure. “Smile” was abandoned, Wilson’s mental health was severely damaged and the golden age appeared to be over.
These days, Wilson still works at his trade as a songwriter, but the songs don’t come with the same frequency as before. “It’s not the most difficult thing in the world to write a song, but I’m much slower now. It takes me much longer these days to write a song. But it’s good to make music and it’s good to try to make music.”
When he reviews that rich seam of Beach Boys’ albums, he hears nothing he’d seek to change. “I don’t wish I did things differently or wish that I could do it again. I never think about that. I never go ‘I wish I had put more piano on that’. Was I obsessive? I don’t know if I was, though I know a lot of people think that. Stuff just had to be right, you know. The creative process could happen every day of your life so you have to be ready for it. You have to be right.”
During the 1960s, Wilson was a whipper-snapper in a hurry to make his mark. Writing, producing and recording two albums a year took nothing out of him. He was getting better and better with every turn of the dial and every day in the studio. Unlike most acts, his best music came in later years rather than at first. He just didn’t feel any fear.
“I think when you’re younger, you take things for granted”, he believes. “You do take the creative process for granted because you’re going too fast, doing too much, taking too much. Your head is swimming.”
When Wilson talks about “Smile”, the album which defines the highs and lows of his life, he emphasises the collaborators and the ambition behind the project. He’d worked with English lyricist Tony Asher on “Pet Sounds” and decided he wanted to do something similar again.
“I clearly remember meeting Tony for the first time. He worked for an advertising agency and I asked him if he was good at writing lyrics so he said he’d give it a try and we wrote “Pet Sounds”. I had instincts about him and I was right.
“It was the same with Van Dyke Parks. He was very, very good at talking, he was interesting and I said I’d like to write with him. And we did a good job, I think.”
When the pair went to work in Wilson’s sandbox, they wanted to get across to listeners what America meant to them in 1966. “We wanted it to be a musical tour of the country, from Plymouth Rock across the nation to California and over to Hawaii. We wanted to capture the mood of early Americana across the nation and to show how it had changed. It was a huge effort to try to get that mood.
“It was mostly the two of us, young and creative, at work. We didn’t use many drugs when we were working because drugs were scarce at that time. We wanted people to listen to this music and remember a time when they were young and everything was new and exciting. It was about youth, that spirit of joy and amazement.”
But Wilson was forced to abandon ship before the album was finished. The other Beach Boys were relieved – some just didn’t know what the heck to make of this strange music which Wilson and Parks were making – and Wilson’s slow, sad decline began in earnest.
He used cocaine and heroin to block out the depression and sadness in his head, though they didn’t help in the least with that task. Staying in bed and over-eating were two other ways Wilson chose to deal with the problems overtaking his life. It meant he was powerless to do anything when his band started to fall apart because of financial problems and infighting.
Wilson signed himself into a hospital and underwent a series of treatments, but there wasn’t much relief to be found from his troubles. It wasn’t until 15 years later when he was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder that he was able to understand where those voices in his head were coming from. By then, he had been through the wringer several times and that’s without considering the questionable role of therapist Eugene Landy on his life and career.
But American lives do occasionally provide second acts and Wilson’s renaissance of recent times is something to cheer. His second wife Melinda Ledbetter has played a major role in Wilson’s rebirth as a performer, but the fact that there was an audience ready to see and salute him is also a significant factor.
In the last decade or so, apart from finally completing and releasing “Smile”, Wilson has toured and performed almost non-stop. “Everything about touring apart from the concert is one hell of a hard job to do”, he grumbles good naturedly. “The performances are great and I know people like them because they keep telling me how wonderful they are.”
They’re also constant reminders of the gems he produced in the past. “When I hear something from “Pet Sounds” now, I’m amazed at some of the vocals. I’m very proud of all that went into it and that it still works today. You never take something like that for granted. No sir, no way. When you have Paul McCartney telling you that “God Only Knows” is their favourite song, that blows you away. It makes you very proud.”
Back at home between shows, back at his piano, he waits for the great songs to come his way again. It’s not as if he has anything to prove, but he still waits for the magic to happen.
He doesn’t think collaborators are necessarily the answer as before. “I think I’ve had it with collaborators. I still work sometimes with Scott Bennett, he writes lyrics, but he’s the only one I work with. I don’t really know who would want to work with me at this stage. Young people? People my own age? I don’t know. I’d be very interested if someone approached me, I’m open to that.
“But I think the solution is that I should really try to write lyrics myself. I wrote a lot of lyrics for the Beach Boys. The other band members wrote, but their lyrics weren’t as good as Van Dyke or Tony. They were just not as good as writers.”
For now, it’s the old days which dominate the discourse. That’s what fans who flock to see him want and it’s what will be revisited when Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy film on his life will be released later this year. Wilson likes what he has seen of the film so far (with Paul Dano and John Cusack as young and old Wilson respectively). “I’m very happy with it. The characters are fantastic, really good depictions of me and my wife.”
It’s time to let Wilson back to his piano and his exercises. He says he’s looking forward to coming back to Ireland and bids us farewell. A man who perhaps wasn’t made for these times, but who is still waving at the gallery.