Brian Wilson’s united states of music
His life has been one of vivid ups and devastating downs, from the genius of the Beach Boys to his later mental ill health. He’s still trying to capture all of America in his music
Surfer safari: Brian Wilson (left) with the rest of The Beach Boys – Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson and David Marks (Al Jardine’s temporary replacement) – in 1962. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Creative genius: Brian Wilson
Preparing to interview Brian Wilson can make you fear what’s ahead. The Beach Boy’s battles with drugs and depression over the years have left a mark on the genius responsible for some of pop’s most enduring classics: he has seen a darkness, and it has cast a long shadow. The evidence from the cuttings file is that interviews with him occasionally take unexpected turns or hit a wall of yes and no answers. So you start with an easy one. How does a day in the life of Brian Wilson go?
At the other end of the phone, the pleasant, polite man with a very loud voice – due to deafness in his right ear – 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 11 Beach Boys albums and a long run of singles. That crop included Pet Sounds, a record still capable of sending shivers up and down the spine. It’s loaded with sunny-side-up endorphins to make you marvel at what pop music is capable of doing.
Self-imposed pressureThat would have done for most mere mortals, but Wilson wanted to go higher. He turned to acid and marijuana to amplify the creative process, and enlisted the lyricist Van Dyke Parks to help him take the following album, Smile, to another level, but Wilson 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 frequency of before. “It’s not the most difficult thing in the world to write a song, but I’m much slower now. 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 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.”