The Lonely Seas of Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson lives several miles from the beach in a gate- guarded community off Mulholland Drive where row after row of model pink and white faux-Mediterranean mansions cling to the scrubby foothills looking out over the San Fernando Valley. It's a well-known bit of pop music lore that only one of the Beach Boys -- Brian's younger brother, Dennis -- knew how to surf, but it's not as well known that Brian not only doesn't surf but is terrified of the water. So after living in Malibu for much of the past two decades -- during most of which he was cut off from his family, his bandmates, and the world while under the care of his since-discredited therapist and "Life Manager," Dr. Eugene Landy -- Wilson moved here, away from the Pacific, to a stately, whitewashed chateau with his second wife, Melinda, and their little white dog.These days Wilson is working hard to reassemble his troubled career. Last year Don Was's documentary, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, created new interest in the eccentric pop icon; in addition to working on the film's soundtrack in 1995, Wilson also released a new recording with Van Dyke Parks called Orange Crate Art, the first collaboration between the two songwriters since the legendary and ill-fated Smile sessions of 1967. This summer, Capitol is releasing a four-disc set of recordings and outtakes from the Beach Boys' classic Pet Sounds, and -- despite protests from Brian -- there is talk of releasing a similar package made up of the unfinished tracks for Smile. Wilson is also busy in the studio recording new material with the Beach Boys as well as solo tracks with producer Andy Paley.Despite this steady output of new and rereleased material, Wilson is the first to admit his mental state is fragile. He and his handlers are trying to avoid the overwhelming media barrage that accompanied various earlier "comebacks," from the major, ill-thought-out "Brian's Back" campaign of 1976 to another painful, short-lived comeback following the release of his 1988 self-titled solo album.On a recent visit Wilson greets me in a massive den that looks like it's been lifted straight out of the L.L. Bean catalog. Sitting on a tan leather couch, he's dressed casually in sweat pants and a sport shirt, with a blanket over his knees and -- although the room is nearly dark -- sunglasses on. "Got to look cool," he says stiffly, as if he has been practicing the line. The interview starts out slow, with Wilson circling around questions, giving answers that don't quite fit followed by tense pauses or short bursts of laughter. After 10 minutes he seems to panic and quickly excuses himself, letting out an audible sigh as he leaves the room. He returns a few minutes later with a mug of peppermint tea. Then he takes off his sunglasses and things picks up from there, as he slowly opens up about a range of topics -- from the Beach Boys and the Beatles to his emotional state and his vision of pop music.Telling stories and relating anecdotes, Wilson expresses himself with earnest candor and an offbeat sense of humor, speaking with the cautious reserve of a man who's been through hell but is genuinely optimistic and wants to find his way back again.Question: How do you like living up here, away from the ocean?Brian Wilson: Oh, yeah. It's great. Much more peaceful. It helps me relax.Q: Have you been working a lot?BW: Absolutely. We've been working our heads off. The Beach Boys got in the studio and they cut a couple songs, really good stuff. It feels great. We're going back to the old way of recording now, live, with all the musicians playing at once. We're going back to the 1960s recording methods, and it's working great. The spirits are up, the guys like the songs better -- it's working. It's been a long time since we've been together in the studio.Q: Is working with the Beach Boys helping you get your confidence back?BW: My what?Q: Your confidence.BW: Oh. My confidence. Yeah, I guess so. It's easier to do it when everybody's together. It's much easier than trying to do it alone. I always tell interviewers this: The guys sing great. The boys all sing very good. They're great singers, and people like them. I'm so proud of those guys. We want to get more famous than ever before. I think if it goes our way we might get famous enough to work with the Beatles. A Beatle-Beach Boys thing. I want to. Paul would flip to do it. I don't know about George and Ringo, though.Q: How did you like working with Van Dyke Parks again after all these years?BW: Van Dyke has been an adventure in good music. He knows how to make music, you know.Q: Was it a challenge?BW: Well, the first couple of weeks was tough. 'Cause I didn't like it. I didn't really know if I wanted to sing those types of songs so I canceled the session. It was just a case of trying to get used to it with him so I wouldn't fuck up and not be able to sing. Because once I get into a studio I'm not really all that worried about not being able to perform musically. In other areas of my life I am really worried about that.Q: About not being able to perform?BW: Well, we're all adequate in some areas of life and really inadequate in others, you know.Q: Does it bother you when people compare Orange Crate Art to your work with Van Dyke on the Smile recordings?BW: I've been asked that question a lot, but it's stupid. It's not Smile.Q: I understand there's talk of putting out a Smile box set -- would you like to see that material released finally?BW: No. I've never been in favor of putting Smile out. It's a bunch of crap. It's crap, it's garbage. It's little bits and pieces of nothing.Q: There's a whole younger generation of musicians who claim your work as an influence. Are you familiar with any of the leading alternative rock groups like Sonic Youth?BW: No, I'm not. I've steered clear of new wave music for years now, 'cause as far as I could tell it wasn't getting anywhere. I kept waiting for something to happen. Something I could say, "Like hey, wow, this is really the stuff," but I never hear it. I kept waiting for something to happen.Q: What are you listening to?BW: Well, what I'm listening to, believe it or not -- believe it or not, I'm still listening to Phil Spector music. Yeah, other than that I'll tell you some of the other people I like to listen to, say, in the last year -- Julio Iglesias, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson. Do you like any of those?Q: I'm a Willie Nelson fan.BW: Isn't he the greatest? Unique. Simple. [Pauses.] And I also listen to Fats Domino and Andy Williams and Rosemary Clooney. That's it. That's enough music for me for another two years. You know how you get tired of something, you say, "Oh, I'm tired of this damn record." That never happens. I'm never tired of anything. [Laughs.] The records that were made to listen to, those are the records I like -- all-time records.Q: Do you still hear new things in Phil Spector records?BW: Well, I've listened to the choruses -- I can't figure out what the background music is to the chorus. I can hear it in the verses, but the choruses are too hard for me to hear. I don't know why that is. It's just a big mush of sound, a wall of sound.Q: Do those records still influence your own music?BW: Oh yeah, to some degree.Q: Do you keep a regular work schedule?BW: I don't work every day, no. Maybe once every two or three days I'll go to the piano and mess around. Inspiration comes in spurts.Q: Are live appearances still difficult for you?BW: Oh, yeah, it's tough. [Laughs.] Believe me, when you're on television -- Oh God, my face looks contorted or I look like I'm in emotional pain. But that's OK. I've seen Sylvester Stallone look like he's in a bit of a predicament, too. To be an entertainer is costly -- there's different kinds of dues you pay.Q: Was there a point where you thought you'd never work again?BW: Oh yeah, absolutely, many times. I've gone through that dilemma many times, but for some odd reason I keep coming back positive, I keep thinking of everything being a straight-ahead thing. Instead of, like, going off in all these weird places I go straight ahead. I've always been that way; especially since getting in the music business, I've learned how to be real positive.Q: Is making music,BW: [Interrupts.] It's hard for me, doing all this, trying to come back, but on the other hand I know I should try to share my music with people. I should not think I'm the only person that has something heavy on their shoulders.Q: Is making music therapeutic for you?BW: Yeah. Definitely. But it's hard.Q: Is it something you have to do?BW: It's a labor of love. I might even write a song called "The Labor of Love" -- or "A Labor of Love." [Sings.] "It's a labor of love, that's what it is. It's a labor of love" -- something like that. [Sings again.] "It's been a labor of love, all this time. It's been a labor of love..." If you feel lousy, sometimes you have to hang on to what you know is inside somewhere. With me it's been 33 years that I've had that feeling. I'm starting to think, "Wow, I don't know if I've come to the end of this bad trip or not." It really kind of works on my brain. [Laughs.] I don't understand what's going on sometimes. It's really weird. It's all really far out for me.Q: Do you ever remember a time when life was easy?BW: Yeah. In the '70s. I took about eight years off, just walked around and thought.Q: Do you identify with other artists who've gone through rough times?BW: Yeah, I've been that way. I turn to John Lennon, I think of his music, and I think, if he can do it, I can do it. I related to John Lennon because [sighs] in a way I feel like, well, I've never been murdered, actually physically killed, but I've gone through shit almost as bad. And like when I saw John on TV recently, I had to swallow some tears. I started thinking, "Oh, God, John where did you go?" You know, it's the sorrow thing. It really crushed me when he died, man.Q: You were hurt when that happened?BW: Not as much at the time, no, but as years have gone by. Actually, when it surfaced with me was before the [Beatles] Anthology programs on TV. I was starting to play Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and I said, "Goddamn, John Lennon is so goddamn brilliant." I just asked myself how I didn't see that before. And then the Anthology came along and between the Anthology and my jukebox I totally turned into a John Lennon fan, like way more than I used to be, and I related to him, because he was a music maker and I am a music maker and he was shot to death and I felt like I had emotional deaths. So I felt like John Lennon was a good partner even though he's dead, you know -- I still think of him as being alive.Q: Did you watch the Beatles documentary?BW: Sure did. I watched it all. I thought it was the greatest stuff I've ever seen. I thought it was so loaded with so much good stuff, so much them; they come right into your heart.Q: They mentioned Pet Sounds at one point.BW: That was a pump-up for me; that was great. It was a trip to see them sit around and talk like the Beatles. I remember George Harrison said, "We had to give up our nervous systems to get the job done." I know what he meant, too, 'cause I related to that a lot. I've got to sacrifice a little bit myself, you know, in order to get some good music going, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let it get me down.