“The way I sing, sometimes I sing pretty,” Wilson tells me, in his home in Los Angeles, attempting to explain the tearfulness factor. “Like Caroline No. I sing very pretty, Caroline No. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), people cry when they hear that. Caroline No makes people cry. God Only Knows makes people cry. A lot of love went into that album.”
The album in question is Pet Sounds, described by aficionados as the masterpiece that sealed Wilson’s reputation as a genius back in 1966; the last great musical flowering before his long exile from reality. It’s the album that prompted Paul McCartney to rush home straight after he’d heard it and write Here, There And Everywhere, one of his loveliest love songs. It was the spur for the Beatles to create their own concept album – a cohesive whole rather than the usual disparate assortment of singles: Sgt Pepper’s (Lonely Hearts Club Band).
And, for the past year or so, Wilson and his devoted and multi-talented 10-man band have been playing the album in its entirety at sell-out concerts in America and, now, England. Pretty soon, with an Australian tour in December, the world will know that Brian Wilson has come back from the dead.
Growing up in an Anglo-American community in the Middle East in the 1960s, with a sister 10 years older than me, I was inevitably more exposed to US popular culture than my contemporaries in England. I can still remember the covers of the LPs she played: unblemished American youths – usually four smirking guys in matching V-neck sweaters – with cheesy names such as The Freshmen and The Letter Men. The best of all these young boy bands by far was The Beach Boys. It is said that the three Wilson brothers, Dennis, Brian and Carl, along with their cousin, Mike Love and friend, Alan Jardine, invented California: the fun, fun, fun of living in the sun, two girls for every boy, catching a wave in the cool, clear water, driving along in your daddy’s T-Bird, or lovingly touching up the bonnet of your little Deuce Coupé.
But really their songs spoke directly to almost any straightforward, outdoorsy teenager who was male, endowed with a healthy sex drive, and had the good fortune to live in a clement climate by the sea. For the less fortunate, such as the Boys’ huge number of fans in the UK, well, at least they got to live that sun-kissed life vicariously. Babysat by my big sister, at the Hubara Club and the Gazelle Club, I watched her and her friends – the guys in plaid Bermuda shorts, the girls in bikinis – twist and frug and fool around to Surfin’ Safari and California Girls and Surfer Girl, while the muezzin in their minarets were performing their own vocal pyrotechnics, summoning the faithful to prayer.
A decade later, at university in England, frugging had been replaced by pogoing, and the boy bands wore black and never smiled. Mostly we listened to them, but my housemates and I also sang along to the Beach Boys (we had a tape of the backing track to the group’s greatest hits); reading from the lyric sheets, we’d try to emulate that burnished Californian sound in drizzly Bristol. It was hopeless, of course. The harmonies are so richly textured and the rhythms so complex, and none of us could even attempt to match Wilson’s fabulous falsetto; when he was young, when he really could sing pretty. But I did get a part in a student rock’n’roll revue – the only time I’ve graced the stage – by singing I Get Around at the audition.
Mulholland Drive, so famously lala-landish that David Lynch named his most recent award-winning film after it, is a winding road cut high into Beverly Hills, with an abundant shock of crimson and burgundy bougainvillaea against banks of bleached green scrub. This is where the stars live in their compounds-cum-fortresses, where, beyond the massive security gates and 24-hour security guards, they can pretend that they lead normal lives. The taxi drivers with their faltering American accents get a kick out of pointing out celebrities’ homes, as though this knowledge, in some small way, affords them an entrée into the same club. Rod Stewart, Sylvester Stallone and Magic Johnson all have houses in one of these estates, which is a slightly awesome thought. Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson are neighbours in another. Brian Wilson, however, barely registers on the cabbies’ radar.
The Wilsons live in a terracotta hacienda-style house – quite modest in scale – with a children’s play area on the front lawn (but no sign of a sandpit) and a Stars and Stripes draped at a drunken angle from the upstairs balcony. Inside, there is an impression of pale, marble floors and antique furniture guarded by a large, ferocious black poodle called Lu Lu. I am shepherded up the sweeping staircase by Wilson’s press assistant, Jean, who is young and hip and exudes an air of balmy efficiency, and into a study where our hero is sitting bolt upright on the edge of a sofa, as rigid as a waxwork figure, his face a powdery grey, with eyes that look as though they will never recover from the horrors they have seen. Outside, the sun may be shining, but none of its rays penetrates the gloom in this room.
The next 45 minutes are the most excruciating I have experienced in 20 years of interviewing. The mystery is that I’d read of numerous encounters with him before my own, yet nothing had adequately prepared me for the extent to which he has been so clearly damaged by his nervous breakdowns and years of mental illness, exacerbated by his use of hallucinogenic drugs and the subsequent doses of prescribed medication he must rely on merely to function.
One hand frantically bats the air, like a bird with a damaged wing unable to take flight, while the other intermittently tries to restrain it. His speech is slurred as though he has suffered a stroke. He often seems confused about the meaning of even the most straightforward questions. The best he can do is offer monosyllabic responses, which come as though prompted from somewhere deep inside but somehow unconnected with the man. Any sustained conversation of more than a few sentences appears beyond his powers. Most of the time, he looks over my shoulder at Jean, who is sitting behind me. On the rare occasion that he does lock eyes, you wish he hadn’t because they look so haunted. It’s as though he is an inmate in a luxury institution, with each question acting like an electric probe. What made it so sad was that he seemed to be trying so hard to play the game. This is an unedited example of what we were both up against:
People often mention your childlike quality. Do you know what they mean by that?
“I have a kid-like, I don’t know about child – I have a kid-like. I am. I think young.”
Do you get a kick out of children? (He has two grown-up daughters, who are also singers, by his first wife, Marilyn, and two adopted daughters, a five-year-old, Daria, and her four-year-old sister, Delanie, with his second wife, Melinda.)
“Yeah, I do and I don’t. I like kids …”
But they can be irritating?
“Kids can be irritating.”
Well, they’re demanding, I suppose?
Do you like to have quiet around you, tranquillity?
“Yeah, I like peace of mind. Peace is something I like.”
You need quiet around you to be creative?
Do you feel that you’ve grown up now?
“Yeah, I’ve grown up. I’ve grown up and I feel real good.”
So you would say that you’re happy?
“Yeah, I’m happy as hell, yeah.” (Grimly.)
In your long tormented years, did you ever think you’d be happy again?
“At times I thought I’d never be happy ever again, and then at times I did.”
Wilson’s parents are dead, which is not unexpected since he will be 60 later this month. (Jean, the PR, has to remind him that they’re celebrating it by going bowling.) But both his kid brothers are dead, too, which would compound even the sturdiest person’s sense of isolation. Dennis – the beautiful one, the only brother who actually enjoyed surfing and thought that maybe it would be kinda neat to do some songs about catching waves and chicks – lost the plot himself and in the late 1970s took on the demonic look of his great buddy, Charles Manson; the two were so friendly at one time that Manson moved into Dennis’s mansion with the harem of acid-addled middle-class girls who later helped him butcher Sharon Tate and her unborn baby. One of Manson’s songs appears, uncredited, on the Beach Boys’ 1969 album, 20/20. Dennis drowned in 1983 while swimming off his boat in Marina Del Ray. Carl died of lung cancer in 1998, when he was barely into his 50s.
Ronald Reagan – a big-time Beach Boys fan – gave his own presidential stamp of approval for Dennis to be buried at sea, overriding Californian law to do so. I had assumed that the Wilsons were united in their feeling that this was a most fitting send-off for the man who had embodied everything the Beach Boys once stood for. But when I ask Brian whether he found the occasion moving, he says, “For me, it was rather sad.” It didn’t seem right to you that he should go that way? “No, it seemed wrong to me. It didn’t seem like it should have been.” It wasn’t your idea, then? ” Noooh . No. It should have been a regular burial, yeah.”
I wonder what Wilson made of Reagan – thinking, what with the US flag and his all-American boyhood, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that he’s a Republican. But, of course, Brian Wilson is too unworldly now to be a political animal, if he ever was one. “I used to love him, I used to love Ronald Reagan,” he says. “I thought he was … is he still alive?” “He’s alive,” Jean says. But he’s got Alzheimer’s, I say. “Oh, does he?” Wilson says, something approaching an expression crossing his face. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
On a couple of occasions, he does become genuinely animated – and you catch a glimpse of what he must have been like as the excitable, talkative boy he once was. He is thrilled at the prospect of performing in the Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace; at this stage, Wilson and his band are the only American artists to be thus honoured, although he seems unaware of this. “I’m going to play for the Queen, did you know that? The Queen of England! We’re gonna play for her! Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it amazing!” It is amazing, I say; for all sorts of reasons, I think. “It’s scary, it’s kinda scary. You think, ‘Goddamn, what’s it gonna be like? What’s it all gonna feel like?’ ” Do you think the Queen will groove? “Groove? Oh sure. She’s gonna move her head. She’s gonna go, ‘Outta sight, man!’ She’s gonna love it!” I wonder whether she’s a Beach Boys fan. “I don’t know. Who knows? We’ll find out.” And Wilson laughs for the first time.
I ask him whether he holds any views on the monarchy. “On the what?” he asks, perplexed. Um, I try again, do you not really concern yourself with the outside world in that way? “I sort of stick to the trip, do you know what I mean? Instead of going off on a side trip, I try to stay on the main highway.” He gets himself back on firmer terrain. “You know, if we’re gonna bump into the Queen, we’re gonna have to be in shape for it. It’s not gonna be like any old day, it’ll be a big occasion. And she’ll remember it for years to come and so will we. So we’d better be right on.”
Loyal friends and collaborators mention Wilson’s sense of humour – which was barely glimpsed at our meeting – and his terrific memory. I had severe doubts about the latter, but he surprised me by remembering to issue the 10-minute warning I had requested him to signal when he wanted to draw things to a close. It came 35 minutes into our interview, with precisely 10 minutes of the allotted 45 minutes to go. In the remaining time, he became increasingly confused and contradictory – Do you think about yourself very much? “No, I actually don’t wallow in the mire. I don’t think about the Beach Boys.” So what do you think about? “I tend to think a lot about the Beach Boys” – and sat coiled at the edge of the seat as though poised to bolt.
I wondered whether some of Wilson’s befuddlement may have been to do with his partial deafness and with my English accent and expressions. But, if so, although he says that he is a grown up now – just as well, in his 61st year – he is too shy or awkward to ask me to repeat my questions. Contrary to the often-stated assumption that his abusive father, Murry, an unsuccessful songwriter, caused his son’s disability after bashing him around the head when he was an infant, Brian says that he was born deaf in his right ear: “My father hit me, but he didn’t hit my ear. I’ve never heard stereophonic sound ever in my life.”
He was in his teens and had already written a canon of great pop songs when Wilson first learnt about Beethoven’s deafness. How did that make him feel? “I felt proud, maybe, proud to have one ear,” and then, with more certainty, “Are you kidding? It’s a great experience to have one ear!” I think this may be an example of a Brian Wilson joke.
The speed and fluency of his creative output as a teenager was staggering – by the age of 18, he had written enough material for 23 albums, or perhaps it was the other way around; anyway, at one count he was writing as many as 60 songs a year to fill the insatiable maw of the band’s record company. While there is no doubt that Wilson spurred himself on to be productive, there was also a great deal of pressure from others – not least from within his own family – and it seems almost inevitable that those demands would eventually take their toll on a driven but sensitive young man. As his mother, Audree, used to say, her eldest son had “a gentle soul”.
After his first breakdown in 1964, which reduced him to wailing and rocking on his hands and knees in the aisle of a plane taking the Beach Boys from LA to Houston for their Christmas show, Wilson was released from the stress of touring and replaced on stage by Bruce Johnston. Left to his own devices in the studio, he teamed up with a transplanted British copywriter, Tony Asher, in what has come to be seen as the most successful of all Wilson’s collaborations.
Wilson anticipated that Pet Sounds would prove way too adventurous for the tastes of the rest of the band, let alone the record company. Or, indeed, his despot of a father. He was right on all three counts. Although Asher wrote the lyrics, he has always been punctilious about acknowledging that the album was Brian’s baby. “It’s fair to say that the general tenor of the lyrics was always his and the actual choice of words was usually mine,” he told Nick Kent, the gothic stalker of rock journalism, in his extraordinary extended essay on Brian Wilson. “I was really just the interpreter.” Wilson was the composer, arranger, singer who could sing all the parts, player who played most of the instruments, conductor of the classically-trained musicians, producer and even the engineer; the maestro who cajoled and flattered and insisted that everyone in the studio conform to his vision, with an absolute certainty he was on the right path.
I ask Wilson whether he felt like a visionary at the time, and he says – with the utmost gravity – “Right, exactly. A Christ figure kind of thing.” That’s the way you saw yourself? “Yes. When we did Pet Sounds, I said, ‘Hey! This is Jesus Christ stuff.’ I was very excited about it.”
The singles that were taken off the LP – Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows – were hugely successful, but the album itself did not sell at all well in America. Undeterred, but already beginning to unravel, Wilson persisted in pushing the envelope. He spent the next six months working on a single he called a “pocket symphony”. In his pursuit of his own idiosyncratic wall of sound – he has held a lifelong admiration of Phil Spector, which flipped into obsession at the height of his paranoia – Wilson experimented with hitherto unconventional instruments for a pop single, including the jew’s-harp, cello, harpsichord and theremin. The result – Good Vibrations – was a massive number one hit in the US and Britain. But the album, Smile, was never released, and has assumed a sort of cult outlaw status ever since. Making it, Wilson had gone well and truly over the edge – where he was to remain for the next two decades.
The stories of the wilderness years are now part of the Brian Wilson legend. The time Paul and Linda went to pay homage, only to find the genius holed up in a changing hut by the swimming pool, refusing to meet his guests who hovered outside listening to him sobbing. McCartney had said that God Only Knows was the greatest pop song ever written, and Wilson was unable to cope with the tribute. I gently suggest that he must have been extremely fragile at the time. “Very. Yeah. Very.” And so you freaked out? “Yeah.” Are you able to explain your reaction now? “I didn’t really freak out, I just freaked in.” He had another “freak-in” when Leonard Bernstein, while introducing a television documentary about the Beach Boys, claimed that Wilson’s Surf’s Up was the most important piece of contemporary music he’d heard.
Everyone knows about Wilson’s sandpit – his grand piano placed on a floor of sand so that he could feel the beach beneath his feet while he was composing. It’s rather fabulous that, at recent concerts, he and his band now sing the Canadian Barenaked Ladies’ tongue-in-cheek tribute to him, complete with Beach Boys harmonies: “If you want to find me/I’ll be out in my sandpit/Wondering where the hell has all the love gone/Playing my piano/Building castles in the sun/And singing ‘Fun Fun Fun’ ” and its chorus, “Lying in bed like Brian Wilson did – oh-oh-oh – I’m lying in bed like Brian Wilson did.” Now, for Wilson to sing this, I think, shows that he has not only a sense of humour, but also self-knowledge and a certain grace. It strikes me that Wilson’s sandpit – the concept of bringing the outside indoors – is very feng shui, very now. Thirty years ago, however, it was taken as one of the signs that the musician’s wits had turned – particularly since his dogs tended to crap in it.
Eugene Landy, the notorious Californian shrink hired in desperation by Wilson’s wife, Marilyn (usually described as “the long-suffering”), managed to get him out of bed and off the junk-food diet that had turned him into an unsightly 25-stone Michelin man, by imposing a rigorous exercise regime and a drug-free existence – monitored on a 24-hour basis by his team of men, who became known as the Surf Nazis.
In restoring his patient’s physical wellbeing, Landy created a new dependency in Wilson, who now seemed unable to do anything unless his doctor was by his side. Both Landy and his girlfriend are named as co-writers on Wilson’s solo album in 1988, but it was only when Wilson was apparently persuaded by Landy to rewrite his will in 1990 that his family intervened with a lawsuit, and all contact between the two men was abruptly severed.
I ask him whether he misses the drugs. “No, I don’t miss drugs at all,” he says. “Drugs are no good. I take medicine, mild medicine, but not drugs.” Marilyn has said that she believes Brian would have been able to cope if it hadn’t been for the drugs: “Anyone who knew Brian, pre-drugs, saw an eccentric, talented, beautiful, sensitive person, who made them laugh and feel good.” She’s also convinced that, if he hadn’t lost his way so spectacularly, he would now be a major force in the West Coast music scene; running his own record company, writing movie scores, producing all the acts he wanted, and being endlessly creative. “It would have been so easy for him,” she says. “It’s the only thing he really feels comfortable doing.”
Does he think it was the acid that was his undoing? “It hurt my mind,” he says. “It hurt my mind a little bit, screwed me up.”
In 1984, Wilson was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and a manic depressive. Does he recognise those terms today for his illness? “Paranoid schizophrenic? No, not really. That’s not true.” So when he says he hears angels’ voices, for instance, is he talking symbolically or are they real to him? “It’s symbolic in that each voice is different, you know,” he says, muddlingly. “You’re not listening for any one voice. You hear them all together. You can’t concentrate on any one voice. They sound good altogether.” So you don’t actually hear the voices in your head, I ask, confused. “Oh, I hear them,” he says. “I have auditory hallucinations in my head.” Do the voices come when you’re on your own or at any time? “Any time,” he says.
Although he has started a few songs, he says, he hasn’t been able to complete one in two years – “which is a long time”. He’s even thinking of getting back with Tony Asher, to see maybe if, together, they can get those old Pet Sounds juices flowing again. But can’t he be satisfied with what he’s already achieved? “Absolutely. I am very proud.” So if you never reach those heights again … “That’s enough for my whole lifetime.”
God has saved him on many, many occasions, he says, but he gives his wife and kids the credit for restoring his confidence and getting him back on the road again. When he was a slightly plump, speccy youth, trapped in the phoney wholesomeness that the Boys were forced to project, his lack of grooviness really bothered him: “I used to feel paranoid about not being hip. I laugh when I think about it. Yeah, I was so stoopid. I was a stoopid person,” he says.
And, now, how does he find touring – which made him so ill – without any of the Beach Boys? “Much more fun,” he says with conviction. “I’m having much more fun than I did as a Beach Boy. Because I’m no longer a Beach Boy. I’m Brian Wilson.”
I ask finally what his views are about Eugene Landy now, but Jean intervenes: “We’re not going into Eugene Landy at all.” Really? “No. Zero. No. Not at all.”
“Done?” Wilson grunts with palpable relief, and stands up. I think so, I say. “Well, I enjoyed that very much,” he says. Did you? “That was very pleasant.” Really, I say, I couldn’t tell that was the way you felt. “I did very much, very much,” he says, shaking my hand with a good, strong grip, which is not what I would have expected.
When he is out of earshot, I say to Jean that I imagine Wilson is probably only at ease in public when he’s back singing on the stage. Oh, she says, instantly gleaning my drift, that was a good interview; he often stops after 20 minutes. No, she insists, you got Brian on really good form – which for some reason makes my eyes well up.
Jean says that it’s not true that he hasn’t written any songs in the past two years. She’s heard them and they’re good; it’s just that he’s terrified of acknowledging they’re finished because then people will expect him to do something with them. He’s still suffering from that time, more than half his lifetime ago, when he was a one-man song factory. He’s happy to do stuff for other musicians, however, and has just finished singing on Richard Ashcroft’s new album.
The reason why Wilson makes people cry is mainly, of course, that his songs are so very true and beautiful, particularly the ones on Pet Sounds. From the optimistic, instant-grin opening of Wouldn’t It Be Nice to the more soulful tunes tinged with the regretfulness of experience, acknowledging the forbearance required to stick with a relationship: You Still Believe In Me; the soaring strains of God Only Knows, a perfect bitter-sweet love song, the first line of each verse with its in-built recognition of the possibility of love’s loss: “I may not always love you”, “If you should ever leave me”; the prophetic I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, with its affectingly childlike repetition of “Sometimes I feel very sad”, to the final Caroline No, which seems to signal the end of innocence, as much as a love affair: “How could you lose that happy glow/ O Caroline No/Who took that look away?/I remember how you used to say/You’d never change/But that’s not true … Could I ever find in you again/The things that made me love you so much then/Could we ever bring them back once they had gone?” Then the mournful hoot of a train; the barking salute of a dog.
His voice is still lovely now, but roughened by age and illness. And although those songs together can be seen as the story of an adolescent boy’s rite of passage into manhood, they also tap into universal feelings of love and disappointment. Which is why it is moving, rather than grotesque, to hear an elderly man singing the songs he wrote as a not-so-sunny youth.
Wilson’s rehabilitation is a sort of miracle; that at last he is getting the recognition he deserves, seemingly on his own terms, while he is alive and well enough to appreciate it. Particularly when you consider all the rock legends of his age who are no longer with us: Jim, Jimmy, Janis and John. Or the reclusive spectres of the other lost geniuses: Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green.
And this, I think, may go to the heart of why so many people want to protect him. It’s a conspiracy of compassion. The writers who are sent out to interview him, mainly men and usually die-hard Wilson fans, bend over backwards not to state the obvious – which is that, although he may be making a triumphant return musically, and despite his fit, lean physique, Wilson is clearly not sufficiently robust mentally to have to undergo the ordeal of being interviewed. It strikes me as cruel to pretend otherwise.
I was discomfited for days afterwards about having been part of a process that I cannot believe he enjoys, despite what he said, and I wonder whether, even now, Wilson is still being leaned on to conform to other people’s demands. He talks about the fun of exercise, and going out to restaurants every other night, and how he likes to hang out with his family and friends, but I suspect that he finds most of life a bit of a trial when he’s not being creative – and even that is proving frustratingly difficult. Will he be able to cope with being thrust back into the spotlight? Will his nervous system be able to handle all the touring in the months ahead? God only knows, I suppose.
Daria, the five-year-old, is wearing a pink tutu, fresh from her ballet class, and curtseying for the umpteenth time. She is being herself and I am being the Queen. I extend my hand graciously, tilt my head, and wait for her to call me Ma’am. The little girls are almost as excited as their father about the visit to the Palace, but eventually they tire of playing miniature dignitaries and start bashing the keys of their dad’s piano, in a distinctly unreverential fashion.
Twenty minutes later, the dog is barking downstairs, there is the sound of the girls running round and round and shrieking with laughter, and I’m still waiting for my taxi, when Brian Wilson reappears, walks across the room, takes me in his arms and gives me the biggest, warmest hug. “That’s for the interview,” he says, and walks out again.
Right at the start of things, I had asked him what it had felt like playing at the Royal Festival Hall. “Well, I felt a love vibration that was so powerful, I couldn’t believe it. It was a love vibe, a very powerful love vibe. And everybody loves love. It’s a popular thing, love,” he said. “So I put love in my voice and my music. There you have it.”
And there you have it
· © Ginny Dougary, 2002 Brian Wilson will be performing at the Party At The Palace on Monday, broadcast live from 7.30pm-10.30pm on BBC1 and Radio 2; and at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on June 9 and 10. Tickets for both events are currently sold out, but may be available from the Festival Hall on the day (020-7960 4242). Pet Sounds Live is released on Monday.
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