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Child Is Father of the Man 

Brian Wilson sees himself and Smiles

Thursday, Nov 11 2004
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Illustrations by Karen Klassen

I threw away my candybar and I ate the wrapper.

—from “Vega-Tables”

Brian Wilson lopes onstage at Disney Hall and faces his audience. He’s nervous, but he’s been meditating for an hour backstage in order to get a handle on it. He doesn’t feel like he has to throw up anymore. Anyway, he’s got his faithful crew to back him up on this, a 10-piece-plus ensemble of strings, brass, percussion, keyboards, guitars and singers who will give his long-lost Smile the loving and detailed attention it needs. He knows he’s in good company. He’ll be fine. So will we.

The band gathers around Wilson, like at a campfire, and launches into an a cappella set of Beach Boys oldies. Wilson and crew trade off a few corndog one-liners, as if to ease the tension, maybe, but also in a genuinely relaxed way. This is the second to last show on a long tour to promote Smile, and by now they’ve got it down to a science. Wilson gamely takes part in the fun, at one point directing the audience in a round-style “Row Row Row Your Boat,” which we all enthusiastically get into ’cause it seems like such a joke, then he abruptly cuts it off: “Okay, that’s enough.” Everybody laughs.

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One by one, the songs are augmented by additional instruments, until we see the fully equipped band whipping out the jewels from Wilson’s brimming box of hits, plus a few from his solo albums of recent vintage. The energy onstage is good, the ambience in the room feels warm and accepting.

The audience came for the hits, in part, but they came in homage to their hero as well. And after intermission they’d stay to listen carefully, and not just politely, to the extended suite of songs called Smile. It was the least we could do.

 

Alone, hunched over a small table at a deli off Mulholland, The Genius is waiting patiently for me as I arrive. Well, semi-patiently. He fidgets a bit. He fidgets a lot, actually. I can’t believe I made him wait, so I check my watch — nope, he got there early.

Brian Wilson’s like that. Not very good at being a puffed-up, fat-head Rock Star. Very, very good at being himself. And reigning supreme as one of pop music’s great puzzles. Though lately he seems to be putting the pieces together nicely.

Tall, silvery-haired, rather hulking and on this hot Thursday afternoon looking a bit haggard, he bolts upright when I approach the table and exclaims, “Are you the writer? Hi! Howya doin’? Wanna eat? Are you hungry? Wanna see a menu?”

“Sure,” I say, “sure, I’ll have a bite. How about you? Are you joining me?”

“Nah, I already ate.”

And thus begins my interview with pop giant Brian Wilson, conducted, despite a lot of precise preplanning, between and around mouthfuls of tuna sandwich. The occasion was the tour for the release of the re-recorded and reconstituted Smile album, the shrouded-in-legend project that Wilson began creating then abruptly shelved in 1966, and which has long loomed large in the imaginations of fanboy geeks not unlike me as the Holy Grail of rock & roll. But hang on, back to that in a sec.

“Brian, does every interview start like this? ‘I’m your fan, have been all my life, since I was just a little kid.’”

“Well, thank you!” he blurts, almost before I get the words out.

“Yeah,” I say, “I became a member of the Beach Boys fan club when I was 7 years old! And —”

“Oh, wow!”

“— and I still have the glossy photo with you and all the brothers wearing your striped shirts and —”

“Yeah? Well, great!”

“— so this means a lot to me.”

And it did. What I didn’t tell Wilson was that my unswerving devotion to the Beach Boys made me the butt of insufferable cruelties by my crass and unfeeling siblings and their friends, who used to exaggeratedly croon Beach Boys surfer-dude vocalisms (“In my roo-hoom”) right in my ear, making me burst into tears, and how I never quite got over that, not really. I didn’t tell Brian Wilson that I’ve never quite gotten over how his own well-known suffering at the hands of selfish hangers-on is what made me feel I can relate to him in such a fundamentally moving way. That we could understand each other . . .

Frankly, though, after my initial burst of boyhood enthusiasm, I hadn’t paid much attention to the Beach Boys for years, and basically lost track entirely round about the time that Wilson, at age 23, had just completed the band’s now-classic pop-into-art Pet Sounds album in late 1965. The Beach Boys had at that point been a chart-topping band for four years with their slew of Wilson-penned teen odes to surf and sand, California gurrls, bitchin cars and dancin’ the night away. But the ornately pretty and ruminative Pet Sounds hints at vistas far beyond the other Beach Boys’ ken. By this time Wilson had decided to quit the touring band, which was a huge concert draw worldwide, in favor of cocooning up in studios back home in L.A. to write new and increasingly deeper pop compositions.

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