By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There’s an amusing TV clip from back in the ’60s of the oh-so-hip Leonard Bernstein pontificating to Middle Americans about how there are important new ideas coming from the gutters of rock & roll, and how we all need to open our ears to it. He names Brian Wilson as an American composer to be taken almost as seriously as, well, as Aaron Copland, or indeed as seriously as Leonard Bernstein, for example. (The irony comes when you think about Bernstein’s own paltry “classical” creations in the last two decades of his life.)
“I remember him saying that, yeah,” says the courteous Mr. Wilson. “It pumped my ego up, ’cause it was Leonard Bernstein himself saying it, you know what I mean, it wasn’t like just anybody saying it, it wouldn’t have meant as much. But because he said it, it meant a lot to me.”
Nevertheless, Brian Wilson threw away his candy bar and ate the wrapper, and his Smile is a piece of purely American classic music the genius of which lies in its trueness to itself. Wilson chose to work within the song form to create a larger construction, and in the process he joyfully invented new shapes for those song forms; his “modular” way of composing meant that every song was created separately to give each its own sound world; and throughout, every idiosyncratic instrument of his studio “orchestra,” every studio manipulation, is used like a brush or droplet of paint. And it’s easy to follow. It establishes its own peculiar shape, you can see that shape, and like the best large-scale classical work, its self-made symmetry is persuasive enough that you feel at album’s close that the ending was predestined.
Wilson’s emphasis on the creation of personal song shapes and personally chosen instrumentation has of course had widespread influence, notably with such important new pop thinkers as Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas (who at one point in the mid-’90s was in discussions with the Beach Boys to produce their next album). “He put the actual substance of music before everything else,” says O’Hagan. “If you think of the Stones, they were the first band to capture that attitude. The Beatles were about inventing the pop group, very much a personality band, though obviously one that wrote very good music. Brian was on a mission to create a new music. Whatever he wrote, his compositions rose above the lyrical content, rose above the Beach Boys, rose above the idea that rock & roll had to have a backbeat. He was a person who worked in pop music but who had a compositional mind. But there was no pomposity, it was still great pop music.”
There’s a cliché that comes from the mouth of modern composers a lot, and that is that they think “visually,” as if they’re imagining music for films that are yet to be made. It’s such a cliché that I was even taken a bit aback when I asked Wilson if he, too, thinks in visual terms when he composes.
“I’m not a visual person. I’m sound-oriented. I’m deaf in my right ear, my right ear’s shot. I lost it when I was born.” Which perhaps makes him even more sensitive to the power of musical tones. Which makes him a little bit like a musical antenna.
“I sit and I write automatically,” he says. “I don’t really try to write. My subconscious mind takes over and writes the songs for me. Songs come very easily for me. When I’m inspired, it takes me 20 minutes to write a song.”
“That means songs kind of write themselves, right?”
“Exactly!” he yells. “Songs do write themselves, they really do.
“I think of Phil Spector as the god of music, and I think he influenced the way I wrote music to some degree. I’m not saying he wrote my music for me; he influenced the way I thought about music. In ‘Be My Baby,’ when Phil Spector did that, it’s a very logical progression from verse to chorus to verse to chorus, instrumental break and then back into the chorus.
“You know you’re gonna end up at least on a happy note; if not on a happy note, at least a good note . . . and a good memory.”
He makes it sound so simple, but of course it’s not, and in the end Brian Wilson’s just classic genius stuff, another Beethoven, another van Gogh. It’s in the nature of his genius that where, really, the music comes from will be perpetually cloaked in mystery.
“I’ve never, ever experienced anyone like him,” says Sahanaja. “He’s like a Chauncey Gardiner type character. There’s an innocence, a purity about him, and with the fact that he creates such beautiful art despite whatever personal pains he might have, I imagine, yeah, I am in the presence of a genius. He doesn’t see any limit to his creativity.”