|Illustrations by Karen Klassen|
I threw away my candybar and I ate the wrapper.
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.
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 —”
“— 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.
When the Beach Boys returned from their successful tour for Pet Sounds, Wilson presented them with the ideas for the band’s new album, tentatively called Smile. He’d paired up with a brilliant young lyricist named Van Dyke Parks to create an ambitious suite of songs that would tell the story of a journey across America, through eras and historical events, via Parks’ poetically ambiguous words and Wilson’s ever-advancing mutation of traditional song form and recording-studio technology.
But the band was not thrilled with what they heard. Brother Carl Wilson and boyhood friend Al Jardine were open to it, but brother Dennis was leery, and cousin Mike Love, in particular, thought the new material was just a load of weird shit that would alienate the band’s audience and possibly damage its commercial future. So they went along with Wilson begrudgingly, and fought him all the way.
For his part, Wilson did feel perhaps too much responsibility to his clan, and the prospect of loosening the foundations for the hordes of family, friends and record company execs who depended on him for their livelihoods hit him hard. And Wilson, already a bit weak and paranoid due in part to his growing dependency on heavy drugs, was becoming more and more fearful about his new musical concepts — as if he himself was inadequate to the task of manifesting the strange and wonderful new sounds he heard in his mind.
“We were taking LSD and marijuana and amphetamines,” he says. “So our heads were, like, spaced, and we got into some very advanced, avant-garde music. And we started creating some of the songs for Smile, and we got about two movements done, and then we decided to junk it, because we thought it was too advanced for people. And it was painful, it was emotionally painful for Van Dyke and me both.”
So Wilson gave in, to forces outside and in, and put Smile on the shelf, where it sat for 37 years. Though bits and pieces of it (including “Good Vibrations,” “Cabin Essence,” “Heroes and Villains” and “Wonderful”) were heard on subsequent Beach Boys albums, Smile as Wilson’s planned multipart “rock opera” was dead in the water.
Which only, of course, ignited its mystique among hardcore Wilson-o-philes. Unable to persuade Wilson to unearth and complete his grand opus, record-collector dweebs, as they are wont to do, somehow got their hands on bootleg tapes of some of the original Smile studio tapes, and widely distributed numerous versions of proposed ideal and correct versions of the album.
For 37 years, however, Wilson could not be persuaded to resurrect and finish Smile. Indeed, he was afraid of it, still sincere in his lingering belief that one particularly creepy track, “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” was evil enough to have caused fires to break out in Los Angeles.
That piece is “kind of the feeling of being insane,” Wilson says. “We wanted to create the illusion that there was a fire, through music. It was insane music, music that comes from the insanity of your mind. It’s a real . . . real — I don’t like it. I never did like it. It’s scary music.”
Says longtime Wilson biographer and friend David Leaf, “Brian had enormous evidence of the power of his music. Because he’d started out at his piano in a little home in Hawthorne, and after recording his songs, they carried all the way around the planet. In the wake of ‘Good Vibrations,’ he was creating music that was enormously powerful. Having created ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,’ music that had such an unhappy sound to it, he would think: Why wouldn’t this discordant music have the power to create something ugly? He not only believed it, he had evidence of it.”
Given Wilson’s oft-reported hypersensitivity to intrusive vibes, it’s easy to assume that he’s more fragile than most, and he is, but only so much. I was hesitant to ask him whether “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” still causes him trepidation about having to deal with his old frame of mind again.
“No, not at all,” he replies, semi-casually, though it’s as if he’s drilled himself on this point.
For whatever reason, however, a year ago, Wilson suddenly felt that the time was right for Smile’s rebirth. With the encouragement of his wife, Melinda, and his current musical director, Darian Sahanaja, he set about rebuilding it from scratch. Sahanaja, who’s played a huge role in Wilson’s re-emergence in public life in recent years (and who’d coordinated and arranged Wilson’s hugely successful Pet Sounds performances four years ago), Wilson and Van Dyke Parks pulled the old tapes from the shelf, dusted them off, and listened to them. Figuring out a proper sequence for the songs, writing a few new ones, then fashioning musically logical transitions between the parts, all the while vowing to remain true to the spirit of the original instrumentation and recorded sound, the team created a three-movement suite that was then performed live to tube mike in the studio (just as the original tapes had been done). Then, with the aid of Sahanaja’s computer and ProTools, they edited, rearranged and enhanced it, and pushed Wilson’s baby out the door to survive on its own.
The album (on Nonesuch), fans of the original bootleg versions should be pleased to hear, really is incredible, and it’s a major relief to say that, as it could have turned out horribly wrong. But it didn’t. From the opening harmonies of “Our Prayer” into the ghostly repeated snatches of “Heroes and Villains” to the goofball “Barnyard,” “Vega-Tables” and “Workshop” interludes to the touchingly plaintive “Wonderful,” Smile’s atmosphere is soaked with the kind of early- to mid-Americana with which every kid grows up, with great dollops of what Sahanaja calls “ear candy with a yearning.”
Wilson, a famously odd mix of genuine humility, shyness and enormous faith in his gifts, is pleased with the way the new Smile came out. “Oh, I think it’s a masterpiece. On the new album, the pitch is a lot better, the musicianship is far superior to the session musicians that I used back in those days.” He shoves aside any self-analysis on its possible deeper layers. “Pet Sounds was more of an emotional kind of experience, and social statements and introspective lyrics. I think Smile is the most joyous, happy, creative music ever made, better than Pet Sounds, even.”
The album’s rough storyline details a trip from east to west across America that stops to look at Plymouth Rock, the Great Plains, cowboys ’n’ injuns, the iron horse, barbershop quartets, old mining towns and saloons. But Parks says to give it a “theme” is too specific. They weren’t consciously thinking that way back then. “We simply wanted something good done. Anytime Brian wanted some music, he would turn to me and I would try to make words for those notes. He wrote ‘Heroes and Villains’ in one day. That was a lot of syllables. We didn’t know what the theme was. He had a tune that sounded like Marty Robbins, a romantic Southwestern ballad. So that surrounded me in El Paso, in a way, stories that could be told. We didn’t know how it’d be used; we were just creating these vignettes, like scrimshaw, tooth by tooth.
“But Brian was in a rapture. He was taken by a creative spasm of activity — he was young, physically able, very smart, very talented. More than that, very devoted to a lot of people. He was the employer of a lot of people. He was very kind and socially devoted, very generous in his spirit. That shows in his own lyrics. ‘I’m just a cork on the ocean, floating over the raging sea.’ That’s a very brave thing to say.”
Manifest destiny is just “a back story to Smile,” says Parks. “The basic question he raises is in this non sequitur ‘Child Is Father to the Man.’ I think he was going through some difficult psychological periods, coming into his manhood, having been through some truly dysfunctional and sad family experiences. And I thought at the time that that was the real motivator. This American odyssey that we were attempting to paint is just a distraction, an entertainment, away from this.”
It’s easy to see the idea of a journey across American times and places past as analogous to the life of Brian Wilson. For at the time of Smile’s original production, he had found himself facing the impossibility of going farther west. Because he was facing the ocean: At age 24, he’d had enormous success in the pop world — both on his own terms, but increasingly on the business’s — and like so many others of his mid-’60s generation, he was forced, or chose, to look inward.
Says Parks, “Horace Greeley said ‘Go west, young man.’ And we did. And then it’s time to look back, and assess things, and try to look at the methods that brought us here. This is the stuff that was happening in the ’60s. A generation was doing that, questioning how we got here, and elaborating on it.”
Wilson calls Smile “a symphony to God,” quoting himself again as he has so many times before. He’s interesting like that, as if at one point he had to embark on a study of his own interviews in order to get the complete picture of himself again. In conversation with him over lunch, he does this repeatedly, as if consciously reinventing himself as himself.
These days the superproductive Wilson seems to be living a happy ending, and he’s included one in the new Smile when, just before the closing triumph of “Good Vibrations,” the album’s protagonist finds his paradise in “Blue Hawaii.” (After a bit of meditation, he discovers that it is possible to go farther west after all — you just have to take a plane to get there.)
“Music had a powerful potential after Bob Dylan arrived to enact more with songs,” says Van Dyke Parks. “And production values in the studio improved in about 1966 with a great torque. As the studios went from 3-track to
4-track and then 8-track then 16-track, all this changed the way music sounded. And the person who had publicly addressed that and used it most conspicuously was Brian Wilson. I wasn’t interested in serious music, it had lost me somewhere along the line. But this unserious music, the best of it, was Brian Wilson’s.”
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.”