The Genius of Brian Wilson
Written by Luke Goodsell | Illustrated by James R. Eads
There are opening salvos in classic pop that are so magical, you’ll never forget the first time you heard them — the heartsick drums that crash into “Be My Baby,” the seismic feedback of “I Feel Fine,” the whispered, near-supernatural incantations of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” And from the second that dreamy, off-kilter orchestra washes into those psychedelic carnival chords, there’s never any doubt that the postcard-from-paradise prelude to “California Girls” will be one of them. The ensuing two minutes ain’t bad, either — as perfect a pop confection of its era as exists and a testament to the bona fide genius of its architect, Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
Wilson’s ascent to bubblegum superstardom with the Beach Boys paralleled the exuberant optimism of the first part of the 1960s, just as his well-documented unraveling — marked by ambition, band feuds, drugs and one of the century’s pop masterpieces, 1966’s Pet Sounds — seemed to mirror the decade’s second-half dissolution. The years that followed were a wild ride for Wilson, with his notorious manipulation at the hands of psychiatrist Eugene Landy and subsequent personal rebirth (depicted in last year’s movie biopic Love and Mercy), giving way to a creatively fertile 21st century, one that saw him complete his band’s mythical Smile and watch as Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys earned both well-deserved critical praise and rapturous fans across new generations.
The endearingly humble Wilson, who can often seem as in awe of his music as his fans are, is was touring Pet Sounds live on the occasion of the record’s 50th anniversary, and we were lucky enough to catch him for a rare chat in between tour dates.
MM: Hi, Brian. How are you?
BW: I’m good! How are you?
MM: Great! Where are you at the moment?
BW: In Los Angeles, in my house in Beverly Hills.
MM: I guess you’re taking a well-earned break from the tour.
BW: Yeah we’ll be going back on tour in a few days.
MM: What do you do to relax in between tour dates?
BW: I have massages, and I watch television.
MM: Do you have a favorite show?
BW: Ah ... Wheel of Fortune.
MM: It’s a classic.
MM: How’ve you been enjoying the Pet Sounds tour so far?
BW: So far, so good! It’s fascinating to see how much people love the Pet Sounds album. They seem to like it a lot.
MM: That’s the greatest understatement. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it! What’s been the best show?
BW: So far, Japan’s been the best. They seem to like it more than most other countries. Yeah, the Japanese crowds seem to like it the most.
MM: You kicked off the tour in New Zealand and Australia. How was the response down there?
BW: Oh, it was fantastic! The audiences were great — they loved Pet Sounds. We reproduced it on stage, just like the original record.
MM: Was it hard to recreate the songs from Pet Sounds on stage? I know you’ve had a lot of practice at this point.
BW: Yeah, when we practice it’s not hard at all. We have it perfectly duplicated right now.
MM: Is it true that this is the last time you’re gonna play it?
BW: It’ll be the last time we’re gonna play it this year, but then we’re gonna record an album, but I don’t know what kind. Maybe a rock ’n’ roll one, but I don’t know. ... I haven’t written any of the songs yet.
MM: Did you ever imagine when you were recording it that you’d be playing the record all these years later, that it would have this impact?
BW: No, no I did not. I could not imagine that at all. I could never have imagined it.
MM: It must be a thrill to see a record that you poured so much of yourself into mean so much to successive generations.
B W: Yeah, it’s a great feeling — a great feeling.
MM: You were all of 23 when you wrote and recorded Pet Sounds, which is kind of incredible to think about. Do the songs change in meaning to you over time? Do they seem different to you when you play them now?
BW: No. [Laughs.] They feel exactly the same as they did 50 years ago!
MM: So they plug you right in to where you were at the time, recording them?
MM: That’s interesting. I mean, a lot of artists can be reluctant to embrace their past, but you really dig this record. What is it about Pet Sounds that you love so much?
MM: Well, I love “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” very much. I think they’re great songs.
MM: Another understatement! Pet Sounds was one of the earliest things I ever heard as a child. What was yours?
BW: My mom playing “Rhapsody in Blue” for me — that’s one of my earliest memories, when I was 3 years old.
MM: The recording of Pet Sounds and your then-unfinished follow up, Smile, has become the stuff of legend. What was the pressure like after Pet Sounds?
BW: Well, the pressure came from the record company; they wanted me to make an album better than Pet Sounds. So we did Smile. We got together with Van Dyke Parks, and we wrote Smile. We started it in 1967, and we finished it in 2004.
MM: When you’d finished Pet Sounds, were you worried that you wouldn’t be able to top it?
BW: I thought it was the beginning of a new direction in music.
MM: Well, it kind of was.
MM: Listening to the Pet Sounds 50th anniversary box set, there’s such a wealth of material across so many tracks and takes. But I particularly enjoyed hearing the vocals of your dogs, Banana and Louie.
BW: [Laughs.] Yeah. They were recorded at my house, and I put them onto the album, at the end of the album.
MM: Do you have a personal favorite memory of recording Pet Sounds?
BW: When Carl sang “God Only Knows.”
MM: Must have been a pretty special moment.
BW: Oh, yeah. It was.
MM: Pet Sounds and Smile are rightly celebrated, but are there other songs or albums that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to see get some more love?
BW: I would love to see the Beach Boys Love You (1977) and the Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) (1965) albums get more recognized but only because they are such personal favorites of mine. I just love those records!
MM: Is there any song you’d love to cover that you haven’t?
BW: Well, I would love to cover the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” I would also love to re-cut my record “Let Him Run Wild.” I just never liked my vocal on that record.
MM: You’re about to release your first memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, in October. What was it that made you decide it was the right time to tell your story?
BW: I wanted to tell my life’s story when I first saw the movie Love and Mercy. The movie so inspired me to talk about my whole life, and the film gave me the inspiration to do it and finish it.
MM: What were some of the things that you were perhaps reluctant to relive in writing the book?
BW: The Landy period was very difficult for me. He over-medicated me to a terrible degree and telling the story brought me right back to that time.
MM: Did the writing give you a new perspective on events in your life?
BW: Writing the book allowed me to see my life as a whole.
MM: What inspires you still? What drives you to create and perform?
BW: What drives me to perform is the opportunity to continue my solo career and receiving the love from the audience that I try to send to them.
MM: Finally, if you can be remembered for just one thing in 1,000 years, what would it be?
BW: I’d like to be remembered as the composer of “ California Girls!” x