LONDON – As far as I can tell, Brian Wilson is in a good mood. Speaking from his Los Angeles home, the legendary Beach Boys mastermind certainly sounds upbeat, laughing when his dogs interrupt us, and seems enthusiastic about bringing “Pet Sounds,” his opulent masterpiece, to Japan to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“Japanese audiences are the best audiences except for Australia,” he says. “They like American music better than Americans!”
The problem is, as far as journalists are concerned, Wilson’s mood seems to make little difference. Now 73, and with a story of childhood trauma, drug abuse and mental illness nearly as famous as the incredible music he created during the 1960s, he cuts a frail figure, unwilling — or unable — to converse on any meaningful level.
In fact, his approach with journalists appears to have taken its cue from a meeting he had with Capitol Records in 1966, just prior to the release of “Pet Sounds.” With the label so unhappy at Wilson for replacing The Beach Boys’ trademark “surf music, car music, surf music” with symphonic songs featuring theremins, flutes, bicycle bells, barking dogs and Coca-Cola cans — “they thought it was too experimental, they didn’t like it, I was hurt” — Capitol first considered not putting it out, and had such little faith in it, they hastily cobbled together a greatest hits package for simultaneous release.
With his fellow Beach Boys hardly any more supportive at what they saw as messing with the magic formula — “Who is going to hear this s—-?” was singer Mike Love’s measured response, “the ears of a dog?” — Wilson, increasingly confused, isolated and frazzling his already brittle mind with ever more hallucinogenics, decided to be equally uncooperative: At this particular meeting, he turned up with a tape player armed with prerecorded responses — “yes,” “no,” “no comment,” “can you repeat that?” — and refused to speak, answering questions only by pressing play on the tapes.
Today, despite his cheery disposition, Wilson is only marginally more forthcoming. Whatever eloquence he once possessed has vanished. Answers are short and sharp, child-like and obvious, with detail almost entirely absent. Sometimes he answers a different question entirely. If he doesn’t quite catch the question (he is deaf in one ear as a result of childhood beatings from his drunken, violent father Murry) he shouts “again please!” like an army soldier.
It’s the conversation I anticipated, and I’m grateful I at least made it through my allotted time, which is not always the case given his habit of abruptly cutting interviews short. But it makes getting to the crux of anything painstakingly difficult. I’d love to delve into that difficult upbringing; his practically unrivaled three-year creative splurge from 1962, where, like a constant tide, he wrote and produced dozens of brilliant songs that so effortlessly captured the sun-kissed Californian landscape that few bands since have been so synonymous with their surroundings; or his ’80s/’90s wilderness years under the influence of manipulative, unethical psychologist Eugene Landy, so affectingly portrayed in recent biopic “Love and Mercy.”
Or, indeed, “Pet Sounds,” an album that, despite the reservations of Capitol, his fellow Beach Boys and, initially, the general public — it reached just No. 10 in the U.S. upon release — has become one of pop music’s high watermarks, a record that has been ranked the best album of all time by NME, The Times and Mojo magazine and whose centerpiece, the astonishingly beautiful “God Only Knows,” is Paul McCartney’s favorite song.
Created in isolation while The Beach Boys toured — Wilson had retired from touring following a breakdown in December 1964 — and with the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” firing his imagination, the “labor of love” recordings were Wilson’s “smart move” away from the commerciality of The Beach Boys sound.
To help, he enlisted lyricist Tony Asher, who interpreted Wilson’s increasingly fragile state of mind: Youthful boasts about cars and girls were replaced with a sense of melancholy and lovelornness.
“I wanted a new collaborator to try something different and he worked out great,” Wilson says. “His lyrics were conceptual, which made it a concept album.”
By this stage Wilson’s drug use was spiraling, which initially aided his incessant, perfectionist march to artistic nirvana.
“It did help my creativity a lot. I took drugs to see if it could help me write songs. And it worked!”
Such experimentation continued to work — to a point. So-called pocket symphony “Good Vibrations,” a song of staggering brilliance, followed “Pet Sounds,” and by the time he appeared on Leonard Bernstein’s documentary “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution” singing “Surf’s Up” from the forthcoming “Smile” opus, Wilson was being heralded as the Mozart of pop. Yet in 1967, the “Smile” sessions came to a sudden halt.
“When we first wrote it my collaborator (artist Van Dyke Parks) said it was too far ahead of its time so we shelved it,” Wilson tells me, which seems like a rather Disney-esque interpretation of events: Wilson, ravaged by LSD and struggling with the schizoaffective disorder he would later be diagnosed with, began hearing voices in his head telling him he was going to die — voices that he says remain to this day. Following a breakdown, he stopped the sessions (which became mythical as a result) and took to his bed. He was barely seen in public for almost a decade.
“I look back at it and it scares me, and it brings back very difficult memories,” he says.
Post-Landy and coaxed to health by second wife Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson would eventually finish “Smile” 37 years later — “It’s a great work of art” — two years after the most unlikely late-career renaissance began in 2002 with a series of ecstatically met “Pet Sounds” concerts.
He has made music and toured constantly since, including The Beach Boys’ incredibly successful, and, given their history of lawsuits, highly improbable 50th anniversary reformation. He maintains he enjoys touring — “I love playing Beach Boys classics, it’s a good way to make people happy” — despite evidence to the contrary, where, sat among his stellar band onstage, he can appear anxious and passive (Ledbetter once refuted any accusations of manipulation to Rolling Stone magazine).
With such an unyielding schedule, how does he relax?
“I go to my piano every now and then, but mostly I go to a park and walk about to stay in shape and keep young,” he says. The songs, however, have stopped coming.
“I haven’t written a song for about a year-and-a-half now. I haven’t been inspired to write. I just haven’t had the inclination to write songs.” Instead, he watches “the news, ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Jeopardy’ ” and says he is happiest when watching television. In that case, has he considered retirement? “I haven’t thought about retiring. It won’t be for a few years.”
Finally, I ask him about the resilience he’s shown in overcoming so many ordeals during his life. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he replies.
With that, my time is up, Wilson ending our chat with a hearty “see you Shaun!” that gives the impression we’ve spent the last 15 minutes building a significant rapport. Instead, I’m left wondering how much either of us got out of the conversation, no matter how personally thrilling it is to speak to the creator of some of my favorite records. By accident or design, his music is speaking for him. So I put the phone down, put “Pet Sounds” on the turntable and appreciate the genius of Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” 50th Anniversary Tour takes place April 12 and 13 at Tokyo International Forum Hall A (0570-550-799) and Orix Theater in Osaka on April 15 (0570-200-888). Tickets cost ¥10,500 and ¥12,500, and all shows start at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.brianwilson.com.