Brian Wilson Reimagines Brian Wilson: America’s native tormented musical genius keeps it as real as possible

(A version of this story was published originally in the Times of London on Friday, August 13. I haven’t seen it yet, but here’s the version I sent to them last Thursday)

Brian Wilson calls it his first musical memory. A flashing image of himself as a toddler, maybe two years old, lying on the floor of his grandmother’s living room.

Music was playing, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The spiraling clarinet, the start of a 17-minute musical journey through the rush and crash of modern urban life.

Listening in the working class suburbs of Los Angeles, young Brian lay alone on the rug, completely enthralled.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I love this!’ But I was too young to express it in words,” Wilson says. He’s sitting in his own living room now, his dark eyes alight with a memory that has followed him throughout his life.

And what a strange, wonderful and awful life it has turned out to be. The founder and musical visionar of the Beach Boys has veered from the heights of pop stardom to art-rock innovations that altered the horizons of popular music to a series of mental breakdowns, years of isolation and abuse to one of the least expected creative comebacks in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Throughout, “Rhapsody in Blue,” along with a widening array of Gershwin’s music,, echoed in Wilson’s mind. Now Wilson is projecting that inspirational sound into the world in the form of ‘Brian Wilson Reinterprets Gershwin,’ an album-length tribute that weaves Gershwin’s songcraft together with Wilson’s ear for quirky textures, sweeping harmonies and the intricate tangle of love, fear, anguish and undying optimism that has long fueled his own work.

‘’Wilson Reintreprets,’ to be released in America on August 17, is already causing a stir among American critics and music industry figures who eye the album as a prime candidate for sales charts and next year’s Grammy awards. But as ever in Wilson’s star-crossed life, controversy persists.

Is this album, or any of Wilson’s recent work, truly a product of the artist’s creative vision? Why does this famously tormented musician — those physical survival is miraculous, given all he’s been through in life — spending his golden years touring and recording at a pace that rivals musicians half his age?

“Well, It’s better than sitting on my ass doing nothing,” Wilson says. “I just got back into writing songs, I guess.”

A few minutes later he says something else altogether.

I’ve run dry,” he declares. “Totally dry on concepts for songs, you know. Can’t get a melody written, can’t get a chord pattern written, nothing at all.”

It’s a remarkably grim assertion for a songwriter to make. But, I can’t help pointing out, didn’t he tell me exactly the same thing during a telephone conversation we’d had in 1999?

“Yeah, I know,” he says with a shrug. “It goes in cycles.”

Wilson lives at the apex of Beverly Hills, just off of Mulholland Boulevard in a gated hillside neighborhood of mansions that all have sweeping views of the San Fernando Valley, and beyond. Wilson’s home is large, but feels cozy, with comfortable sofas and plenty of evidence of Wilson’s new, settled life. An existence he’s enjoyed since marrying former model Melinda Ledbetter in 1995. Melinda serves her husband as a kind of chief exectuvie, keeping a sharp eye on his business career and creative decisions. The couple has four young children, al adopted. Daughters Daria and Delanie came in 1998, sons Dylan and Dash joined the family in 2004 and 2009, respectively. The daughters from his first marriage, Carnie and Wendy — who had their own run on the pop charts of 2/3 of Wilson Phillips (the latter being Chynna, the daughter of chief Mama and Papa John Phillips) in the early 1990′s — are adults with families of their own.

In the summer of 2010 Wilson seems more or less comfortable in his own skin. His silvery hair is longer than it has been in a few years, and while his untucked button-up reveals a bit of a belly riding above his waistline, Wilson has found a healthy balance between the whittled-down physique he displayed in the mid-80s  and the bouts with obesity he, like so many Wilsons, has struggled with over the years.  The man’s eyes are clear, his gaze is strong, he’s singing snatches of the songs popping up on the speakers of his TV, tuned currently to a cable music station called “Sixties Revolution.”

“I watch this show all of the time,” he says, though the screen itself is dark, save for the logo bouncing across the expanse of black. It’s odd  to hear him describe himself watching an all-but-empty screen. But who knows what visions the melodies evoke?

Wilson is a notoriously difficult interview, prone to yes/no answers, cheery obfuscations and a reflexive tendency to agree with whatever his visitor says, the better to get out of the room as quickly as possible. But if he’s relaxed, and a thought captures his fancy, Wilson is also capable of uncorking observations that reveal more of his soul than you’d ever expect to hear from the mouth of a celebrity.

“I thrive on music,” Wilson says, as he takes his place on the sofa closest to the huge flat-screen above his hearth. “Doesn’t it feel therapeutic to you?  Without music I would not be alive. I listen to it all the time.”

*****

“‘Kick ass!’,” that’s what my dad used to say,” Wilson recounted to me in his recording studio in 1988. He’s talking about Murry, the equipment shop owner whose fierce love and fiercer ambitions still loom at the headwaters of his eldest son’s consciousness. “In some ways I was very afraid of him, but in other ways I loved him because he knew where it was at.” Wilson laughed out loud. “I’ve never said this before, but it’s true: My dad scared me into making great records.”

Indeed, the records were great. “Surfin’ USA,” “Shut Down,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “California Girls.” Right up through Wilson’s epics: the intricately orchestrated song cycle, “Pet Sounds,” which led to the pop-art masterpiece single, “Good Vibrations,” and then to the production of “Smile,” a full-length psychedelic symphony Wilson co-created, though never quite finished, with Van Dyke Parks. “Smile”’s 1967 collapse took Wilson’s musical ambitions with it. His emotional stability frayed, too, and then he was gone, seemingly for good.

Wilson made occasional comebacks over teh next three decades, but none stuck until 1998, when his second solo album, “magination,” kicked off a spurt of activity that has yet to slow donw. Not all of his new work has earned raves — particularly when Wilson’s creative attentions either ebb, or are (allegedly) undermined by the other, more market-driven voices in his camp.

Wilson shrugs off such complaints. “I worked my ass off on this album,” he says proudly of his Gershwin project. But he also dismisses some recent projects, particularly “Imagination,” whose processed sound owes as much to co-producer Joe Thomas’s easy listening productions for Peter Cetera as it does to the ‘Smile’ creator’s.

“I didn’t really like that album,” Wilson says.

Another thing Wilson doesn’t like: Any talk about him reuniting with surviving Beach Boys Mike Love (Wilson’s cousin) and Alan Jardine to pay tribute to the group’s 50th anniversary in 2011. The 1983 drowning death of middle Wilson brother Dennis, the group’s drummer and a fine songwriter himself, was bad enough. But losing youngest brother Carl — the lead guitarist and on-stage leader — to cancer in 1998 marked the e
nd of the band Brian formed when he was still a teenager.

“I don’t think I’d get involved in a tribute,” he says. “It’s like, let the past be.”

*******

Once again, Wilson is talking about music. Certain songs get into his soul, their rhythm merging with his heartbeat, their melodies and words weaving into the fabric of his own thoughts. Phil Spector’s thunderous “Be My Baby” has been an obsession since the Ronettes’ version appeared in the summer of 1963. The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ had a similar grip in the early ’70s, until he realized he never wanted to hear the song again. If it comes on the radio now Wilson either flips the dial or turns the whole thing off.

“It’s too scary, too powerful, too whatever,” he says. “Songs do that. They can carry you from one trip to another, like a meditation.”

Gershwin, and particularly “Rhapsody in Blue,” is a part of his past Wilson has never wanted to abandon. He recorded an a capella arrangement of the work in the late ‘80s, and though it was never released he held onto a notion that he might some day complete a full album of Gershwin songs. But when? The time, and the marketplace, never seemed right. Then in 2009 an executive from the Disney Pearl label called to offer Wilson a contract to record his own arrangements of songs from Disney movies. Wilson agreed, but with a caveat: he wanted to do his Gershwin album first.

“At first blush you go, huh,” says Disney label chief Jim Weatherson. “then you realize it’s Brian Wilson, one of the three or four greatest American composers ever. So you have to go with it.”

Adam Gershwin, a grand-nephew who helps run the Gershwin Trust, loved the idea too, so much that he agreed to let Wilson sift through the 100-plus unfinished fragments Gershwin had left behind, in search of one or two to finish as a collaboration.

Wilson, with an assist from Brian Wilson Band sax player and orchestrator, Paul von Mertens, started working on the record at the start of 2010. This time around no one had to cajole Wilson to keep his focus. Even Melinda was surprised by her husband’s renewed ambition and enthusiasm, and it’s all but impossible to get anyone who was involved in the project to disagree. And though Von Mertens wielded the pen that sketched the album’s striking arrangements, he says his greatest responsibility as Wilson’s collaborator was to “get out of the way so Brian so Brian can do his thing.”

As in his heyday, Wilson came to the studio without written arrangements, letting the band invent their own parts until he liked what he heard, or came up with another idea, which he would sing for them, note for note. Certainly Mertens’ musical hand can be heard — particularly in the sleek textures of the Gershwin-Wilson-Scott Bennett collaboration “The Like in I Love You,” which also contains bandmate Bennett’s wonderfully Gershwin-esque lyrics on the chorus, “The pain in painting/the muse in music/the like in I love you.”

Elsewhere, the album rings, rumbles and sings with Wilson’s quirky sonic touches: The twangy guitars that make “Summertime” a kind of noir surfin’ number;  the chugging, banjo-harmonica-electric bass led instrumental take of “I’ve Got Plenty Of Nothin” that stomps its way to a sweet marimba-led climax.

“I’ve Got Rhythm” and  “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” hit the highway like Beach Boys classics (think “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Help Me, Rhonda,” respectively), while “Someone to Look Over Me” becomes a great lost classic from “Pet Sounds,” a gentle construction of harpsichord, clattering percussion, acoustic guitars and the sweet breeze of clarinets, all nestling around Wilson’s tender, yearning vocal.

Which nods toward another sore subject in Wilson’s recent albums; his raw, often sloppy singing, all too often covered by profligate layers or, worse, computer-driven auto-tuning. And maybe this is where “Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” reveals the depth of the artist’s commitment.

“He’d spend eight-hour days in the studio, sitting alone in this big room, working painstakingly to get it all right,” von Mertens says. “My head was hitting the faders, but he kept going and going.”

When Wilson finally felt comfortable enough to invite the Disney executives to listen to the all-but-finished album this spring, their reaction was so positive he wept with relief. “We realized instantly we had something very special,” Weatherson says So special, in fact, that Weatherson decided to pay vaunted engineer Al Schmitt to re-mix Wilson’s original finished tracks.

Whether you read that as corporate generosity or interference in Wilson’s artistic intentions depends on your worldview. Wilson, for his part, insists he was as happy to have Schmitt’s help as he is thrilled by the tribute he and his collaborators have made for his original musical inspiration.

“I’m just so proud of it, you know?” Wilson is sitting forward now, drumming on the coffee table and singing his favorite songs from the album. “I loves you, Porrr-geee!” It’s the sweetness in the words, you see. “Don’t let him take meeee/Don’t let him handle me/and drive me maaad….

Wilson seems most alive when he’s talking about music. When a song takes root in his imagination nothing else can come close to rivaling its pull.

“It’s a way to connect to a higher force,” he says. “Spector did it. Gershwin did it. The Beach Boys did it.”

He continues, his eyes locked on his tv’s dark screen, and the Gary Puckett song spinning from its speakers.

“Music is spiritual. It can carry you from one trip to the next, connect you to something mystical. You know?

His life, his music, it’s all the same thing.

“There are so many things out there people don’t understand. It’s a weird trip.”