Brian Wilson stands on the porch of his house, watching his guest climb awkwardly from the rental car and limp/gambol up the walk. “Hey, Brian!” the guy calls. Brian waves. “You better come inside,” he says. “It’s a hot one.”
The subject of the moment is his about-to-be-released album, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” which paradoxically sounds more like Brian than a lot of his more recent records of original songs. He’s always excited to sell his new work, but this time he seems extra-proud of himself. Unsaid, but real: He didn’t dog it this time. He threw himself into the project, really put his own, personal, 21st century stamp on the arrangements and, particularly his vocals, which aren’t perfect, per se, except for that they’re so tuned in; so full of emotion; such a vivid representation of his quirky, tormented, beautiful mind.
Brian points to his teleivision. “Have you ever seen this show?” he asks. “This stuff is amazing. I love this how.”
Point of fact: The screen is black.
But so what?: He’s listening to one of those cable music stations, this one is all oldies from the ’60s. Unlikely shit, too, like Paul Revere b-sides, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, on and on. When Brian tunes into the sound – as he will occasionally, holding up a finger to stop the conversation — he stares fixedly at the black screen while the music plays. What’s he seeing? We’ll never know. Something beautiful, I suspect.
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Brian Wilson doesn’t think like you and I do. This has caused him great pain over the years. And yet it has also allowed him to create majestic works of music, many of which define the American experience of the mid-to-late 20th century. You see a black screen, he sees the face of God. It’s the music that matters.
Here’s part of what he had to say that day.
Q: So tell me a little more about your first memories of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
I was listening to it, but I couldn’t think. I was like, ‘Hey I love this!’ after I grew up I remembered that. And then when I was much older I learned how to play that pretty part, you know the part with the violins? I learned how to play that on the piano. I didn’t listen to it that much growing up. Just when I was two, and then about 20 years went by, and when I was 28 I learned how to play it. My best friend was a total Gershwin fan, Tandyn Almer, he wrote ‘Along Comes Mary,’ by the Association. My parents didn’t own that record. But there was like a ton of songs to do, and we had access to 104 unfinished songs, played by George himself. We narrowed it down to 2 out of 104, so we wrote two original songs inspired by those songs. We went through all of them, and slowly narrowed it down.
Q: Do you feel haunted by your own past? (in attempts to bring up the Beach Boys’ sour legacy)
I think I’ve come quite a ways. I didn’t really like that ‘Imagination’ album (1998 comeback recorded during his brief stint in the Chicago exurbs, with country/adult contemporary Joe Thomas co-producing) as much as I did some of mine. Some of it was alright, though. Some of it is okay. I like ‘Cry,’ I like ‘South American,’ that’s the one I wrote with Jimmy Buffett. “Lay Down Burden,” I like that, too. (Successfully dodging attempt to bring up the Beach Boys’ sour legacy)
Q: And that clarinet section in the middle of “She Says That She Needs Me,” I love that. Is that your arrangement?
Oh yeah, that was me. He (talking about the clarinet player/section leader, I think. Or Joe Thomas? Who knows?) took it down verbatim and did it right there.
Q: Are you surprised that you’ve turned into such a road warrior after all those years? I saw you do a lot of shows with the Beach Boys in the ’70s and early ’80s and you always looked like you were miserable, frankly. But now you seem to love it up there in the lights…
We’ve d toured our asses off for 12 years. Not sure we’re gonna do it this year, tho. I took to it pretty quickly. All that showmanship stuff, like saying, ‘Hello, hey, how you doing!’ and ‘Okay, now we’re gonna play ‘row, row, row your boat,’ with the audience singing back to me. I took to touring really easily, like a second nature or something. My favorite part is istening to my band play. They’re the best musicians I’ve ever known. They learned all my songs before I met ‘em, even. They had them all learned. That was wonderful when I met the Wondermints. I went up to them and said, ‘Would you ever consider backing me up?,’ and they said, Sure! So we got those four and rounded up a bunch of other people from Chicago and so on, and we had ourselves our group. They stuck together longer than the beach boys. The Beach Boys are about done now, without Carl. When he died that was it for the Beach Boys.
Q: Are you surprised by how much you’ve achieved in the last 12 years?
I don’t know. I just got back into writing songs, I guess. I had a creative explosion a couple of years ago, just before ‘That Lucky Old Sun.’ I wrote 18 songs in two months. I couldn’t believe it, the songs kept coming and coming and coming. ‘Midnight’s Another Day’ is a very good song, I sang it very beautifully, too. I knew it was gonna be the best song on the album once I wrote it.
Q: Do you think that finishing ‘Smile,’ and having it be such a huge hit, was career changer for you?
Not really, it just seemed like one more second. It did feel good to get it out of my hair. People loved it, though. Having it out was a real mind-blow.
Q: How did you go about recording all those Gershwin songs? Was it intimidating to take on songs by one of your biggest heroes?
Well, we had a ton of songs to do. Paul Mertens, one of my band members, arranged the orchestration part of it. We took it one day at a time. Two songs a day, and within a week we had all the orchestrations down pat. Then we said, Oh my God, we’re gonna need some backing vocals! So I arranged the backing vocals, and that took about a week or two. And finally the leads started happening. It was a monster of a project. I would sit and sing for 8 hours a day. My wife produced my vocals.“You Can’t That Away from Me,’ does have the ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ sound.
Q: And yet, you’re not as much of a white boy musician as people think…I really love your vocal on “I Loves You, Porgy,” (Hey reader – Remember what I said earlier about the vocals on the Gershwin record? Exhibit ‘A’ – check out how vulnerable and bewitched he sounds on this track…so swept up in feeling that the cracks near the top of the melody actually ADD to the listener’s pleasure, b/c vulnerable people are by nature a little cracked, and plus also he’s singing in the voice of a woman, one accustomed, it seems, to totally fucked-up relationships, and you you know who else is familiar with similarly fucked-up relations? Brian Wilson, that’s who, and so here’s a cover version, borrowed from an African-American woman, that is somehow one of the most haunting autobiographical songs in BW’s hauntingly autobiography catalogue!)
Well, I was always inspired by that Chuck Berry song. He taught me how to write songs. And I learned how to play boogie-woogie on the piano when I was 12. ‘Shortenin’ Bread’ had that boogie-woogie beat. I knew some of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ by heart, but then I learned the rest of it. My buddy Paul Mertens taught me how to do it.
(Starts to sing) ‘I loves you, Poooorgg-eeee! ’ I had a natural feel for it. I loved the tune. I instantly had a natural feel for it. And it does have that sweet yearning sound to it. And man, that whole ‘Porgy & Bess’ part of the record is my absolute favorite part on the whole record. It all just fits together.
Q: The ‘Rhapsody’ melody flows throughout the whole record…it kinda makes me think of how ‘Rhapsody’ itself has flowed through your life and career…
Yeah, sure. It flows and flows on the album, sort of like a river. The album is loaded with good melodies. Gershwin’s melodies are like, great. When we finally came to the one tune, ‘the like in I love you,’ I thought that was a beautiful tune, a really beautiful tune. That line, ‘the pain in painting,’ Scott wrote that, I love it. A little bit of pain in the edges, just like life. It makes the rest of it more sweet.
Q: So you don’t sound the least bit intimidated about collaborating with George Gershwin.
No, not really. I was beyond myself with like being proud, you know? And of course I was in awe of Gershwin himself. Someone gave me a book called ‘Gershwin,’ written by someone very close to the Gershwins. I’m gonna read the book. I’ve never read anything about him before.
Q: Well, what are you up to now? Melinda and the kids are out of town, you’re sort of doing your own thing here in the city. So are you writing new tunes?
Naw, I haven’t b
een working for a while, I’ve run dry. Totally dry on concepts for songs, you know. Can’t get a melody written, can’t get a chord pattern written, nothing at all.
Q: But Brian, you’ve been telling me that for ten years, and then there’s another album of new songs coming…
Yeah, I know. I guess it goes in cycles.
What are you listening to now?
You see this show? (he points to the black TV, with that ‘San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’ song playing in the speakers) That’s a tv program called ‘Sixties Revolution,’ and I listen to it lot of the time. I thrive on music, I need music to live. Because without music I would not be alive. Doesn’t it feel therapeutic to you? What kind of music do you like? (blah, blah, blah, blah, Beatles) Well, obviously the Beatles, I mean obviously. And Bruce? Oh wow, he’s great. He’s just a wonderful singer. And I’ve been listening to Elton John, Marvin Gaye, who is absolutely one of my favorites. Also Elvis Presley, the Doors, and. . . What’s that song? (sings -‘She came from somewhere back in his long ago…) Who’s that? Oh yeah, the Doobie Brothers. So I like that, and Van Morrison, too.I’m really familiar with all that stuff again, because I’ve been spot-checking the radio stations lately, and so I can tell you what’s what.
Q: Are you a Stevie Wonder fan?
Have you heard ‘Superwoman’? When I heard that I thought, that guy’s really got it on the ball! And ‘He’s Misstra Know It All?’ Oh my God! When I heard that I thought to myself, how in the world can Stevie Wonder write that kind of music? In the early-to-mid 80s I bought that album with ‘Superwoman’ and I said – what am I listening to!? That Moog synthesizer, ‘I think I can deal with that, is what went through my mind. . .’ then he goes into the synth thing and I thought, I’ll never hear anything that good again in my life.’ (made to love cover): I like Carl’s version, too. They’re both good. But Stevie is a fabluous singer, a really good singer.
Q: I’m a big fan of Wilco, too. Have you heard them?
Wilco? Huh. Is there something to it that I might like? For instance, what is it about them that you really like? (blah, blah, melodic, blah blah experimental, electronic noise, great songs, kind of spooky…) I will definitely check it out. And the guy does ‘Love and Mercy’?’ Okay, I’ll check it out.
Q: Yeah, you should. I can make you a CD, if you want…and you should really check out the albums they made from Woody Guthrie’s old lyrics…this one called “My Flying Saucer,” it’s so not what you expect from the “This Land is Your Land” guy…
Do you think there’s anything real to UFO’s? Or is that just something people say? In general, have they established that there are really UFO’s? They have pictures, don’t they? Is that stuff real, or do they know for sure? (John Lennon said he saw one over New York City in the ’70s…) No kidding!!!! He said he saw a UFO? (throws back his head and guffaws really loudly) Maybe that thing liked the Beatles! They wanted to get his autograph. Jesus, there are so many things out there people don’t understand, it’s a weird trip.
Q: Do you feel like you’re in a mystical trip when you’re writing; like when it feels like the music isn’t coming from you, but THROUGH you?
It’s like you can’t put your hands wrong, it just falls into your lap. And it’s like, what is this? What the fuck is this? We wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. That one came faster than any song we ever did. Then McCartney told me it was his favorite song. That’s when I said to myself, ‘My God! Paul McCartney who wrote ‘Let It Be’? I’ll tell ya what, though. Every time I listen to that song, ‘Let it Be’ I turn the damn thing off. I can’t listen to it anymore, it’s too scary. Not too powerful, just too…whatever. Too gospelly, too something, I can’t tell what it is. But I can’t listen to it anymore.
Q: I’m totally confused right now.
Years ago I used to rely on it to help me live my life. When things happened I’d tell myself, ‘it’s okay, just let it be, it’s going to be okay.’ I did that for years, and it would help me just let things go. But now I’m scared of it. Songs do that. They carry you from one trip to another, like a meditation.
Q: I know you think music is totally spiritual. It has the power to soothe you, and freak you out.
Absolutely. It is a way to connect to a higher force. Spector did it, and the Beach Boys did, too. We all put our heart and soul into the vocals. Like when we did, what the hell, ‘Dance Dance Dance?” the vocals bounced between the bass and the high part – Dance/dance, dance/dance, that was cool. (It’s that surfin’ singin’ sound…) Yeah!
Q: Your brother Dennis was a big inspiration, and a great songwriter too. But sometimes it seemed like the Beach Boys didn’t want to do his tunes, even when they were getting so good…
Yeah he was an idiot. We all had to kind of tame him down. We used to have corporation meetings, and Dennis would start yelling. He’d walk around the room yelling, ‘You guys are a bunch of idiots! You don’t know what’s going on!’ And Mike would go, like, ‘What the fuck?’ And he’d go on and on for like 10 or 20 minutes, circling the table. He did that a few times. And after he did that a few times we didn’t like him anymore. He was being such an asshole about everything. I hung out with him in the early ‘80s for a while, but not much. It was a happy time, in the ‘80s, though.
(Absolutely no clue what he means by this. The years he and Dennis hung out were dismal and awful for both of them; Dennis was addicted to everything bad and Brian was trying to smoke, drink and drug his way out of his hellish psychiatric problems, which were then undiagnosed, untreated, unsympathized with, etc., basically the most un-fun experience anyone could have. The songs they wrote together were pretty awful, too. Sorry, but it’s true.)
Q: I know you were crushed when Dennis died. Then Carl died. Gershwin died young, too. Like, really young. Some guys just don’t make it to the end of their story…
Yeah, Gershwin had that brain tumor. Brain cancer, right? The same thing? (You’re like a horse, tho…you survive everything) no, that’s not true. Some of these radio stations play these advertisements that just drive me crazy. They’re just crazy, you know. Totally far out. So that’s it? We’re done? Thank you man. I’m gonna go to the park and take a lap.
(He gives his guest a hug, walks him outside and waves goodbye. And….scene.)