Music Interviews

Brian Wilson interview: “The essence of Brian Wilson is Pet Sounds”

An aural collage of the ’60s might begin with Elvis Presley joining the army, and reach a logical but tragic denouement with the Altamont debacle. Skipping lightly from location-to-location, there might be glimpses of Liverpool’s Cavern and Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, London’s Crawdaddy and UFO clubs. There could be the Greenwich Village protest and Monterey psychedelics. Or Detroit’s aspirational Sound Of Young America, Stax /Atlantic rawness, and a quick glimpse into Warhol’s New York Factory.

But out on America’s West Coast, at the heart of the sun-blushed version of the American Dream, Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson imagined a work that would provide last will and testimony to the immortality of ’60s Pop.

In rock ‘n’ roll folklore, there are few myths that can compare with Wilson’s SMiLe project. Originally conceived in the aftermath of the Beach Boys’ now-canonical Pet Sounds album of 1966, the litany of hopes and eventual failures surrounding the non-appearance of the record are now the stuff of countless biographies and articles.

However, the suite’s eventual appearance as a freshly-recorded concept in 2004 was perhaps the most eyebrow-raising event of all. In compiling this DVD, director David Leaf, together with the musicians of here and then, offers a redress to the myths, and succeeds in no small measure.

Both the myth and the DVD have an impressive supporting cast, and Leaf makes full use of those that were there mucking in at the sandpit at Laurel Way, Beverley Hills, not to mention those gushing and fulsome in their praise of the man who once looked to compose pop symphonies to God.

Principal to the arc of the story are that first tricksy performances of the SMiLe at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Attended by friendly nemesis Paul McCartney, the performance reached its final moving act with the on-stage introduction of WIlson’s loquacious collaborator, Van Dyke Parks. So why London, why now?

In one of a number of references to himself in the third-person, Brian himself had the answer: “The people here are more sensitive to Brian Wilson music than in America.”

“The people here are more sensitive to Brian Wilson music than in America.” – Brian Wilson on Brian Wilson music in the UK

It’s a barely credible answer, that this beautiful American dreamer would now feel himself as an outsider in a land that took much of his own vision as its own utopia, its own pastoral. As if by rote, the Beautiful Dreamer film produces stock footage of American soldiers at war with the Vietcong, an era of baby-boomer social unrest and racial tensions. The film proposes that the SMiLe record was intended to “show a more optimistic America, it provided a watermark, a lot to live up to.”

With such a bold claim, I asked David Leaf how the reality of modern America matches up to the ideal presented by Smile. He answered with a succinct appraisal of the enduring appeal of Brian Wilson music, and an insight into why Brian may feel cut adrift from the land that once so feted him:

“I’m going to try and answer that without sounding depressing. (SMiLe) was an attempt to show America at its best. It was (to) remind people that America had lofty ideals, it was the best of America’s heart… and songs like Surf’s Up express that melancholy when that best isn’t achieved”.

As a coda to Leaf’s comment, its hard not to think of how Murry, the Wilsons’ violent and competitive Father, symbolises the harsher side of the American dream when he sold Brian’s entire catalogue of songs (Sea Of Tunes) for a quick buck (actually $7,000, a pittance of the real worth). This of all things, may best explain the now constant touring.

One of the more touching moments of Beautiful Dreamer is the hazy clip of Brian alone at the piano singing (or is it exhaling?) the waterfall tumble of words to the aforementioned Surf’s Up. Stripped of accompaniment, with nothing of the modular components of his arrangements to be heard, this vignette has something of the paranormal, an metaphysical aperture into which Brian fell and never truly returned.

Sitting next to the director in front of a ragtag collection of European journalists, distracted and tense, it’s hard not to imagine the truth of that fanciful notion. Beautiful Dreamer concerns itself principally with SMiLe’s initial collapse and latter-day resurrection.

Therefore, it’s somewhat terse with Brian’s withdrawal from the world (into his bed) for much of the ’70s. It also offers nothing from the Landy Years, the days when Brian couldn’t so much as leave the house without so much as a say-so from his psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Landy was eventually kept away by a restraining order).

If Beautiful Dreamer is to be believed, the greatest therapy for Brian has been the return to Smile – Brian tells us that “this great weight has lifted from my shoulders”. David Leaf is quick to confirm that the relief was communal. “We had months of uncertainty – after years of uncertainty. There was a real question whether this was going to happen.”

This being the ’60s, part and parcel of the narrative is the experimentation with drugs (Wilson – “I took 120 mikes of Owsley”). In the film, the psychic fallout from chemical indulgence is given short shrift. One of Smile’s premier studio musicians offers curt dismissal: “Drugs is the biggest herring of the Brian Wilson story so far.”

Herring to some, bugbear to others. Asked to choose the deepest regret of his life, the troubled ex-Beach boy unflinchingly responded: “My biggest regret would be taking drugs… amphetamine and stuff like that…because it fouled my mind.”

“I haven’t heard from the Beach Boys at all” – Brian Wilson on his genre-defining buddies.

With two late brothers, there is little of the original Beach Boys left. What do they think of the SMiLe project, now complete and pristine? “I haven’t heard from the Beach Boys at all,” before adding not too convincingly, “It doesn’t hurt me at all because I never cared for them that much”.

As good, no, as great as SMiLe is, there’s no getting away from the fact that this “genius” (when asked if he thought himself a genius, Brian answered, not without due wryness to the term, “Yes I am!” Then continued: “I learnt to be a genius from Chuck Berry”) first imagined this opus 38 years ago. Though there has been the odd solo project here and there (including Orange Crate Art with Van Dyke Parks, and the criminally overlooked Rio Grande from his first solo album), what new works are afoot?

“There will be a Christmas album, released in October, (featuring) Deck The Halls, Hark The Herald Angels Sing (and) Little Saint Nick from Christmas With The Beach Boys.”

And then?

“There’s a new album, I have about eight songs written… the songs are all happy. (It features) Bernie Taupin, Jimmy Webb… these guys are about the best you can get.”

As for Smile, Brian himself places the record in some degree of context: “SMiLe is a great album, though the essence of Brian Wilson is Pet Sounds.”

However, if Beautiful Dreamer proves anything, it’s that lightning can strike twice, even on the choppiest waters. Sail on, Sailor.

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