On May’s sunniest, most humid day, Brian Wilson, 72, is sitting in a room at Philly’s Hotel Palomar, waiting to attend the Non-Comm adult-alternative radio convention and record a session with host David Dye at World Café Live during its Free-at-Noon Friday free-for-all. Coughing, but enthusiastic to be out-and-about in Philadelphia (“I like the building you guys have in the center with the clock, the William Penn thing”), Wilson has much to regale the adoring crowds with at Non-Comm. Not only does he have an album of new songs to present in No Pier Pressure and a tour to hype (which brings him to the Mann Center on June 29). Wilson is also the subject of Love & Mercy [reviewed in this issue], a dramatic biopic long in the works starring both Paul Dano and John Cusack as younger and older versions of the one-time Beach Boy (former, at least at present) with Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti as the light and the darkest aspects in Wilson’s once-tortured personal life. “It was hard to watch at times, but worth it,” he says bluntly.
Much has been made of that life and those times. A Hawthorne, California-born kid (with ear problems who couldn’t surf) wrote and produced ‘60s surf pop along with the most endearing of modern barbershop harmony-filled melodies. That he formed the Beach Boys in 1961 with his two younger brothers, cousin Mike Love, and school chum Al Jardine—with dad Murray Wilson as their manager—made their saga strange and incestuous. Preternaturally shy and awkward, Brian Wilson withdrew from live performance to concentrate on composing and producing where the studio became an extension of his soul, another brother to admire. Like Phil Spector, though, the studio allowed Wilson to experiment—truly test the psychedelic boundaries of tone, texture, instrumentation and arrangement, to say nothing of his own personal level of drug experimentation. This lead him into the unbound baroque and decidedly un-chipper lyricism of 1966’s Pet Sounds and the legendarily abstract and abandoned (then) SMiLE project of 1967; the latter an album that Wilson would pull together, record anew and win Grammys for in the 21st Century.
Left behind (mostly) by the brothers—and screwed over by his father, who sold Brian’s compositional catalog for pocket change—as each thought that the Beach Boys’ master’s best days were behind him (and they were, commercially, for that moment), he languished in an erratic behavioral haze of sandbox isolation, hardcore drug addiction and mental illness throughout the ‘70s. By the mid-70s, he met Dr. Eugene Landy, an unorthodox practitioner of over-personalized, intrusive therapy who became Wilson’s dangerous shadow, on-and-off, until 1990. The unscrupulous Landy may have helped Wilson lose weight and get off most psychotropic drugs, but he took control of Wilson’s thoughts and occupation with his so-called co-authorization of songs and autobiographical works with the Beach Boy. Only the eventual mediation of Wilson’s family (brother Carl) and his new love, Melinda, could—and did—save Brian Wilson, and by the mid-90s, he became the fully-functioning, if not occasionally distanced and distracted solo artist and married man that we know him as today.
Love & Mercy concentrates on Wilson’s distant past, for the better and the worst, with Paul Dano boldly marching into the ravages of Wilson’s fragile mind in 1965—the eccentric beginnings of his troubles—while a wounded, tender John Cusack takes on the Wilson of the ‘80s, tenuously finding the footing of reality with his innocence (and most of his genius) intact. As it courses between the two Wilsons and their alternate realities, Love & Mercy resembles a darkly Impressionist take on director Todd Haynes’ No Way Home and its multiple actor look at Bob Dylan.
On the musical side, No Pier Pressure finds Wilson sailing and surfing into the future—not with the Mike Love end of the Beach Boys who dismissed their partnership after their recent, mega-successful 50th anniversary reunion tour and album (2012’s That’s Why God Made the Radio), but rather with Zooey Daschenel, Katie Musgraves and Nate Ruess of fun [the band] as well as renegade Beach Boys Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chapin beside him.
I’ve interviewed you several times and it is always a privilege. You mentioned before how stuff such as SMilE were “teenage symphonies to God.” Do you feel as if the music you’ve written in the last five to ten years celebrates God as well; that the music you make as an adult speaks to the same impulses that you had in your youth?
Yes. I’m simply trying to carry on the traditions—all my traditions—from the likes of Pet Sounds and SMilE and up through my new album.
Is it fair to say you’re done with the Beach Boys after that last tour, and with the way that Mike Love dismissed everyone, aren’t you glad to be rid of them?
Yeah, that’s true, we’re done with the Beach Boys for now. I mean we might make another album at some point, who knows, but for now we’re over.
Does it bother you that something you created is done with?
No, not at all.
Do you feel as if That’s Why God Made the Radio—the last new music you wrote for the Beach Boys—was bittersweet, a goodbye-so-long so to speak?
I don’t see that as any kind of farewell note.
It’s cool that you’re still working with Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chapin. Are they, like you, the OTHER Beach Boys, the renegades of the bunch?
We are. Luckily, they all sound as good singing as they did 50 years ago
That’s quite a compliment. What do you think of your own voice now?
I think that it has mellowed out a little bit. I don’t think that I’m as good a singer as I used to be, but I can still express what I want to say. It’s a different brand of emotion.
Talking about the Boys, in the film Love & Mercy, Mike Love comes across as a controlling jerk. Did the director Bill Pohlad portray him accurately? Did actor Jake Abel?
I don’t think he’s a jerk. I do believe that he was portrayed very well in that movie.
He was always on your back, though, to tend to the commercial rather than the artistic.
He was an anchor. He wrote a lot of the words to songs like “Good Vibrations.” And he’s a good man.
Why are you writing a new autobiography now?
One guy crapped out on me, so I’m doing it with somebody else. It has to be done.
No matter what, will you be able to be more honest about your ties with Dr. Landy?
What do you think of the scenes with you and him?
They were rough to watch. They all brought back some pretty bad memories. Having to watch those scenes where he’s yelling at me was hard to relive.
For sure, those and the scene where your father sells off the Sea of Tunes catalog because he thinks you’ve peaked. How do you prefer to remember those times?
I don’t. I don’t like to remember them at all.
This film was supposed to happen in 1988 with William Hurt as you and Richard Dreyfuss as Landy. What happened?
Nothing happened is what happened; I never had a hand in that movie. Then this director, Bill Pohlad—he’s very good—he knew exactly how and who he wanted to cast, and have them portray the real people the best that they could.
Bill Pohlad—what did you like about his vision? Did you give him all the details of your day-to-day, total access into your life?
When he told me—and showed me—about the scene that he wanted to do with me and Melinda, when I bought a car from her...I thought that was the best part of the movie.
That was sweet. Was the director accurate in portraying the early relationship between you and your wife?
Oh, yes, very much so.
Did you enjoy how Elizabeth Banks played your wife’s inner strength, especially considering that she had to go up against a controlling Landy?
I do. Elizabeth Banks was very factual and well cast. She even looks a little like my wife.
Both did a beautiful job. Dano really seemed to delve into your artistic ability. Did you spend time with these guys?
Yes, actually we spent several weekends together, each just going through the good and the bad stuff that I went through, and what it was like to produce records. They listened hard and it worked very well.
We were talking about your wife and it’s my understanding that she is now a large part of your musical work on your new album, No Pier Pressure.
Yes. My wife had certain collaborators in mind for me and duets, so she called them up. She also helped out on the production.
Before No Pier Pressure, you started an album with Jeff Beck and producer Don Was. What happened to that?
We left it behind. It was OK. The songs weren’t up to my standard so I did something else.
It’s been a while since you had an album like No Pier Pressure, with all of your own songs on it.
Yeah, but I enjoyed doing the Gershwin stuff and the Disney album too. They’re two of my favorites.
Do you write songs quicker or slower now? I know you used to be able to rattle them off.
No, it takes me a while now. I’m a little slower now, probably because I’m older and not quite as active as I’d like to be, or used to be.
Which of the guests on No Pier Pressure stand out?
Nate Ruess stands out. He’s got a great voice. And he’s a good guy.
You haven’t had the sound of women on your music—like, ever—yet here you have girls like Katie Musgraves and Zooey Deschanel. What does that mean to your music?
I think the women’s voices here reminded me of love. They signaled love.
It’s very Phil Spector to have them there. Is he still an influence on your work?
On the production end, yes, but not in the writing.
Do you still feel at home in the studio?
It’s where I live. It’s a preoccupation. It’s why I live near where I work so that I can duck into the studio whenever I want and create.
I spoke with Glen Campbell before he took ill and he told me that he nearly took your place in the Beach Boys, but tried to avoid it because he thought so highly of you.
Mike Love called him to replace me when I wanted to stay home, not tour, and work in the studio. That’s true, but then Bruce Johnston did a nice job.
Van Dyke Parks told me that he thought his 1995 album Orange Crate Art with you singing was the best you ever sounded.
I agree. He taught me all the background parts where he did all the arrangements. That is one great album
You’re doing a summer tour soon and you’re doing Non-Comm. Do you still like playing live? You seem to do so much more now than you ever did.
Yeah, I do like to play for enthusiastic crowds. It’s a necessary, wonderful experience for me.
You went out and re-did SMILE and Pet Sounds. is there another older album that you’d like to re-think or take on the road?
No. I wouldn’t want to change a thing.
A. D. Amorosi, June 2015
Wouldn't it be nice...
The sun will always find Brian Wilson, melancholy pop's
innovative, eternal beach boy
If A.D. Amorosi can’t be found writing features for ICON, the Philadelphia Inquirer or doing Icepacks, Icecubes and other stories for Philadelphia’s City Paper, he’s probably hitting restaurants like Stephen Starr’s or running his greyhound.