Brian Wilson: Still picking up those good vibrations

The rock'n'roll lifestyle halted his career years ago, yet Brian Wilson is about to tour again. Andrew Buncombe asks: what's changed?
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The Independent Culture

It is now more than three decades since Brian Wilson did his bit to change the world of popular music. It was during a different generation that this unlikely genius wrote and produced breathtaking music before his descent into the depression and drug addiction that brought him to an effective halt.

In an art form where such supposed tragedies are not uncommon, the cessation of Wilson's creativity remains one of the more genuine losses. His ground-breaking work with the Beach Boys, who without Wilson's input would have been little more than a harmonising vocal group, is still widely revered with almost religious fervour.

But this week, with a glance to the future, he embarked on what will be his biggest tour for years, supporting that other survivor from the Sixties, Paul Simon. The offer to accompany him on tour, made when Simon took part in a forthcoming television tribute to Wilson, was seized upon with boyish enthusiasm.

"Paul did 'Surfer Girl' on the show, which we recorded at Radio City Music Hall," Wilson told me in an rare interview. "Then about a week after the show, his people called us and said, 'Would you like to go on tour with him?' And we said, 'We'd be delighted, we'd be honoured.'"

The Wilson that took to the stage at the Gorge Amphitheatre, Seattle, last weekend as the tour kicked off, was a more confident figure than he has been for several years. With plans to start recording a new album in October, there is a sense that Wilson believes he has dealt with at least some of his demons.

"I get up and exercise every day for two hours. I try to get in really good shape because this upcoming concert [tour] is six weeks long and I need to be in shape for it. So I've been running my ass off. I drive to a park three or four times a day and run. And I intend to go into the studio in October with other musicians to record a new solo album."

It certainly appears this year will be Wilson's busiest for years, an indication, perhaps, that he is aware of the years he wasted to drugs, food bingeing and neurosis, and the need now to move on.

In February, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, honouring him for his role in creating the "California sound" that combined vocal harmonies, Chuck Berry-style guitars and surf-themed lyrics.

Coinciding with this new tour and TV special set for next month has been the release of a new double-CD album, Live at the Roxy, recorded at two concerts last spring at the famous Hollywood nightclub. Songs include "Good Vibrations", "God Only Knows", and "California Girls", as well as the new songs "The First Time" and "This Isn't Love".

"The club is owned by a good friend of mine," said Wilson. "We just thought it would be the appropriate size. It holds about 800 people. We wanted an intimate concert so it would sound better."

But however positive he sounds, fans of the Beach Boys hoping for a reconciliation between what in effect are now three separate touring bands, will be disappointed. The bitterness between Wilson and Mike Love, the lead singer of the Beach Boys, still exists and if anything, Wilson is deliberately forcing himself to look to the future.

"I'm really not interested in going that way. I have my own career," he said. "I don't talk to Mike Love at all. We don't talk to each other. After Carl died, we just went our separate ways and the group slowly broke up. Al Jardine went out with the Beach Boys' Family of Friends and Mike went out as the Beach Boys and I go out as Brian Wilson."

But he still thinks of his two late brothers, Carl and Dennis, when he is performing. "When I sing a song called 'Forever,' I think of Dennis. And when I sing 'Lay Down Burden,' I think of Carl," he said. "I miss my brothers, but it doesn't do any good to wallow in the mire. I might as well just get on with my life. They died and that's that."