Lost in music: The peculiar life of Brian Wilson

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He is one of the towering geniuses of popular music, and the creator of some of the most memorable records of all time. But life has not been easy for Brian Wilson. And, as John Walsh discovers, interviewing the great man is no simple task either ...

Brian Wilson couldn't surf. Can you dig that? The composer, arranger and lead voice of the legendary Beach Boys never learnt to ride a wave. The man who gave the world "Surfin' USA", "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfer Girl" didn't have a clue about waxing a board and hanging ten. According to his wife, Melinda, he didn't even like the ocean all that much.

He preferred to stay home in South Bay, Los Angeles, sitting at a grand piano with his feet scratching and twisting in a homemade sandbox, writing the songs that turned on a generation to the joys of teenage summers. From a few thousand transistor radios, Wilson's songs spread the news about girls taking their Daddy's T-Bird for a cruise to the hamburger stand, heartbroken boys in need of a Rhonda ("Help me get her out of my heart") as a stand-in snoggee, about places to go where the kids are hip, about first kisses at the dance-hall, about yearning, holiday romance, betrayal, and a sea trip on the Sloop John B. They were served up in three-minute slices of frictionless pop, in whose choruses five voices soared in perfect harmonies and sophisticated chord changes.

The Beach Boys had youth on their side, and a sense of fun, but they also had class. It took rock historians a while to realise that, while the Beatles had George Martin to arrange and produce their intricately structured melodies, the Beach Boys had Brian Wilson to do everything except write the lyrics. They had nine consecutive gold albums and two dozen Top 40 hits. In 1966, the combined releases of the Pet Sounds album and the epic single "Good Vibrations" made them the biggest pop group in the world after the Fab Four.

An intense rivalry sprang up between these two creative powerhouses. Hearing the Boys' Pet Sounds album, Paul McCartney knew he had to create a record that would surpass it – and so Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was born. Brian Wilson was appalled by its polymorphous brilliance and set himself to write his own song-cycle with Van Dyke Parks, "a teenage symphony to God" provisionally entitled Smile. But his intake of LSD and amphetamines, alcohol and morphine had started to affect his head; he started hearing voices saying, alternately, that they loved him and that they were going to kill him. (Later investigations diagnosed "a schizoid-affective disorder".) So he aborted the project, withdrew from the music world at 25, and spent the next three decades in chaotic reclusion.

From there he would issue the odd song, and retrospective Beach Boys albums continued to sell. But it was 1999 before Wilson emerged from hiding and returned to the live stage. He performed Pet Sounds in its entirety, to rapturous receptions. In February 2004, he went on the road with a finished version of Smile, kicking off at London's Royal Festival Hall. It became most music critics' Album of the Year.

In September 2007, the Festival Hall celebrated its refurbishment by asking Wilson to write a new piece. The result was the remarkable That Lucky Old Sun, a 16-track celebration of California, with spoken interludes by Van Dyke Parks. Wilson wrote the music in three weeks, throwing together an eclectic range of musical styles: bouncy pop, blues, rock, Mexican mariachi, vaudeville. Now the record is out on CD, and a special-edition book has been launched this week to accompany it, with 12 specially commissioned paintings of California by Sir Peter Blake.

It's entirely natural that any rock-fan interviewer would love to meet Brian Wilson. He is without doubt one of the most sophisticated composers in rock history, on the cusp of joining the operatic greats. If his music isn't quite in the rock mainstream, its pedigree is gold-standard. Look for the connection between church gospel music, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Fleet Foxes, and the answer is clear. On the other hand, Mr Wilson, now aged 67, has a reputation for being a difficult interviewee. Years of chemical and alcoholic over-stimulation have taken a heavy toll. He is not, other interviewers will tell you, one of nature's chatterboxes.

So it's with mixed feelings that I'm hanging around the lobby of the Mayfair Hotel, just off Piccadilly, waiting to meet the great man. His press wrangler Jean Sievers is friendly but says, somewhat ominously, that none of the Wilson entourage managed to sleep on the flight from Los Angeles last night, and they're all fairly gaga with jet lag.

Outside the third-floor suite, she looks at me and asks, "Have you interviewed Brian before?" I say, no, but I've read the cuttings. "He doesn't say much," she remarks laconically. "Whatever you do, don't ask any questions that can be answered by Yes or No."

Inside the suite, a large, confused-looking man in a pale blue sports shirt perches unhappily on the sofa. He sits extremely still, his hands unmoving on his thighs, his eyes inscrutably half-shut, like an old Red Indian chief negotiating a difficult pow-wow. I sit down.

What was the original brief he received from the Festival Hall about That Lucky Old Sun? "They said, 'Can you write a 45-minute piece of music for us to premiere there?' So I wrote it, we practised it till we got it down pat and then we brought it over here."

Did they specify any kind of style, or mood, or theme? "Nope," says Wilson. "Just something good."

Oh-kay. In the accompanying book Wilson is quoted as calling the album "an interwoven series of rounds" – but what are rounds? "They're the narrations by Van Dyke Parks, five sets of them, 35 seconds long." And what is their function amid the music tracks? "They're images of Los Angeles, so we can go from one thing to the next. It's a concept album, you see, that's why we did it that way."

Why did he choose "That Lucky Old Sun", the old slavery song ("Show me the river, take me across/ Wash all my troubles away/ Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do/ But roll around heaven all day") as the defining melodic "concept" at the heart of the work? "Because I wanted something spiritual, a negro-spiritual concept. I chose 'Lucky Old Sun', the Louis Armstrong version, and changed the chords around." Yes but why choose a slave song? "Because I did," he says. "I wanted people to know what negroes went through."

Hmmm. It is, I point out, a fantastically jaunty record, full of redemptive feelings of starting over, coming back to life. The only song on which he receives sole lyric credit, "Good Kind of Love", is practically deranged with soppiness about a new-minted romance. Can he recall the frame of mind in which he wrote it?

"I was in a very happy frame of mind. I was exercising a lot and feeling good." Goodness. In a gym? "I was ... running and walking." He looks briefly anxious as if he wishes it had been in a gym and he could therefore accommodate my question. Had it been a good time to be inside his head? "Yeah yeah, I was feeling very emotionally secure too."

I ask how songwriting works when you're collaborating. Did he talk over things with his lyricists? Did they offer successive drafts for his approval, and how did he direct them? "I asked them to write autobiographically for me. To interpret my life." To write as if they were you? But did that mean you at 60-odd or you at 20? "Both." And how did harmonies work – all those glowing descants and soaring thirds? Did it start simply? "Yeah it starts simply, and becomes more complicated. The harmonies get more intricate and they pan out." Could he hear the complete sound in his head right from the beginning? "No, I can't. I have to do that as I go along."

In the book, Nick Walusko, the band's guitarist, describes the process: "Brian taught us a lot of the material while we were on an East Coast tour. Every day at soundcheck, he'd present a new song for the band to learn. He dictated intricate and unorthodox parts to us on-stage in old-school, Wrecking Crew style. When he was satisfied we all knew our parts properly, he would conduct us together so he could hear how all the parts fitted." Music-making as a sonic jigsaw-puzzle – but it works.

Wilson seems to have a startlingly good ear for finding singers to match the departed voices of his late brothers Carl and Dennis in the Beach Boys. I counted seven featured singers among the band members. Were they all tenors? "Some are high, some are medium, and some are quite low." Really? I ask. I can't hear any bass notes on the record. They all seem quite high to me. "High, yeah," says Wilson. "Tenor and falsetto. Yeah." How did he maintain the purity level of his own unmistakeable tenor? Gargling with lemon and honey like Robert Plant? "By practising."

By now a pattern was set for the Brian Wilson interview technique. Talking to him is like feeding a corpse. You spoon in questions, clarify what you just said, repeat the original question, put your head on one side, smile, flirt, nod – and when he's ready, he'll offer the tiniest quantum of communication known to mankind. Often it's one laconic word. Sometimes he'll repeat your question as a statement. Disagree with him and he'll hastily agree with you. Sometimes his answers are rather sweet and childish. I ask if he thought he'd had a hard time from the press and media over the years. "It's been a tough and painful experience," he admits. So why put himself through another interview like this one? "Because I know it's good for me." What, like going to the gym? "Yeah."

He perks up, though, when asked about the great tradition of US classical composers. Had they influenced him? "Oh yeah," he says with enthusiasm, "Gershwin inspired me very much. The concept of That Lucky Old Sun was inspired by 'Rhapsody in Blue' – not influenced, but inspired." I say I thought there was some West Side Story in there too, what with the recitative voices and the Mexican girls. "Well yeah, of course," he replies in sudden exasperation. "It's an opera, it's a rock opera. It's not just a cycle of songs. Van Dyke Parks is an artist. And I'm an artist." Parks is, of course, the lyricist who wrote the wonderful title track of Surf's Up, the Beach Boys' ecologically querulous album from 1975.

He freely admits that when he withdrew from the world (as the song "Going Home" says: "At 25 I turned out the light/ 'Cause I couldn't handle the glare in my tired eyes") it was because too many drugs had left him "almost half brain-dead". Another song is a frank injunction to get a bloody move on with your life. "Let's get the jump on before it's too late/ Friendly reminder, friendly reminder." Had a fear of mortality been creeping over him? "Yeah, there was a feeling of doing something before it's too late. A year or so ago, I was feeling bad so I stepped on the gas and got into shape."

Where had he been when he'd heard the news about Michael Jackson? "I was walking in a park when this little girl comes up and says, 'Michael Jackson died'. I went straight home and watched it on the news." What had been his first reaction? "Shock," recalls Wilson. "I was devastated because he was a great entertainer." Were they friends? "No, I only met him once, briefly. I thought he was a great dancer. More than anything he was a great dancer." An important part of musical history? "Of entertainment history," says Wilson firmly. "Not musical history." And had he ever considered the odd correspondences between the two families? He looks puzzled. The Jackson 5 and the Beach Boys, I suggest. Both families of talented musical siblings. Both had a domineering and brutal father. Both were brought low by drugs... "No," replies Wilson shortly, "I hadn't."

Another high-profile news event that's close to Wilson's territory was the trial of Phil Spector, whose massively complex studio arrangements Wilson admired. "I met him in the 1960s in LA. I went to a couple of recording sessions. And I met him briefly in 1984 at his house. And I understand he's in prison. Is that right? Are you sure?" I can't work out if Mr Wilson is being disingenuous, or really doesn't know.

Did Spector ever brandish a gun in his face? "No." Did it come as a surprise to learn he was in trouble? "It scared me." Why? Surely there's no danger, I say, of your going to prison for shooting dead an actress in the doorway of your home...? "Because I felt sorry for him. You know? Going to prison?"

"Can we move on from Phil Spector, please?" asks Jean the press wrangler, in a voice like a tram crushing broken glass.

So we end with some inoffensive matters. Yes, he met Peter Blake when the bearded knight designed the cover art for his last album, Getting In Over My Head. "I loved what he did with Sgt Pepper," says Wilson, uncontroversially. "I thought it was brilliant." What did he think of Blake's famous statement, "I wanted to make art that was the visual equivalent of pop music?" "I think it's a wonderful thing to say."

After collaborating with Elton John, his dream collaboration is with Paul McCartney. "I'd really like to write a song with him sometime." Going on the road, being in concerts is, he assures me, "rougher now than it used to be," but Wilson conquers the approach of anxiety attacks by having neck rubs from the company physiotherapist.

One last thing. In the band's on-stage pre-concert warm-up, when all the musicians huddle together, what do they say? "We do a circle-up. We all take each other's hands and contribute about how we feel. We talk the jive, you know? We say, 'Come on – he can do it, he can do it'."

As, indeed, his fans have been saying about Mr Wilson for decades. Often, sadly he couldn't. Now, it seems, once again, he very much can.

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