This interview with Brian Wilson ran as the Weekend section lead of the New Haven Register Friday, June 18, 1999. It was an advance to his performance two nights later, on his 57th birthday, at Mohegan Sun Casino. I got the chance to meet him that night, after his soundcheck. It was as simple and short as a handshake and a “Hi Brian. Happy birthday” and “Thank you very much.”
It was one of my more nerve-wracking and challenging interviews. How do you come up with interesting questions for someone whose life — both the glories and the dirty laundry — has long been in public view? And how do you interview your all-time favorite musician without coming off like a gushing fanboy?
Anyway, the interview took place a couple weeks before the show, on a Friday evening, and it went really well. I actually was able to keep his interest for a half-hour before he said he had to go, and I thought it was cool to be able to tell my friends afterward, “I was talking to Brian Wilson in my kitchen …”
I actually got to interview him again a couple years later in advance of a return show. But there was something special about this first one. And in my 11 1/2 years of talking to performers for the Register, this was one of just two interviews (the other being Ray Charles in 1993) that I kept in Q-and-A format.
By Fran Fried, Register Entertainment Editor
We music fans have heard this mantra before:
We heard it in the mid-’70s, when Brian Wilson returned from years of emotional and drug troubles and seclusion to write songs and tour again with The Beach Boys. We heard it 1988, when, after more similar problems, he released his first album apart from the group. But both instances were, sadly enough, false starts.
It got to be like that Bugs Bunny cartoon where Little John tells Bugs, “Ahhhh, don’t you worry, never fear, Robin Hood will soon be here!” and Bugs yells, “Yeah, you’ve been sayin’ that all through the picture!”
But here he is. This time, he really does seem to be back.
Not that his music ever left us, mind you. Wilson’s place among the century’s foremost pop composers is secure.
First, he invented California as the rest of the world knows it, as he and his mates in The Beach Boys (late brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and friends Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston) created a world of surf, cars, girls and fun fun fun, driven by angelic harmonies.
Then, he went much deeper. After a breakdown in late 1964, he stopped touring to devote his time to composing. His 1966 album “Pet Sounds” took lavish pop arrangement and production (and sensitive, sad, introspective lyricism) to dizzying heights. The ensuing album, “Smile” (for which he created the group’s artistic and commercial pinnacle, “Good Vibrations”), was never finished as Brian fell victim to a bizarre spiral of drug and emotional problems. Despite three hit singles (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows” and “Sloop John B”), plus the song Wilson calls his favorite, “Caroline, No,” “Pet Sounds” wasn’t a commercial smash when first released, but it has since taken its place as one of the best rock albums, if not the best, ever made. (How many other single albums have been turned into a four-CD box set, as Capitol did to it in 1996?)
Wilson’s influence has been evident through the decades: Lennon & McCartney in the ’60s (The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper”); Todd Rundgren in the ’70s (a by-note copy of “Good Vibrations” that also became a hit); XTC in the ’80s (the Rundgren-produced “Skylarking” album) and The High Llamas in the ’90s (an English group whose entire oeuvre seems to have sprung from the two instrumental tracks on “Pet Sounds”).
In recent years — since Don Was’ 1995 documentary “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” — Wilson has slowly emerged from his shell and built himself a life that seems, by most standards, normal and productive.
He recorded the album “Orange Crate Art” with “Smile” collaborator Van Dyke Parks in 1995. He recorded some unreleased songs with Andy Paley, the main producer of his first album. He chipped in with the singing, writing and producing on “The Wilsons,” the 1997 album by his daughters from his first marriage, Carnie and Wendy.
He and his second wife, Melinda, who he wed in 1995, are the parents of two adopted daughters, 2 1/2-year old Daria and 15-month-old Delanie. In 1997, they moved to the very unCalifornialike Chicago suburb of St. Charles, Ill., across the street from his latest collaborator, a veteran Nashville songwriter-producer and onetime pro wrestler named Joe Thomas. (The Wilsons still have a home in Beverly Hills, across the street from Shaquille O’Neal.)
In 1998, Wilson (with Thomas’ help) released his second album, “Imagination.” The highlight was “Lay Down Burden,” dedicated to his brother Carl, who died of cancer in February 1998. While reviews of the album — a lighter, adult contemporary version of his trademark sound — were mixed to favorable, it was a commercial flop.
Undaunted — though with a little prodding from those closest to him — the notoriously stage-shy Wilson has taken his music on the road this year. Leading a 14-piece group that includes Thomas and the members of Los Angeles pop group The Wondermints, he played four Midwestern shows in March that went over so well that five more shows were scheduled.
One of them will take place at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Events Center of Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, on his 57th birthday. At the same time, A&E will premiere a two-hour “Biography” installment, “Brian Wilson: A Beach Boy’s Tale.”
This conversation — revealing, a little surprising, sometimes mildly contradictory and unremittingly honest — took place late last month on the phone from Beverly Hills; we talked for 20 minutes. Many volumes about his life are available (such as David Leaf’s “The Beach Boys and the California Myth” and Timothy White’s “The Nearest Faraway Place”), as well as two stellar documentaries (Was’ film and the A&E episode), so I didn’t spend time rehashing the past. We bounced back-and-forth over a number of subjects before he finally said, “I can’t talk anymore”:
FF: From everything I’ve read, you seem very happy these days. Is this the happiest you’ve ever been?
FF: What is it (that has brought this about)? Is it Melinda? Is it Joe?
BW: Having two adopted daughters changed our whole lives … that and faith in God.
FF: How did you hook up with Joe?
BW: He came into the picture in ’95 or ’96. We met at Willie Nelson’s ranch. I met him there and things just clicked. We wrote a song the first day. Can you imagine that? It clicked on totally.
FF: What was that first song?
BW: “Lay Down Burden.” When Carl died, I changed it around.
FF: I was going to ask you later, but I might as well ask you now. With Carl not here, would it matter if you ever performed with The Beach Boys again (which he hasn’t since the early ’80s)?
BW: It would matter, sure … After Carl died, Mike and everybody went their separate ways. (Jardine left the Beach Boys lineup of Love, Johnston and David Marks last year to form Beach Boys Family & Friends, which includes sons Matt and Adam Jardine, and Carnie and Wendy Wilson.) It’s tragic.
FF: What has Joe done for you musically?
BW: He’s given me a simpler approach to music. He’s simplified chords and melodies.
FF: You mean you thought you had too many chords and structures and he helped clean it up for you?
BW: Yeah, he did.
FF: I’ve always read about your stage fright. What convinced you to go out on tour?
BW: My wife and my collaborator, Joe Thomas, got together with me. They said, “I think it’s time you go out and did a tour. It’s been 10 years since you’ve done anything as an artist. Let’s go out and we’ll promote a tour.” I said, “No. I wouldn’t draw anything (attendance-wise).” They said, “You wanna make a bet? You wanna make a (bleep)in’ bet?” They said, “We’ll schedule four shows in March.” I said, “I’m gonna get booed.” I went on tour and people gave me standing ovations.
FF: You really thought people were going to boo you?
FF: I take it that the tour really gave your confidence a boost.
BW: Yeah. After this tour, I feel really good.
FF: Does it make you want to go back and do some more writing?
BW: It’s doing it, but I’m not able to compose right now. … We have 10, 15 songs in the can. We have an album already done, if you want to look at it that way. We hope to release it in October. We plan to touch it up in September.
FF: Are you releasing it on Giant (the label that released “Imagination”) or another label?
BW: We’ll go to another label.
FF: That must have been disappointing, the sales of the last album.
BW: Yeah, it was. I said, “That’s how the breaks are in life.” That’s how it was, and I accepted it.
FF: I hear you’re doing a lot of “Pet Sounds” on tour.
BW: We’re doing “God Only Knows,” “You Still Believe in Me,” “Caroline, No,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and the two instrumentals, “Pet Sounds” and “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.”
FF: Where did you guys find The Wondermints?
BW: My wife and my collaborator, Joe Thomas, and me saw them one night at a club in Hollywood. I asked them if they were interested in backing me on tour, and they said sure. They learned all the songs off the record. Can you believe that?
FF: Have you listened to any of the acts influenced by you?
BW: Well, The Wondermints, and … what’s the name of that group …
FF: The High Llamas?
BW: Yeah … I think they’re pretty good there, the way they build off my music.
FF: Why do you think people are still drawn to “Pet Sounds”?
BW: I think the love in it we created with our voices … that lovin’ feeling.
FF: Everybody fixates on “Pet Sounds,” but it’s 33 years old and written from the viewpoint of a troubled young man in his 20s. Do you ever think of doing a “Pet Sounds” from the view of a man in his late 50s who’s much happier?
BW: Sure, I’d like to do an album of how I feel. The vibes are in my voice.
FF: What has living in Illinois done for you?
BW: Not much … it just got me a great album (laughs). I worked my ass off.
FF: Every musician I know goes back, after they put out an album, and says, “I should have done this” or “I should have done that.” What did you like and what didn’t you like about the last album?
BW: Everyone’s like that; they’re their own worst critic. I liked the sound of my voice in the arrangements. I didn’t like the songs.
FF: What didn’t you like about the songs?
BW: Just everything … just the songs. … I liked “Happy Days.”
FF: Have you gone back to listen to your first (solo) album?
BW: I don’t play my own stuff back.
FF: When the Beach Boys box set came out a few years ago, the one song you didn’t want included was “Let Him Run Wild.” Yet, the last album comes out, and there it is (re-recorded) …
BW: And “Keep an Eye on Summer,” too.
FF: What made you change your mind?
BW: I thought I sounded a little too effeminate (on the 1965 original). Joe said, “Why not re-record it in a lower key?” I said, “Hey! That’s a goddamn good idea!” Same with “Keep an Eye on Summer.” We lowered the pitch and it came out OK.
FF: I’ve heard you’ve said “Caroline, No” is your favorite song. What makes it your favorite?
BW: “Caroline” because the voice sounds sweet. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” (also from “Pet Sounds”) is another sweet-sounding voice. People like sweet music.
FF: Of all you’ve done, what are you proudest of?
BW: “Pet Sounds.”
FF: Do you think anyone will ever come close to it again?
FF: What about you?
BW: No — I can’t talk anymore.
IF YOU GO
Event: Brian Wilson. Time: 8 p.m. Sunday. Place: Events Center, Mohegan Sun Casino, Route 2A (Exit 79A off Interstate 395), Uncasville Tickets: $40 and $25 Info: tickets.com (888) 332-5600