Brian's Song

Listening to the distant echoes of a pop-rock genius.

Today Wilson seems embarrassed by these images and the perceptions they cemented among fans. He says the single biggest misconception about him is "that Brian Wilson hung out in his bedroom for a long time. That's not true. I was recording and going to my friends' houses and stuff."

In addition, he was frequenting Tower Records on West Hollywood's Sunset Strip, where his visits became legend among employees from that era and afterward. One morning, according to Tower lore, an assistant manager arrived to unlock the back door only to find a wobbly, incoherent Wilson urinating on the knob. Late on another evening, after employees ready to close up shop had turned off the lights and ushered out what they thought was the last batch of customers, they found Wilson huddled in a corner sobbing and repeating, "It's such a big store. It's such a big store..."

Wilson doesn't recall these specific events, but neither does he deny them. The period, he says, is "kind of a blur, because it was so bad. I went through such a bad trip that I don't even remember what it is I went through."

Brian Wilson's been dazed and confused for so long.
Brian Wilson's been dazed and confused for so long.
Brian Wilson then (second from left, sleeping) with the Beach Boys.
Brian Wilson then (second from left, sleeping) with the Beach Boys.


His unsteady condition didn't stop Wilson from occasionally making music that was worthy, albeit much simpler than the work for which he's most prized. In conjunction with Capitol, Brother Records, the Beach Boys' personal imprint, has begun reissuing many of the group's mostly forgotten '70s discs in two-for-the-price-of-one packages, and the finest of them demonstrate that even a debilitated Brian was better than none. Because Brian's participation in the likes of 1972's Carl and the Passions and 1973's Holland was extremely limited, the platters are interesting mainly for the ways in which they shine a light on the talents of Carl, Dennis, Mike and Al. But 1977's The Beach Boys Love You is a legitimately good record in its own sloppy, eccentric way, replete with wild celebrations ("Let Us Go on This Way"), bizarro tributes ("Johnny Carson," which begins with the lines, "He sits behind his microphone/He speaks in such a manly tone") and extraordinarily naked balladry ("Let's Put Our Hearts Together," which teamed Brian with his first wife, Marilyn).

Considering these attributes, Wilson's claim that Love You is the Beach Boys salvo he likes best isn't as peculiar as it first seems -- but his stated rationale certainly is. He says Love You tops a crowded field because it features "Ding Dang," a goofy, fragmentary throwaway that clocks in at around fifty seconds and whose sole lyrics (aside from "dings," "dangs" and "wooos!") are, "I love the girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly." Brian gets excited at the mere mention of the tune, announcing, without an iota of irony, "It's a little more exciting than Pet Sounds, you know?"

The same cannot be said about Wilson's solo recordings, but they do have their moments. While Brian Wilson, supplemented in its new incarnation with more than a dozen bonus tracks, is a too-self-conscious comeback effort, it sports the bouncy "Love and Mercy" and a handful of equally exuberant offerings. Similarly, 1995's Orange Crate Art, which paired Wilson with Van Dyke Parks, his collaborator on the aborted Smile project (arguably the most famous non-album in rock history), fails to match impossible expectations but remains pleasantly elegiac, providing often lovely front-porch music. Imagination, which is severely marred by Thomas's hackneyed production, isn't nearly as impressive; it's memorable only for "Happy Days," a twisted suite that shows Brian actually trying to stretch. If only it were better.

That leaves 1995's I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, a Don Was-helmed CD released in conjunction with a Brian documentary, as the most intriguing of Wilson's post-Beach Boys discs, because its remakes of tunes like "Caroline, No" and "The Warmth of the Sun" can't entirely conceal the toll the years have taken on him. The mask slips frequently, revealing the still-fragile Brian behind all the he's-doing-great spin-doctoring.

"I've had some good times -- but mostly bad times," he says matter-of-factly. "Because of the pressure. When you're famous, you've got to keep up your name. And it's hard to do. But if you really, really want to, you could just hit a home run. And all you've got to do then is just run the bases."


The Pet Sounds tour may not have cleared the fences, but neither has it struck out. Reviews have been mostly positive, and the mere presence of Wilson has inspired rapturous reactions from boosters who never thought they'd be able to see him perform. "There have been standing ovations everywhere we go," he says. "I can't believe it. It blows my head."

Yet the old insecurities linger. "I don't consider myself to be that great a singer," he concedes. "I have a good voice, but I can't sing that good." (He judges his voice to be "about the same" as it was when he was younger and laments that his crooning on "California Girls" is "out of key a little bit.") Likewise, he declines to call himself a great songwriter, reserving that tag for Carole King and Lennon-McCartney, and insists that he made no tangible advances in pop-music production. In his words, "I think Phil Spector was the one who inspired everybody, and he inspired me, too. Everything I did came from him." And only after prodding does he allow that "the Beach Boys had their own little sound."

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