Happy Brian Wilson Day

Reflections on many decades of interviews with a songwriting genius on this, his 78th birthday

Happy Brian Wilson Day. When will we get national holidays dedicated to great songwriters? When that happens, this day should be one. If not everywhere, certainly in California. Few humans have ever brought so much musical joy to the world as has he, and all of it grounded in the spirit and promise of California.

Yet being a genius, as all geniuses know, is not easy. Of course, what constitutes genius – especially in this world of music and songwriting – is a subjective determination, of course. Yet rarely has there been much debate when the word is used for Brian Wilson. 

It’s Brian’s 78th birthday today. In celebration of him and all he’s done over the years we bring you this contemplation on all the things he is. Starting here with this look back at several decades of talking to him about music.

His music is miraculous on its own, and even more so considering all he overcame to create it. Some of it was created and then lost or destroyed. But most, thankfully, was recorded with such care and love and intensity that remarkable records exist which stand forever as proof of this one man’s singular expression.

The truth is that Brian could hear sonics, of which music is composed, in a way most humans never do. He was one of the first, following his own idol Phil Spector, to use the studio as brilliantly as a piano in the creation of musical art. It became another instrument to him, and one in which he saw limitless potential.

Brian, like Phil, made records with such deeply dimensional sonics – be they instrumental or vocal – that it was impossible to hear everything. Not unlike Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings or Picasso’s Guernica, his records were so dense with art as to be overwhelming. Yet thrilling.

Even “Good Vibrations,” which was an immense radio hit expressing a hip 1960s beaming a message of joy, was hardly lightweight. Spending seven months on this one single, and weaving in strains of that distinctive horror movie theremin throughout, to Brian was not joyful at all, but “spooky.”

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It’s why a word such as ‘troubled’ is almost always affixed to the genius label for him. Because unlike other famously troubled geniuses, his troubles always seemed so formidable as to destroy him. And at time they came close to doing so, yet the man survived.

But both of his beloved brothers (Dennis and Carl) are gone, as well as half of The Beatles, and so many of his peers. Countless music stars who came in his wake are already gone, including David Bowie, Tom Petty, Prince and Michael Jackson and so many others, are already gone.

Even comedians he knew and loved, such as Belushi and Robin Williams are already gone. When Robin died, Brian posted online his response. “It’s time the world starts talking about depression and taking it seriously,” he wrote. “Love and mercy to Robin.”

Do you remember when Belushi and Dan Aykroyd played cops in that classic SNL film? They arrest Brian for a violation of California’s Catch A Wave Statute, Paragraph 12, for failue to surf, and dragged him out of his bed and into the sea.

A few days later, when talking to the Desert Sun newspaper prior to a Beach Boys gig in Palm Springs, he said, “He made a lot of people happy. I make people happy, too.”

Yet Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy who preferred to fill his living room with sand rather than ever go near the beach, the one who would stay home and write genius songs and make amazing albums while the others went out on tour, prevails.  

And there is the ongoing dichotomy of being Brian Wilson. Almost as extreme as comics who spend lifetimes being famously funny only to end their lives in pure sorrow, he’s used his gift through decades to create happy, sunny music. Yet as the world has known for a long time, Brian’s not a happy or sunny guy.

There are so many sleighbells in his summers. He was the legendary producer of rock and roll who couldn’t hear stereo because he was deaf in one ear. It was damaged forever by his father. Asked about that he said, “Yeah, [my dad] was tough on me. He lit a fire under my ass.”

The first time I interviewed him was 1988, which was when Dr. Eugene Landy took over Brian’s life in an effort to make it better. Brian was extremely overweight then and addicted to a lot of drugs. Landy was brought in to change all that. His methods were extreme and even brutal, though did produce some results that seemed positive, such as Brian’s big weight loss, and the writing and recording of his first solo album, Brian Wilson, and its single, “Love and Mercy.”

At that time I subtitled the interview “Sleighbells in the Summer.” It was chosen because Brian’s prevalent use of sleigh-bells in his tracks of sea, surf and sun seemed like the perfect musical metaphor for Brian Wilson. While his brothers and others surfed and partied in the sun, Brian preferred always to be inside, in his room, curtains drawn.

Last time we spoke, i asked him about the Landy time. Brian said it was hard because Landy yelled at him. “He had temper problems,” he said.

He’s a notoriously tough person to interview. I’ve since interviewed him many times, and it’s always a challenge. But one which gets better in time, and helped by his recognition of a kindred musical soul, not an interrogator. Someone that understands and loves music – and rock & roll – the way he does. It is where he lives. When invited to talk about music in an informed and gentle way, he opens up. Somewhat. He seems often so immersed in the abstractions of music that he doesn’t trust his ability to put it into words. Words were always the province of someone else – the lyricist – while his attention was devoted almost entirely to the music itself. Yet he is always curious. When asked if he felt people could hear all the different vocal parts in his records, he said, “Can you?”

Yet when a question opens that window into his musical world, suddenly a different guy is there. The darkness and fear subsides and the genius shines through. Best is a question he hasn’t been asked too much, at all, as he will contemplate it, and share his thoughts. It has to be something which interests him. In the following conversation, which is the most recent talk now more than five years old, I asked him about his own experience of synesthesia, the linking of colors to music. It’s not uncommon in musicians and songwriters, and many I’ve spoken to have told me the specific colors they relate to specific keys. Brian had colors for all the major keys, which he indentifies. But unlike any other songwriter I’ve interviewed, he said every minor key was the same color. Black. Which might have less to do with pure synesthesia and more to do with depression, and his avoidance of sorrowful minor keys. Almost all of his famous songs are in major keys. [“God Only Knows” is essentially in a minor-key (F# minor), though it doesn’t have a normal key center like his other songs).

The very first time I interviewed him was at Landy’s office. Everything at the time had to go through Landy, who made various deals with the press who wanted interviews with Brian. He told me that we could interview Brian only if we agreed to also interview him. I was happy to oblige, given that this was Brian Wilson, one of the world’s greatest and most influential songwriters.

But also because it was for SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters for which I was editor, and we had 52 pages in each issue. So it was easy to start the Landy interview as a little side-bar to Brian’s cover story, and continue in the back of the book. Also, it was interesting to talk to this guy who not only worked as Brian’s doctor, but also as his musical collaborator. Not only did Landy co-write the songs with Brian, he co-produced the album, made all the decisions, and even got his girlfriend in on the deal; her name also appeared as co-writer on many of the songs.

The main question was why, since Landy had never written a song previously, was he in any position to write songs with one of this planet’s greatest and most beloved songwriters?

His answer? “Being a doctor, having learned all I needed to get here,” he said, “I am someone who can learn anything.”

Evidently he didn’t learn that co-writing songs with an artist of Brian’s level, and getting your girlfriend in on it, might cause many to conclude you exploited your patient. Regardless, when I saw him months later while eating appetizers at a music industry event, Landy thanked me for keeping the deal. “You are the only one who didn’t fuck me over,” he said.

During my interview with Brian, which is in Songwriters On Songwriting, he laid on the couch and spoke to me as if I was his therapist. He never sat up once. I taped the interview, as always. It was also recorded by one of Landy’s assistants, who sat across from me.

Since then, I have interviewed him a few times. Most went well, although one was worse. It was at his home, up in a gated community off of Mulholland Drive. Brian sat on the couch, a blanket wrapped all around him, even covering his head. His face was looking through, though, and he started straight ahead. He did not move at all. He seemed frozen in that position, as inert as an iguana. He didn’t even register my presence. So that interview didn’t go so well.

Then there was the time I met him at a great party for Henry Diltz. Brian seemed somewhat morose, sitting alone somberly. I said hello to him, and we spoke about Henry for a few moments. He said he didn’t like getting photographed, but Henry made it easy, which is why his photos are so good. I was taking photos that night myself and wanted one of Brian, of course. But following his lead, I wanted to make it easy. His friend Michelle Phillips was there, so I asked her if I could get her photo with Brian. She immediately got in his lap with her arms around him. For the first time that night, Brian smiled. A big smile.

Later I asked him if that is what it took to get a smile from him – having Michelle Phillips in his lap. He said, “Yes.”

Most recently I’ve met him at a little eatery near his home, where he seems in good shape. Like most humans, he’s comfortable eating, especially in this place he goest to almost every day, and sometimes more than once a day.

Once, however, he never showed up. He lives just minutes from there, and drives himself. On this day there was no sign of him, which greatly worried those around him. They lived up on Mulholland – which at the crest of the mountains that connect the big canyons of L.A. – so there was worry that perhaps he drove off the mountain, maybe distracted by a song. This didn’t happen, of course, and no explanation for his disappearance was offered. The next day we met at the same time, and had a conversation.

Certain subjects seemed to barely graze him, and would receive no response. A good signal to move on. But others had the exact opposite effect, inciting some passion, such as the eternal spark of great songs, or the timeless greatness of other songwriters, like Paul McCartney. Or George Gershwin, whose music, he said, was rock & roll.

“Listen to ‘Rhapsody In Blue,'” he said. “Does anything get more rocking than that?”

Or Van Dyke Parks, who wrote lyrics with Brian back in the day, and also wrote and produced one of the greatest Brian Wilson albums of all time, Orange Crate Art. Which is a resplendantly timeless song cycle on the dream of California with Brian singing the melodies and the harmonies, and which is an absolute masterpiece.

“Oh, that is a great, great album,” he said. “It’s a masterpiece. Only he could have done that. Nobody in the world could have done that but him.”

Sometimes I would scratch the surface of his music, and its creation – the songs and the records – and he’d open up a whole universe there, and always with answers that were so essentially Brian. Asked what his ultimate mission was, the meaning underlying all the work, he said, “I’m trying to think about pleasing people with harmony. I like to make people happy with harmony. That is what I’m trying to do.”

Always he seemed to have a great reticence in racognizing his own achievements, or to even entertain the notion that his music has brought a lot of joy into the world.

“I don’t know if it brings joy or not,” he said. “I don’t know. When people say, ‘Brian, you brought a lot of joy to me with your music,’ I don’t know if they’re telling the truth or not.”

“They are,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “I believe you.”

I hope he did. If even for a moment.

Brian Wilson & Michelle Phillips at a party for our friend Henry Diltz. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter


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