EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this Q&A originally published on October 10th, 2013
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Teenage symphonies to God. That’s the phrase Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson used to describe the heartbreaking works of staggering genius he was creating in the mid-’60s, when his compositional powers were achieving miraculous states of beauty and innovation even as his fevered faculties skirted the fringes of madness. With the 1966 release of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boy’s orchestral-pop opus of ocean-blue melancholia, Brian clinched his status as teen America’s Mozart-on-the-beach in the cosmology of modern pop music.
Less than a year later, he would fall off the edge of his mind, abandoning his ambitious LSD-inspired follow-up, an album with the working title Dumb Angel later changed to Smile, which many who were privy to the recording sessions claimed would change the course of music history. Instead, it was The Beatles who would, as the history books tell us, assume the mantle of culture-shifting visionaries with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released a few months after Wilson pulled the plug on Smile. Meanwhile, Wilson sank into a decades-long downward spiral of darkness, exiling himself to a bedroom hermitage of terrifying hallucinations, debilitating paranoia, Herculean drug abuse and morbid obesity. While he would later recover some measure of his sanity, he would never again craft a work of such overarching majesty.
These days an interview with Brian Wilson is what they call in the journalism biz a ‘talking dog story’ — i.e. it’s not so much what the dog said it’s that he talked at all. Even in his prime, Brian never had much to say — verbally, anyway — which is why he worked with lyricists like Tony Asher (Pet Sounds) and Van Dyke Parks (Smile) — and let’s face it, at 71 his prime was a long time ago. When you interview Brian these days you pretty much get well-rehearsed and oft-repeated responses. Listening to the Four Freshmen gave him his uncanny ear for harmony. Studying Phil Spector’s production techniques informed his gift for wedding songs about girls and hot rods to lush, expansive orchestral arrangements. “Be My Baby” is his favorite song of all time. Mike Love’s not really an asshole, he just plays one off-stage and in litigation. After 50-plus years of battling mental illness, drug addiction, and Mike Love, Brian sounds tired, like he’d be happy just to kick back and watch Jeopardy. But alas, he is a legend, and like rust, legends never sleep.
PHAWKER: Tell me what is a typical day in the life of Brian Wilson these days? Tell me what’s your routine like? You get up in the morning and then what?
BRIAN WILSON: I exercise all day at a park ten minutes from here, and I also play the piano a lot, and I watch a lot of television.
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah I like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
PHAWKER: And can you tell me a little bit about how you write songs these days? Do you just sit down at the piano and tinkle around until something comes?
BRIAN WILSON: Well what I do is: I sit down at the piano with my collaborator, Joe Thomas, and we play chords and the melody starts to come after we hear the chords and then after the melody the lyrics start to happen!
PHAWKER: Is there a song that you wish…a famous song that you did not write that you wish you had…that you love so much that you wish you had written.
BRIAN WILSON: “Be My Baby.”
PHAWKER: So I don’t know if you remember but I came to your house back in 1999. You probably don’t remember this because you meet so many people. But you were living in Beverly Hills at the time next door to Shaquille O’Neal. I don’t know if you still live in that same house. But anyway, I brought along some Smile bootlegs and sort of made you sit down and listen to them with me, and you were sort of reluctant at first, but then you got into it and you were kind of nodding your head in time to the music and smiling and eventually you were just like, “yeah this music’s pretty good!” And I told you, “yeah it’s great, Brian.” And a few years later you finished Smile and you released it. Now I would like to take all the credit for having you finally finishing Smile. I’m kind of joking here, Brian. But would that be okay with you if I took all the credit for getting Smile finished?
PHAWKER: Alright, we’ll leave it with you. Now listen, I know we’re not supposed to talk about Mike Love, but I didn’t know that before I’d written up all my questions and a lot of them are about… Well let me ask you this, do you think the surviving Beach Boys members will ever perform again?
BRIAN WILSON: It’s very doubtful if we will, yeah.
PHAWKER: And can I ask you this one last question? And maybe you can explain this to me because I just don’t understand it: why is Mike Love such an asshole.
BRIAN WILSON: He’s not an asshole; he’s just a hard guy to get along with, you know?
PHAWKER: Well, where I come from that’s the definition of an asshole, but I admire your graciousness. Well I think that’s all the questions I have for you, Brian. I wish you the best of luck, as always. I’m very glad to see… you know, I do have just one last question for you! When I see you on stage – I have seen you perform a number of times – sometimes I get the feeling that you don’t really want to be there and I’m not alone in thinking that. I know other people who have said the same thing. By question is: do you enjoy performing live? Or is it sort of something you kind of have to do these days at this point in your career to keep the lights on, so to speak, and pay the bills.
BRIAN WILSON: Well I don’t know. I like to perform. Sometimes I feel a little scared to perform, you know. But I do my best to perform. At my age, it’s getting a little rougher to perform.
PHAWKER: How old are you now, Brian?
BRIAN WILSON: 71.
PHAWKER: At 71, if you could go back to your younger self, when you were in your 20s, what would you do differently? What would you have done differently knowing what you know now?
BRIAN WILSON: I wouldn’t have taken so many drugs, that’s what I would have done.
PHAWKER: Well, let that be a lesson to young people when they read this. Brian, again, I want to thank you for the taking the time to speak to me. I’m a huge fan, and on behalf of the people of planet Earth, thank you very much for all the music. I’ll say goodbye to you and wish you peace and love and good vibrations. Sail on, sailor
BRIAN WILSON: Thank you very much.