Interview: Brian Wilson

This interview originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on Thursday 8th September 2011 under the heading SUN IS SHINING ON BEACH BOYS LEGEND.

Certain things go through your head when you’re waiting for Brian Wilson to call.

You consider whether any artist has had a greater influence on pop music than the Beach Boys’ creative force. You wonder if anyone has written a more perfect song than God Only Knows. You think of his years of mental illness and drug abuse, and you recall the countless articles that have pegged Wilson as a difficult interviewee – as a man who responds in monosyllables – and you wonder if he will talk at all.

And then the phone rings.

“Hi Nicola? It’s Brian, how’s it going?”

Wilson, it transpires, is a friendly man with a hearty laugh who insists that it is “nice to be here” chatting about his forthcoming Glasgow show, his new recording of Disney classics, the doggedness behind his epic Smile album – oh, and the brawl that he once had with Elvis.

The Beach Boys legend is now 69, but he shows little sign of letting up. Later this month, he’ll travel to Glasgow to perform Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin – an elaborate live endeavour that follows his acclaimed 2010 album of the same name.

Does Wilson get a thrill from breathing new life into canonical works like Summertime and Someone To Watch Over Me? “Yeah, very much so,” he says of his Gershwin re-workings. “It’s very exciting to bring them to life so that people can absolutely love the songs – we’ve already done them in the studio and we have them down pat, so when we do it live it’s going to be really, really big,” he promises. Then he throws in a bit of local knowledge. “And I love Scotland, I’ve been there before – you have good beer.”

Wilson has had a life-long love affair with the music of Gershwin. He credits him with inventing popular song; with having “a gift for melody that nobody has ever equalled”; with creating timeless and accessible music. “And his harmonies – my favourite part of his music is his harmonies,” he adds. (One might suggest those accolades could equally apply to the Beach Boys, of course).

Does Wilson feel a sense of responsibility to preserve, and develop, the American composer’s cultural legacy? “I want to do justice to each song, so the younger generation can appreciate George Gershwin,” he nods.

In addition to reworking well-loved standards like I’ve Got Rhythm, Wilson crafted two new songs – The Like in I Love You and Nothing but Love – from previously unpublished Gershwin fragments. Are any compositions particularly close to his heart? “My favourite song to sing is You Can’t Take That Away From Me, and then I Loves You Porgy, and then – oh, I love them all,” he enthuses. “Those are my favourites though.”

What about Rhapsody in Blue? Wilson once stated that it was the sound-track to his life – would he stand by that? “Yes, very much so,” he says. “I first heard Rhapsody in Blue at three years old, and then when I was 28 years old I learned how to play part of it.” And now, four decades on, he has inhabited the song, given it a new life: made it his own.

This sense of seeing something through to its conclusion chimes with the advice that Wilson has always offered aspiring artists: to stick with something until it’s done. “Right, right,” he agrees. “I always say that when you write a song, try to write the whole song – don’t crap out half way through it, you know?”

There is no better example of such persistence, I venture, than Wilson’s 2004 solo album Smile, which was 37 years in the making. Would he agree? “Oh yes – we finally finished it, yes!” He laughs long and whole-heartedly. “We finally finished it… We finally finished it… We finally finished it… Oh my God…”

Next up, there’s an album of Disney classics – In the Key of Disney – which is due for release in the autumn and features Wilson reanimations of classic songs from Snow White, The Jungle Book, The Lion King and suchlike gems. “It’s going to be a beautiful album,” he offers. “It’s got a lot of pretty songs on it – you’re going to love it when you hear it.”

How did the process of mining the Disney back-catalogue compare to excavating the Gershwin archive? “Well the Disney people came to me and asked me if I wanted to do something and when we got introduced to the songs, we absolutely flipped.” Is there a sense, as with the Gershwin project, of passing these vintage compositions on to a new generation? “Yes, yes, absolutely,” he says.

Do his children have any favourites on the Disney album? “Well they haven’t heard too much of it yet,” he offers. Do they realise their father is a genius? “Yes, they probably do,” he says matter-of-factly. “I mean, I wouldn’t know. But they probably do.”

Those rumoured gruff monosyllables come forth if you veer toward Wilson’s past – he is happier discussing the present and the future – but I wonder how he feels when he hears a Beach Boys track unexpectedly, say on the radio. “Well, they don’t play our songs too much,” he says, “but when they do, I like it, yeah. It makes me proud. It makes me proud of the Beach Boys.”

Many of the Beach Boys’ triumphs are embedded in pop mythology – the eight gold albums and 16 hit singles between 1963 and 1965; the fact that Lennon and McCartney hailed Pet Sounds (1966) as the greatest album of all time – but one anecdote strikes me as incongruous as I speak to this gentle man. Is it true he came to blows with Elvis? That Wilson decked The King in the seventies?

“Well, I didn’t punch him,” he clarifies. “I tried to punch him, because I knew he knew karate – that’s why I did it – and then he chopped my hand with his hand. He just chopped it. Not off – Elvis didn’t actually chop my hand off,” he adds quickly.

That would have been a devastating blow for popular music, I suggest – it would have changed the course of history if Elvis had dismembered Brian Wilson’s hand with a karate chop. “Yes, yes it would,” Wilson agrees, while extolling the virtues of Presley’s martial arts reflexes.

Thrown by Wilson’s tales and brusque good nature, I fumble for a final question. I ask if the sun is shining on him – it seems the only fitting scene for a man whose perfect pop embodied endless Californian summers. “I’m in San Jose,” he concludes, and he sounds like he’s smiling. “It’s nice here, yeah. The weather’s nice.”

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