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Reconstructing Brian

The troubled creative light behind the Beach Boys salvages himself and -- to an extent -- his music

In 1994, Wilson suffered the indignity of paying $5 million to Beach Boys singer Mike Love, who sued for co-authorship of 35 songs previously credited solely to Wilson. But with Landy professionally and personally removed from his life by 1991, Wilson started the slow path toward something nearing recovery. On two 1995 albums, he set out to prove that he was still alive and functioning. Orange Crate Art reunited Wilson with his Smile-era collaborator Van Dyke Parks for a winning, underrated collection of chorales. I Just Wasn't Made for These Times was a documentary soundtrack produced by Don Was in which Wilson provided unenthusiastic vocals on remakes of older songs. More recently, Beach Boys keyboardist Bruce Johnston was reportedly encouraging Wilson to work with Sean O'Hagan, the maestro behind the British Smile-damaged experimental pop group the High Llamas, but Wilson says he never seriously considered it.

Instead, Wilson opted to work with Joe Thomas on Imagination. Thomas, a country producer, first met Wilson during the making of Stars and Stripes, a 1996 collection of Beach Boys covers sung by country artists. Wilson went so far as to build a home studio near Thomas in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, where he spent a year working on the album.

In the hands of Thomas and Wilson, Imagination strives for the lush, symphonic feel of the Beach Boys' late-'60s work, though the songs are much simpler: the flighty, upbeat "Sunshine" and "Dream Angel," mournful ballads like "Cry" and "Lay Down Burden," the brash, soaring pop of "Your Imagination" and "South American." Although he occasionally hints at tempestuous emotional experiences, lyrically, Wilson focuses squarely on love and newfound happiness, going so far as to declare on "South American" that he's "Doin' lunch with Cameron Diaz."

The lyric was written by Jimmy Buffett, and Wilson claims that he's never met the actress. ("I saw her on television the other day for the very first time," he says. "She's a really nice-looking girl.") In the end, Imagination carries the unfortunate baggage of the mediocre supporting cast Wilson chose to work with -- the likes of Buffett, Jim Peterik of Survivor and Carole Bayer Sager. Sager rewrote the lyrics to the unreleased 1978 tune "Sherry She Needs Me" as "She Says That She Needs Me." The change was made, Wilson says, "because my wife didn't want me singing about a Sherry." (Melinda Wilson -- his second wife, whom he married in 1995 -- says in response: "Hey, do you know any wife who wants her husband singing about an ex-girlfriend?") If Wilson's collaborators seem a bit over-eager to present him as a youthful, fun-loving guy (in other words, a Beach Boy), it wouldn't be the first time he's sung a half-lie: After all, the man who glorified '60s surf culture never surfed.

Inevitably, reviewers are comparing Imagination with Pet Sounds, and, not surprisingly, it comes off worse for the comparison. Comparisons are a reflex, though, and Wilson knows it. "They're gonna try to tear it down," he says. "Well, you know what? It is another Pet Sounds. It's Pet Sounds 1998, I think."

And if some people refuse to believe that, and dismiss Imagination? "There's no way that would happen. Because I think that after hearing Pet Sounds, they're gonna want to know more about what I do in music."

"I just had a very big inspiration when I met Joe Thomas," Brian Wilson says. "He made quite a lasting impression on my brain, my mind. I hit it off with him right away when I met him."

Wilson claims he followed that inspiration into the studio, but Thomas demurs. "As much as Brian loves the praise and adulation, he misses the fact that he can't turn on the radio and hear a new song by himself," Thomas says. "I think that's the one thing that's missing in his life."

There's a verse in Imagination's first single that makes the same point:

Another bucket of sand
Another wave at the pier
I miss the way that I used
To call the shots around here

It's a lovely line, filled with hope and ambition and Beach Boys innocence, merged with a hint of Wilson's famed lyrical melancholy. If Imagination is truly his comeback album -- and it's being sold as such -- that may well be its most crucial line. But it's not a declaration that Wilson is comfortable making himself.

"I didn't write that line. Steve Dahl wrote that line," he says. "I don't identify with that line at all. I don't put my name on that line."

"Your Imagination" has its genesis with Dahl, a longtime Chicago radio figure who, in 1979, helped usher in the age of the shock jock by blowing up a large cache of disco records in Comiskey Park. In 1988, Dahl conducted an on-air interview with Wilson, who came with Landy and his handlers -- people Dahl refers to as "surf Nazis." Later, Dahl's joke-rock band the Dahlphins recorded with Joe Thomas (who introduced the DJ to Wilson) and wrote lyrics for "Your Imagination."

"Originally," Dahl says, "I had it a bit more cathartic. What I was trying to go for in that lyric was the fact that a lot of what you think he should be is your imagination. There tends to be a freaky element of Brian Wilson fans who almost don't want him to succeed. They want Pet Sounds to be it. They've stayed in this place in the past, and he's moved through that."

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