Everyone is trying to get a smile out of Brian Wilson. He's nearing the end of a photo session, sitting on a stool in the spacious, cluttered garage of his Los Angeles home, and his face is like iron. The photographer is running him through a series of poses -- arms crossed over his chest, a hand cupped over his ear -- in an attempt to loosen him up, but the expression on his face remains rigid. Wilson is dressed casually, a rhapsody in blue: blue polo shirt, blue jeans and a trendy pair of powder-blue PVC Adidas sneakers. The canny photo assistants compliment the shoes in an effort to break down his defenses, but Wilson isn't budging.
Apart from the Wilson family photos that grace the living room, there's scant evidence on the first floor of Brian Wilson's home that a former member of the Beach Boys lives here. Wilson understands the importance of the band he helped create. Possessed of a virtuoso's skill for orchestral song craft, multilayered production and bittersweet harmonies, he repeatedly encapsulated joy, loss and self-doubt in the space of the three-minute pop single. He also understands that his influence still affects music today -- it's insinuated in the work of cult acts Cornelius and the High Llamas, as well as that of mainstream bands such as R.E.M. and Barenaked Ladies, the latter of which honored him (albeit poorly) with the single "Brian Wilson." The legacy is nice, but it won't put a grin on Wilson's face any faster.
Two obvious questions have hounded Wilson since the release of his new album, Imagination, on the Giant label last month -- just four days before his 56th birthday. The first is how the latest batch of music stands up to his work with the Beach Boys. The second is whether he's sane enough to make an album without being manipulated, cajoled and forced. Those questions come up because Wilson is, in many respects, the ultimate '60s casualty. The influence of associates with dubious intentions compromised his music; the influence of notoriously massive drug use compromised his psyche, which contributed to a nervous breakdown in the mid-'60s and the limited use of his faculties in the years since. Yet, on Imagination, his talent sounds less corrupted, if less inventive, than in decades past.
As for his psyche, Wilson appears more eccentric than broken. On a sunny afternoon in late June, his eyes dart restlessly throughout our conversation, sometimes widening and sometimes rolling back as if he were about to nod off. Occasionally, he needs to have questions repeated, or forgets a question just as he's beginning to answer it. In general, though, he's lucid and enthusiastic, particularly when the topic moves to the process of making music.
"Is this Friday?" he asks. It is. Breathlessly, he explains his plans for the next day: "Tomorrow, which is Saturday ... tomorrow, I'm going to go to a music shop, where they sell musical instruments, and I'm going to buy a real expensive, great instrument that has all kinds of beautiful stops on it. And it's going to inspire chords, which is going to inspire melodies, which is going to inspire words, which is going to inspire production."
Imagination, Wilson's first solo collection of original material in ten years, reflects that odd excitement. Its 11 songs are generally cheerful and summery. On one level, the album is merely breezy, lightweight adult contemporary pop, yet at the same time it clearly bears the imprint of Brian Wilson, pop auteur, and that's no small point. Its finest moment, the closing "Happy Days," has all the hallmarks of a classic Wilson composition: Taking a sorrowful dirge sketched out back in 1970, he assembles a mini-suite that moves cinematically from minor-key depression to a shimmering declaration of his own redemption. In his finest voice in years, Wilson sings with real incredulity, "Oh my gosh, happy days are here again."
Indeed, just hearing the real Brian Wilson on record is an achievement in itself. Lack of creative control has tainted his output for a full 20 years. By the mid-'70s, the Beach Boys were famous mostly for decade-old hits like "California Girls" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," but Wilson was still a brilliant songwriting force. Love You, released in 1977, was a uniquely engaging commingling of typical Beach Boys romantic themes and song structures with a quirky, synthesized groove that borrowed from disco's electro-funk stylings without hopping on its bandwagon. (Wilson says that it's his favorite record as a Beach Boy; it's also out of print.)
It was around the same time that Wilson fell under the care of Eugene Landy, a Svengali-like psychiatrist and collaborator who had Wilson constantly monitored and heavily medicated and who controlled most aspects of his personal and musical life until 1991. Landy's heavy hand ruled over an ambitious but disappointing self-titled comeback album in 1988. Brian Wilson featured the gorgeously harmonic opener ("Love and Mercy"), but much of the rest of it was weighted down with mediocre attempts to recapture former glories.
The next year's follow-up, another Landy collaboration, titled Sweet Insanity, was even worse. It remains unreleased, and for good reason: Even with a Bob Dylan duet, the album's paper-thin synthesizer sound and Wilson's perfunctory vocals service mediocre songs, culminating, astonishingly, with "Smart Girls," an embarrassing stab at hip-hop that intersperses samples of Beach Boys songs with Wilson's rapping ("My name is Brian and I'm the man / I write hit songs with a wave of my hand"). By the early '90s, Wilson had turned into the opening line of "Heroes and Villains," a song originally recorded for 1967's unreleased Smile: He'd been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.
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."
But Wilson isn't completely ignoring his past. Imagination has two Beach Boys covers: the graduation-day hymn "Keep an Eye on Summer," originally written in 1962, and the classic "Let Him Run Wild," which Wilson rerecorded because the vocals on the original were, he says, "too girlish and whiny." Those were the only older songs he was interested in revisiting. Indeed, Wilson says he won't listen to Beach Boys songs today.
"If I ever have a radio, I play the oldies-but-goodies stations," he says. "I don't really play it too much though. I don't really like to wallow in the mire. I never play the Beach Boys stuff in my house. Never, never play our stuff. Because I think that if you do that, it's like sitting around masturbating all over your own stuff. [He makes a jerking-off motion with his fist.] We're great, we're great. Skip that, you know?"
In the last year, Wilson lost both his mother, Audree, and his brother Carl, the guitarist behind the Beach Boys' early surf-rock hits and the lead singer on perhaps Wilson's most touching and beautifully crafted ballad, "God Only Knows." Written in a similar vein, the ballad "Lay Down Burden" addresses Carl's battle with lung cancer. Wilson declines to speak about him, except to express sadness that Carl won't be a part of the remaining Beach Boys. Wilson's emotional energies are focused instead on his two adopted daughters, 19-month-old Daria and six-month-old Delanie. (Singers Carnie and Wendy, the biological daughters from Wilson's first marriage, were handed over to the custody of his first wife, Marilyn, after the couple's divorce in the '70s.) Melinda Wilson notes that in light of Brian's drug- and Landy-polluted past, a number of doctors and associates "had to go to bat" to prove that Brian is a man fit to adopt children. "I'm still okay," Wilson says. "I'm still able to function and talk and carry on. After all I've been through, this would have to be bordering on a miracle. It would have to be a miracle that I could still be around."
It's something that he'd like to write a song about: "I'd like to write more about what I'm really going through," Wilson says.
But he's stingy on the details. "It would just be a song that takes, spells out what happened in my life...." He pauses, laughs quizzically, and then cops out. "And I just think that people would really dig it."
But that past -- "the ups and downs," as Wilson puts it -- is also why he refuses to read the reviews and interviews about Imagination. "I have bad habits," he stresses, in fear of revisiting somebody's retelling of his history. "I'm not reading stuff about me."
Yet he is curious about how the general public views his work. He asks about how well last year's Beach Boys Pet Sounds Sessions box set sold, and Melinda notes that he's paying close attention to how Imagination is performing. "He wouldn't call up [Giant's] Irving [Azoff] and say, 'What's the album at today?' But he does it to me the minute he gets up. 'So what did it do? Where is it?' "
In its first week of release, Imagination did decent if unspectacular business, selling approximately 18,000 copies and entering the Billboard album chart at No. 88. The following week, sales dove to 9,000 and the record fell to No. 146, though the single has hovered in the mid-20s on the Adult Contemporary airplay chart. It's also sold better overseas, moving 60,000 copies in two weeks.
In the fall, Wilson plans to perform live to promote Imagination, hitting approximately 30 cities in America, with tentative plans for European dates. Wilson already did a dry-run solo performance for a VH-1 special slated to air in August. Ironically, Wilson will be on the road competing with his old band, the remaining Beach Boys in perhaps their most pathetic incarnation yet, without a Wilson in the group and billed as "Mike Love and America's Band."
A further irony is that while Wilson has spent the past two years trying to escape his past, the Beach Boys have done brisk business cannibalizing it, licensing songs heavily, offering weak-kneed versions of the group's '60s hits on-stage, and coughing up limp self-parodies like "Kokomo." Earlier this year, the band put its name on Salute to NASCAR, a collection of those same car songs, assembled to celebrate the stock-car racing organization's 50th anniversary. The record was sold exclusively at Union 76 gas stations.
Brian Wilson knows full well that people wonder about his mental stability. "I think they think I might be trying to get through something that I'm going through," he says. "That I'm having a problem letting myself feel good, because I've had a lot of hard knocks. It's not so easy to let myself feel good with people, because I get ... I got hurt. But that's just me, that's just something I had to go through. It might look like I'm going through something, but I'm really not going through too much. I think I'm gonna be okay."
"People just need to understand that this is a guy who's damaged," says Steve Dahl. "And like a prizefighter, he's working his way out of it. It's the 12th round and he still has a chance to get the decision. I don't think the healing process is completely over yet. He's past the rough stuff now; he just needs to keep going out there and keep working at it."
Producer Joe Thomas says that there are about seven or eight songs left over from the Imagination sessions, and that there are plans to work together on a new album. But Wilson says he has no interest in working with Thomas again ("for my own personal reasons"), and instead speaks enthusiastically about his next project: He wants to make a rock and roll album, just to see if he can. "Rock and roll, as I see it, is energy that I need so much, so badly inside of me. The energy to produce a rock and roll record, to produce an album of rock and roll."
Why rock? "Because I like rock and roll. Because everybody likes it. People say, 'I know you can make great records, but can you rock?' Anybody can rock. Anyone can rock and roll. [Wilson pats out a rhythm on his thighs with his palms.] If you can count to four -- bom, bom, bom, bom -- you're rockin'."
He already has one of the songs written. It's called "How Could We Still Be Dancing?" Asked to sing a bit of it, he gamely complies. Pausing for a moment, he leans back against the couch and gathers his thoughts. Then, patting out another rhythm, he sings:
How could we still be dancing
After all these years?
How could we still be laughing
After all those tears?
"It's a very good song," Wilson says.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.