Welcome, music-loving reader, to the first in a series of long-form features on major artists retrieved from the archives of esteemed music journalist and vocalist for The Barracudas, Jeremy Gluck. Jeremy is the editor of SWND Magazine and a partner-in-crime at SWND Records with a steeped history in the music industry. MADCAP Global SWND (MGS) is proud to present part one of Jeremy’s wide-ranging interview with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, from The Guardian, 1988.
First, an introduction from Jeremy:
Having fallen hopelessly in love with the music of The Beach Boys at 13, it was astounding to find myself 15 years later, after some crafty handling of my editor at SOUNDS (a UK weekly for whom I freelanced for many years), in a room with Beach Boys mastermind – the pop music Mozart of his generation – Brian Wilson.
Witnessing them in 1973 and 1975 in magnificent form at Ottawa’s Civic Centre – a classic Canadian hockey rink-cum-concert venue characteristic of the day – had only deepened my love, triggered by the fabulous early Seventies Capitol compilation ‘Endless Summer’, two sides of seamlessly amazing pure pop including as its crowning gem, ‘Good Vibrations’; six months in gestation and created by Wilson, whose labours were rewarded with a song regarded by many as the supreme American Sixties single.
Within a few years of its release, Wilson had become a virtual recluse, not to return until almost two decades later when, under the dubious but determined care of therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, he felt able again to engage with the world and resume studio and live work. The result, his debut 1988 eponymous solo album, was a joy to behold and hear, the strong comeback of a popular music voice as important to American music as that of Dylan and only a few others.
Finding out that Wilson was to perform at a European satellite TV show based in Spain, I contacted WEA and managed to convince both them and my editor that I should fly out to interview Wilson. And so, nervous and excited, soon thereafter I arrived at an exclusive villa and was conducted (past Landy, who I glimpsed) into a sun-filled room wherein lay, upon a long sofa, his back to me, Brian Wilson.
Under the chilled but watchful eye of his cousin – a classic Californian surfer man – I sat down and waited briefly while Brian was encouraged to engage with me. After a few minutes he turned toward me and introductions were made, I got out my tape recorder, sat down near him and began.
Wary but interested, Wilson negotiated my initial questions gingerly. However, as soon as I said that I considered him a writer of songs many of which have a strong ‘spiritual’ aspect, his attitude transformed and he became quite loquacious and enthused, to the point where a planned 45-minute interview ran to almost three hours, through all of which I was captivated by Wilson’s vulnerability, wisdom, generosity, and remarkable energy.
Before leaving him, I was photographed with Wilson, and with regret have to say that I lost my copy of that image long ago, me side by side with the genius whose ‘Pet Sounds’ is to my mind the greatest pop album ever made, in my opinion by magnitudes dwarfing even ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
My interview with Wilson was published in SOUNDS, and also The Guardian, and then with parts of it to spare still unpublished (and also due to a second interview with Wilson I contrived to have done and to form Part Two of this offering), I gave further excerpts to the UK fanzine ‘What A Nice Way to Turn Seventeen.
All of the published output appears here, my proudest and most privileged moment as a music journalist, in the room with Brian Wilson, the “adult child” (a phrase used about him as the title of a famous bootleg, which I appropriated for a lyric for my alumni band The Barracudas), the lonely non-surfing boy who changed pop music forever.
Words: Jeremy Gluck (Twitter: @nonceptualism). Originally printed in The Guardian, 1988.
WHAT happened to Brian Wilson? His biographers have tried to answer the question but, inevitably, the truth of the matter remains largely locked up in his own troubled psyche. The Beach Boys’ musical legacy, which comprises work far more profound than the early surfing hits with which they are usually identified, is now regarded by Americans as a part of their cultural heritage.
But Wilson himself, the progenitor of the Beach Boys’ greatest music, is an enigma that his songs only partly solve.
In 1966, Wilson — stung by the lukewarm reception accorded ‘Pet Sounds’, his landmark album — set out to make ‘Smile’. He meant ‘Smile’ to be his masterpiece, the album that would dazzle the critics and prove his superiority over The Beatles, with whom he was keenly, even obsessively competitive. As ‘Smile’ progressed Wilson’s over-stressed reserves of strength became dangerously taxed. He was demanding of himself the ultimate, and invested all his energy and creativity in the sessions.
He sailed recklessly into avant-garde pop waters and achieved unprecedented results. If bootlegs of ‘Smile’ are any indication, it did have the potential to usurp The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ as the innovative album of the day. The recording of ‘Smile’ went into overtime. Wilson rarely left the studio, demanding extraordinary feats of invention from the session men he kept on 24-hour call. Drug experimentation made the work more fraught, but no one could rein Wilson in.
Then, midway through ‘Smile’, Wilson’s fragile psyche buckled, and he scrapped the album with a self-annihilating finality that shocked those around him. He went into voluntary exile, pursued by the psychological demons that would tyrannize the next 20 years of his life. He went home, went to bed — sometimes for weeks at a time — and withdrew into himself.
Despite some glittering intercessions on successive Beach Boys albums’ during the Seventies and Eighties, he never recovered the vision that empowered ‘Pet Sounds’ and ultimately undermined ‘Smile’.
Wilson’s hibernation was disturbed in 1975 when his then wife Marilyn, desperate to crack his shell, invited Dr Eugene Landy into the tight inner-circle. Landy embarked on a tailor-made programme which gave him almost total control over Wilson’s daily life, including psychotherapy, a strict diet to combat his obesity and rigorous exercise.
This first attempt by Landy was aborted by Wilson’s Beach Boys brethren but, in 1980, with their leader’s condition steadily worsening, they recalled Landy and gave him free reign. Landy resumed the programme and Wilson slowly emerged from his shell. Now Brian Wilson is back, and dependent on Landy. Without him there would be no ‘Brian Wilson’, his first solo album, released on Sire Records last summer.
Lenny Waronker, WEA president, personally oversaw the making — a year-long, million-dollar endeavour. Dr Landy co-wrote five of the songs with Wilson and is credited as executive producer. The album represents a heartening musical resurrection, with Wilson’s singing, production, arranging and writing skills remarkably unscathed by his “dark ages”.
I met Wilson — now a lean 46 — earlier this year and initially he was guarded and tense. But he became animated and enthusiastic in time, exhibiting all the volatility, emotional rawness, and vulnerability of an adult child. United with his creative gifts, this childlike innocence and sensitivity enables him to write from a perspective few can grasp. Such gifts, however, are not without a price, as he readily attests.
“My music, through the years, was a great deal of hell for me — to get my songs to the public. There was a great deal of discomfort and I had to hang on like hell for a few years there. But let me tell you: no pain, no gain. I couldn’t handle where I was at the time. I hid in my bedroom and there’s a lot of personal stories I can’t tell you. I can’t go too deeply into my personal life, into what really occurred. I just can’t do it.”
‘Melt Away’, from the ‘Brian Wilson’ album, includes the lyric, “I feel just like an island”. Is that how he feels now?
“I kind of feel that way even now when I’m with people. I can’t help myself, it’s the way I am. I cut myself off, y’know? I try to get things all arranged in my head, so my thoughts are all together, so I don’t have to worry about offending somebody. I’ll know beforehand that they’re OK and I’m OK.”
How does he feel about his years in the “wilderness”?
“Well, I have a certain amount of jealousy to deal with — minor bullshit jealousies — and I ask myself why I don’t have personal power like some other people. A certain person may have a lot of personal magnetism and power. The answer that always comes up is, well you have your own power. But I do think, sometimes, God ripped me off and didn’t let me be like other people… ”
Wilson’s answers are frequently tangential or framed in terms obviously learned from his doctor, his reliance on whom becomes plainer as we proceed. I ask whether he has any intention of recording purely instrumental or experimental music again.
“That kind of depends on Dr Landy. He’s like an educator and director all in one, so it’d be hard to speculate. We all look up to somebody or something. Well, I can’t sit around and look up to a person too much, I just do my thing and be myself, but at the same time I guess I have this thing for somebody. Dr Landy has foresight and talent and leadership and strength — all bunched into one. Just the heaviest dude you’d ever want to meet.”
Wilson isn’t terribly in touch with contemporary pop and rock. In the Sixties, pop was “at an emergency level of creativity” and he “could get a gut feeling for a hit, cut it and sell it… two weeks later it’s number one. There was a time when my gut feeling, and the audience were married to each other — and art and commercialism were virtually the same thing. But not now. How can you take it seriously if nothing’s selling you can relate to? I can’t create ‘new wave’ music, I don’t know how.”
What did he feel on the eve of the Brian Wilson release?
“It was similar to, say, taking an X-ray to see whether you had cancer or were clear and you had to wait all weekend for the results. I sweated it out and my imagination got rolling. When it finally came out it was a relief to know it sold 50,000 the first week.
“It was important to get out of me what I could feel in my heart and it got halfway up the charts, so it’s a 50 per cent hit. It goes to show you the album had some strength on its own, it spoke for itself.”
While Wilson expresses admiration for Phil Collins’s records and makes a benign reference to Springsteen, the only artist he seems to revere is his old rival, Phil Spector, whose revolutionary Wall Of Sound hits Wilson once went to great lengths to emulate.
Around three years ago, he says: “Spector calls up Gene Landy and requests that he and I come over to his house to discuss the possibility of his producing The Beach Boys. So we went to his mansion and it was all dimly lit. We waited 20 minutes before he came into the room. I guess he wanted the tension to mount.
“We talked for a while and he said: ‘I’ll produce you a record even the DJs now will play.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ He called a couple of days later, but he and Gene couldn’t agree on the money side of it. It would have been scary for me… I don’t think that after all the Spector records, I’ve heard I could be on one of his. Let’s put it this way, I’m glad it didn’t happen.”
Later, Wilson hypothesises that if “there were to be another Spector record it would revolutionise the whole rock ‘n’ roll industry. Without a doubt.”
In view of his apparent disinterest in most of his contemporaries, Wilson gives a surprising appraisal of his relationship with younger artists and the charts they inhabit. “I take it in my stride. Young people don’t have the wisdom, the overview that I have. They don’t see the bigger picture. Like, I can look at the music business and have a total overview of all the (pop) music ever written. If you want to have that you can… or be 20. At 46 you can see the bigger picture.”
Such confidence may sound like arrogance, but Wilson is one of the few pop musicians worthy of the term genius. The Brian Wilson album is so good it’s tempting to argue that whatever Landy has done to make it a reality is good too. Songs such as ‘Love and Mercy’, a classic Wilson evocation of loneliness and insecurity, and ‘Little Children’, a deceptively slight celebration of childhood, are magical and monumental.
Wilson’s voice, which on Beach Boys’ records is generally in a supporting role, takes the lead splendidly, its understated tenderness and peripheral rawness communicating his sentiments perfectly.
And where do The Beach Boys fit into the bigger picture now? “We’re having our problems, experiencing tenseness about each other, not calling each other. But that’s been going on for years. The guys tour and I stay home and write and produce.
“I feel bad about the guys, ‘cause they need my guidance, my musical genius. I’m getting to feel like it’d be a big hassle to go in the studio with them. But Gene (Landy) said, ‘Look, we don’t have to record with The Beach Boys, we can do another solo LP’.
“So, I’ll just do ‘Solo II’. It’s looking good. I’ll do some good stuff, do my best goddammit. (Laughs). I just want to get in there and do something.”