FROM THE ARCHIVE: What Was and What Might Have Been – A Lost Interview with Brian Wilson, 1988

Written by Jeremy Gluck (@nonceptualism) and published in What a Nice Way to Turn Seventeen, 1988. Read part one here.

Introduction by Jeremy Gluck

This, the second part of my interview with The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, comprises prime out-takes originally published online by What a Nice Way to Turn Seventeen, a ‘zine edited by Chris Coleman, a close friend of the late Nikki Sudden, with whom latter I had in 1987 and 1988 created my albums ‘I Knew Buffalo Bill’ and ‘Burning Skulls Rise’ (the latter’s title track was later covered by Rowland S. Howard and Lydia Lunch).

Having written for and been written about in the original hard copy incarnation of the ‘zine, it was a natural choice to offer the work to Chris; re-reading it now, it is much fuller than the part published in 1988 in SOUNDS and The Guardian. Below we begin with Chris’s note on the article and my own, and then pretty much 3000 words more of Wilson magic. Enjoy.

NOTE by Chris Coleman:

It’s 1988, Brian Wilson had just launched his solo career with the release of the eponymous ‘Brian Wilson’ album, and Jeremy Gluck gets to interview him – “without doubt the apex of my journalistic career” – spending several hours in his company.

Their lengthy dialogue provides plenty of evidence of Brian’s confused state of mind and his then almost total dependence on Dr Eugene Landy. With the benefit of hindsight of course, we now know that accusations against Landy of brainwashing, drugging, and isolating his patient, then benefiting from an improper business relationship with him, ultimately cost Landy his professional license and reputation and in 1992 he was barred by court order from contacting Wilson. But all this was in the future.

The ‘Brian Wilson’ album was critically well-received but didn’t sell in any great numbers, and a second Eugene Landy helmed album, ‘Sweet Insanity’ was rejected in 1991 by Sire Records and was never released. It wasn’t until 1995 that Brian got busy again with his non-Beach Boys career.

Note by Jeremy Gluck:

The content of this feature assumes that the reader is, like the author, a Brian Wilson devotee. It may read rather oddly in parts; I’ve included some material that is rather oblique but gives an indication of Wilson’s persona. Interviewing Wilson is an unusual challenge, bear with my self-indulgence.

Songwriter Brian Wilson in Santa Monica California 1990. Image: Ithaka Darin Pappas

TO HIS DIE-HARD FANS, Brian Wilson is indisputably the greatest “pop genius” of them all, and they are few. If you believe – as I do – that ‘Pet Sounds’ is the greatest pop LP and that the Beach Boys are the summit of American pop (just as the Stooges are the summit of American punk), then you’ll understand how exciting the prospect of meeting Wilson is.

Last October Wilson was in Ibiza to shoot a segment for a European satellite TV special. I missed the shoot but was reliably informed later that he had difficulty facing the cameras and had been sick from nerves. Wilson has, after all, been diagnosed as “pathologically shy”.

I met Wilson the next day. His party – including Dr Landy, Landy’s mother-in-law and his two personal assistants Chris and Kevin – occupied one wing of an exclusive private hotel in a small village about 15 miles north of Ibiza. When I arrived, in the mid-afternoon, Wilson was idly reclining on a couch. Kevin introduced me.

Wilson was cagey at the outset. He’s fit, but also looks his age, 46. He extended his hand mechanically and asked me to “sit on my good side”. (Wilson has long suffered from a painful hearing loss in one ear). His eyes were a little narrowed and he was still as we started; he stroked a cushion periodically, as a child would for comfort.

I asked Wilson several questions that weren’t recorded; he affirmed that the ‘Smile’ tapes would be remixed and released ASAP; he said that ‘Little Children’ drew on ‘Da-Doo-Ron-Ron’ for its structure and melody, beating on the cushion to show me how alike they are.

After some preamble, I asked Wilson about what he means by referring – as he does in Rolling Stone – to the “spirituality” of his music. His answer was off-centre but nonetheless interesting.

BW (Brian Wilson): You see, I’ve had a lot of practice, not just playing the piano. I’ve had practice interviewing and playing and a lot of practice with keyboards. I’m very familiar with what keys I need to play in and all that… now, instead of having to accept what you just did with a band in three hours, I can’t see going back to the old way when this new way works so well. It’s tempting to get a group spirit thing with a nice sound going in a studio, but it’s so much better to do it the tried and proven, i.e., modern method. [JG: At this point Wilson explains laying down the tracks, making the appropriate sounds of the instruments.] It’s not that funny working this way, interpreting what I do, I look back and see what I’m doin’, and I see what I’m trying to do, and I think I’m doing really well at it. You don’t have to think in terms of perfectionism; just do what you do and it’s right, even when you don’t think it’s right, it’s perfect.

JG (Jeremy Gluck): It’s the creative mystery I suppose.

BW: Yes, yeah.

JG: What are you favourite Beach Boys songs?

BW: ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘California Girls’… ‘Do It Again’…

(Midway through the next set of questions – not included here as used elsewhere – Wilson suddenly stops and says “Wait, I’ve got a stomachache” and tilts his head back, raises two fingers and apparently concentrates. A moment later his eyes open and he says “OK”, smiling. Not for the first or last time in this lengthy interview, I’m startled and incredulous that I’m actually with Wilson and that he’s so… weird.]

JG: Brian Wilson seems to represent an “act of faith” in yourself and the business and your own creative process. You’d have to have a lot of faith of a kind to make the music you have.

BW: Yeah. I keep referring back to the bigger picture; learning to get an overall feeling for something is very important in life for me. The business I’m in calls for a lot of overviews…I have risen to a personal gift that I can understand other people liking, but not ridiculing me for it. I’m not in business for someone to tell me that I’m just a fuckin’ bastard – as a matter of fact I would take a punch at someone who did – I wouldn’t start a fight, but I would take a punch. And I don’t like people telling me I’m all fucked up and I don’t really know what’s going down in the world – to heck with that! But I will say this; I do love people. And my music through the years was a great deal of hell for me, to get into those songs out to the public and it was a great deal of discomfort to go through. I had to hang on like all hell for a few years there.

But lemme tell you, no pain, no gain. When you’re doing it, you don’t want someone to remind you that there’s no pain, no gain… but later on, after I’m through doing my pain and I’m actively productive again, then I’ll be glad to sit down and think yeah, right, I did have to go through that to rise to this sort of personal power. For that reason alone, there are people that wouldn’t buy Beach Boys records because they don’t think the Beach Boys stand for anything that’s happening now. I can’t argue with the fact that someone might get punched in the nose [? – JG]… if somebody punched me in the nose and broke it, it would anger me to all hell. I might slow down for a month or two and not wanna do anything, or just call people bastards or whatever; that’s just going on inside my head – what’s going on outside my head is a lot of people saying, “C’mon Brian, let’s get a hit record, you can do it,” and there’s people saying “Fuck you Brian Wilson, you ain’t happening, it ain’t you, it’s not your scene”. I’ve gotta contend with that all the time, y’know?

When I went into the studio with Steve Levine, he started cryin’ because Al Jardine told him he was a washed-up little punk… I felt terrible. I said, “Is there anything I can do to make it better?” He said, “No, Jardine has destroyed me!”. Finally, an hour later, he walked back in, Al apologised, Steve stopped crying – it was unbelievable. But nothing’s so bad that you’re not going to go back into the studio and work… and he got in there and got a couple of good songs on there and everything was cool – except for that fuckin’ Al Jardine screwing him up! See, Al was feeling bad that day. Al feels bad sometimes, feels like life is a rip-off and he doesn’t get to sing enough leads on the Beach Boys records. So, you can imagine how much the guy has built up inside of him; so, he lashed out at Steve Levine.

Wilson with Dr Landy

JG: With a gift like yours you can also frighten people, make them jealous, so they want to get back at you.

BW: That’s happened to me! What happened was some of the guys work for – [laughs] excuse me, some of the guys who work for me and Gene (Dr Gene Landy, Wilson’s manager/doctor/guru) – I got into a bag where I exercised quite a bit of creativity with people, and it backfired. It was more difficult to be with somebody. I said what the hell is happening here, I have set myself up to be somebody whose attitude to life – which was so precious to me, that I was a genius – what is this shit? Ah, it was nothin’, it was just that I should’ve been all my life but wasn’t… all my life I was missing a screw in my head ’cause I wasn’t eating healthily. So, the people around me were saying, Brian, don’t eat steak and sugar… until I was converted to being a good healthy food eater. I couldn’t handle where I was at that time – I went berserk and hid in my bedroom…there’s a lot of personal questions I can’t answer, that I can’t go too deeply into what occurred in my life about… I can’t do it, it’s hell for me to have to go from the healthy foods to all the stuff I deal with, with my friends, the people I live with. It’s too difficult. So, I steer clear of it – that’s how I do it.

JG: In view of your use of the word spiritual and its relevance to your music, do you believe in God? Are you religious in that sense?

BW: I never was… uh, I had what is called a “toehold”. I got that from a book called A Toehold On Zen. I learned from that book and from people who had a toehold on… say somebody had a grasp on life, a good grasp – they ought to be able to transfer that over to another thing. That’s what happened with me; I got good with a great many things in my life. Business, music and sports… I’m a good athlete – I can play racket ball and basketball with the heavies, with the young people. I’m co-ordinated. I’ve got a grasp on music, sports… life.

[A long interlude of questioning and counter-questioning followed. At one point Brian briefly interviewed me! A fragmentary account of the subjects we discussed follows.]

JG: In the future, might you take the ‘Rio Grande’ idea that much further and do a whole album of suites, experimental and/or instrumental music?

BW: That depends on Gene Landy; he’s kinda an educator and director all in one. It would be a little rough to speculate on what’s going to happen in the future because… I can’t. I refuse to turn my world of reality over to someone else and then say, that’s what it is; I can’t do that [Confused? I was….JG.] I can’t be myself and see another person at the same time; I’m too petty and I get real fussy – to the point where I can’t deal with somebody I would consider being that great. Say 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 someone.

JG: How do you feel about people who look up to you?

BW: I try to be something that I can. I really don’t take it too seriously – who looks up to me or not – y’know, because I’m afraid that if I did, I might just take a tumble to the bottom of the barrel. I’m real scared about being left in the dust and I don’t want somebody to leave me in the dust to figure the whole thing out. I’d do it, but I’d be angry, envious, and lonely. I’d say fuck that; am I really going to be that dependent on my environment? I’d say, fuck it, I won’t be. Like, say I had a God I looked up to. Right away I’d be discouraged. I could never do what that person can. Nah, let’s go onto the next question. I think I answered that one…

JG: Many performers talk about their responsibility to their audience. Do you feel that way?

BW: No, not really. I think that’s something that comes naturally. I don’t think too much about that word “responsibility”; I can accept and work with my responsibility. But, like I said, it would be a drag to look up to somebody who was too great for me to handle. It would be a drag because I’d never get to their place…if that person disappeared, I’d say, wow, a whole lot has been lifted off my chest! (Laughs) I’d go through that…it’s not funny. It’s not a joke what goes on in one’s mind when they consider all they have to face up to, right? Gee, I dunno…. that’s another subject I could talk for hours about…

[Wilson and I got to talking about the ’60s versus the ’80s and he was saying how, in the ’60s, he had a “gut feeling” for a hit that was infallible. I asked if ‘Good Vibrations’ was an example.]

BW: Yes, that is a good example.

JG: Somebody told me that you conceived of ‘Good Vibrations’ and had it planned completely in one night. Is that so?

BW: Well, it all sorta happened…. uh, I can’t remember…. I think my mother told me about vibrations when I was a kid. She said that dogs bark at some people but don’t bark at others because they pick up vibrations from people. So, I remembered that one time and just added the “good”, and therefore we had ‘Good Vibrations’, a number one. But, no, it was rough to make though; six weeks, four studios; it was an adventure. I was very proud of myself for that one.

JG: Could you tell me about the song you wrote for Frank Sinatra?

BW: It didn’t happen. I sent it to him through his right-hand man. He swore up and down that, Frank would like it, but I never got word. It’s not a fight, though, to see if you can get a song goin’… it’s not a fight at all. What it is is a good clean-cut argument, a word debate. You get in the word debates with people, but you learn from them. Go off on tangents, word debate tangents, and I suffer from it y’know… why don’t I know when to quit, to just leave it alone, turn the page…and I think I let myself down. But that’s because there’s so many options in life as to how to cut a record.

‘Good Vibrations’ isn’t a good example of just goin’ into a studio and cutting a hit – it was a long drawn-out process. The point I’m making is, when you run into a studio to cut a record, as opposed to walking in… if you walk in to cut a hit you probably won’t get it… but if you run in you could get it. So, my formula would be to run into the studio, take your jacket off, throw it on the floor – or hang it up – and say OK, and just go in there and cut it, cut straight ahead. Not worry about, oh, my mother might think this is too rowdy, or some people will put me down because I did something too heavy. I go through that a lot…I take my jacket off and, uh, let’s see, what do we do here? I got the song and arrangement, there’s the session men out there – uh, cancel the session! Y’know what I mean? I’m a crazy person, I’m really crazy. I dunno….

JG: Did you at some point, say around when you left behind surfing music and were beginning to get into the Pet Sounds/’Good Vibrations’ period, sit up one day and think, Wow! I have to go this way. Did you feel yourself becoming more powerful as an artist…?

BW: Yeah, I did! Uh… let’s see… well, let’s talk about it from this standpoint. What are the four ingredients in a production? Songwriting, arranging, singing, and producing. I can do all four of those things – so could Phil Spector. But there’s a lot of people who don’t really care if he ever releases another record; the world doesn’t care. Like I said in ‘Melt Away’, “The world don’t care what I can be…” It’s true, no one cares. When you’re on top they’ll smile and shake your hand but when you’re on the bottom, they won’t talk to you. You gotta go out there and do it all by yourself. Isn’t that something? A lot of the time you get caught up in these competitive bags and the way to overcome that is maybe to stomp your foot on the ground and yell, carry on…do something like that until you’ve got that song in you, y’know? When you got the song in you, you know you can get the vocal.

JG: What are the most personal songs on Brian Wilson?

BW: ‘Melt Away’, ‘Love And Mercy’.

JG: Do you consider yourself very much more sensitive than some people?

BW: Yeah, I do…with music especially.

[Brian asked me for my opinion as to which Beach Boy should sing lead on their next single! He tapped out a sample rhythm, which matched ‘Do It Again’, a song he’d mentioned earlier as a possible role model for a new rock/pop hybrid he would like to attempt. I suggested Carl, having been listening to ‘This Whole World’ on the way to the interview. He said he’d think about it.]

And so concluded my interview. Brian is fascinating, enigmatic, some sort of split-personality high-energy field. He can be – as numerous other articles have attested – extraordinarily childlike. I’ll never forget how, when he banged his leg coming into the room at one point, he exclaimed like a twelve-year-old; he spoke in the same voice to Dr Landy when he showed up at the tail end of my visit.

I was lucky to have hit it off with Brian. I can see that he could be a very awkward man to be with if he took exception to you for some reason. I’ll treasure forever meeting him, and certain moments will especially stick in my mind; how his hands trembled when he poured us out some mineral water; his odd chortles and exclamations when he would get excited; the peculiar facility he has for answering a different question than the one asked; his determination to go on making records; his apparent appreciation when I gave him a few Barracudas 45s: “Man, wow, you’ll never know….”

Probably only Brian himself and possibly Dr Landy will ever know what really goes on – and went on – in the mind that made Smile and then went to bed, like Rip Van Winkle, for years – both figuratively and sometimes literally. Wilson says he has over a hundred new/old songs demo’d for future use. God only knows what gems there could be amongst them.

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