HE JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES
Towards the end of 1996 and in Los Angeles I had the most surreal day of my music fan/journalistic life - breakfast with Iggy Pop at the Chateau Marmont, lunch with Neil Diamond at his studio, a phone interview with Jeff Buckley and then in the early evening I was in a taxi to . . . Brian Wilson's house. This is my original account of the experience which appeared in various forms in The Melbourne Age and other publications. And yes, I still have the tape of Brian at the piano and I haven't copied it for anyone.
The strange and sorry saga of Brian Wilson is one of the most intriguing and bizarre stories in the history of popular music. Is Wilson completely crazy - or one of the towering figures of rock and pop music, a figure to rival Bob Dylan, Phil Spector and Lennon & McCartney? Is he both? These are questions that have obsessed both fans and rock critics for the past two decades.
For many years Wilson was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, the American surf music band who rivalled the Beatles in terms of popularity and chart success with songs like Surfin' Safari, Surfin' U.S.A and Surfer Girl.
During the early to mid '60s Wilson composed, wrote, arranged and produced some of the best known and most sublime pop records ever recorded - In My Room, Don't Worry Baby, The Warmth Of The Sun, Fun, Fun, Fun, Help Me, Rhonda, California Girls, Good Vibrations and dozens of others.
Put simply, the other Beach Boys were little more than a medium for Wilson - something that's obvious when one listens to the turgid records they've made in periods when he has not been working with them. They recorded Kokomo without him. I rest my case.
The Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds album was essentially a Brian Wilson solo project and almost 20 years later was still voted number 1 last year in a poll of the best albums ever made conducted by influential English magazine Mojo.
By the time of Pet Sounds' release Wilson was starting to go more than just a little crazy. Increasingly estranged from his fellow Beach Boys, who wanted to continue with the surf sound that had made them household names and immeasurably wealthy, Wilson pursued work on a projected album entitled Smile, a truly adventurous, mind bogglingly complex album that was totally unlike anything the Beach Boys could contemplate recording.
Legend has it that at one point Wilson burnt the tapes of Smile and the album has still not been released in its entirety, although various 'versions' are widely bootlegged. (NB: This was the case at time of writing - SC)
From this point Wilson's life became the stuff of legends. For starters he decided he didn't want to tour with the Beach Boys any more. Increasingly obese there are stories of him buying his own supermarket so he could shop at any time of the day or night. Other stories had him writing and recording with his feet in a sandpit constructed in front of his piano. There were addictions to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, sleeping tablets, heroin and serious intakes of marijuana and LSD. Nervous breakdowns, paranoia, hallucinatory visions . . . basically Brian Wilson was a physical and emotional mess for the best part of the next twenty years and rarely sighted in public except for the occasional disastrous tour with the Beach Boys, preferring to spend most of his time in bed.
Then there was the famed intervention of therapist Dr Eugene Landy, and on-again-off-again relationship with the Beach Boys, and ongoing legal brawls with his brothers and cousins who still functioned as 'the Beach Boys'.
Eventually, and most people believe it was for the best, Landy was removed from Wilson's life and rumours began circulating that the pop music genius was finally starting to return to some sense of normalcy.
Whether that was true or not was something I was destined to discover for myself early one evening a few days before Christmas as a taxi drove me up into the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles where I'd been granted a rare audience with Wilson. Interviews with Wilson are scarce - let alone an invitation to visit him at home.
Home for the last seven months has been inside an enormous estate full of houses worth at least several million dollars each, entrance through massive gates only being granted after security guards have checked the occupants of each car and cleared admission through the particular house owner.
Wilson, 52, lives in a massive white two story mansion with his new wife, Melinda Ledbetter, a California girl five years his junior. The door is opened by an assistant who points me to a room on the left where Wilson is sitting in a large armchair. Nearby is a giant white grand piano. He says hello, shakes hands and motions for me to sit on some cushions, literally at his feet.
Glancing around the opulent surroundings it's impossible to ignore the fact that each visible room has at least one, often two, floor to ceiling Christmas trees.
Initially Wilson appears perfectly ordinary, a big man who looks healthy and acts congenially. But why is he clutching this big pillow over his stomach which he never removes? And why, every six or seven minutes, does he stop mid-sentence and stare at the ceiling for thirty seconds or so before regaining his concentration and asking me to remind him what we were talking about? Is it something to do with the cans of Diet Cherry Cola (yes, you read that right) that he slugs on throughout the conversation. These are little mysteries that are never answered.
Aside from these minor aberrations, couple with a rather tangential response to questions, Wilson seems in good shape - and certainly in one of his most creative periods of recent years. Last year saw the I Wasn't Made For These Times documentary and the astonishing accompanying soundtrack album with Wilson and co-producer Don Was brilliantly re-recording versions of many of Wilson's pop gems. Then there's Orange Crate Art a collaboration with the equally eccentric Van Dyke Parks, which is a truly strange and beautiful record that seems to come from another time and place.
"He wrote all the songs and he arranged all of it and produced it - and I sang it," says Wilson of Orange Crate Art, the first time he and Parks have worked together since the days of the Smile album some two decades ago.
"He was very happy with my vocals," Wilson continues. "He said, 'you're the greatest singer in the world,' and I went 'WHAT, WHAT . . . the greatest singer in the world . . .no way . . I can't sing for shit.' I have a good voice but I don't sing very well. That's okay - that's something I've lived with for a long time. I'm sure nobody would give a shit anyway."
When we met Wilson had just returned from Chicago where he's been reunited with the other Beach Boys and working on a new project - a Beach Boys country album.
"It's the Beach Boys backing up twelve different and separate country artists," Wilson says whilst I'm wondering what a 'separate country artist' is.
"We recorded eight background things in Chicago - In My Room with my daughter Wendy singing lead, The Warmth Of The Sun with Willie Nelson singing lead, I Get Around With Travis Tritt. Kenny Rogers is going to do Caroline, No.
"It's the most fantastic album idea that's come along in a long time. It's a very heavy conceptual album that's kind of like bringing people together. That's the power of music. It's also very frightening for me. I've never done anything like this in my life and I wouldn't know where to start."
This new album is scheduled for release mid-year, but Wilson reckons it might even be finished earlier. Before then there's a few other guest vocalists they want to enlist.
"We're going to try and get Dolly Parton who I adore," Wilson says before articulating exactly what it is that attracts him about Dolly.
"I think Dolly is one of the greatest . . . of course, very big breasts . . . very alluring . . . she's a very alluring girl. And maybe we'll get Julio Iglasius."
What about George Jones, I venture.
"Who . . . maybe . . . is he a country singer?"
Informed that The Possum is in fact probably the greatest living country singer on the planet Wilson goes, "Oh yeah, right, right . . . and what's that guy's name who was Entertainer Of The Year for two years . . . Garth Brooks. We're going to try and get him too. Can you imagine us with all those country people? CAN YOU IMAGINE IT? It's almost impossible to understand. I think it'll be wonderful."
Indeed it might. After the interview, whilst Wilson is in the next room banging away on the piano, his wife takes me into a music room to play me the Willie Nelson contribution which is truly breathtaking. As are a bunch of rough demos of new Wilson songs that she puts in the tape machine before explaining that this year might also see a version of Smile, interpreted by a symphony orchestra, released. She also tells me that in the New Year the Beach Boys are going to Europe to record a version of Fun, Fun, Fun with Status Quo. Go figure.
Wilson seems genuinely excited about working with the Beach Boys again - something that seems all the more remarkable when you consider they're probably the most litigious and, at times, downright nasty family in popular music. Christ, the make the Jackson's seem positively fun lovin'.
"Yeah, yeah, yes, YES, it's very good," gushes Wilson about the reunion. "The guys were all just very good and practised and they knew all the songs because they'd been doing them on the road for 33 years.
"It was basically a test to see if we could still hang together - and we passed the test. We passed with flying colours. I'm cool . . . I'm in one piece. . . I've been around. It was tough for me to be with those guys. We've got a lot of memories, a lot of bad memories of course . . . we never broke up but we might as well have broken up, the way we got along with each other. But that's all in the past. I was happy to go back there and work."
Good golly, Wilson's not even dismissing the possibility that he might perform live again as a Beach Boy. but there's something about his manner that suggests it's a long shot.
"Oh yeah . . .depends how it feels. If it feels lousy I probably won't but if it feels good I'll do it."
Does he miss the onstage experience?
"No," he laughs. "No. I never did. Mike (Love) always scared me. I've always been afraid of Mike. He's good at it. He scared me. I think I'm better off at my piano than I am onstage because at my piano I can write a song and keep busy and keep my head into something."
I remind Wilson of the last time I saw him in Australia. It was 1978 and I'd gone to the airport in Adelaide to see the band arrive - but really only to get a glimpse of one of my heroes.
"It was very weird," he says softly. "I had a nervous breakdown on the airplane. I felt like I was falling through the plane . . . I was thinking, 'my head is gone here', but I got through it and that was 17 years ago. How old were you then."
Wilson explains that he's writing a few new songs. There's one called Turn On Your Lovelight and he's working on a version of Proud Mary, the Creedence Clearwater classic.
"We're doing a version of it," he says. "The boys haven't put their voices on it yet. It's going to be like . . . I'll show you. Bring your tape recorder over here."
Wilson walks to the piano, plonks my tape recorder on it and starts hammering the keys and singing "rolling, rolling down the river . . ." If there's a heaven I'm at least temporarily there. Finishing the song Wilson gently reminds me that he woudn't like to think that I'd sell that tape. He's as aware as anyone of the amount of money that can be fetched for something like an intimate home recording of his.
Throughout the conversation there are the occasional glimpses that things are still not exactly wired up correctly in Wilson's head. At one point he asks me if I smoke cigarettes. Telling him I do and that I have a packet in my bag if he'd like one he looks furtively around to the other rooms with the panicked look of a 12-year-old caught with their first Playboy. "I'd really like one," he whispers. "But I'd better . . . I'd better not . . . I've given up."
Later, when asked whether he thinks the reason he and the other Beach Boys have had so many problems over the years had something to do with them starting at such a young age and having little protection from the star making machinery, Wilson drops his voice so it's almost inaudible. Demons from his past are obviously flooding back, even after more than four decades, as he recalls he and his brothers being beaten by their father Murry.
"Yeah," he says. "I was a little insecure when I was younger. My Dad knocked the hell out of me so much. He used to whip me. He would take his belt and we would have to drop our pants down to our shoes and then bend over the bathtub and he would wack the hell out of us. He'd start with me and then he'd go to Dennis and then he'd go to Carl.
"When it came to Dennis he whacked the hell out of him . . .he whacked me real hard but he killed Dennis, whacked him harder than us. He's barely wack Carl. He hated Dennis the most, and he hated me second, and he hated Carl third. But once in awhile he'd really lay on me strong and he'd take that strap and he'd wack the hell out of my arse and, man, it hurt and I cried and cried. It was like the scenes in our house, they were so terrible and we couldn't do anything about it. We were all getting all beat up and getting knocked around."
After that we keep talking for another half hour and then I bring up the 'great lost' Smile album. Wilson says he doesn't know exactly what's going to be done with it. "They'll fix it up."
So he didn't, as legend has it, burn the tapes? Wilson becomes very quite.
"No . . I wanted to . . . but I didn't."
Then, even more subdued. "I'm going to have to say that this is about as much as I can do . . . I gotta . . . I need to make some calls" he says before getting up and walking from the room. A minute later, having obviously not been on the phone, he reappears, seeming more cheery, and asks if I'd like a drink. An affirmative is greeted with him yelling to someone in the kitchen, "GET THIS GUY A DIET CHERRY COLA."
Later, whilst I'm sitting listening to the new material, Wilson's again banging out Proud Mary on the grand. He walks in at one point and I remark that I've never seen so many Christmas trees in one house. Wilson looks at his wife and smiles. "We've still got one to put up in the bedroom tonight," he says, before strolling out and returning to the piano.
I remark to Melinda that it must be disconcerting trying to listen to music with Wilson playing piano so loudly in the next room.
"Oh, it's okay tonight," she smiles. "Usually he has the jukebox going at the same time."
Welcome to Brian's world. He's trying but obviously wasn't really made for these times.