Beach Boys’ Creative Savant Brian Wilson Tells Us The Secret To What Keeps Him Going

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

A couple of years ago, I was wandering around the backstage area of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago when something caught my eye and stopped me dead in my tracks. Just behind the Red Stage, set inside of a chain link fence, was a black, overstuffed leather recliner. It was a curious and out-of-place item to see at a music festival, for sure. No one was sitting in it at the time, but propped on the cushion was a white sign that read, “Reserved For Brian Wilson.” The erstwhile leader of The Beach Boys was set to perform his earth-shattering album Pet Sounds in full in just a few hours, and I suppose the chair travels with him from gig to gig and town to town, offering a small bit of comfort, both physical and psychological, before he has to face down the masses.

I was immensely excited to see Wilson live that day — I don’t need to run down his ridiculously long list of creative accomplishments, but who wouldn’t be stoked to hear “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Caroline, No” — live, but if I’m being totally honest, the performance that July evening was merely fine. Brian, dressed in all black, sat behind a piano and gave the people the music that they came to see. Even if he wasn’t personally able to reach all the iconic high notes with his voice that defines so much of those incredible songs, the collection of backup singers arranged behind him more than filled in on his behalf.

Chicago’s own John Cusack, who played the middle-aged version singer in the stellar biopic Love & Mercy, even showed up midway through the set to add some harmonies to the song “Sloop John B.” Wilson didn’t seem perturbed to be onstage, but he didn’t seem overly enthused either and throughout his set, I couldn’t stop thinking about that damn chair. I guess I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It seemed to so exquisitely capture the duality of Brian Wilson in these opening years of the 21st Century.

On one hand, he’s an in-demand musical titan, revered by millions for helping to shape the sound and aesthetic of pop music for every single generation that came after him. As such, he gamely schleps around the world, and with the aid of his large backing band that includes fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine as well as Blondie Chaplin, he performs his oversized collection of classic hits – “California Girls” is his favorite — to audiences totally willing to see past any and all faults and flaws in presentation and performance, merely grateful to share the same oxygen as the man himself. On the other hand, he’s a tired, 76-year old man who just wants to have a comfy place to sit and be left alone.

Wilson is a notoriously tough nut to crack for any interviewer willing to engage with him, usually delivering monosyllabic or vague to the point of meaningless answers to any and all questions that are thrown his way. But given the opportunity recently, I felt obligated to give it my best to ask the man himself what keeps him going. Why does he remain on the road? Why does he continue to hit the studio and work on new pieces of music? Why does he keep seeking out and answering the call for new collaborations with ‘60s contemporaries like Jeff Beck and newer artists like Janelle Monae, to whom, he lent some exquisite vocal harmonies to the opening track of her recent album Dirty Computer?

Wilson happened to be in South Carolina when I called to find out the answers to these questions, still on the road with his band, still performing Pet Sounds for what has been billed as the final series of performances, but despite my best efforts, he wasn’t very forthcoming. Wilson wasn’t rude by any means, just unwilling or unable to really articulate his prime motivations in 2018.

“What keeps you going?” I asked.
“Well, it’s inspiration to meet people of all ages inspire me to write music,” he responded.
“Are you currently writing new music?” I wondered.
“I haven’t written anything for a while,” he replied.
“I heard you were thinking about doing a rock and roll covers album called Sensitive Music for Sensitive People. What’s kind of the status on that?
“You know, I don’t know. I don’t really know.”
“Do you still love to play for people?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do.”

Ostensibly, the reason we were chatting was that the London Philharmonic recorded some lush, orchestral arrangements over some of The Beach Boys’ biggest hits for an album that’s dropping on August 15. Brian didn’t really have any hand in the recording process, but as a classical music nut, he seemed happy that the Philharmonic went to the trouble. “I loved it,” he said. “I thought it was really great.” Asked about a favorite cut in particular though, he was noncommittal. “They all were good. They were all good.” Asked about his favorite classical composers he demurred. “I just enjoy all of them.”

In addition to his relentless touring schedule, Wilson recently took part in an open Q&A along with the rest of the living Beach Boys hosted by the famed film director Rob Reiner that will air on Sirius XM Radio on August 11. It’s incredible given the fact that he will once again share a stage with his cousin and sometimes foil Mike Love. The last time the pair undertook any kind of joint endeavor was for The Beach Boys 50th anniversary concerts, at the end of which, Love gave Brian and the rest of the Boys the boot and continued performing his regular array of county fairs and casinos with a collection of hired hands, which Wilson did not appreciate at all. “I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David and me,” Brian said in a statement after the tour ended. “We are out there having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.”

You’d forgive Wilson, the creative heart, mind, and soul of the band for remaining pissed off about his cousin’s duplicity, but he doesn’t seem to hold any kind of ill will towards Love anymore. “I haven’t talked with him for a while,” he said. When asked if there’s bad blood, his answer is firm. “No.” In fact, he even seems open to working with him again at some point. “I might, yeah,” he said. “I might.”

In the near term however, Wilson will finish out this last run of Pet Sounds performances in Europe before undertaking another concept tour this winter, where he’ll bring to life The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album in its entirety along with cuts from his solo Christmas album What I Really Want for Christmas, again assisted by Jardine and Chalpin. “Christmas music is very good music,” he explained. After that tour ends in December, who’s to say what’s next? Wilson underwent back surgery in May that caused him to postpone a few shows, but that hasn’t seemed to slow him down any.

Despite the allure of that comfy recliner, despite the fact that he’s got a wife and five kids set up in a pretty nice home in Beverly Hills where he goes for regular walks through a nice, nearby park and frequents a favorite deli for lunch, despite the fact that he once had a nervous breakdown on an airplane at the very height of The Beach Boys’ success in the ‘60s that caused him to swear of touring forever, he just can’t get out of the business of being Brian Wilson: Musical Genius. Having seen him live myself, it doesn’t outwardly appear he gets much personal joy from the adulation of the fans, and while I’m sure the money is nice, he can’t really need it at this point.

Maybe at the end of the day, it really is about the music? It’s the only explanation that makes any kind of sense, excepting craven forces who urge him on, but it doesn’t seem like there are any Eugene Landy’s in the wings these days. While Paul Simon and Elton John and Ozzy Osbourne and so many of his classic rock peers all seem more than eager to cash one last fat check and call it a career, Brian Wilson just keeps going.

The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is out now digitally and on August 15 on vinyl. Buy it here.