In almost 30 years of interviewing pop stars, there have only been a handful of occasions where I have received instructions or directives on how to handle challenging subjects.
There was that time when I was politely but firmly told not to ask Courtney Love any questions about Kurt Cobain or drugs. No matter in the end, as the naturally loquacious Love obliged by bringing up both subjects herself. Then there was that other time when I was advised to allow for long pauses when speaking to Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields over the phone, and not to fill the silence with a follow-up question as Merritt may not have finished delivering his answer.
But with head Beach Boy and all-round musical marvel Brian Wilson, the suggested approach is the opposite – don’t pause after one of his typically monosyllabic responses in the vain hope of a more detailed answer, or Wilson will think the interview is over and hang up the phone.
It’s fair to say Wilson is not a master of repartee. On resuming his touring schedule, following back surgery: “It’s a lot of fun. We’re having a good time.” On whether there are any sights he’d like to see on his forthcoming visit to Edinburgh: “Not anything in particular.” On what he gets up to when he’s not touring: “Not much, just watch television.”
Despite the brevity of his answers, he’s never rude, terse or impatient – it’s just that Wilson’s first language is music. There is arguably no more fluent sound in popular music than The Beach Boys’ life-affirming catalogue of Californian surf pop singles and the symphonic masterpiece that is the Pet Sounds album (for starters). But for a long period during the 70s and 80s, he was pretty vague in that regard too, retreating first from the stresses of touring and then from regular daily life into a fog of over-medication, latterly administered by his controlling psychotherapist/life coach/business manager Dr Eugene Landy.
Landy’s hand was all over Wilson’s 1991 autobiography, ironically titled Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story. Wilson disowned the book and has since said that he didn’t even read it. A subsequent autobiography, asserting I Am Brian Wilson, was published in 2016 and is a considerably more credible account of a troubled genius, not least because the Landy years are skipped over as Wilson has little recollection of this time.
Ghost writer Ben Greenman captures Wilson’s clipped, rather blank conversational tone, as unadorned as his music is elaborate. Yet the book is thematically rich in Wilson’s thoughts on the creative process and his approach to life in general. I can’t help but imagine how many hours, days, months were spent in gleaning Wilson’s perspective for the project when his response to how he felt about revisiting the good, bad and ugly in his life is a model of understatement: “It was quite an event for me.”
He’s similarly parsimonious on the 2014 biopic Love and Mercy, which cuts between two key periods in Wilson’s life – the eccentric but hugely adventurous mid-60s sessions for the Pet Sounds album (with Wilson portrayed by Paul Dano) and the 80s/90s courting of his second wife Melinda Ledbetter and her efforts to extricate Wilson (as played by John Cusack) from Landy’s control. “I thought they portrayed me very good. It was quite a thrill for me. It was hard to go through, a little rough for me.”
The film ends on the first day of the rest of Wilson’s life. Wilson and Ledbetter married in 1995 and, with her encouragement, the supposed lost genius made a faltering yet jubilant return to playing live, with the brilliant backing of LA band The Wondermints, who aced the meticulous recreation of Wilson’s intricate arrangements, not least those signature heavenly high harmonies.
Wilson at first looked lost at the heart of the harmony hurricane yet reconnecting with his music appeared to boost his health and creative juices sufficiently for him to complete the Beach Boys’ legendary “lost” album Smile in 2004. Since then, he has released two more albums of original material, That Lucky Old Sun and No Pier Pressure, plus tributes to Gershwin, Disney and a Christmas album.
There’s been talk of another new album with the working title, Sensitive Music for Sensitive People. “We haven’t started yet on that one,” says Wilson. Are the songs written? “Not yet, no.” Any thoughts as to how he’d like the album to sound? “I haven’t decided yet.” Is there a rough release date? “Probably in one year.”
In that case, he’ll need to carve out time in his packed touring schedule. For much of the rest of this year, Wilson will be alternating between his Greatest Hits show and the Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour, which has now extended well into its 52nd anniversary year. His Edinburgh date is alleged to be among its “final shows”.
“I’ll miss the album but we had a lot of fun doing it,” says Wilson. “The harmonies hold up real good. We know them real well, we’ve been doing it for a long time, so we’re pretty good.”
The “we” now includes original Beach Boy Al Jardine and the South African singer/guitarist Blondie Chaplin, who fronted the Beach Boys in the early 70s and injects some rock ’n’roll to proceedings with his lead vocal on the hearty Sail On Sailor. “They bring good cheer and good singing,” notes Wilson.
The 76-year-old has now been back on the road for an expectation-defying 19 years.
“It’s a lot of fun. We’re having a good time,” he says. His answers seem so rote that it’s hard to work out if he means it.
As Wilson looks and sounds progressively more frail on stage, there has been speculation among fans and commentators that he is once more subject to a regime in which he has little say.
Having exhausted my line of questioning, I round off by asking if there are any other artists Wilson would like to work with. “There’s no one in particular, no.” Any other projects? “No, that’s about it.” So does he have any plans to retire? “No, not yet no.” ■
Brian Wilson plays the Edinburgh Playhouse on 19 August as part of Edinburgh Summer Sessions