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Bittersweet Symphony

With the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson built castles in the sand and sky, taking direct orders from God, Phil Spector and LSD. Years later, the edifices still stand as beacons of musical creativity. Wilson is still standing, too - giving genius lessons to legions of modern-day disciples.

By Jonathan Valania

This interview originally appeared in MAGNET, Aug/Sep 1999. The first few introductory paragraphs have been omitted. The interview is mainly notable to find out Brian's taste in soda.

MAGNET was granted a rare opportunity to visit the 57-year-old Wilson at his new home, tucked away in an exclusive gated community in Beverly Hills. (Shaquille O'Neil resides next door.) Wilson lives with his wife of four years, Melinda, and his two adoptive daughters, Daria and Delanie. Wilson is notoriously tough to draw out in interviews, and MAGNET was told that our conversation would be limited to thirty minutes. "At one point, he will get up and thank you, and the interview will be over," his publicist said on the way to Wilson's house. "It could be a half-hour. It could be ten minutes." During the interview, Wilson did get up and leave the room twice. But he came back, and the interview lasted the better part of an hour. The bulk of the conversation revovled around the period of Pet Sounds and Smile, the latter of which he seldom agrees to discuss. Wilson also agreed to listen to a tape MAGNET had prepared of Beach Boys songs that represent pivotal moments in his development as a composer and studio auter, including several tracks from Smile.

Though it all, Wilson was courteous and polite, and while it was difficult to engage him at length on most topics, there were several breakthrgouh moments in the conversation. The most compelling one occurred while "With Me Tonight," an achingly gorgeous number from the Smile sessions, played in the background. As the song caught Wilson's attention, he stopped in mid-sentence and closed his eyes nodding his head slightly, seemingly deep in reverie. When it was over, a crooked grin lit up his face as he said, "That brings back good memories."

MAGNET: Do you listen to music much these days?

Brian Wilson: Oh yeah. I listen to Phil Spector's records. I listen to Switched On Bach. I listen to Frankie Avalon's records. I like Frankie Avalon a lot. I really enjoy his music.

I just read that "You Still Believe In Me," from Pet Sounds, was recorded January 25, 1966, and across town the same day, the Byrds recorded "Eight Miles High."

Really?

A great day for pop music.

I'd say so.

I never quite understood "Hang On To Your Ego" to "I Know There's An Answer."

It was an inappropriate lyric.

How so?

I just thought that to say "Hang on to your ego" was an ego statement in and of itself, which I wasn't going for, so I changed it. I gave it a lot of thought.

So what was the answer you were looking for in "I Know There's An Answer"?

Your self. There is an answer for you.

It was a very spiritual period for you.

The most spiritual in my whole life.

You and Carl use to hold prayer sessions before you would start recording each day.

We prayed that we would bring into existence an album that would make people feel love.

I think it worked.

I know it did. In a big way!

Are you a religious man?

I believe in Phil Spector.

You once played piano during a Phil Spector session.

Yeah. He said I wasn't playing right and pulled me off the piano.

You played Hammond organ on your latest solo album (last year's Imagination).

No. Joe Thomas did.

Really? It says on the album credits that you played it.

Maybe I did. I can't remember. I wasn't having much fun at the time.

Well, you seem happy these days.

I am - much happier than I was a year ago. I had a rough year. I really did.

What do you mean?

Well, I just thought people were out to kill me. I had a fantasy in my head that people were out to murder me. I just couldn't deal with it. I just sort of flipped out.

Millions of people love you, Brian. I don't think anyone wants to hurt you. I think everyone wants to help you.

Yeah, I feel pretty good.

"Good Vibrations" turned a lot of people on to the theremin, which has become a much sought-after instrument. When did you first encounter the theremin?

When I was a kid. My dad had a friend that had one.

They interviewed you for a recent documentary made about the instrument called Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

Really? Wow! Oh yeah, now I remember that. I never saw it.

Is it true that "Good Vibrations" cost $16,000 to record, making it the most expensive song ever recorded up to that date?

It did. Five different studios.

Do you remember when Sunkist orange soda used "Good Vibrations" for TV commercial?

I was honored. And we got some money.

Do you drink Sunkist?

I like Dr. Pepper and Diet Coke.

What is the typical day in the life of Brian Wilson these days?

Lots of exercise. Try to write a song.

You work on music every day?

Every day of m life I go to the piano and try to write a song.

Have you ever though about making another record with the Beach Boys?

I haven't thought of that. I think they want to do their own thing. I don't think they want to work with me. I get the feeling they don't want me around.

On the Good Vibrations box set, there are some great outtakes and unreleased songs. There is a song from the Smile sessions called "Our Prayer."

Oh yeah! That's got to be one of the most beautiful things I've ever written. Beautiful harmonies.

After Pet Sounds, you started writing with Van Dyke Parks. You started working on Smile under the working title Dumb Angel.

Right. I discarded that. I got high on pot one night and never used it.

There's also a song from the Smile sessions called "Vegetables," which some people say Paul McCartney helped write.

No, no, no. Paul was in the studio when we recorded it, but he didn't help write it. He's the biggest fan I've got.

I understand that "Vegetables" came out of a health kick that you were on. You had a gymnasium built in the studio.

We were all very healthy... I've really been exercising for the last half year. I can't believe how healthy I feel. I really can't.

There is also a song called "The Fire Suite/Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" that you destroyed the tapes to because a record number of fires broke out in Los Angeles the night you recorded it.

I junked it because we might have started those fires.

Have you ever gone back and listened to the Smile tracks?

I went back to it and listened to it and said, "No, it's not appropriate."

Smile has taken on this mythical status in the history of pop music, in part because the album was never finished and prior to it's release, people were calling it your masterpiece.

[shivering] Right.

I understand that your recent concerts have been a smashing success.

Unbelievable. The audience flipped, gave me a ten-,minute standing ovation.

Do you think you have finally conquered your stage fright?

Yeah. Ten minutes into my first concert in Chicago, I thought, "This is a piece of cake."

You are being backed by the Wondermints.

Yeah. They are my new band. It's good to be around youth.

Are you aware of how important you are to a lot of young musicians these days?

Yeah?

There are a lot of young musicians drawing inspiration from Pet Sounds and Smile. Have you ever thought about collaborating with any of them?

No. I'm satisfied with what I got. I would like to work with Tony Asher again.

I hear that you have been working with Tony Asher again.

We did a few songs, a couple for my daughters, which will hopefully be on my next solo record. He's great chemistry for me - he's ideal.

How do you look back to your time with Dr. Landy?

I miss it. I miss it a lot. Because he kept me in good shape physically. I saw badly want to get back in shape. I've been working hard at it in the last few months. Tying to get back to age 25 or, at least, 30.

Is it safe to say that he saved your life?

He sure did. I weighed over 300 lbs. I smoked 5 packs of cigarettes a day.

I read recently that you said your greatest regret was getting wrapped up in drugs. Obviously, drug use had tragic consequences for you and many others, but wouldn't you say that there were some positive effects, at least initially, from the psychedelic experience?

It's quite a religious experience.

Pet Sounds was one of the landmark recordings of the Twentieth Century.

It's my greatest accomplishment, and I'm very proud of it.

During that period, did you get the feeling that a door had opened and there was this ray of light, this divine inspiration that came through, an then the door closed?

Yeah. But this ray of light you're talking about was pure music.