Brian Wilson--Back From the Twilight Zone : His Remarkable Solo LP Recalls the Exhilarating Sweep of the Beach Boys’ Most Endearing Hits
Who would ever have dreamed, even six months ago, that one of the most stirring solo albums of 1988 would have been by a Beach Boy?
After all, Brian Wilson--the creative leader of the band in the ‘60s--has spent much of the last two decades in a psychological twilight zone, and the other members of the group have never raised many expectations on their own.
So what are the chances of a great new solo album by any of the Beach Boys: 500 to 1?
If you took the bet, get ready to collect.
Wilson’s solo LP, titled simply “Brian Wilson” and due in stores Tuesday, is a remarkable work that recalls the exhilarating sweep of the Beach Boys’ most endearing recordings--an album with moments of both wonderful innocence and poignancy (see review on this page).
Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records, was flying home early last year from a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner in New York when he noticed Brian Wilson seated across the aisle. Suddenly, he got this crazy idea: Making a solo album with the man whose music with the Beach Boys stands as some of the most beloved in the history of American pop.
Waronker knew all about the tragic plight of Wilson--whose drug-aggravated emotional retreat in the late ‘60s and ‘70s seemed to strip him not only of his creative power, but of his will. It was not uncommon for years to hear people speak of Wilson, whose weight had ballooned to more than 300 pounds, as a vegetable.
A record producer before assuming his present post, Waronker saw that Wilson first-hand a decade ago. A mutual friend, Van Dyke Parks, had brought Wilson along to a recording session that Waronker was working on. It was, the record company head recalled recently, “a horrible scene . . . Brian was absolutely gone .”
Still, the Warners executive loved Wilson’s old music and he kept thinking about one song--"Cool Water"--that appeared on a ‘70s Beach Boys album. Waronker felt it was brilliant and maybe a sign that Wilson had not lost his musical gift.
Waronker had also been impressed by how a trim (190-pound), clear-eyed Wilson handled himself at the Hall of Fame dinner, where he made a speech saluting songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Recalling his thoughts on the plane, Waronker said, “I started fantasizing about making this little arts and crafts record. . . . Nothing fancy, just little musical suites so that he wouldn’t have to write verses and choruses. It would be this little experiment, no big ‘Brian’s back’ thing. If it was really good, maybe it would help him get his confidence back and he could make a real record.”
When he got home, Waronker received a call from Seymour Stein, the head of Sire Records, the hip New York label that is distributed by Warner Bros. Stein, too, had been at the Hall of Fame dinner and he had an idea. He wanted to sign Brian Wilson.
“Great,” said Waronker, who then shared his idea about a small “arts and crafts” album--something easy to get Wilson back in action.
But Stein didn’t want to settle for that. He wanted to make a real record with Wilson.
A real record?
Even Waronker, he now admits, wondered whether that was possible.
There are weak spots on “Brian Wilson,” but the harmonies and musical textures on the best tracks sounded almost too good to believe as Wilson, Waronker and Eugene Landy--Wilson’s psychologist and songwriting partner on part of the new album--listened to the album a few weeks ago with a reporter.
Sitting in a Santa Monica recording studio, Wilson stared straight ahead, expressionless, as the group listened to “Love and Mercy,” a sweetly innocent song that has since been released as the first single from the album.
He appeared far more comfortable than in 1983--when he surfaced, after years of media isolation, with a series of interviews to demonstrate that Wilson was “back among the living.”
The singer-composer had gone through an extensive, two-year therapy program with Landy, a psychologist who employs a controversial 24-hour supervision approach with patients. Wilson was a difficult interview at the time because he tended to answer in short, quick sentences, rather than elaborate. He was cordial, but extremely anxious.
Now 46, Wilson spoke with far greater ease in the studio when asked about the new tracks. He explained how his campaign to get in shape led him to write the playful “He Couldn’t Get His Poor Old Body to Move” (The B side of his new single) and how “Night Time” is simply an ode to his favorite time of day.
He also answered general questions about his feelings over the last few months--how it was Seymour Stein’s encouragement at the Hall of Fame dinner that gave him the confidence to finally embark on a solo album, and how, understandably, he worried for years that his talent was forever gone.
Yet Wilson by nature is shy, and his answers still tend to be limited. He can be quite articulate about certain topics--such as the way he put together the new album: “I conceived it like (the Beach Boys’ 1966 classic) ‘Pet Sounds.’ . . . One thing and another, little gems. . . . not a (total entity) like (the Beatles’) ‘Rubber Soul.’ ”
He can also be surprisingly reflective.
Asked to suggest the biggest misconception that someone might have from only reading about him, Wilson replied: ". . . That I lived my whole life in a sandbox (which he had installed inside his house years ago) rather than thinking, well, maybe my head was upstairs hard at work on music.”
Wilson, whose songs were often about surfing and the beach, explained that the sandbox was simply an experiment--an attempt to provide a creative environment at a time when he seldom left his house.
With the album finished, he’s looking forward to a possible tour this summer. “When I first thought of . . . a solo tour, I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. I’ll never get that together. But now, I (realize I’ve) had some practice with the Beach Boys, where I step out (and do songs) and . . . I thought to myself I’ve had a taste of that. . . . I can do it.”
If there are gaps in Wilson’s conversation, Landy, who is listed as executive producer of the album, is not hesitant to fill them in.
“When we started working together, Brian (was in such disastrous shape that he) literally didn’t know his own music,” Landy said during a separate interview. “I remember we took Brian to Hawaii and he needed to sign some things, but he didn’t have any identification so we went to a store and I bought some records to prove who he was to the notary. We then took the records home and he started playing his own music.”
Landy, who is credited with co-writing five of the album’s 11 songs, said the pair never started out to write songs, but the songs evolved out of a series of tapes the men sent back and forth.
“Brian was a recluse,” Landy continued. “He couldn’t look you in the eye. When we first started, he didn’t talk to me. He played to me. He would make a little cassette and give it to me and I’d listen to it (in another room) and make a tape up and send it back to him. The tapes were about events in his daily life. ‘Poor Old Body’ came out of him sending me tapes about how you’ve got to get your body to move.
“As it evolved, it got into some very in-depth kind of things. Some of it is heartbreaking. ‘Melt Away’ is a song of sadness, a love song. ‘Walking the Line’ was about walking the line between sanity and insanity, walking the line between wanting to talk to this girl and being too scared to.”
While Landy offers fascinating glimpses of Wilson’s personal struggle, he is hardly a neutral party. In fact, Landy has been widely criticized for extending his role beyond the normal confines of the psychologist-patient relationship to business and creative associate. The California Board of Medical Quality Assurance is examining charges of ethical and licensing code violations.
Landy angrily denies he has done anything against Wilson’s best interests--and points to the dramatic fact that Wilson has recovered to the point where he can make an album.
“Brian (a few years ago) could get no money from (any record company),” Landy said. “This was a dead man, no one thought he was going to rise again or get up. So we started finding these little garage studios down in Venice where they would would only charge us $10 an hour so he could get used to making music.”
On the charges of violating professional ethics by serving Wilson in a dual capacity, Landy responded heatedly, “I think the concept of my being in dual capacity is ridiculous. . . . I’m in multiple-quadruple capacity. I think all therapists have this with patients, but it’s (usually) confined to the office (rather than Landy’s 24-hour supervision system). Brian was attended by 38 different therapists over a period of years in the confines of traditional therapy and it was ineffective.”
Wilson defends Landy, both in and out of the psychologist’s presence, but the relationship between patient and psychologist is such a delicate one that people are bound to wonder where Landy’s influence ends and his partnership begins.
Even Warner Bros.’ Lenny Waronker sometimes shakes his head when Landy’s name is mentioned.
It’s a oddball thought, but could “Brian Wilson” be simply made from old, leftover Beach Boys tapes, or could someone have gone in and simply imitated the old Wilson sound? Is there any guarantee that Brian Wilson really is still capable of making music this stirring?
“You need to work with Brian and to spark him, but once he was sparked, he could go out and do it,” Waronker said, sitting in his office at Warners’ headquarters in Burbank.
“I’ll give you an example: I walked into the studio one day and I was very nervous about part of the ‘Rio Grande’ segment. It just didn’t come alive for me. I mentioned to Brian about doing a little four-part harmony or three-part harmony, something that would lift that thing.
“So, he sat down at the piano and he said, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ Five minutes later, he played something for me and it sounded real good. He then went out and did it. . . . Took him about 40 minutes to do it. When it comes to that stuff--the music in the studio--he can function really well. What he needs is someone there to push him up, someone to say, ‘No, Brian, you can do better. Come on.’ ”
While certifying Wilson’s creative input, Waronker doesn’t downplay the tension that sometimes surfaced in the studio--with him and producer Russ Titelman on one side and Landy on the other. In fact, Waronker said that Landy fired Titelman from the project at one point, only to have Wilson, in a convincing show of independence, demand that Titelman be brought back.
Because Waronker was also involved in John Fogerty’s dramatic 1985 comeback after a nine-year, self-imposed exile from the record business, it’s only natural to compare the situations.
“In the case of Brian, we are talking about a longer spread of time (from the creative peak), but, sure, it was absolutely amazing when I started to hear what was coming out of the studio. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening again.’
“At the same time, this (project) was not like Fogerty because Fogerty spent 10 years preparing for that next record. He knew that once his legal problems were out of the way, he’d be making another record. Brian didn’t know. He wasn’t preparing himself. He was like someone who is starting all over again. Part of the problem, really, was the technology in the studio. It’s a different world from when he made those records before. The rest was his confidence. He needed people to tell him, ‘You can still do it.’ ”