All of St. Charles is racing to eat before the sun sets and the kids melt down. At 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, a time when many Angelenos are just rolling out of bed, the locals of this Illinois city are pouring into the La Za Za Trattoria, a family-friendly kind of place. A sentry of highchairs lines one wall, and the occasional shriek of a cooped-up child provides dissonant harmony to the clanging of silverware against plates and the chorus of disjointed conversations. The racket at La Za Za is music to Brian Wilson’s one good ear.
In the center of the dining room, the Wilson party of seven--two sets of parents and their young kids--crowds around pushed-together tables, enjoying a big night out. By 7, it’ll be time to pop a movie into the VCR, maybe crash by 9. In Wilson’s slo-mo state of mind, dining out ranks among life’s great pleasures. “I love going out to eat,” he says earlier in the day. “The process of being served--the whole thing just blows my mind.”
Significantly more mind-blowing is the picture of Wilson, landlocked, whiling away the bulk of the last few years in a sleepy burb with endless winters, far removed from the California myth that he and the Beach Boys had a large hand in creating. But what better, safer place to regain his emotional footing and musical balance, to escape the straitjacket of expectations that has confined him since he wrote those timeless anthems of sun, surf and innocence in the early ‘60s.
The release of “Pet Sounds” in 1966 certified its musical composer, who recorded in mono because of nerve damage to his right ear, as a genius. Paul McCartney lauded the record as the inspiration for the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” And so, anxious to top himself as well as the Beatles’ then-current “Revolver,” Wilson embarked on an ambitious follow-up with lyricist Van Dyke Parks that he described at the time as a “teenage symphony to God.” Though the “Smile” project would eventually succumb to drug excess, intra-band scuffles, record-company lawsuits and other assorted nonsense, bootleg tapes circulating among the faithful confirmed the brilliance of Wilson’s compositional innovations. But the genius, the creator of three-minute pop miracles, went into hibernation after his failure to complete “Smile” and has emerged only sporadically over the last three decades.
About an hour’s drive west of Chicago, heartland icons such as Dairy Queen and a General Mills plant pave the way into St. Charles. In the quaintly Midwestern downtown, antique shops and restaurants with self-parking surround historical landmarks sturdily built of brick--reminders of a tough 1920s heyday when Al Capone supposedly chilled out here. Through it all runs the Fox River, a thoroughfare for paddle-wheel riverboat tours. Brian Wilson’s new family is tucked away in a wooded subdivision on the fringe of town in an almost-new country-French home strewn with pets and baby paraphernalia. Judging by his well-documented past in Los Angeles--where he still maintains a part-time home--excessive stimuli never suited Wilson anyway. And here in St. Charles, a self-contained picture postcard of a town, little opportunity exists to screw things up--things like the just-released “Imagination” for Giant Records, his first solo album of new material in 10 years.
On a Saturday afternoon in April, Wilson leans against a mixing board inside the state-of-the-art home recording studio in his dimly lit basement. Assembled over eight months at a cost of more than $1 million, the facility feels utterly unused, antiseptic even, with rows of shiny knobs, puffy microphones and the stiff chill of air conditioning. Off in the shadows, ostensibly out of earshot, “Imagination” co-producer Joe Thomas talks with a few of Brian’s people, a publicist and a studio assistant.
In previous solo encounters with the press, Wilson has been prone to soul-baring, stream-of-consciousness rants. In a 1995 interview at his L.A. home following the release of “Orange Crate Art,” a Van Dyke Parks record on which Brian sang virtually all the vocals, he said: “I wouldn’t lie to myself and say that I didn’t feel a little bit of pressure on my soul, but I live this way. I live in a state of scared.”
Today he speaks in seemingly rehearsed nervous bursts, without introspection. As he describes his “easygoing” life--making music, playing with the kids, walking a treadmill--one foot taps like a metronome gone berserk; his blue eyes fidget, unwilling or unable to lock onto a target. The man can’t wait for this to be over. “His favorite thing in the world is not talking to the press,” his wife, Melinda, later confirms.
The topic shifts quickly to his partnership with Thomas, with whom he would later dine at La Za Za. “It’s probably the best collaborative effort that I’ve done in my life,” Wilson says.
Wilson went so far as to become a part-time Midwesterner so that he and his new best friend, a recent St. Charles transplant himself, could literally live and work side by side. A personable and burly former professional wrestler who “competed” under the name Buddy Love (motto: the women’s pet, the men’s regret), 41-year-old Thomas flies the flannel and wears his bratwurst-and-beer roots squarely on his head in the form of a Hulk Hogan haircut. “There is so much pressure for Brian in Los Angeles because every block has a memory,” Thomas says. “Here is a fresh start. There are no memories. Every day he comes [to the studio], he’s way more relaxed.”
The producer understands that he is just the latest in a procession of unlikely musical foils. “This is the Joe Thomas period in his life,” he says. It follows, in no particular order since the early ‘60s, the Roger Christian period, the Gary Usher period, the Tony Asher period, the Van Dyke Parks period, the Tandyn Almer period, the Gene Landy period, the Andy Paley period and the Don Was period. “Brian is one of those people who use guys like me as facilitators,” Thomas explains. “He doesn’t owe me anything. When he’s done he’s done. He just wants to move on. That’s how he survives.”
Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing if many critics have found “Imagination” as uninspired as the eastern Illinois landscape. It’s a wonder that Wilson, at 56, still has the desire to make music at all, even as a passenger, given the mind and body damage wrought by a tyrant father, would-be Svengalis like Dr. Eugene Landy, untimely deaths in the family and prodigious consumption of heroin, cocaine, steak, milkshakes and cigarettes.
The last six months have been particularly hellish, with the deaths of his mother and little brother. Audree died slowly, “I lost her in my head before she actually died,” he says. But Carl, who died in February of lung cancer--well, Carl was the angelic messenger of Brian’s most enduring compositions, such as “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” Carl and Brian, along with middle brother Dennis (who drowned in 1983), provided the heart, soul and spirit of the Beach Boys, which also included cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. They began mimicking the harmonies of the Four Freshmen around the family piano in Hawthorne nearly 40 years ago, goaded by their frustrated songwriter of a father. Yet despite his once-voracious appetite for self-destruction, only Brian’s voice remains. “I say that to myself a lot; I say, ‘I’m the last of the Wilsons.’ ”
As the last brother says this, his eyes reach out across the studio to a grand piano on the far side of a sliding glass door. He continues to respond to questions, but his mind, clearly, is somewhere else. “He’s got to find a piano and sit,” observes musician Danny Hutton, who has known Wilson since 1964. “Then he’ll talk; it’s just a comfortable place for him.” But the piano is out of bounds today--at least until the interview ends. So he soldiers on, discussing Carl’s death in the same monotone he uses to describe why he periodically gives up red meat. “It was a shock for me,” he says. “It was pretty hard for me to go through.”
His friends will tell you that the out-to-lunch act may be Wilson’s way of processing the pain, taking the blows and moving on. “Brian’s a really strong guy,” says Andy Paley, a Sire Records A&R; executive who recorded extensively with Wilson throughout the ‘90s. “He’s resilient. He’s got something that makes him come back from depression. He knows tomorrow’s another day.” At Carl’s funeral, though, Brian seriously lost it. “He was devastated. I’d never seen him so tortured. Just so sad,” Hutton says. “He wasn’t doing any of his eccentric stuff at all. He was just in full grief.”
A chasm between the brothers, widened over the years by legal and lifestyle conflicts, had begun to close, Wilson says. “We were getting along OK. He never made a habit of calling me very much. I was trying to reach him, and he was going through his radiation treatments and chemotherapy. And his hair fell out of his head.” The brothers met for the last time on Super Bowl Sunday. Brian had hoped to iron out dates for Carl to lay down some vocals on “Imagination,” but it was obvious that would never happen. “I told Brian, ‘I don’t think we’re going to see him again,’ ” Melinda recalls.
Melinda asked Van Dyke Parks to write the words for a song about Carl called “Portrait of a Man” for “Imagination,” but it wasn’t finished in time. Instead, the album’s homage to Carl is the conciliatory “Lay Down Burden,” with these lines co-written by Thomas and Wilson: “So many years spent running away/How many times I wished I could stay/Too much emotion a hole in my heart/Feeling alone since we’ve been apart.”
“I thought it was good lyrics about death,” Wilson says.
The song’s title could also apply to his new life; it’s easygoing. As in the pace of St. Charles, as in laying down tracks for “Imagination” with synthesizers instead of a live band, as in working with Thomas, whose production resume includes ex-Chicago vocalist Peter Cetera and “Stars and Stripes,” an album of Beach Boys songs covered by country artists, with the Beach Boys adding background vocals.
When the interview ends, Wilson leaps from his seat near the mixing board and begins to pace, a jittery ghost floating to and fro, cooling down from the stress of the inquisition. In the studio, Brian’s people emerge from the shadows and talk about him as if he exists only in the abstract. The Brian Wilson they and others describe bears no relation to the timid man fed to the press or to the star of Don Was’ 1995 documentary, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” According to Wilson’s friend David Leaf, a television writer-producer who authored “The Beach Boys and the California Myth,” a 1978 biography: “He’s like Tinkerbell--the more you believe in him, the brighter his light.”
In the 1995 interview, though, he seemed completely burned out. Sitting alone on the bench of a grand piano in his L.A. home, he described himself as “a scared little pussy.” He had just finished his work on “Orange Crate Art,” had been remarried for less than a year, and, until abruptly quitting the room, he prattled on, unprovoked, about his sexual inadequacy and other assorted fears. “I’ve had really hard times in my life, you know,” he said. “I feel like I spent my whole life in a mental hospital with crazy people and crazy trips and crazy vibrations. I feel like I am stuck in a mental institution 53 years. Phew. Can you imagine that?”
By the late ‘60s, Wilson had become better known for his bizarre behavior than for his music. He had a sandbox built in his den so he could wiggle his bare toes in a faux beach while composing. Another time, at a “Smile” recording session for the song “Fire,” he passed out fire hats to string players and had a studio janitor start a small blaze in a bucket so the musicians could draw inspiration from the smoke. Later the same week, he learned about an unusually high number of fires in Los Angeles and blamed them on the recording. He tried to burn the tapes. Soon after, he retreated to his bedroom, where he stayed for most of the next few years.
Remarkably, he’s still standing--at least for the moment--still recording and helping to raise a second set of daughters. “Brian can make bad parts of his life just disappear,” Thomas says. Of course, the good parts can go poof just as easily. As Wilson paces, still winding down, Thomas prods him into talking about songs he’s written for his adopted daughters, Daria, 20 months, and Delanie, 6 months.
Brian: I did one called “Our Babies Have Grown Up on Us.” [This song was actually written for his daughters Carnie, 30, and Wendy, 28].
Joe: What about “Dream Angel”?
Brian: Yeah, that was about her too, I guess.
Joe: Why don’t you [talk] about it?
Brian: I don’t know about it.
Joe: Come on. It’s on your album. You wrote the song.
Brian: I don’t know what to say. You want me to get Melinda?
The people who get paid to say that Brian is back as a composer and musician tout “Imagination” as the second coming of “Pet Sounds.” Friends, however, offer only cautious praise. David Leaf singles out the quality of Wilson’s vocals, which on the albums “Brian Wilson” and “Orange Crate Art” have vacillated between awkward and painful, but will say little else about the record. True, the vocal arrangements are the album’s highlight, a startling reminder of Wilson’s studio majesty, yet this is hardly in a league with “Pet Sounds.” Take away Wilson’s multitracked voice and you have, essentially, a harmless collection of lightweight pop, replete with lyrical banalities and cheesed-out adult-contemporary-by-the-numbers production gimmicks. In short, a Peter Cetera album.
After spending a little time with Brian, it’s easy to think: OK, fine, this is the best he can do at this point. That is, until other recent recordings surface. A few years ago, Wilson went to the studio using his own money and Andy Paley as his co-writer and co-producer. The sessions resulted in such songs as “Still a Mystery,” “This Song’s Gonna Sleep With You Tonight” and “Gettin’ In Over My Head,” all of which recall Beach Boys classics. As bootleg copies circulated among Wilson fanatics, his light brightened. But the project came unplugged. “It’s always easy to make records,” Paley explains. “The hard part is all the other stuff that goes with it. You’ve got managers and lawyers and all these other people standing in the way of what could be a really good record.” For Wilson’s part, he says he wanted to make songs that sounded more current than the Paley session material; yet “Imagination” features fresh cuts of two old Beach Boys numbers, “Let Him Run Wild” and “Keep an Eye on Summer.”
A more likely scenario: Brian simply panicked and bailed on the partnership, as he has so many times, then quickly formed a new one with Thomas. Paley “was a little intense for me,” Wilson says in his studio. “I couldn’t handle it. He got going so fast, he scared me so much that I had to get away from him for a while.” Remember the mantra: easygoing.
Though she views the Paley project as having been effective therapy for her husband, Melinda Wilson doubts the recordings have commercial potential. “It’s different when you say, OK, here’s a record deal, now I’ve got to make a record and some of these songs should get on the radio. Because you have to think in terms of, is radio going to like this?” Clearly a let’s-have-a-hit vehicle, “Imagination” is really about introducing Wilson to a demographic with no clue as to who wrote “California Girls.” Van Dyke Parks understands the impulse. “If you have something and you’ve lost it, your sense of loss is there always,” he says. “Everybody wants to be relevant. Trophies don’t mean a thing to old generals.”
Enter Irving Azoff, grand poobah of Giant Records, to orchestrate the latest, greatest Brian Is Back campaign. Who better than the record industry veteran who manages the Eagles (“He may be Satan, but he’s our Satan,” Don Henley has said of Azoff) and whose other reclamation project is Mike Tyson? “There are geniuses,” Azoff says, “but you question their ability to close. [Wilson] said his life depended on delivering the right record.”
Even so, Azoff ordered up some quality control--hugely successful warhorses like Carole Bayer Sager and Jimmy Buffett, who added lyrics to “South American,” giving Wilson the chance to sing lines like “I’m hungry and I’m doin’ lunch with Cameron Diaz.” “I was advised by my people to work with them,” Wilson says.
At least Buffett is a notch up from Eugene Landy, a longtime psychologist of Wilson’s, on the lyric-writing food chain. “At that time, [Wilson] was just a prisoner to Landy,” Melinda explains. “Dr. Landy shouldn’t have been in the music business, not as a lyricist.” The doctor contributed to a 1991 album called “Sweet Insanity.” Among the work deemed unacceptable by Sire Records was “Smart Girls,” a rap that sampled from old Beach Boys hits (random line: Smart girls, talkin’ ‘bout smart girls/Sexy legs with high IQs) and “Brian,” in which Wilson oh-so-soothingly psychobabbles about “crazy beatings by my father, a-ooh, a-ooh.”
Though he arguably saved Wilson from eating and drugging himself to death during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the psychologist’s hold was so great that in 1989, Wilson re-drafted his will to include Landy as chief beneficiary. The next year, Audree Wilson and the Beach Boys filed a lawsuit against Landy, who had voluntarily turned in his license to practice psychology in California when faced with charges of ethical and code violations. After a closed-door settlement, the case was sealed, and it was speculated that the psychologist had been ordered by the court to stay away from Wilson for at least two years. Landy is now licensed and practicing psychotherapy in Hawaii.
Of course, when you’re sitting on a publishing gold mine, who can you really trust? Says Van Dyke Parks: “Brian has, since I have known him, been surrounded by a lot of powerful money-grubbers because he reached such an economic significance so early in his life. So any relationship Brian develops is going to be suspect. It’s not an easy thing for him to have a friendship, because there’s so much potential economic significance to every relationship he has. It’s been a series of pit bulls in the yard. One mouse or another guarding the proverbial cheese.”
Currently guarding the cheese is wife-conservator Melinda, who by all accounts has supplanted decades of emotional chaos with stability. She is warm, strong and candid, laughs easily and, at 51, is energetic enough to keep up with two children under 2. Upstairs in the Wilson home, curled on a love seat in the living room near a large oil painting of Daria, she says she admires her husband’s resilience. “He’s the most trusting person--far more tolerant than I could ever be in terms of giving people second chances and not holding back, because he’s been burned so many times,” Melinda says. “He’s just untouched when it comes to that kind of stuff.”
The pall of the Landy occupation lifted overnight, Andy Paley recalls. "[Brian] called me the day after the conservancy trial was settled. Literally. ‘Hey, I can do whatever I want now. Come on over.’ Not long after that, he started going out with Melinda.” It wasn’t Brian’s first go-round with Melinda Ledbetter. He had met the onetime model at West L.A.'s Martin Cadillac in 1986, five years after his divorce from his first wife. “I sold him a car in like three seconds,” Melinda laughs. “I said, ‘Don’t you want to look at another color?’ It was the ugliest brown car you’ve ever seen in your life. And he goes, ‘No, that’s the one I want.’ ”
The guy was a little eccentric, she recalls thinking, but also refreshingly unguarded. “I didn’t know him from Adam, and he started talking about his [late] brother Dennis. It was very touching,” she says. A week later, Landy called and arranged a date. For the next three years, the psychologist choreographed and closely monitored the courtship; then he abruptly ended it. “I think [Landy] thought I was just some dumb blond that he could manipulate,” she says. “I was onto him and that scared him.”
After the legal wrangling, Wilson and Melinda hooked up again and married in 1995. “I regained my life when the Dr. Landy program was terminated,” Wilson says. “She [Melinda] helped me get back into the swing of things. I started dealing with society and becoming a part of it again.” (He says he takes “no special medication” these days but declines to respond to a query about whether he has been diagnosed with any mental disorder.)
Wilson’s friends say Melinda has been an ideal partner, healing old rifts and dealing with legal entanglements. “When we got married, we were getting sued by eight people,” she says, “and [most of them have] gone away. I’ve been dealing with it, and [Brian’s] been able to concentrate on his music again.” And he’s talking again with daughters Carnie and Wendy after years of estrangement. Melinda reminds him to call or shop for their Christmas gifts. Brian’s vocals appear on a few tracks of the sisters’ 1997 record, “The Wilsons,” which he and Joe Thomas also helped produce. “It was quite an adventure, because I was never really close to them until we did some music together,” Wilson says. “It was a very big, mind-blowing experience.” (Carnie and Wendy Wilson declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Wilson vows to do better by his second set of girls. “I’m more in touch with the babies than I was with my two original daughters,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to watch them grow and be part of it. They inspire me by just smiling and talking and learning new things every day.”
And if the cacophony of a household containing five dogs (including Paul and Ringo), two cats and a drooling duo in diapers starts to grate, well, Daddy can just retreat to the sanctity of his studio to play the piano, which is where Melinda says she finds him when the reporter asks her to please retrieve her husband for just a few last questions. Disappearing into the house, she returns after a few minutes. “He said, ‘I’m through, no more,’ ” she shrugs. That’s it then; Brian Wilson is busy playing the piano.
“He’s a pure artist,” says Danny Hutton. “He doesn’t think about money or paying the rent. If he has a great piano and he’s comfortable physically, that’s all. He’s just pure music.”