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Brian Wilson interview

May 2002

WELL, you can’t blame me for asking. In the late sixties Brian Wilson was off his trolley on booze and barbiturates so he won’t remember what he was up to. So it is possible... “Daddy?”

“What?,” he shoots back, lounging in his palatial Los Angeles home while I sweat at my less-than-palatial West Bridgford terrace. I’m sweating because: a) This is Brian Wilson, he of the Beach Boys, the most successful group ever to come out of the US, the man responsible for Pet Sounds, a bona fide living legend, etc, etc. And b) my joke about us being related is falling flat. It doesn’t help that there is a slight time delay across the Atlantic and that his protective manager is listening in on the conversation, at times talking over us. In short, this is hard work.

“My name is Wilson,” I stress, now sounding like an imbecile. “Is there any chance we’re related?” “I doubt it, no,” laughs Wilson senior, who turns 60 next month. “What kinda name is Wilson? What nationality is that?” I explain it’s Scottish and there’s actually a Wilson tartan. “Oh, OK, well that’s good,” he politely replies, probably wondering if someone has slipped something in his tea.

Even taking into account my own stupidity it is hard to get a conversation going. He’s not being rude, he just doesn’t say a lot, both physically and mentally slowed by past excesses — including alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health problems. Was he a victim of the time or was it a simple case of self-destruction? “I think it was something personal. I don’t relate to my family through alcohol. My wife doesn’t drink alcohol.” He blames himself? “Yes.”

Although he does accept that his father Murry, who originally managed the group, didn’t help his state of mind. Or his hearing — he is deaf in one ear, a result of a paternal smack round the head. Murry would later sell his son’s publishing company behind his back. “He was rather a domineering person,” says Brian. Not that he didn’t fight back. After one beating he defecated on a plate, slipped an overturned soup bowl on it and left it for his father at the dinner table.

Wilson has two grown-up children with his first wife and a four and five-year-old, both adopted, with his second wife. “I’m a good father. He was a bad father,” he insists. Wilson says he forgave his father “after time”, but didn’t attend his funeral in 1973.

The Beach Boys were brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love and school friend Al Jardine. Within two years of forming in 1961 they had huge hits, including California Girls, I Get Around and Surfin’ USA, that painted a picture of West Coast sun, fun and surfing. But a punishing schedule took its toll and by 1966 Brian had had two nervous breakdowns. He retired from performing with the group (and was replaced for a time by Glen Campbell), fell out with his father and discovered barbiturates. He would return to write and perform with the group several times but over the next two decades there were continual problems of addiction, court battles with band members and suicide attempts.

“The lowest point was about 20 years ago when I was hiding out in my bedroom,” says Wilson. “I went through a very low part of my life. A bottom of the bath tub kinda thing.” So what got him through? “My name. My willpower.” The problems didn’t stem his creativity and in 1966 The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, mostly written and produced by Brian. In 1995 Mojo magazine conducted a survey among major musicans, songwriters and producers to find the greatest album of all time. Pet Sounds won.

Wilson had wanted to better The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. “I tried to but we didn’t. I don’t think so.” Though he adds: “But it’s just as good. It is the best album we have ever recorded.” So what is the greatest album of all time? “Sail Away by Randy Newman. Let It Be (The Beatles) and Phil Spector’s Christmas album. I don’t really listen to modern music. I play Phil Spector records.”

His latest album is a live version of Pet Sounds recorded at London’s Royal Festival Hall with an audience including the likes of Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton. It is the same show that comes to the Royal Concert Hall next Friday. The first half is Beach Boys hits, the second the Pet Sounds album track by track. “We wanted to keep the album alive. We thought people would like the live performances.” They did, but Wilson is used to praise from all quarters, often called a “legend” and “genius” in normally sober newspapers and magazines. “I don’t think genius but I think legend, yeah.” Why? “Because I’ve been around for almost 40 years. It’s a long time to be around and that’s why I’m called a legend.”

Many consider he is lucky to be alive. But these days Wilson is off the booze and keeping fit. “I run every day. I go to a park and run around the park, every day. I stopped drinking alcohol about three or four years ago. I feel a lot better since I stopped.”

Both his brothers are now dead: Dennis drowned in 1983, Carl from cancer in 1998. “It was fate,” he says. “My brothers were meant to die. I couldn’t handle it for a while but then I got used to it and started to handle it a little bit. But it was hard for me.”

Mike Love, who once sued Wilson for songwriting royalties and received $5m, is no friend, he says. “We don’t have a relationship now. It’s been that way for about five years.” He adds: “It’s just my new friends, not my old friends at all. We’re bad vibes for each other, we don’t get along. Our relationships burned out.”

Not having visited Nottingham before, how does he picture the city? “I just wonder where Liverpool is. I’ve never been to Liverpool.” Errrr, where is he going? As I sign off, it becomes less clear. “Thank you very much. I’ll see you backstage in London.”

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