Brian Wilson, in the present tense

You’re probably familiar with that annoying cliché job interview question where an unimaginative examiner asks you, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult situation.” Speaking of interview questions, I was well aware that although Brian Wilson has a most impressive body of work behind him as a composer and arranger, answering such questions from journalists isn’t exactly his strong suit; in fact, he’s notorious for terse, sparsely worded responses and an air of disconnectedness when apart from a piano (I trust I don’t have to give a medical summary and capsule history of his many struggles throughout his life). Dealing with a fair way to treat this interview subject would be a good final-exam question in my line of work, but I did my best. I also knew that I’d want to interview another band member to get his perspective on Wilson, suspecting that he’d be able to explain the pop-music legend far better than the man himself. As for the result, you, as always, can be the judge. As originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 17, 2015.

Brian Wilson, in the present tense

As he turns 73, the former Beach Boy is still writing and performing, but is he being overshadowed by his own story?

Summer has come around again; so, for another season, has Brian Wilson. The legendary pop composer has long outlived his two younger brothers and fellow Beach Boys — Carl by 17 years, Dennis by more than 30. He’s survived the splintering of his old band, now led by his cousin/ex-collaborator/frenemy Mike Love; save for a well-received 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012, the group’s endless summer has seen more endless bickering and lawsuits than harmony among the players. Last but certainly not least, Wilson has survived decades of crises due to mental illness, as documented in innumerable newspaper and magazine accounts and, compellingly, in the current biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as his 1960s and ’80s selves.

What, then, should one make of the actual Brian Wilson in 2015? Seemingly against all odds, Wilson not only abides but appears to be thriving. Unlike most of us, the aging icon’s inner child gets to come out nearly constantly, on film, on record and in real life. Those close to him — family, friends, fellow musicians — have long learned to make allowances. Diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, he’s endured auditory hallucinations since the ’60s yet now functions well enough in the place he feels most comfortable — the recording studio — and even in a place that long terrified him — the stage. On Tuesday, three days after his 73rd birthday, he’ll be with his band at Bass Concert Hall, not only basking in the “Love & Mercy” attention but touring behind a new album, “No Pier Pressure.” It’s Wilson’s 11th solo record, but rest assured: plenty of the set list consists of the songs fans expect to hear. Wilson is still crafting minisymphonies. They may not all be great art, but the common thread is a longing for a perfect love and a perfect world that never really existed. You listen to get your recommended dose of nostalgic, wistful optimism in spite of everything. And, of course, those harmonies.

“Love & Mercy,” though filled with compassion for Wilson’s troubles, inevitably rehashes them for the old fan and newbie alike: the breakdowns, the drugs, the years in bed, the years under the thumb of quack therapist Eugene Landy. To its credit, it delves deeply into the reason we’re interested in this story in the first place: Wilson’s singular talents as a composer, producer and arranger. The film lingers on the nuts and bolts of the recording process as young Brian directs the Wrecking Crew, a group of seasoned session musicians, in the forging of the Beach Boys’ influential ’60s masterpiece, “Pet Sounds.” From that time, in every possible way, Brian Wilson’s head would be a long way from surfin’ safaris and hamburger stands.

Has any pop or rock musician been as well known for mental struggles as Brian Wilson? (Kurt Cobain may come in at a distant second, with apologies to local candidates Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston.) Admit it: The difference between the ethereal harmony Wilson pursues in his songs and the well-known discord and tumult in his personal life is captivating stuff. The story of the tortured artist who spends his life creating lasting works of great beauty but suffers greatly for it may have become a cliché, but sometimes it happens.

Most artists, when interviewed, are happy, or at least willing, to talk about themselves and their work; not this guy. For years, one reporter after another assigned to interview Wilson has suffered through awkward silences and minimalist responses. That’s much my experience too. Spending 10 minutes with Wilson on the phone recently, as he zooms down the road fresh from an outdoor daytime concert in Philadelphia to the next venue in north Jersey, he comes off as largely detached; not hostile, just not completely present. After a few minutes of this, the last thing you want to do is keep barking questions into his one good ear. You just want to leave him alone.

Q: “No Pier Pressure” is your 11th solo album, quite an accomplishment for any musician, never mind all your work with the Beach Boys. In your mind, have you finally put the Beach Boys behind you?

A: Yeah, because the Beach Boys wanted to go on tour, y’know, without me, but I’m going to go on tour in June.

Q: When you look back on your life, what were the times that you were happiest?

A: When I was in the studio with the Beach Boys.

The oft-told tale of Wilson’s personal travails, often framed within a California-dream-vs.-dark-reality context, has often overshadowed the actual music he was making, even when that music was by and large extraordinary, like the refabricated “Smile,” abandoned in 1967, then completed and triumphantly taken on the road in 2004. One shouldn’t have to pretend that “No Pier Pressure” ranks with “Pet Sounds” or “Smile” — it has its moments, but also too much sugary adult contemporary schmaltz and a few too many guest artists — but then, one doesn’t listen to Brian Wilson for edginess and acerbic putdowns. When asked what he wanted to express with the new album, he responds, “Mellowness and happiness.”

“Love & Mercy” was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his wife, Melinda, and Wilson calls the movie “very factual and very well-portrayed.” Asked if it bothers him to have his personal life and past troubles so publicly out there and whether it frustrates him when people focus on that rather than his music, he answers, “It does not bother me, because that movie spoke for itself. That movie is a good movie.”

Paul Von Mertens, Wilson’s longtime musical director on tour, does confess some frustration, though. “For me,” he says, “the real story is who he is as a person and as a musician, and the (focus on the) somewhat lurid history really has very little to do with the music and also with Brian’s own heart and soul. He’s a gentle spirit; he had some real painful times in his life, and it would be nice if he could just live in the present and make music and enjoy doing it, because that’s who I know him to be: a guy who’s really gentle, incapable of being mean or sarcastic. That’s the guy that I know and that I love. The other stuff, that’s old news to me.”

Von Mertens (who also plays with Poi Dog Pondering) says the friction reported in the press when the 50th reunion tour ended was misinterpreted. “The tour was always intended to be a finite thing. From the beginning, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to do 50 shows, and that’s it.’ They ended up extending it and doing 75 shows, so everybody went beyond their original commitment because it was going really well and everybody was having a good time. But the agreement was always that everybody would go back to doing what they were doing.”

Von Mertens says the Wilson and Love camps got along reasonably well in 2012. “It was like being at a Thanksgiving dinner with a slightly dysfunctional family every day for six months,” he says. “For some reason, people are fascinated by discord. Mike was kind and gracious to Brian, and I must say, some of the shows were epic, like the most stunning experiences I’ve had on stage. There’s an inherent friction in the Beach Boys’ music that makes it interesting, and this is just my point of view, but Mike is ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ and Brian is ‘In My Room.’ And you can’t separate the two. And the tension that’s built into that was part of the chemistry that has always made the band interesting, and it sparked a lot of vitality for the music.”

Even in our brief phone chat, Wilson struck me as someone who lives very much in the present; Von Mertens, who has worked with him for around 17 years, confirms the man doesn’t like to dwell on the past. “Absolutely. Or the future. It’s what’s happening now — what time do we eat, when is sound check, what time’s the show, when are we going back to the hotel — that is what’s usually on his mind.”

That’s been the case, Von Mertens adds, ever since he’s known Wilson. “Always, yeah. Not a whole lot of examination of the past and motivations and personalities and conflict. It’s just not something that he talks about. At all. Ever. It’s really, like, what’s happening right now. ‘How do you feel? How’s your wife? How’s your kids?’ Those are the kinds of things that he asks me. ‘What kind of music are you working on? Don’t waste your time learning to type, you should be working on music!’ I mean, that’s who Brian is to me.”

Who is the real Brian Wilson? And should it matter to anyone except the man himself, and those close to him? In the end, it might be reasonable to conclude that this survivor, as he ushers in yet another summer filled with his ethereal, eternal harmonies, has already given us more than enough of himself.


Here’s a link to my concert review, to which I took my 10-year-old son; it was his first “adult” concert. Coincidentally, my first “adult” concert was a Beach Boys show at Boston Garden, which I attended soon after arriving at college at age 17. There’s the circle game for you.


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