Esquire, Jun 2016
What I’ve Learned – Brian Wilson, musician, 73.
“How long’s this gonna take, about 15 minutes?” Not the most promising start to an interview, admittedly, but then Brian Wilson has been known to leave after five if the mood takes him. He’s just not like regular folks. He doesn’t mean to be rude, his publicist Jean explained, as she walked me up the stairs to meet him. “He’s just not really a words person.”
It’s an odd experience. We’re in the music room of his Beverly Hills home, in a gated community off Mulholland Drive, and he’s sat on the couch before me, a big man, six-three, with swept back silver hair and a loud Hawaiian shirt. And every question I ask is batted back with the briefest of replies – less a conversation as a tennis match – after which he looks at me, waiting for the next one. It’s an unwavering look and a little disconcerting, but also open and simple, no menace in it at all. He’s not annoyed, this is just his way – curt, childlike answers, often no more than an enthusiastic “yep!” or a “no!” or a “I don’t know!”.
Writing the autobiography, he says was “fun”. Fun in what way? “It brought back memories.” Was there a period you especially enjoyed looking back on? “No!”
Maybe fatherhood is a better topic. Wilson’s late father propelled the Beach Boys to fame, as their first manager, but he also beat Brian as a child, arguably causing his deafness in his right ear, and ultimately sold the Beach Boys publishing for a trifling amount, denying his children millions. So how does he think of his father now?
“He was a good coach. He said, ‘get in there and kick ass!’ Yeah.”
What about the conflicts, do you think about those?
What have you learned about fatherhood?
“Fathers should take care of their kids.”
And so the interview goes, in this staccato fashion, awkward pauses and all.
This is how the autobiography was written – through two years of interviews – all of it in Wilson’s idiosyncratic voice. But what a story. The sensitive genius from Los Angeles, who at 23 overcame his many insecurities – and opposition from his band and Capitol Records – to compose, arrange, produce and perform one of the most enduring albums of the 60s. And then Wilson disappeared. He started to hear voices, and fell under the sway of a sinister controlling doctor, Dr Landy, a story best told in last year’s movie Love & Mercy. He was the lost icon, a cautionary tale, a tragedy no doubt. And then nearly 40 years later, he returned with Smile, and a late flurry of productivity – nine albums in fifteen years. He’s 73 now and as busy as ever.
But talking about it is not his forte. Here’s what I learn. If he had his time again, he’d avoid drugs. “LSD made me more creative,” he says. “It helped me write Pet Sounds. But the voices started after LSD too.” He still hears the voices. That faraway look he sometimes has isn’t because he’s stoned, it’s because of the schizo-affective disorder – the voices are screaming at him, even while he’s on stage. “They say different things,” he says. “Like ‘we’re going to hurt you’. It’s crazy! But not all the time, yeah. Like every other day.”
What about today?
He’s happiest at the piano. Music, he says, is joy. It’s love. The thing he likes most about dogs is their bark – “it’s just such an interesting sound”. And the English appreciate his music more than Americans do – “you can tell by the way they clap”. He doesn’t know what “genius” means. He doesn’t know how he lost his fear of flying either. And don’t ask him how he feels about how the world has changed since he was a kid. “I can’t answer that!” He doesn’t listen to modern music. The 80s is about as modern as he gets. But he loves Los Angeles, he’s never lived anywhere else. What does he like best about it? This is a tricky one, he thinks for a moment. And then: “The restaurants.”
It’s easy to feel sad for Brian, the exploited artist, the sensitive boy who like Michael Jackson was so traumatized by a violent stage dad that it left him in a state of child-like naivety for the rest of his life. But Wilson isn’t fragile, or bitter. While so many sixties icons have passed on, he’s thriving. “Seriously tough” is how John Cusack described him, when making Love & Mercy.
The one thing he loves to talk about is his daily routine. “I have my breakfast. I comb my hair. And I go to the park and I take walks. And then I come home and watch television. Like the news or Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.” And then he plays the piano, which “keeps me happy.” That’s his secret, he says. “My secret is that I don’t use drugs and I play the piano.”
With that, he puts his hand out. “Want to help me up?” We’ve spent 40 minutes together. “I enjoyed this interview very much,” he says.
I tell him I’m surprised. People think he doesn’t like interviews.
“I love interviews, are you kidding?”
What does he like about them?