By Lee Zimmerman
Brian Wilson shuffles onstage at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier Hall in downtown Montreal, looking every bit like the 74-year-old senior statesman he is. Unlike others of his generation who are still treading the boards — Paul McCartney, the Stones, even the somewhat craggy Bob Dylan — Wilson makes no attempt to move about like the young man he once was. Anyone who’s seen him and his stellar backing band perform in recent times knows what to expect — a somewhat solemn hulk of a man sitting impassively behind his keyboard (which, one has come to know, is often more of a prop than a purposeful instrument.) His stage manner is perfunctory. “This is the first song I ever wrote,” he proclaims as he introduces “Surfer Girl” seven tunes in. His stage patter sounds well rehearsed and no doubt it is, although after repeating the line countless times over the course of the past several years, it’s somewhat rote by now.
Still, this concert, dedicated to replaying his epic “Pet Sounds” in its entirety, is billed as a special event, one of several highlights at the 2016 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, or, simply, the Montreal Jazz Festival as it’s known to much of the world. While there’s a wealth of international stars participating in this, the 37th edition of this famed festival — Jamie Cullum, Joe Jackson, Kool & the Gang, Rufus Wainwright, the Wainwright Sisters, Lauryn Hill, Noel Gallagher, Marcus Miller, Wynton Marsalis, Larry Coryell, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, among them — no performance is as widely anticipated as Wilson and company, including special guests Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, doing their song-by-song recreation of the album that launched Wilson and The Beach Boys into the upper stratosphere of undeniable and iconic genius.
It’s been just over 50 years since that landmark album first appeared, on May 16, 1966, to be precise, and while it wasn’t necessarily enthusiastically received at first due to a lack of songs covering familiar Beach Boys topics — surfing, surfer girls, oceans and cars in particular — it’s taken on a hallowed status ever since. Now considered one of the greatest albums ever made, rivaled only by The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which it supposedly influenced, it’s as deserving of an anniversary replay as the legendary “Smile” was a dozen years or so ago, and The Beach Boys themselves merited in 2012. Ironically, 2016 also marks the 50th anniversary of Wilson’s retreat from touring, instigated by his well-documented breakdown on an airplane bound from Los Angeles to Houston on December 23, 1964, which is when the 22-year-old erstwhile genius suffered a panic attack and bowed out of touring for the next 10 years.
The respite allowed him to conceive not only the two aforementioned masterpieces, but the albums that led in to them as well. Both of those efforts — “Today!” and “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” — preceded “Pet Sounds” and paved the way for that project, both in terms of the songwriting and in the richness of the arrangements. Inspired and, by his own admission, intimidated by The Beatles “Rubber Soul,” Wilson began plotting a new direction for The Beach Boys’ future trajectory, and from 1966 until the end of the decade, the evolution of the group would be all too obvious.
Not surprisingly, Wilson doesn’t address his refusal to tour when queried about it a month later. “I can’t live up to my name unless I go out on tour,” he says during a brief break in the marathon tour that took “Pet Sounds” not only to Montreal, but across the U.S. and to Europe and the Far East. “So I go out on tour to live up to my name.”
Unlike his reputation as an extraordinarily ambitious, imaginative and farsighted musician who heard things the way mere mortals couldn’t, Wilson’s way of speaking in conversation finds him failing to elaborate or embellish his responses. He talks in a deadpan manner while obligingly answering questions in a sentence or less, as if striving to dispose of them quickly. Trying to engage him and getting him to elaborate is a challenge to say the least.
“It’s going good,” he replies when asked about how he’s coping with such a marathon touring schedule, one that began with overseas dates in March, continued across the U.S. in June and culminated, as of this writing, with a final date at London’s Royal Albert Hall at the end of October. As far as the extent of the tour, he simply says this: “We had a little home stand and then we’re going out for a couple of months in five days.”
Still, considering his disdain for roadwork in the ‘60s and his apparent enthusiasm to embrace it now that he’s in his 70s, one might be naturally curious about the change in attitude toward hitting the road, especially since he’s at an age where he could afford to retire and not put himself through the rigors of getting up in front of an audience,
“I have a lot of fun doing concerts,” he says simply.
In fact, Wilson’s decision to make himself available to fans could be considered some kind of vindication, at least to an outside observer. Certainly the evidence would indicate as much. “Smile,” the planned follow-up to “Pet Sounds,” proved traumatic to say the least. Prone to stretch the limits of recording and pop music itself, Wilson obsessed over the songs, incorporating an array of avant-garde sounds and unwieldy influences that were intended to span the entire history of popular music within one sprawling opus. Wilson declared his intention to create the greatest pop album ever made, his self-styled “Teenage Symphonies to God.” Ultimately though, “Smile” was abandoned; dismissed by the group, with its creator overwhelmed and feeling defeated, it morphed into “Smiley Smile,” a still potent effort that retained elements of the original but ultimately proved a pale substitute. Consequently, when Wilson saw a chance to revive it early in the millennium, both by re-imagining in it under his own aegis and then by playing it live to spellbound audiences, he was able to resurrect this lost masterpiece and present it as it was originally intended.
Likewise, The Beach Boys reunion tour of 2012 also offered opportunity to bask in the glory due a band that literally redefined American music for the ages. It brought a temporary end to the schism that found Mike Love and Brian’s original touring substitute Bruce Johnston, backed by a bunch of hired guns with no relation to the original band, reserving The Beach Boys banner all for themselves. It found Wilson, Al Jardine and original guitarist David Marks brought back into the fold, and as a result, the tour was a triumph, a celebration not only of the group’s legacy, but also the fact that the band — sans the two departed Wilsons, Dennis and Carl — were reunited for one common cause.
Shockingly, however, once the tour ended, Mike Love reinforced the wicked reputation he’s held with many of the band’s fans and abruptly fired Wilson, Jardine and Marks, opting instead to resume touring with Johnston and his substitute Beach Boys in tow. Bitterness still lingered. “I was cheated out of writing credits by my cousin and by my uncle, Murry Wilson,” Love told this interviewer earlier this year. “I wrote every single syllable of ‘California Girls’ and nearly all of ‘I Get Around.’ I came up with the hook. I wrote nearly all of ‘Surfin’ USA’ and I still haven’t been credited on that song. I wrote most of ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ (sings) ‘Since you put me down, I’ve been out doing in my head.’ Those were my lines, my concepts.”
(In concert, Wilson only refers to Love fleetingly. Introducing “California Girls,” he notes, “Mike sang this one. He couldn’t be here tonight.” Later, when asked if he attempted to recruit his cousin and Bruce Johnston for the “Pet Sounds” celebration, he demurs, “It was a dead issue before it started. They both didn’t like it very much at first, but they liked it more later.”)
“We had a ball on the reunion tour and we were thinking, ‘We’re not stopping. We’re not done yet.’” Al Jardine told me after that outing ended. “Maybe that other guy (Love) was ready to go back and be whatever he wanted to be as the, quote Beach Boys, close quote … but Brian and I and David are still creating. So this is our version of the reunion tour, doing a lot of similar songs, but a lot of new ones too. We’ve been working on this quite awhile. I was with Brian on the 2006 “Pet Sounds” tour, and then David joined recently for the reunion. So we’re going, ‘Hey, we’re having a good time. Why quit?’”
Marks is no longer involved, but regardless, 50 years on, “Pet Sounds” is being touted as a triumph, although as in the case of “Smile,” The Beach Boys’ initial reaction to Wilson’s demos were lukewarm at best. “They had a rough time with it,” he recalls. “They couldn’t do the whole album live.”
Indeed, with its elaborate soundscapes and outlandish array of instrumentation, “Pet Sounds” was a challenge musically and thematically as well. While “Caroline, No” was credited to Brian Wilson alone, the other songs could have just as easily encompassed what could have been Wilson’s first definitive step outside The Beach Boys toward the individual billing he would later claim for himself. “Yeah, it was, yeah,” he replies if in essence “Pet Sounds” was the first Brian Wilson solo album. “Right, right.”
As reticent as The Beach Boys were to embrace it, critics and fans were even more hesitant in their acceptance. Aside from “Sloop John B,” an adaptation of an old Jamaican folk song Jardine had discovered and which their label Capitol insisted on including to give the album a viable hit single, there was little in the way of the familiar sound that their earlier admirers could relate to. It was little wonder. With lyrics written by Tony Asher, songs such as “You Still Believe In Me,” “That’s Not Me,” I’m Waiting for the Day,” “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in particular were the most wistful and introspective works Wilson had written since “In My Room” nearly five years before. Reviews were mixed and, having entered the Billboard charts at an unimpressive 106 before gradually working its way into the Top 10, it ended up selling half a million copies, far less than its million-selling predecessors. It did fare far better in the U.K., where it reached No. 2 following critical kudos from such contemporaries as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Moon, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham and publicist Derek Taylor. Ironically, it was Johnston who acted as advance man by flying to London and premiering it for Lennon, McCartney and Moon. The Beatles were so taken with the disc that they decided to up the ante by incorporating many of its ideas into “Sgt. Pepper’s.” McCartney himself claimed that “God Only Knows” affected him so much, it literally made him weep.
“Yeah, he told me that,” Wilson recalls. As for talk about any competitive rivalry, Wilson dismisses that claim entirely. “We just talked about how much we liked each other’s music,” he insists.
Regardless, with the aforementioned troubles behind him, Wilson’s now taking what could be construed as a victory lap of sorts. He seems especially enthused about being able to recreate the sometimes elusive sound “Pet Sounds” purveyed to his once reluctant bandmates.
“It’s satisfying to know we can go out and recreate the same sounds we did in the studio,” Wilson nods. “We try to make the album sound just like it did on the album on the stage.”
Wilson says he still relied on the album’s original arrangements. “They were notated on paper and in my head both,” he says, noting that it took two weeks of rehearsals to get the band up to speed. Besides Jardine, the touring ensemble now includes Blondie Chaplin, a Beach Boy circa the early ‘70s; Billy Hinsche, whose own success as part of Dino, Desi & Billy made them teen sensations and Beach Boys contemporaries; Jardine’s son Matt, who supplies the majority of the fabled falsettos Wilson himself is no longer capable of producing; and the various musicians he’s toured with since his return in the late ‘90s — Gary Griffin, Nelson Bragg, Mike D’Amico, Probyn Gregory, Paul Mertens, Bob Lizik and Nick Walusko. [Note: For Probyn Gregory’s 10 Albums That Changed My Life, turn to page 48.]
“I knew we could do it because we did it before,” Wilson says, referring back to the 40th anniversary tour. “It is very satisfying. Very much. I go back to get the inspiration of how it felt to do it when I duplicate it onstage.”
Of course building an entire concert around an album that was less than 40 minutes long wouldn’t make for much of a show (“Okay, we’re going to turn the album over,” Wilson jokes when they reach the halfway point), so several obligatory Beach Boys classics are tossed in before and after the Pet Sound performance. Prior to the “Pet Sounds” portion, the familiar favorites are served up — “California Girls,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Sail On, Sailor,” the latter serving as Chaplin’s spotlight song. “Good Vibrations” then wraps up the formal set before they come back for an encore. Its placement is fitting considering the fact that it was originally written during the “Pet Sounds” sessions and thought to be intended for that album. “We decided to put it on another album, yeah,” Wilson explains later. “We just thought it was too good a record to put it on that album.”
“All Summer Long,” Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA, Fun, Fun, Fun” and Jardine’s still reliable “Help Me, Rhonda” provide the encore, and while Wilson’s vocals are workman-like at best throughout, the show’s final coda, “Love and Mercy,” still manages to add emotional impact. The group then takes a collective bow and Wilson becomes the first to leave the stage, making his exit as impassive as his entrance. The rest of the band lingers, especially Jardine, still resplendent in his white suit while hanging around on the edge of the stage to graciously chat with eager fans long after the house lights have come on.
“It’s still quite a lot of fun to make people happy. Yeah, it is,” Wilson reflects later. “We always get standing ovations and the crowds all love us. Each concert gets a little better.”
Still, even in this magnificent hall, with the crowds going crazy, one can’t help but get the impression that Wilson seems a bit detached. He sits impassively behind his piano, rarely acknowledging the music and sense of celebration going on around him. He cedes many of the vocals to others, and when he does sing solo — as he’s forced to on “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows” — he only seems intent on taking the song through to completion. There’s little inflection or nuance in his vocals, which might be attributed to his age and past infirmities.
What may be most disappointing is the matter of fact way Wilson responds to questions and shedding light on his earlier accomplishments. Again, that’s understandable considering the fact that he remains a reclusive individual as far as his private life is concerned.“They did a very factual and accurate portrayal of me. Yeah,” is the only comment he can muster when asked about his reaction to the film “Love and Mercy,” before admitting, somewhat surprisingly, that he was never actually on the set during filming. Even when pressed about what untold facts or interesting revelations might be contained in his upcoming autobiography, he remains curiously tight-lipped. “It’s a very factual book about my life,” he says simply. “It describes all the different trips I went through.“ Asked for factoids, he deigns to comment completely.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “I had a guy who interviewed me.”
On the other hand, it would be almost impossible for him to negate his accomplishments completely. “Sometimes I think, how did I do all that?” he concedes. Speaking of his progression from one album to the next, he adds, “We grew into a new album naturally. Yeah. That’s very true.” When it’s mentioned that unlike The Beatles and the Stones, he didn’t have a producer to partner with, he suggests that the pressure he was put under often made studio sessions a challenge, “It was,” he agreed. “But I pushed through it.”
Wilson’s memories of “Pet Sounds” still seem vivid, even if his answers to questions about the album are quite succinct. “After we were done, Mike heard the album and said, ‘Why don’t we call it Pet Sounds. I said, ‘Great, we’ll call it Pet Sounds. We took pictures at the zoo and then we used them for our album cover.” Yet when asked what prompted the band to go to the San Diego Zoo to shoot the photos to begin with, he blanks out completely.
“I can’t remember,” he says. “It’s been too long ago.”
It’s hard then to determine if Wilson retains any whiff of nostalgia behind that rigid demeanor, if he’s merely trying to reaffirm his legacy, or, perhaps, simply doing as he’s told. The question is put to him — does he think about the past much these days?
“I do,” he concedes. “I think about the good times a lot.”
In the meantime, for the fans, past reminders are everywhere, and there’s no small amount of product placement to assure the connection. A new “Pet Sounds” 50th anniversary edition was released recently, joining the various other reissues and permutations that preceded it. (This 2-CD set boasts the original album in mono and stereo, as well as a second disc of instrumental offerings and live recordings relating to “Pet Sounds” selections circa ’66 and beyond.) In addition, a CD/DVD collection, Brian Wilson and Friends, captures a special Sound Stage performance, while also adding to the bounty of Beach Boys classics covered live.
Ultimately, the inevitable question arises about Wilson’s future. Not that he can’t rest well on his laurels of course, but as he himself agrees, it would be a sadder world without his new music to grace our lives.
“I might produce another album. I don’t know. Maybe,” he responds before drawing the conversation to a conclusion.
And so we’re left, a bit starry-eyed, bewildered but plussed, all the while contemplating this reality of nostalgia in the now. GM