A brief conversation with music legend Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys
"Genius" and "legendary" are words that are tossed around lightly these days, but when they were applied to Brian Wilson beginning in the mid-1960s, it was highly appropriate.
Wilson and his teenage brothers, Carl and Dennis, founded the Beach Boys, a Los Angeles-based pop group that sent a clear and powerful message to millions of kids from coast to coast. Hidden within the brothers' beautiful barbershop quartet harmonies and Chuck Berry riffs were joyful love letters about hot rods, hamburger stands, surfboards and L.A.'s endless sunshine. The hit singles "Surfer Girl," "409" and "Surfin' Safari" ignited a hunger for all things Southern California that hadn't been felt since the Dust Bowl migration in the 1920s.
To enhance their roles within the band, Carl Wilson learned to play the guitar and Dennis Wilson taught himself to play the drums. Brian's cousin, Mike Love, joined the Beach Boys and quickly became Wilson's singing and songwriting partner. Classmate Al Jardine also came aboard as the group's bassist. Beginning in 1962, the Beach Boys enjoyed a phenomenal ride to the top of the music business as they evolved into successful recording artists and highly sought-after live performers. On a Sunday evening in July 1964, the band played at the Milwaukee Auditorium for 8,712 ecstatic teens – most of them girls.
Just when it seemed they couldn't fly any higher, the bottom fell out …
In 1965, the 23-year-old Wilson suffered a debilitating nervous breakdown that forced him to stop performing with the group he created. A young L.A. session musician, Glen Campbell, was hired to take Wilson's place on that year's concert schedule. Meanwhile, Brian stayed home to recover and write new material for the band. Although his struggle with mental illness was just beginning, Brian was able to work uninterrupted in the recording studio while his band was on tour.
It was during this time that he fully realized his talents as a writer, arranger, producer and musician all rolled into one. Wilson was hailed as being lightyears ahead of his time as he pioneered new recording techniques that predated the digital era by decades. Wilson's ability to use the studio as another musical instrument rather than just the vehicle to capture songs left his peers in awe. Every so often, Brian came up with something truly amazing.
In between the periods of genius, however, the specter of serious drug addiction loomed along with the ever-present possibility that he would succumb to the madness from which there was no return.
And in that way, the 1970s, '80s and '90s slipped thru his fingers. Wilson's father, Murry, who died in 1973, was a frustrated musician and songwriter who shrewdly pushed his teenage sons into a recording studio when he deduced that their talent could make the family some money. Over their objections, he made himself the Beach Boys' manager as soon as they started to show some promise.
In 1983, Brian's brother Dennis drowned in what may have been a suicide. The youngest brother, Carl, died from cancer in 1998. Ultimately, Brian was rescued from being the next Wilson to die through countless interventions, rehabilitations and intense therapies that came as a result of the unwavering support from his family and friends.
In 2019, at age 77, Brian Wilson is still standing, a rock and roll warrior who survived four decades of hell. On Sunday, Sept. 22, Wilson will bring his show to the Riverside Theater. Along with former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, Wilson will perform songs from 1968's "Friends" and 1971's "Surf's Up" in addition to other favorite Beach Boys songs. Wilson doesn't give many interviews; he's far more comfortable playing his music than talking about it. Nevertheless, he spoke briefly with OnMilwaukee prior to his Riverside appearance.
OnMilwaukee: When did you realize you were able to perform in concert again?
Brian Wilson: Almost 20 years ago, I decided I could do it. It took a long time.
You've endured so much and come out on the other side. The ongoing battle with mental illness could mean as much as the music to many of your fans.
I can't really answer that, because … because I guess I don't know the answer. All I know is things were intense. Very intense.
When you wrote songs about Los Angeles, what was going through your head?
I always admired the way my mother sang. We were a musical family. The cars and other stuff were just things I liked.
You're considered of the top songwriters in modern history. Another great songwriter, Paul McCartney, is one of your biggest fans.
He once told me that "God Only Knows" is the most beautiful song he ever heard.
How did you come to understand the way to manipulate the tools in a recording studio to achieve your unique sound?
A lot of experimentation. I just tried to do the best I could. It's hard to explain.
Your brothers are gone, and somehow you're the one who's still here.
Yeah. My dad died a long time ago, too.
How does all that make you feel?
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