Brian Wilson

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By Jeremy Miles

It should be like a dream come true. Beach Boys’ genius Brian Wilson is singing to me. Sadly the sweet, pitch-perfect magic that swept those sixties hits into the hearts and minds of a generation has been ravaged by years of sickness and medication.

The horrible truth is, that droning his latest release down a trans-Atlantic telephone line, poor battered and bewildered Brian Wilson sounds dreadful. The soaring falsetto is no more.  

It’s not even a new song, it’s his re-arranged version of that hoary old 1940s hit That Lucky Old Sun - a number which was a big hit for Frankie Laine and subsequently  reworked by everyone from Louise Armstrong to Bob Dylan.

Now Wilson, with a little help from some talented friends including his old Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks, has made the song the centre-piece of a work  in five movements.  With additional music, lyrics and spoken word it is now called Lucky Old Sun (a narrative). 

Speaking from California,  Wilson tells me he was playing his piano one day and just started doodling the number. He slips into the opening verse: “….Up in the morning/Out on the job /Work so hard for my pay…”

That was it. Suddenly he says he realised: “ I gotta go the music store and buy Louise Armstrong’s version and bring it home and learn it.”

This he did and now he tells me in his slurred stop-go. voice: “We’re going to fly all the way over the sea, all the way to London just to play you That Lucky Old Sun -a narrative.”

 “London” seems to be what Wilson calls anywhere in the British Isles. Although to be fair that is precisely where he is this week, enjoying  a six night residency at the Royal Festival Hall to launch the new season at the Southbank Centre.

On Monday the 65-year-old  musician will hit the road, taking his new masterwork on a tour of the UK. Among the venues lucky enough to secure an appearance has been   Bournemouth’s Opera House.

 There. on September 20, backed by what will undoubtedly be a sublimely talented 10 piece band, Wilson will be the focal point of an evening that is likely to be more about a popular music legend who has survived against all odds than new, cutting edge material.

The voice may be shot but he’ll be surrounded by note-perfect session people and, as anyone who witnessed his Smile tour two or three years back can  testify, the spirit of Brian Wilson remains somehow miraculously intact. Whatever he does it WILL sound absolutely brilliant and, however little input he appears to have, it simply would not be the same without him. 

Talking to Wilson is not easy. Conversation doesn’t flow in a necessarily logical manner, questions can get abrupt one word answers or cause him to spiral off at a tangent.

I am of course thankful that he’s able to talk at all. Damaged by mental illness and drugs, he was for years a complete recluse.

His story starts with the Beach Boys - the band he formed back in the early 1960s with his brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. They found instant success but the pressures of performing and clashes with the brothers’ overbearing father/manager Murry Wilson sent the sensitive Brian spiralling out of control. 

With hindsight it is clear that he was suffering from the onset of paranoid schizophrenia but at the time they just called it a nervous breakdown and told him to rest.  Too frightened to perform, Brian stayed in the background composing classics like God Only Knows and Good Vibrations.

Fighting his demons with marijuana and LSD, he got weirder and weirder. The stories are legion: how he spent most of his time playing in the huge sand-pit he’d had installed in his front room that’s when he wasn’t smoking or tripping in his special drug-tent, ingesting industrial quantities of hallucinogenics.

The Wilson boys, who were wasted and  falling out among themselves, made some spectacularly unwise friends. For a while Dennis even had the soon to become demonic killer Charles Manson as a house guest.  

This band had in just a few short years gone from being squeaky-clean purveyors of all American surf music to a miserable drug-addled mess with Brian - the once brilliant young composer - ending up as an unwashed, terrified, 24 stone gibbering wreck. Eventually he was unable to do anything but accept help.

With much love, professional assistance  and carefully controlled medication, he is finally back functioning as a creative person, writing, performing.  It’s taken a long, long time but, over the past 10 years, glimpses of the Wilson genius are once more evident. They are only glimpses though. Against all odds Brian is now the only Wilson brother left alive. Dennis drowned in 1979 and Carl died of lung cancer in 1998 Brian says that playing the old Beach Boys hits  is a bitter-sweet experience. 

“They’re good songs, they really are they carry the show.” But do they evoke happy memories? Wilson thinks for a moment: Then answers the question with great care and deliberation: “God Only Knows does, and Caroline No, and California Girls and those kind of songs do, but some of the songs bring back uncomfortable memories like the death of my brothers or something….I miss my family a lot, but you know, I can’t do much about it.”

Despite his clearly fragile state, he insists: “I’m  feeling good now? I’m feeling better now than I have in 15 years.”

 Certainly the terror of appearing live on stage seems to have been overcome. He tells me he feels most at home when  performing and when I remind him that it wasn’t always like that, he tells me:  “Well I got used to it and the shows are really good. We’ve improved the musicianship ten times over.”

I say the 2004 UK concerts, when he played the Bournemouth Pavilion,  were sensational and he tells me:  “Well the presentation of Lucky old Sun will probably blow you away... We’re growing musically and we’re going somewhere, getting someplace with it.”

Just for a moment Brian seems to getting back to his old self. But it soon becomes clear that everything he has been through  has exacted a terrible price.

I ask him if he is still able to hear great songs in his head, if he can still compose wonderful multi-faceted works with complex layers of sound.

 “ Not any more,” he says, his voice suddenly sounding flat and dull. “I have to hear it on the keyboard.”

© Jeremy Miles 2022