Born in 1941, Brian Wilson may well be the greatest composer of the 20th century. Those who may only know the Beach Boys for the simple summertime pop of their early surf music hits may be shocked by this statement, but those who have listened to his more complex music, particularly that made between 1965 and 1977, will know exactly what I mean.

Despite being deaf in one ear, Wilson composed and produced the vast majority of the Beach Boys' early hits (usually with a lyricist - Mike Love, Gary Usher and/or Roger Christian), melding the styles of Chuck Berry, the Four Freshmen and Phil Spector into the quintessence of summer fun, but there was always a dark side to Wilson's music - at the same time he was writing California Girls he was also writing the doomy ballad Guess I'm Dumb for Glen Campbell (with the notable exception of his work with Jan And Dean all Wilson's work outside the Beach Boys has resulted in commercial, if not critical, failure). See Beach Boys for more on his work with the band.

After 1964, Wilson's bipolar disorder made it difficult for him to tour, and he didn't tour regularly again until 1998. He spent the next few years in the studio, making some of the most beautiful music ever while the band toured without him. However his illness, and the band's decreasing popularity, made it difficult for him even to work in the studio, and his contributions to the band dwindled - after 1970's Sunflower, while he contributed at least one song to every album except Summer In Paradise the only album where he was clearly in control was The Beach Boys Love You - not coincidentally the best album the band have made in the last 30 years.

In recent years, Wilson has seemed to have become a lot happier and more mentally stable, and has released more music in the last 13 years than in the 20 preceding ones.

Albums Wilson has released outside the Beach Boys:


Brian Wilson (1988)
I Just Wasn't Made For These Times (1995)
Orange Crate Art (with Van Dyke Parks) (1995)
The Wilsons (as The Wilsons, with Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson) (1997)
Imagination (1998)
Live At The Roxy (2000)
Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live In London (2002)
Gettin' In Over My Head (2004)
Smile (see also Smile 2004) (2004)

Wilson's eponymous solo from 1988 was reissued in 2000 on Rhino with bonus tracks and liner notes. Completists should note however that while the sound quality is vastly improved the wrong mix of Melt Away was used by engineer Mark Linnet, so the older CD issue on Sire is necessary for obsessives.

Tracklist:

  1. Love And Mercy
  2. Walkin' The Line
  3. Melt Away
  4. Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long
  5. Little Children
  6. One For The Boys
  7. There's So Many
  8. Night Time
  9. Let It Shine
  10. Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight
  11. Rio Grande
  12. Bonus tracks:

  13. Brian On Love And Mercy
  14. He Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body To Move
  15. Being With The One You Love
  16. Let's Go To Heaven In My Car
  17. Too Much Sugar
  18. There's So Many (demo)
  19. Walkin' The Line (demo)
  20. Melt Away (early version - alternate vocal)
  21. Night Time (instrumental track)
  22. Little Children (demo)
  23. Night Bloomin' Jasmine (demo)
  24. Rio Grande (early version - compiled rough mixes)
  25. Brian on "Rio Grande"
  26. Brian On "The Source"

Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight...

How do you write about your hero without it tearing you apart?

I keep reading and re-reading the words I've written, tossing out huge reams of good prose. I look at the pieces that are left, and I try once again to put something on this skeleton, something with a heart, something that can breathe and live inside anyone that might read it.

And then I rip it apart again.

How do you write about your hero without it tearing you apart?

Brian Wilson's compositions are about life. The beauty and strangeness and humor of it all. He can capture the ecstasy of love, toss off a number about a proper diet, and in the next breath capture the tumult of life itself, and tie them all together so tightly and smoothly that George Gershwin would be in awe.

The phrase "ambient expression of humanity" doesn't fit anywhere else but here.

I have a mantra that I chant when I get writer's block. I'm gonna keep well my vegetables / cart off and sell my vegetables / I love you most of all / my favorite vegetable / I'm gonna be round my vegetables / I'm gonna chow down my vegetables / I love you most of all / my favorite vegetable If I have cucumbers nearby, or zucchini, I use them as drum sticks. Celery, never, for they have poor acoustics.

Good morning starshine,
            the earth says hello!

Once upon a time, I spent almost an entire month without leaving my bedroom. I took a chair, sat it in the closet, and would close the door for long, long periods, often going in in the morning and not coming out of my closet until late at night. I had this huge sketchpad that I would take in there with me, and on it I would write. The environment was so dark that I could not see the words on the paper, but I needed that sense of being hidden. The words would flow in the darkness; they would not in the light. I had an old homebrew stereo that I constructed from miscellaneous parts that resided in my closet as well. I would sit in there, listen to Smiley Smile or Surf's Up or The Beach Boys Love You on an endless loop and write and write and write and write...

Drove downtown in the rain 9:30 on a Tuesday night
Just to check out the late-night record shop
Call it impulsive, call it compulsive, call it insane
But when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop

I have the same Walkman I had in the 1980s and it still fits right in place on my belt, although in recent years it has become an iPod. I plug in and the world goes away.

Our Prayer (1:10)
Heroes and Villains (3:40)
God Only Knows (2:53)
Cabinessence (3:35)
Wonderful (2:24)
Wind Chimes (2:39)
Good Vibrations (3:37)
Wouldn't It Be Nice (2:33)
Solar System (2:50)
Orange Crate Art (3:01)
Vegetables (2:09)
Surf's Up (4:11)

There is a road that I still walk down almost every day. It is lined with an oft-rotating array of shops, and each of those shops has a memory or two in it for me. A hole-in-the-wall Mexican place, where I took my future wife on our first date as college students. A comic book store with the outside decorated almost entirely in graffiti comic art, in which I was exposed to the power of modern mythology. And at the end of the street...

There is a building at the end of that road that used to house a record shop; the shop went out of business about five years ago when the proprietor passed on, and nothing has moved into that building since.

The proprietor of the place was also named Brian. He was an older fellow who had a deep love for the Grateful Dead but could rattle off Pixies' b-sides without even a flinch. Even more amazing: all you had to do was mention some of your favorite music and he would immediately point you to something great that you had never heard before.

In this shop, I came into possession of my first SMiLE bootleg, and also a copy of Orange Crate Art.

I can still stand outside that empty shell and hear both Brians. One is holding a record under his arm with a glint in his eye; the other one is in some mystical California that never really existed except for in dreams.

It’s a matter of instinct, it’s a matter of conditioning
It’s a matter of fact
You can call me Pavlov’s dog
Ring a bell and I’ll salivate; how’d you like that?
Dr. Landy, tell me you’re not just a pedagogue
'Cause right now I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did
Well I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.

child child child father of the man father of the man father of the man
child child child father of the man father of the man father of the man
child child child father of the man father of the man father of the man

My first child is due on November 4. I have a photograph of him from the ultrasound sitting on my desk in a nice little brown wooden frame, and my eyes jump to it several times a day. He's lying on his back, his knees folded up against his belly, so small and tiny.

I spent a week decorating the baby room; it has a frog theme with pastel greens and white all over, similar to my nursery when I was tiny. He has a dresser that is an exact miniature copy of my own. I have come to enjoy sitting in the "bog," as we've come to call it, almost as if I were waiting for him to come.

I know that I am to be his father, but my heart is telling me that I will learn far more from him than he will ever learn from me.

I was born to love and to read and to write and to guide and to hold. From that moment of conception, an instant of complete shared love between my parents, I was made to be something. I grew and my eyes opened to the possibilities, always with a hand there to guide me when I needed it. Sometimes the hand came from mom, or dad; other times it came from a book or a phonograph speaker.

I failed. I succeeded. And failed again.

I want to be the father I always wanted to have.
I will come up short, and in those moments
in those empty terrifying moments when I do not know what to say or do
I will have only the hand of a child to guide me

It's all a wash. Close my eyes, take in a deep breath, and begin to walk forward. One step, one day, one minute, one second, one instant at a time.

So I’m lying here, just starting at the ceiling tiles
And I’m thinking about what to think about
Just listening and relistening to Smiley Smile
And I’m wondering if this is some kind of create drought
Because I am lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did
Well I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.

Brian Wilson in 11 words: enigmatic composer with intense psychological issues who wrote breathtakingly beautiful music.

To drivel onwards doesn't really do much. Pick up a copy of the remade SMiLE sometime, imbibe something relaxing, and just let your mind float with it. Listen to Pet Sounds, or The Beach Boys Love You, or Surf's Up.

He strikes a fundamental chord with me that it is useless to express in some sort of narrative. It explodes from my pores and drips from my eye. It weaves through my mind like a infinitely thin thread, tying so many pieces and thoughts together into a patchwork quilt of a new kind of reality.

He can take the brightest moments of my childhood and crash them headfirst into my nadir, and just as quickly turn to rhyming, melodic nonsense.

He is joy and sadness and love and hope and despair. All together.

Brian Wilson's music is the soundtrack of my life.

July 25, 2005

Dear Brian,

I have wanted to write to you for many years, but every time I start to press pen to paper, the words that flow from my pen were madness and emptiness. But I suppose you would understand that better than most.

For many years, you were the person I wrote to in my journal: it was almost a Dear Mr. Henshaw type of thing. I wrote to you because I knew that you would understand.

I will probably never have the chance to shake your hand and look into your eyes for a moment and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your music and what it has brought into my life. Perhaps that's for the best; my eyes almost fill with tears imagining it.

What I want to say is this: your music has brought incalculable beauty and joy into my life. You have guided me through some desperate moments, and been there too when all of the symphony of life is playing a crescendo.

To say any more is to dull it. Thank you.

T.S.

I've written that letter many times and even put it into an envelope a time or two. Maybe today I'll walk outside and put it in the mailbox and send it to that golden California.

And if you want to find me I’ll be out in the sandbox
Wondering where the hell all the love has gone
Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun
And singing ’fun, fun, fun.’

I have this novel that I have worked on for the last ten years. It's called Rings of Saturn and it is so terribly bloated and convoluted that often I can scarcely begin tinkering with it.

I suppose that on some level it is a biography, or at least an allegory of my life. The story focuses on two brothers, one of whom is an astronaut and the other a politician. They were both raised under harsh and unusual circumstances that made them focused on success in vastly different ways.

I wrote eight hundred pages before I realized that I was the astronaut and my oldest brother was the politician.

About once a month, I will pull out a set of Microsoft Word files that contain this behemoth of a novel (now clocking in around the 1,400 page mark) and tinker with it. I know in my heart that there is something truly great bubbling under the surface here, yet somehow I can't put myself that close to the flame. It sits in my mind all the time, turning over and over, and waiting for its moment.

* * *

There is a lengthy section of the book where the main character is sent on a solo flight to Saturn in order to retrieve some natural resources that are desperately needed on Earth. The character is put to sleep for many weeks on both legs of the flight, but is awake and completely alone for several days near Saturn as he completes his task.

He is desperately alone. It is quite possible that no other human has ever been as alone as he is as he circles Saturn and finishes his mission. He has left behind a home on the verge of collapse, both in a personal and ecological sense, and he has to decide whether to even return at all because of the potential dangers of his cargo.

As he drifts off to sleep each night, with the enormity of Saturn and its rings spinning in his view, he listens and relistens to Smiley Smile.

* * *

I will finish it, some day. At the same moment that I find it a failure, it is also carrying this enormous potential for the kind of beauty that can reach out and touch someone's life. Knowing that the beauty is there is almost painful at times.

I can live with it, for one reason.

It took Brian Wilson thirty eight years to finally finish SMiLE.

I had a dream that I was three hundred pounds
And though I was very heavy
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me because I'm lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did
Well I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did

How do you write about your hero without it tearing you apart?

Lyrics of right-aligned song "Brian Wilson" by Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies. I tried fifteen abominable poems that I'd written over the years in tribute to Brian, but I simply can't come up with anything better than this. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of Barenaked Ladies' Rock Spectacle, which has an astounding performance of this song.
 
Other lyric snippets and quotes from Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Jerome Ragni and James Rado,

This writeup checked with special care with regards to E2 FAQ: Copyright Issues

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