MOJO COLLECTION SPRING 2009
“I'm just a shy and retreating kind of person.” Brian Wilson, pop's reclusive genius, invites Sylvie Simmons up to his home high above Los Angeles.
The narrow canyon road winds high above the smog line – to the left, a sheer drop down, Los Angeles; to the right the San Fernando Valley. At the very top, the path is blocked by electronic gates. A guard strolls over to the car, makes a call, and the gates swing open. He points out a sun-dappled house the colour of terracotta and sand where two smiling little girls pedal tricycles among the primroses on the front lawn, watched by a maid, a large black poodle, and a tall man in a loose dark shirt. He is possibly the palest man in L.A.
Brian Wilson's Spanish-style house is surprisingly modest, the near antithesis of the gothic Bel Air mansion where he once lived, with its secret panels in the walls, sand box in the music room and studio in the den where Smiley Smile, Wild honey, Sunflower, Surf's Up and Carl & The Passions So Tough were recorded. Brian concentrates and counts off the albums on his fingers. “It was very convenient you know, because you could just wake up and go, Oh I think I'll go and record, and you didn't have to get in your car and drive to a studio.” But then his first wife Marilyn,
had it dismantled. “She said she'd had enough of the madness, she wanted it changed back into a living room. See, when we recorded everything, a lot of musicians would come to the house and it was a madhouse. And I said, fine, because we got what we wanted out of it anyway.” Two years ago, looking for a “warmer” place to live with his second wife Melinda and their two adopted daughters, he moved up here. “It's a nice view,” he says. Even if you can't see the ocean. “I'd had enough of the ocean,” he says softly. “I lived on the beach for nine years.” He very rarely goes back.
It's a quiet house, no music playing, spotlessly clean and tidy, with a calm, almost unlived-in air were it not for the Wendy house in the grand, chandeliered hallway, the rabbit hutch, fish tank, five more (tiny) dogs in the kitchen and the swings and slide out by the pool. There's no studio in this living room – barely a sign anywhere downstairs of a pop star in residence: no gold albums on the wall, just paintings of dogs and kittens or portraits of the girls as babies; no records on the shelves, just Victorian dolls in a glass cabinet, a toby jug collection above the bar, and framed photos of the family – the new one mostly – with a couple of snaps of his daughters from his first marriage, and an old black and white of Brian blowing out birthday cake candles, flanked by Carl and Dennis, the brothers and fellow Beach Boys he has outlived.
Upstairs, past the master bedroom with its huge four-poster bed and marble bathroom big enough to hold a concert, is Brian's music room. A tranquil space of dark wood and purple-curtained walls.
“It's not like my hide-out or sanctuary,” he says as he heads straight for his favourite armchair, near a table arranged with his awards and a few favourite albums. “I just come in here and play the piano.” The grand piano. The small electric one sits untouched in the corner, as does a pearl Rickenbacker electric six string. “This is my favourite room, the TV room is my second favourite and, believe it or not, the kitchen is my third favourite. I don't cook - the maid does - but that's where I eat my dinner.”
Life these days pretty much follows a routine; he likes it that way. “I get up in the morning, have breakfast, then I go to the park and I run and do some walking, then I come back and watch a little television” - the Oprah Winfrey Show is “my favourite” - then “I go back and forth again to the park. I'm healthy, I eat good food, I eat my vegetables.” Dr Eugene Landy (the controversial doctor who took over Brioan's life) put him on “an unbelievable exercise programme – for nine years. I could have been an Olympic star, I was in such good condition!” Although the doctor was dismissed following a lawsuit by The Beach Boys and Brian's late mother Audree 10 years ago,
Brian remains devoted to exercise, physical and mental. He still sees a psychiatrist (“he's been helping me a lot”) and still practices meditation. “It puts you in a calmer place. Mike [Love] and I both learned the Maharishi meditation, Transcendental Meditation, in the same year, 1967. He told me it was good for you and I've been doing it ever since. It keeps you in a cool place, you know, when things get hectic, people get a little weird...” A shadow passes over his face. “I'm a sensitive person, I get my feelings hurt a lot you know.” By what? “I don't know, people just hurt me sometimes by the things they say and do. They don't always treat you right.” But suggest that he comes across as particularly sad and fragile and he protests: “No, no, that's not true. I'm just a shy and retreating kind of person.” And a happy one? “Yes. Life is very good.”
If contentment has such a thing as a downside, it's writers block. It has plagued Brian for years. He wonders aloud if he needs the “demons” to create. “In the '60s and '70s I made a whole bunch of albums that were so easy to write. When I saw a thing,” he clicks his fingers, “I could get it like that. But I was young and energetic then. I had lots of energy, and a lot of love in my heart. My love was just burning...” his voice trails off. “I still love music a lot, and sometimes I'll start to hear a song in my head, but I'm just having problems getting songs finished.”
Part of the problem, he admits, is trying to live up to the term “genius” - “like every song has to be another Good Vibrations! It's very hard. I'm going to finish all the songs I've started though, I know that.” He has “three or four” new songs nearly ready to go – one of them, California Feeling (which dates back to 1975), he recently recorded with the superb band from his recent Pet sounds tour. He's also working on a jaunty little number, How Can We Still Be Dancing, which he says his small daughters inspired. He pads over to the piano, sits with his back to the balcony and plays its two verses, segueing into California Girls, Paul McCartney's Let It Be and Gerswin's Rhapsody In Blue before ending with part of “a song with no name” about remembering someone who died the way they were - “It's about my mom,” he says.
Every day, “at least twice a day”, he sits here and plays “the little tunes in my head. I don't think about what I'm playing, I just play what I want to play.” Before his little girls go to bed, he has to play them “their favourites, Barbara Ann and Surfer Girl.” He's clearly delighted with his second shot at fatherhood. “I'm much closer to my daughters than I was to my original two,” he says, referring to his daughters Carnie and Wendy (although they have since reconciled and even recorded together). “I got divorced and so I didn't see my kids for 10 years,” he explains. “At that time I was really engrossed in The Beach Boys and I was taking drugs.”
He remembers the legendary sand box he installed in the old family house, “a real big sand box, about nine by nine – the piano was in it and Van Dyke Parks used to write with me in it. We put the beach right in my house! It inspired me, created a mood that was unbelievable, magic.” His best sand box songs, he says, were Surf's Up and Heroes And Villains. And he recalls the tent he erected in the den where he “smoked marijuana – a lot, every day – and took LSD. It got me deeper into the music, but it scared me too.” His best acid song was “California Girls – that and Good Vibrations.” He plans to play both for the queen when he performs at her Golden Jubilee concert this summer. “I'm sure she's heard of those songs!” he grins.
Ask him about the dark years and a cloud goes over his eyes. “It was a bad place.... The world got to be too scary. I didn't want to be in it,” he answers in fits and starts. He doesn't like to look back - “wallow in the mire”. If he accidentally hears an old Beach Boys album – he never plays them himself - “sometimes it brings back sadness, sometimes it brings back a good feeling.” If he sees an old picture of himself, depressed and overweight, he feels “totally embarrassed. But I lost the weight – 311 lbs! I got over it.”
One thing he has still to get over is “feeling competitive” with Phil Spector. Every day, several times a day, he plays Phil Spector records – the Christmas album too. He owns several copies of each so there will always be one at hand. Some of them he has laid out for Collections on his coffee table: The Best Of The Ronettes, Phil Spector's Back To Mono 1968-9, Wall Of Sound Vol5; Rare Masters and A Christmas Gift For You. He's been playing them over and over “for a year now. I
don't know why. I just love the energy and love in them.” Asked if there's some essence of the music he's trying to reach, he nods and says, “I think that's it.” There was a time when all that Brian wanted to do was “to keep trying to beat Spector at his records. I kept trying to whip him.” When it all started going crazy was when “I couldn't”. I tell him that I think he whipped him good, a number of times. “No,” he says quietly. “No, no.”
The other records he's brought from his hidden collection are two vinyl Four Freshmen albums (In Person Vol 2 and The Four Freshmen & Five Guitars) a Doris Day Greatest Hits CD out of its sleeve, a George Gerswin album (“I don't listen to new music hardly any more; it doesn't touch me”) and, most intriguingly, a CD out of its sleeve labelled Brian Wilson: Unreleased Compositions 1966-1995. What's that? I ask, scouring the room for the stereo, which is nowhere to be seen. “I don't know,” he says. Rarities, from pop's greatest genius? Brian shakes his head, sorrowfully. “I don't know what it is.”
I manage to fit in one more question as he gets up to go. Does he stay in contact with the two other surviving Beach Boys, al Jardine and Mike Love? “No I don't. Isn't that crazy?” he asks. “It's a little bit nutty.” What's nuttier is that Mike, not Brian, now owns The Beach Boys name. “No, I'm proud of Mike because he's now The Beach Boys. And Al Jardine is Al Jardine. And I,” he says proudly, “am Brian Wilson.”