Years of drug use and mental illness have taken their toll on Brian Wilson: He hears voices in his head; names and places don't come to him easily. Yet when he sits at the piano, he 'feels like God'. Susan Dominus meets the troubled genius an former Beach Boy in New York
Brian Wilson, the genius songwriter behind the Beach Boys, is happy to answer anything you ask him, yet somehow the answer is never precisely what you were looking for. Ask him say, how he met David Leaf, the producer who's sitting beside him at the restaurant where I meet him, at New York's Parker Meridien Hotel, and he replies with both a dearth and an excess of information. 'I met him in 1977 in LA over at some chick's house,' he says. Whose house was that? 'I can't remember..., then I started to see him more in the 1980's, but then I didn't see him much, because I was in the doctor's programme then.' Wilson is referring to the years he spent isolated from friends and family in the care of a psychiatrist who was later investigated for wrongdoing. 'Then in the 1990s, I started getting with him quite a bit, and we've been friends until now.' It doesn't occur to him to mention the relevant details that actually explain the nature of their friendship: that leaf, a former journalist, wrote a lauded biography of Wilson, became a close companion, and has helped jumpstart the final happy chapter in Wilson's rollercoaster of a career, most recently, producing a documentary about him called Beautiful Dreamer.
Wilson is here, in fact, to talk about the release of the DVD of the documentary, which tracks the start of Wilson's career, and the recent years leading up to the 2002 concert at London's Royal Festival Hall, where Wilson performed for the first time his musical opus Smile, a work he began in 1967. 'I love it,' he says about the documentary. 'It blew my mind, because it moved so fast, and yet so slow at the same time. It covered ground, but in a very slow way – it'll be around for a while, let's put it that way.' He could be describing himself. Then he laughs abruptly – a long ratatat laugh, as if noting some private joke.
Wilson, 63 this month, is the sort of legend newspapers invariably send their nerdiest music fan to interview, someone, who's likely to be male, awed, and eager to find use for an insider's knowledge – wasn't that a Chet Baker riff tucked into the bridge of 'Good Vibrations'? Maybe they're genuinely curious; or maybe they think that is the easiest way to connect with the man Leonard Bernstein called one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, the musical prodigy whose one good ear, Bob Dylan said, should be donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
Those men almost always come away disappointed. To connect quickly with Wilson now, a man who's heavily medicated, his genius dimmed by years of drug use, is an almost impossible goal. He tends to answer most questions in sentences so short they seem cruelly curt if they didn't also seem sincere. At the beginning of our lunch I despaired that everything he said seemed almost helplessly opaque, a string of platitudes. But as the minutes wore on, I found myself fascinated by the simplicity of his answers; is he weary of these hundreds of interviews he's given over the years, and just going through the motions? Or is he actually searching for the truest, purest, simplest response to every question, no matter how tired? Wilson rejects most music of the past 20 years because 'it leaves you feeling ripped off – they're not offering enough emotion, harmony and love you know?' He sits back, pleased. 'Isn't that a great answer? That's one of my best. Harmony and melody, that's something that's part of me. I can't get it out of me sometimes. Sometimes I wish I could get it out of me, because it drives me nuts.' He laughs again, this time more sweetly.
Wilson was dressed that day in a bright purple cowboy shirt that seemed, in its vibrancy, only to highlight a certain stillness in Wilson himself. Tall, hair brushed back off his head, solid and massive, he spoke evenly, with a vague look about his eyes that made him hard to read. His personal assistant, a sweet-faced, jockey-sizes young man sitting across from him, explained that Wilson would be meeting with journalists all week. 'You mean I'm not the only one you're talking to?' I asked, hoping to get a laugh. 'You're the only one right now,' Wilson replied, and he did get a laugh. Maybe he was intentionally making a joke; but it seemed just as likely he was making a straight forward observation, naively offering obvious information the way young children do.
Leaf's documentary reflects his longstanding friendship with Wilson – fond, admiring, and protective, but never lionising. The documentary takes the viewer through the highlights of Wilson's life; his physically abusive, controlling father, the early surfer hits, the musical breakthrough of the album Pet Sounds. It touches gently on the years of Wilson's decline, the first breakdown he suffered while touring with the Beach Boys, the copious drugs he started abusing abusing shortly thereafter. In the documentary Wilson, who has been off drugs for 20 years, recalls the first time he tried marijuana. 'It was like, I'd never really tasted water before,' he says, with the same look, amazed and nostalgic and amused, that people get when recalling their first passionate crush.
Much of Wilson's life is recalled through the recollections of old friends, some of them fellow rockers, others of them likeable, if less famous, Wilson loyalists. Occasionally, Leaf includes primary sources that are chilling in their immediacy. 'Come on Brian, forget who you are, would ya,' his father's deep gravelly voice is heard during one recording session. 'You got any guts, let's see it.' It's a moment that captures the dark, bullying side of 1950s masculinity that Wilson would rebel so violently against. 'I've got one ear left, and your big, loud voice is killing me,' Wilson replies, his resentment and rage apparent despite the famous, falsetto pitch of his voice. A clip of Wilson singing the haunting 'Surf's Up', accompanied only by his own piano playing, featured in a special television show hosted by Leonard Bernstein, highlights Wilson's tremendous musical mastery, but also the trance-like, riveting focus, the complex emotional absorption he was capable of bringing to his own songs. Too soft in his features to be a classically handsome rock star, Wilson, in this performance, none the less has a brainy sex appeal. He has the look of a man who's in on an enticing secret very few could hope to understand.
When Wilson's breakdown takes him out of the Beach Boys and out of the public eye, he disappears from the documentary as well. The film show Wilson sliding into depression after the Beach Boys reject the songs he was writing for the album Smile in 1967 – already his lean look of creative intensity was being replaced by a leaden heaviness about his face – and then jumps to 1994, when Wilson met Melinda, the woman who's still his wife, and who helped him find appropriate medical attention. She also encouraged him to start touring again, a practice that ultimately led to Wilson's performing Smile live. It was a triumph that in turn gave him the confidence to record, at long last, the actual CD in 2004, to great acclaim.
The 27-year gap is the one jarring note in the documentary, given that Wilson's mental illness is as integral a part of his legend as his music; the years spent lying inert in bed, his ballooning weight, the controlling psychiatrist, Dr Landy, who held Wilson in his sway. Why skip those years? 'They weren't relevant to the making of Smile.' explains Leaf.
Wilson himself doesn't mind talking about Dr Landy, a controversial figure who rehabilitated him from his lowest point, but who was investigated by the California Attorney General's office for his unorthodox methods. (Charging $200 an hour for years of round-the-clock supervising, Landy discouraged Wilson from communicating with his family, allegedly oversaw the rewriting of Wilson's will, and also started trying to collaborate with Wilson on some of his songwriting.) 'I don't know', says Wilson, 'I can't seem to figure out if I like him or I don't like him.' And if his former svengali were to walk into the restaurant at that moment? 'I'd be kind of scared. Bur also happy. Maybe a little of both.' he says. He grimaces, a lopsided, screwing up of his mouth that appears from time to time when he's talking about difficult material. Wilson reaches out and gives Leaf's hand a squeeze. Was he, I ask, feeling a surge of affection for Leaf, a new, safer ally? ' He was looking a little lost,' says Wilson.
The first time Leaf showed Wilson the documentary, Leaf says, he was worried about Wilson's reaction, particularly about the section leading up to Wilson's breakdown, in which friends recall his increasing paranoia (he held one meeting in his pool, because it couldn't be bugged), and many of his collaborators abandoned him. 'And here I am, I'm so nervous during this whole section,' Leaf says, 'and Brian just kind of reaches over and pats me on the back, this really comforting pat.'
On the one hand, Wilson's life now has a wholesome, triumphant balance to it – still living in California, he has three adopted children with his second wife and, before they go to bed, Wilson sometimes plays 'Barbara Ann' for them. His oldest daughter, Daria, eight, really likes that song – when he plays it, he says 'she kisses me'. And they dance around – they do this silly thing with their heads, they move their heads around. They're fantastic dancers.' (Daria's also taking drumming lessons. Her father's encouraging her to continue, 'because you can make a lot of money in the music business.')
On the other hand, simply getting through the day is a struggle for Wilson, who suffers from auditory hallucinations that distract him every several hours or so. 'They come to me, they start talking to me,' he says. 'Usually it's negative. It's like, “We're going to kill you, you've got so long to live”, all that kind of thing. You fight back with whatever you have – whatever there is to fight back with. I say, “ The hell with this”' and they go “To hell with you”. And I go, “The hell with you”, and they say, “OK, I'll get out your hair for a little while.” That's an actual conversation with auditory hallucination. It's the biggest handicap you could ever have.' At times Wilson seems to have short lapses – you can almost home in on the moment the synapse misfires. One minute he's speaking fluently about Central Park, the next he's blanking on the name, calling it Century Park; an instant after he's asking who Cole Porter is – 'Is he a songwriter?' - he's recalling his early days as a child listening to George Gershwin with his mother. His eyes, in particular, still blue and searching, go in and out of sharp focus. Conversation with him makes you laugh; it makes you concentrate to try to get what's going on.
'I think life is half heaven and half hell,' says Wilson at one point, apropos of pretty much nothing. He's a man whose life has been characterised by extremes, some of them funny, some painful. He launched his career singing about the surf, but nearly lost his one remaining good ear the one time he actually tried surfing, when a surging surfboard missed his head by an inch. And he was born with a brain that was capable of achieving more than everyone else, and also a little less capable of handling as much as everyone else. Having once described himself as 'not a genius, just a hard working guy.' Wilson also says when he sits down at the piano 'he feels like God'. In fact, he confesses, he used to think he was Jesus Christ when he played the piano.
I ask Wilson which he'd prefer; to come back free of his mental handicaps, but also free of his musical talents, or relive his life with the same mix of genius and same mental anguish. 'You know what?' Wilson asks, a rhetorical question that seems to bring his eyes into particular focus, or one he asks only when he's already snapped to. 'It would take me a year to answer that question.' I press on; but if he had to choose? 'I would take being a songwriter with the handicap,' he says. 'I wouldn't be able to live without music.' Somehow, theoretical as the question was, his answer comes as a tremendous relief.
'Brian Wilson Presents “Smile”', including 'Beautiful Dreamer' (Warner, £24.99), is available now