Brian Wilson: Writing Chords Is 'Godly,' Phil Spector Is 'Zany'

(Jonathan Alcorn)

I had lunch with Brian Wilson, and all you got was this lousy story. Here, then, are some bonus outtakes from our interview.

On stage fright: "It's the worst. I have stage fright every single concert I've ever done. I have at least four or five minutes of it. It's absolute living hell. Nervousness, worrying that the show might not go over, worrying that I might collapse in the middle of the performance, worrying that I might start crying in the middle of 'God Only Knows.' Worry, worry, worry. Until finally the guys go: 'Brian, snap out of it. The show's going to be okay.' Okay, okay, okay."

On working up new material: "It's a challenge for me. I'm 65 years old, and I'm getting a little older and a little wiser, but when I get into the studio, I'm lazy. I tend to be lazy and not want to work. I have to force myself to work. Or I have to be told to get my butt in gear." When you sit at the keyboard, what kind of material are you playing? "I'm mostly trying to write songs for the future. But if I can't, sometimes I play songs that I think I'd like to record. Last night, at the keyboard, it was 'Strangers in the Night.' Oh my God, what a song. I tried to sing it, I really gave it an honest try, but I couldn't pull off the emotion that I needed to pull off." And you're at the keyboard every day? "Every day. The keyboard is my whole life. My life is centered around either sitting at my keyboard or driving my car. Those are the two most important things, more than anything else. Being at my keyboard, it's the happiest time for me." Is writing therapeutic? "Oh my God, music and my keyboard? Totally therapeutic. I've been calling music therapy for 55 years."

More after the jump.

On whether he writes differently when he's in a positive, happy place: You know what? I'm not always in a positive, happy place. But I'm able to concentrate enough to come up with a really good song. I'm trying to write one now, 'Love Is Just a Song.' It's been a month and nothing has come yet. But one of these days, it's going to come. I have the idea and a couple chords. Oh my God, I can't even describe the chords!" Some of your chords are so stunning, they seem to have come from another universe. "What happens is, you'd sit at the piano. Maybe you'd smoke a little marijuana, and it gets you into the keyboard to the point where there's nothing but you and the keyboard. That's what I used to do a long time ago. I'd get locked into the keyboard, and I'd get locked into the chords." They'd just come to you? "They'd just come to me. God magically moved my fingers on the keyboard." What does that feel like? "It feels sort of godly. Like, oh my God, what am I doing here? Sort of godly. It feels holy."

On his radio habit: "You want to know the truth? I listen to oldies but goodies stations, '60s and '70s music. I listen to them quite a bit." And when a Beach Boys song comes on? "I turn it up and go, 'Oh, man, one of my songs is on the radio!' It's a big kick." And what do you think when you hear the music? "I hear vocal harmonies that I think are very, very good. I love the Beach Boys' vocal harmonies a lot." Does it take you anywhere emotionally? "It does, but I come back from it. BAM! And I'm back." Weird feeling? "Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, yes."

On Phil Spector: "I used to know him. But the last time I saw him was 1984. It's been a long time. In the '60s, he invited me down to the recording studio - Gold Star, in Los Angeles - several times. I watched him produce. I walked out of there going: 'Oh, my God!' I couldn't believe it." Did he say anything about the work you were doing? "He told me he thought 'Summer Days and Summer Nights' was a happening album." What was your impression of him? "A little bit zany - kind of an off-the-wall character. But he had a very, very, very cool talking style."

On family life the second time around: "I have three kids, two girls and a boy. They're 10, 9 and 4. We love our kids a lot, and they love us. That's part of my inspiration in my life. It's good because now I'm more sensitive to kids. I appreciate children more than I did. I used to ignore the kids I had in my previous marriage. I'm telling you, it was a big mistake. It really was." You've resolved that? "Yeah, yeah, but it took a while."

On why he prefers European concert audiences: "They appreciate art much more than in America. I think it's their way of life. It's not quite as hectic, and they can concentrate more on the artistic side of life than the ego or the competitiveness. They're just more sensitive to music. They're more appreciative of the overall sound we make - especially in London."

Near the end of the interview, I asked Brian about his old lyric, "Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn't done what I did?" Does he, in fact, look back with regret? "Yeah, of course. I would not have taken hard drugs." What else? "I regret being lazy and not being too careful with my productions." Really? "Yeah. There'd be a flat note here and a flat note there. I hear it today and go: 'Ohhhhh.' 'Good Vibrations' is a little bit flat in the choruses - some of the high notes. It's one of the best records I've done, but I wish I'd taken more time and done it a little better." You're such a perfectionist. "Oh God, yes. Yes, yes, yes." Has it all been worth it? You've suffered a lot. "Yeah, it's been worth it. Absolutely. There's a lot of love in the music. A lot of love."

By J. Freedom du Lac |  December 5, 2007; 8:57 AM ET Brian Wilson , Interviews , Kennedy Center Honors , Legends
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Insightful. Thanks.

Posted by: Jay | December 5, 2007 10:58 AM

You're piece on Wilson and this added blog bonus has been quite revelatory. The published piece, particularly, reads like Sylvia Nasar's excellent biography "A Beautiful Mind," about Nobel Prize Honoree John Forbes Nash, Jr and his bout with paranoid schizophrenia and the woman who stood by him until his abatement and beyond, rectifies any false sense of hope that the dark demons that have haunted Wilson since his drug-induced melt down in 1965 are gone. It starts off great: "Brian Wilson still hears voices."

This was news to my wife and I, who witnessed one of the most spectacular concerts we've ever seen, when a bright-eyed, lucid and beaming Wilson performed at the Warner Theatre here in D.C. in 2006. We saw the kind of Wilson most would expect to see as the voice and brains behind the happy-go-lucky Beach Boys music. The distant, distressed Wilson was nearly absent. He was giddy and jubilant. Though at times his stage presence and banter seemed slightly uneasy and sophomoric, it was in the way a kindergartner might be while performing on parents' night: nervously smiling, coquettishly blushing, unsure where to look.

So in your article, when Wilson tells you: "Things were rough for me from about 2002 to 2006... Rough enough that I should have been in a mental institution under heavy sedation," does this mean that when we saw him in 2006--as you aplty describe it--he was being "tormented by hecklers no one else can hear?" God only knows, but man were we fooled. We were convinced that just like Nash, Wilson had learned to ignore the schizoaffective voices.

Posted by: Mario Iván Oña | December 5, 2007 12:55 PM

For all the eccentricity, he seems like a resonably normal guy considering how weird the whole LA area can get. He's sick and he knows it and he's treating it and coping with it as best he can. I have a couple of friends who are still dealing with mental illnesses and it's a very long road that never really ends. Many kudos to Mr. Wilson and his wife for finding the strength to fight through the fog and find himself as well as he can. Wonderful set of articles and blog posts.

Posted by: EricS | December 5, 2007 4:38 PM

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