BRIAN WILSON: RHAPSODIC OVER GERSHWIN
By Paul Freeman [2011 Interview]
George Gershwin and Brian Wilson. Both geniuses. Both unfulfilled by writing only catchy pop hits, compelled to explore far more complex musical creations. Both battling through chronic depression to fill the world with joyful music.
So maybe it isn’t all that surprising that Wilson’s latest album is “Brian Wilson Reimagines George Gershwin” (Disney Pearl Series).
Wilson said, “I was so amazed by his ability to make harmony. I thought George Gershwin’s harmony was absolutely ahead of its time. And just an absolute gem.”
Given his reverence for Gershwin, the project was a challenge for Wilson. “It was hard work, because we wanted each song to be appropriately sung and played, so that, George Gershwin himself, if he were alive, would like what we did.”
What’s the result of combining Wilson’s good vibrations and Gershwin gorgeous melodies? ‘S wonderful.
Wilson said, “I wanted to make a Beach Boy kind of a sound, combined to a Gershwin song, which I think worked out just fine. I was delighted with how well my musicians played on it. They’re a wonderful group. And I just buckled down and sang the best I could.
“For instance, ‘I loves You, Porgy,’ that doesn’t sound like a song that a guy would sing, right? But the Disney people said, ‘Fine, Brian, if that’s what you want to do, you can do it.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ And I recorded it. And I sang it from a girl’s perspective. It worked out good.”
So did Wilson’s exquisite interpretations of “Summertime” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.” He’s still a masterful arranger/producer.
Thanks to the Gershwin estate, Wilson had an opportunity to complete a couple of previously unfinished piano pieces penned by the late composer.
“We had to choose, out of 104 songs, two songs that we were going to write to. So it took us about two weeks to do the two songs. I wrote new melodies and my buddy Scott Bennett wrote the words.”
Now Wilson is presenting some of the Gershwin tunes live, along with beloved Beach Boys classics. He’s backed by a fantastic nine-piece ensemble capable of soaring harmonies.
As he was expanding his own compositional skills, Wilson studied the works of other classical icons, including Bach and Tchaikovsky.
“From Bach, I picked up that kind of shuffle, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo, and that’s where ‘California Girls’ came from, from that shuffle.”
Of course, Wilson learned from great pop writers and performers, as well. “Burt Bacharach taught me some tricks, like using minor sevenths. He used minor sevenths in part of his songs. And I learned how to incorporate modern chords. Chuck Berry showed me how to write rock ‘n’ roll songs. I learned a lot from that one song, [he sings] ‘Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music...’ It’s a feeling and a rhythm and a melodic thought.
“Phil Spector taught me how to produce records. I learned how to be more positive. I learned how to make positive records. Like ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ ‘Be My Baby’ and all those great records that he produced. He taught me how to have a more positive, straight-ahead kind of feeling.
“All those people that I mentioned were coming from a higher place and I latched onto them and really learned a hell of a lot. So there’s my entire music education right there. I was born with some ability, but then I learned from all these other people.”
WIlson was always drawn to a beautiful blend of voices. “The Four Freshmen taught me how to make harmonies and sing falsetto. And I liked doo-wop, ‘Come Go With Me,’ that one turned me on big-time. I liked that one.”
Through a difficult childhood, Wilson could always turn to music. “It was good to have music in my life. We were singing. We were learning to play boogie-woogie from our father. In times of trouble, music made me feel better, so I didn’t have to feel so blue. And I liked the idea of making other people feel good through the music. We wanted to be pop stars, but we didn’t really know how to go about it. So I just played all the chords I could and the guys kept singing and it’s amazing what could be done.
“We used to practice and practice our harmonies until we got it right. Carl and Dennis and I used to sing in our bedroom together. And when we were finally able to start making records, we sang the song ‘In My Room,’ which was similar to the song we actually sang in our bedroom. So that’s pretty cool, right?”
Nearly half a century after the Beach Boys first hit the national charts with “Surfin,” Wilson continues to find solace in music.
“It helps me out a lot. I’m always happy when I’m in the music. Music can be magic.”
BRIAN WILSON: MANAGING A “SMILE”
By Paul Freeman [2004 Interview]
Even during the darkest times, Brian Wilson can evoke happiness through his majestic music. In 1966, he began recording a potential masterpiece, “Smile.” Seeking perfection, the driven creative force behind the Beach Boys eventually abandoned the complex, unfinished project.
Now, in the fall of 2004, he has released a new, completed version of “Smile” (Nonesuch Records). Wilson handled the composing, producing, arranging and vocal responsibilities. His 10-member touring band, bolstered by an eight-piece string and horn section, provided instrumental backing and harmonies.
The lost classic is found. He now performs the album live on tour.
In 1965, Wilson stepped away from touring with the Beach Boys. He wanted to devote himself to composing and experimenting with studio techniques.
Though he was battling depression, he continued to write songs, many of them incredibly upbeat. “For me, the music seems to come from God’s force, always,” Wilson says. “It just sort of unravels naturally. It arises from my soul, into my head, down through my arms and out my fingers onto the keys.”
Also fueling Wilson’s creativity were the increasingly sophisticated albums by the Beatles. “In the back of my mind, I was motivated to try to compete with the Beatles. I felt a friendly rivalry with them. It was quite a challenge to try to top them.”
Wilson rose to the occasion with the brilliant album “Pet Sounds,” which contained such enduring tunes as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No.” Then feverishly launched a far more ambitious project, “Smile.” “We thought we’d try to do something a little bit different from ‘Pet Sounds.’ ‘Pet Sounds’ is like an emotional experience. ‘Smile’ is a little more of an alive, happy experience.
“It’s a happy, teenage symphony to God. It poured out that way. It just flowed like mad. But we also had to keep nurturing it along, like a little baby.”
Then 24 and at the peak of his musical ingenuity, Wilson chose Van Dyke Parks as his collaborator. “I did all the music. I presented him with melodies, then he wrote lyrics to them. I left all that in his hands. He created a mood of early Americana and then Americana. We were capturing the mood of America. I was born in America and I traveled America many, many times, around the country, and I love it. I love this country.”
For added inspiration, Wilson built a nine-by-nine-foot sandbox in his living room and situated his grand piano in the middle of it. As documented in author Keith Badman’s exhaustive new study “The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio” (Backbeat Books), Wilson began the “Smile” odyssey with nearly endless sessions for the revolutionary single “Good Vibrations.” It became the Beach Boys’ first million-selling single.
“It was sort of a special record, a very different kind of record. I was afraid it might be a little too different, that maybe people wouldn’t like it. So it was absolutely great when it was so well accepted.
Though he had already achieved tremendous success, Wilson still craved outside validation. “It means everything in the world to me that people would accept my music graciously and like it a lot.”
As the “Smile” work continued through many months however, Wilson’s insecurities grew. “I took some LSD and marijuana and amphetamines and it got me stoned and it got me into the music. But I got too stoned. And we got too deep into it.
“The positive effect of the drugs was that we got ‘Smile’ written a little bit, but the negative was the bummers that we went through in our heads.”
Reportedly, when the Beach Boys returned from touring, lead singer Mike Love told Wilson the “Smile” music was too weird to be commercially viable. Eventually Wilson decided to abandon the project. A few songs, including “Heroes and Villains” and “Surf’s Up,” found life on other releases. But most of “Smile” faded into myth.
“The music was so advanced that we had to junk it. We figured people wouldn’t really be ready for it. We shelved it for 38 years.”
In late 2003, Wilson revisited “Smile” and brought it to fruition. “It was my wife’s and my manager’s idea. We had a lunch meeting and they said, ‘Brian, we think that ‘Smile’ is finally ready to come out. People are finally ready to accept it.’ I said, ‘You know what? I agree with you. I think I’ll teach the fans the ‘Smile’ thing.’ They said, ‘Why don’t we premiere it in London?’ So we took it there and they flipped. I had standing ovations for six nights in a row. I was overwhelmed. I kept my cool. I was almost ready to scream, I was so happy. But I kept my head.”
Encouraged, Wilson went into the studio to record his new “Smile.” “We used computers and Pro Tools to do it, so we got it flowing from one key to another, all the way through the whole three movements. We wouldn’t have been able to do it properly in the ‘60s.
“After we recorded it, I said to the guys in the band, ‘’The Smile’ dream has come true.’ And they all agreed.”
Wilson’s music continues to reach and influence a new generation. “I love those young kids and I hope they really appreciate ‘Smile’ this time.”
He has another recent release, the Rhino album “Gettin’ In Over My Head.” One of the highlights is “Soul Searchin,’” which features his late brother Carl Wilson. “That was a very sentimental thing for me. I took his voice from the bridge and put my voice on the bridge so we were both singing on the same record. Even though he’s gone. I still remember him.”
The album also features guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Elton John and Paul McCartney. Wilson says of the former Beatle, “He came to the studio from London, England. It took him 20 minutes to get his part right, 20 minutes!
“I’m going to call him in a couple months. We’re going to try to do a rock ‘n’ roll concept album, similar to Phil Spector’s inspiring kind of feel and I want Paul to help me rock.”
Wilson continues to write songs, but has grappled with writer’s block over the years. How does he break through that? “”With my willpower -- my last name ‘wil-son.’ The only pressure I have is the pressure I put on my own self. I’m not really being pressured by anybody but me.”
The soap opera saga of the Beach Boys has been exposed to public scrutiny via books and TV- movies. “I ignore all that. I read the reviews. But anything negative -- I ignore it. “
He has overcome a lifetime of turmoil, trauma and obstacles. “My dad put the fire of hell under my ass to keep competitive and keep going positive. He lit quite a fire under my ass. He really did.
“I still deal with a little bit of survivalistic kind of thing. But basically, I look at life as a lot of possibilities for creating music. “
For Wilson, music is a refuge from depression and the voices in his head. “I feel like my music and Phil Spector’s music and Paul McCartney’s music all add up to help me out a lot. I’m always happy when I’m in the music. Music can be magic.”
Is there more great Brian Wilson music yet to come? “I don’t know. I hope so. Let’s hope so, okay?’”