Are we there yet?: on the road with Beach Boy Brian Wilson

He has survived drug abuse, mental illness, a difficult childhood and written some of the 20th centurys most sublime songs. We join him on an ambitious world tour Scroll down for an extract from Wilsons new memoir

Brian Wilson doesnt give long answers, and when one is required he hollers for assistance. It is May. The former Beach Boy is 73, and his great and beloved 1966 album, Pet Sounds, was released 50 years ago this week. An ambitious world tour is under way to mark the anniversary, and Wilson underslept, and so newly moved into an expansive hotel suite that hell later get lost looking for the bathroom cannot for now recall which cities hes played before arriving here in London. We started We actually started in, uh Hey, Jerry, Wilson yells, summoning his road assistant, Jerry Reiss, across the suite. Tell the guy what cities weve been through.

OK! Reiss says. We started in New Zealand in March. We were in Auckland! Then we went to Australia and we were in Sydney! We were in Melbourne! We were in Brisbane! We were in Adelaide! We were in Perth!

Straight-backed on a sofa, a large cushion on his lap, Wilson remains still throughout this recital. He has a pallid, pillowy face that suggests in places the faded strain of some mild cosmetic surgery he had done in the 80s. His eyes are small and close set, the brows slightly angled so that they tentpole over the bridge of his nose. I ask Wilson how he has coped, so far, with such a demanding tour.

And then, Reiss continues, we flew to Japan. Had two shows in Tokyo! And one in Osaka!

How have you coped, I ask Wilson.

He says: I always got to the stage on time.

Every night, Wilson has been playing through the whole of Pet Sounds to the accompaniment of an 11-piece band. The audience response has been overwhelming standing ovations, Reiss points out, whenever Wilson reaches the end of Pet Sounds pivotal track, God Only Knows. I ask how Wilsons feelings about that song have changed since he first played it, half a century ago.

Not much.

I ask in what ways the songs of Pet Sounds still give him satisfaction, and he says: I think musical. His sentences tend to tip out on the gasping ends of breaths, as if at some cost.

I pitch Wilson a few more questions, but a frustrating system takes shape: hell say something tidy or blunt, and when asked to expand will say, I dont know or, I cant answer that. He is subdued, distant in a deep and serious way, so that for decades many admirers who have come face to face with him have walked away feeling dashed, rebuffed even, while at the same time instinctively sympathetic, conscious of some awful interior strife. Wilson will soon publish a memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, based on interviews he conducted with co-author Ben Greenman. Im genuinely fascinated to know how such a book was ever written.

Brian
Recording Pet Sounds in Los Angeles in 1966. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It took about a year, Wilson says, adding, Pet Sounds took three months.

Which were the hardest parts of your past to dredge through? The parts where I took drugs.

Was it a cathartic process? Wilson, exhaling, says, It took about a year.

I call off our first encounter there. Reiss leads me to the door. He is unlike his boss in almost every way: a 67-year-old teenager, preppy, friendly and improbably energetic. He has been part of Wilsons touring staff since 2002, a Beach Boy devotee who quit his job as a corporate headhunter to head out on the road. Reiss could gab all day, greeting, small-talking, interpreting for Wilson always smoothing.

When it comes to Brian, Reiss suggests, gently, it might be best to steer away from the why questions.

I am to follow the Pet Sounds tour as it chugs around the UK, and as this summer of Brian gets under way, Ill come to depend on Reiss a lot.

***

After I leave, Wilson eats half a hamburger, watches TV, then takes to bed for the next 17 hours. When we meet again it is in the wings of the London Palladium stage left, where space has been made for a black, boxy leather chair. Somewhere in the auditorium a radio blips and a crackly voice asks: Is Brian in his chair?

The chair is a replica of one Wilson has at home in Los Angeles. It is installed in the wings at whatever venue he is due to play, and he spends hours here: observing, waiting, drinking Dr Pepper. When I ask Wilson if its always the same chair, he says: Same chair. Why does it make a difference? Just. The comfort.

A hamper with his name stencilled on the lid has been placed beside him, as well as a pile of towels. Wilson doesnt get much use out of his dressing rooms, place to place, and on the luxury buses that drive him between cities he likes to ride up front by the driver. I like to look out the window, he tells me, see things. Plane travel (there is a lot of it) is not ideally suited to Wilson. Reiss once asked his boss what was going through his mind as they took off, and Wilson answered, Dont blow up dont blow up dont blow up.

Since he was a young man, Wilson has heard voices in his head, voices that tell him terrible and scary things, as he puts it in his book. He believes this mental illness (which he now knows to be schizoaffective disorder, a condition characterised by auditory hallucinations) was triggered or exacerbated when he first took acid in the 1960s. In the early pages of I Am Brian Wilson, he describes a typical conversation with his wife, Melinda. Wilson will tell Melinda that the voices in his head are threatening to kill him, and Melinda will say, well, they havent managed to yet.

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With wife Melinda and family in 2009. Photograph: BriMel Archives

Her cool logic helps him. Melinda does not always join Wilson on the foreign legs of his tours, and when shes not around, the reliable presence of Reiss helps him; the familiarity of the chair helps him; even the just-about-rational fear of a plane exploding can help him, because, as Wilson explains in his book, at least the voice in his head saying Dont blow up is his own. Mostly, his songs help him.

A radio blips again in the Palladium and the crackly voice calls the musicians to the stage for a sound check. Wilson stirs. Stage manager Billy Humphreys, a tattooed, cordial giant with untidy blond hair, sets his feet and helps heave the musician upright. In middle age, the lowest time of his life, Wilsons weight went up to over 22 stone. These days hes lighter; stout but not unhealthily so. Walking to the stage, his spine is unusually straight (the aftereffects of back surgery) and with his hands hanging by his sides he faintly resembles a sleepwalker, or a bear in a cartoon. Theres a muted cheer from the auditorium when he appears.

About 50 ticketholders for that nights show have paid extra for VIP access to the Palladium, entitling them to sit in on the sound check and whoop. Wilson raises a hand in their direction and says: OK. He sits at a piano. Beside him is the guitarist Al Jardine, who in 1965 sang lead vocals on the Beach Boys hit Help Me, Rhonda. A couple of the major founding Boys from that period are dead (Wilsons middle brother Dennis, in 1983, his younger brother Carl, in 1998), while another original member, Mike Love, is off doing his own thing. Apart from Jardine, the musicians who tour with Wilson now are younger and more tangentially connected to Pet Sounds fans, really, elevated beyond the VIP seats and on to the stage. Wilson found most of them in a club in Hollywood, one night, when they were performing his songs as a tribute outfit called Wondermints. He invited them to tour.

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At the Together The People festival in Preston Park, Brighton, in September 2016. Photograph: Ben Quinton for the Guardian

Its a setup that has worked for some years, even accounting for a slightly awkward dynamic Wilson generally deferring in musical matters to the former Wondermints, but with a definite idea of how long he wants to spend tinkering with levels and arrangements at any one time. In the Palladium the band banter self-consciously (Shaking the dust off that one… Can I hear the xylo part? Tonight itll be better) while Wilson sits motionless at the piano. Finally he leans into a microphone and shouts: OK! They kick into one of the nights big songs and play it straight through.

Wilsons voice at sound check, even by the energy-preserving standards of a warm-up, is wavering and insubstantial not always audible. So thorough is the goodwill urging along this tour, though, that only the braver critics at his shows have dwelt on the problem of Wilsons vocals. The fans in attendance dont seem to mind in the slightest and, as Reiss said, the nightly rendition of God Only Knows routinely brings people to their feet. They stand again to applaud at the end of the two-hour set. An unspoken agreement seems to exist between stalls and stage, that audience satisfaction is born as much from Wilsons presence after all hes been through as from any audiovisual spectacle.

As for Wilson, he has been baffled for years by the strength of feeling that he and his songs arouse. In his book he says it was the first thing that attracted him to his future wife that she did not behave like a fan. Melinda just looked straight at me when I was introducing myself, stayed calm, didnt do one thing or the other, and that made me feel normal.

Reiss tells me: Brians been called a genius his whole life. He makes a sympathetic face, meaning can you imagine? Receiving and accepting adulation is not an easy thing for him. Brian is open about this. His comfort levels not there.

After the sound check we head to the back of the Palladium, to a high-ceilinged reception room where a meet-and-greet between Wilson and his fans has been arranged as part of their VIP package. They line up along a wall, to be brought forward in turn for an autograph and a picture with Wilson. Sort of with Wilson: he sits at a table, redirecting any bolder fans who try to crouch beside him by saying: Behind. Just before each camera flash he raises, with obvious effort, a stiff smile.

I start to see that his OK doesnt mean Yes or Go ahead; it means, Im uncomfortable. A woman in the queue presents Wilson with chocolates and tells him shes flown all the way from Brazil. OK, he replies. An older man in a white linen suit clutches Wilsons shoulder (OK) and then vigorously shakes his hand (OK). When a young boy passes over a letter hes written, Wilson instinctively signs it and hands it back. A publicist steps forward and says: Thats for you, Brian and he says: OK.

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The Beach Boys in August 1962 (Wilson on right). Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Reiss tells me a story about how, one night in Australia, a fan brought her mothers ashes to a show. Real tears well in Reisss eyes as he recalls this the mother had always wanted to hear God Only Knows sung live but Reiss admits he kept the details of the case from Wilson. Hed be unnerved. I mean, a mothers remains?

Wilson is a man who has struggled with having fans for 50 years, yet is surrounded by them: his band are fans; his road assistants a fan; Im a fan. Later that night I sit among the capacity crowd at the Palladium, where strangers on either side of me a middle-aged man and a woman are so moved by Wilsons music that they quietly cry.

***

June. At the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, a room has been set aside so that Wilson and I can sit and talk. No leather recliner, no road assistant but Wilsons special hamper has been placed in the room ahead of his arrival, possibly as an enticement. While waiting for him I cant resist opening the lid, and see inside a vast stack of Dr Peppers, neatly arranged. Reiss enters with Wilson. Youve interviewed me before? Wilson asks.

I tell him we met a few times in London, before the tour moved on to Manchester and Edinburgh and Glasgow and Gateshead. I was the guy who couldnt keep his hands still. Wilson nods. In London I had seen him flinching, every so often, when I spoke. Finally he had to ask me not to gesticulate so much: You make me nervous. Since then Ive read the chapters of his book that cover his childhood, and I know that Wilson was knocked about a good deal as a young man. He was hit by his father, Murry, a frustrated musician who sold imported drills in small-town California; and by a neighbourhood bully, who confronted Wilson one day in 1954. Unusually lucid, Wilson tells me that story in Nottingham.

In
In Hawthorne, California, in the 1950s: I couldnt hit a curve. Photograph: BriMel Archives

This kid called me over. He had a lead pipe in his hand. He said something like, Why do you always walk by my house? And I said, Well, Im sorry if I walked by your house. And he said, Well, Im going to knock your brains out and he took the lead pipe and WHACK! Wilson yells this last word so forcefully, the walls of the room hum. Whacked me in the head, he continues, and my ear went deaf. I was 12. It was traumatic.

He never recovered the hearing in his right ear, though in a purely musical sense this incident might have helped him. When Wilson started writing songs for his newly formed band a few years later, his compositions had a mixed-down, mono quality a kind of flattened complexity that he thinks helped account for their appeal. The traumatised ear, he writes in his book, helped him create. Indeed, it emerges as something of a theme in Wilsons life, that some of his best creations emerged out of his worst experiences.

The Beach Boys had been doing well enough with ditties about surfing and hot-rodding when, in 1964, they released a real smash. Wilson wrote I Get Around while stoned, in roughly 30 minutes, and it went to No 1. The band were put on TV, and became a big deal. We were young and happy and we all felt great, Wilson says of this time. When I ask how long that lasted, he says about a year. Later in 1964, overwhelmed by the bands successes, he had a nervous breakdown and had to come off the road. He sequestered himself away afterwards and quickly wrote a song adored to this day, Help Me, Rhonda. He began the pottering at a piano that would result in Pet Sounds.

Though Wilson endured great, bleak periods of inactivity in the 1970s and 80s (I didnt always remember to shower, he recalls in his book), he has by any standards lived a lot of life. Three-dozen albums, 50-plus singles, a mid-career LP, Smile, that took 38 years to properly finish. He has been married twice, to Marilyn Rovell until 1979, and to Melinda since 1995; from these relationships he has seven children, with whom he seems to be close. He has been summoned to show himself for praise at the White House, at Buckingham Palace. There have been more extensive visits, too, to hospitals and psychiatric facilities.

He has always self-medicated. First with drink and drugs (Didnt solve a thing), then with powerful medication, suggested to him by an experimental doctor, the late Eugene Landy, who for a long time in the 1970s and 80s had Wilson under his sway (Nine years of bullshit). Latterly hes been on a more benign course of meds, plus hot tea, throat sweets, Dr Pepper and the perpetual humming of Let It Be, his favourite song (Like Valium to me). His struggle with mental illness has been brutal and unyielding. He once wrote a sad and beautiful tune called Oxygen To The Brain, about gearing up every day to do battle with himself. It begins: OK, lets take it slow/You aint got no place to go.

In the dressing room I suggest to Wilson that creative inspiration seems to come to him almost like a reward for the bad times.

Right, right, he says. He reframes this as more of a proactive thing, though another form of self-medication. Like Van Gogh, or some of the great painters, he says. They went through a lot of difficult times. And they managed to squeeze out on the canvas the way they felt. To get rid of the bad, they just poured it out, yknow?

I ask if he ever felt the bad go, when he poured it out creatively like this.

I tried to. I tried to.

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In Los Angeles, 1968. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Wilsons lucidity begins to fade. In the middle of a thought about his compositional routine (I go to my piano and write a few tunes), he suddenly corrects himself at a deafening shout, replacing the word tunes with songs. He asks to end the interview.

Despite these difficult moments, it seems a sign that weve managed to connect, even in a small way, when he holds out his hands and says: Wanna help me up? It takes a couple of grunting false starts from both of us, and not a little commotion. Reiss appears in the doorway and shouts, encouragingly: Pull, pull, pull, pull, pull!

***

After Nottingham, via Barcelona, the Brian Wilson Band fly back to the US and begin a thorough circular sweep of the country. Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Missouri, Mississippi. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, nostalgic couples rise from their seats to slow-dance during the show. Afterwards, though, a critic at that gig writes: It was tough to tell whether [Wilson] was enjoying the performance or even noticed the 3,000-plus fans In August, in New York, a fan sacrilegiously breaks ranks during God Only Knows and heckles, begging for Wilson to smile.

In early September he returns to the UK. I rejoin the tour at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, where the team seems a little paler, a little more tired. Al Jardine, the guitarist, has injured his shoulder. Standing in the empty arena, Jardines wife, Mary Ann, tells me theyve been on tour since March, and wont be fully done until Christmas. Back home in California their house is at risk of succumbing to wildfires; tomorrow, she and Jardine fly with the rest of the band to Borgarbygg, Iceland. Al says Brians like a crazy emperor, and we have to follow. New dates have been added to the tour, including one in Dubai.

Is Wilson healthy enough for this? He turned 74 in June, somewhere on the tours Missouri leg. When we were in Nottingham that month, a security guard, himself getting on, was moved to tell me about the last bunch of septuagenarians whod come to his venue: the New Seekers, their gig postponed when a band member suffered a stroke. Out in the world, the Dollys and Micks and Dylans and Daltreys continue to perform into their 70s. Hire them a dedicated lyric-prompter to work the Autocue (Wilson has one), scatter a few stools on stage (Dollys method), and these pensioner-performers can still go. But none has Wilsons mental health problems.

Why would he choose to put himself through all this? He is thought by some to have a fortune in the $70m bracket. In his book, he mentions the ownership of several properties; one, a lakeside villa in California, recently went on the market for more than $3m. It seems unlikely that profit alone is driving this tour. I speak to Alice Lillie, the president of the Beach Boys fan club, who sees in her idol someone who carries on in order to use his talent to the utmost. We all get older. We all mature. When I became a fan in the early 1960s, I saw a very talented and intelligent young fellow who wrote and performed really great music, and I hoped hed be around for a long time. Now I see a seasoned artist whose music has been a big part of me over many decades. Are there fears for his wellbeing? Of course. He isnt young, and eventually all of us are stopped by health and age. But Lillie points to the sellout crowds. Hell go on as long as he can, and as long as people want to see him.

I try to quiz Wilson on the subject, to no avail. I said I would go back on the road if we could get a good backing band, he tells me, on one occasion, and we got a good backing band. Another time he ignores my question about touring and murmurs, Well, it starts with the song. You do the arrangement and the production and the vocal

Reiss advised me to steer away from the why questions, but Wilsons book teems with whys. In chapter one: Songs help me with my pain. Chapter six: Music happens and the voices stop happening. Chapter 10: I knew that I would use the music to keep them [the voices] away. In the books most memorable passage, Wilson describes dragging out the playing of Good Vibrations on stage four minutes, five minutes, six minutes because any minute playing Good Vibrations is a minute I dont have to feel afraid or tired or haunted.

When I find him in the Pavilion in Southend, Wilson is in his black leather chair. His Nikes are scruffier than when we last met and, like the rest of the gang, he looks more run-down. He seems irritable. Driven to Southend from a gig last night in Brighton, Wilson kept asking the driver: Are we there yet? I ask Wilson how hes coping and he says, Fine. I ask when he last had cause to sing Let It Be to himself and he says, Today.

Since we last spoke, another former Beach Boy, Mike Love, has begun publicising his memoirs. Wilson and Love share a tricky history, and have more than once engaged in legal disputes over song credits and rights. Love, as per Wilsons book, is a stubborn guy who spends lots of time having wrong ideas about his own ego. The expectation is that Wilson, in turn, will not be so flattered by Loves account of their history. I ask Wilson if he expects to read the book.

Sure.

Any particular parts hes nervous about?

No.

Any parts of his past hes excited to read from another persons perspective? Wilson turns his head and murmurs: Youth.

I can feel the discomfort and resistance welling out of him. When I try to continue, Wilson puts out a hand and says: Thank you for the interview. It takes me a moment to understand that were done. Its our last scheduled meeting, so this is it: the end of my summer of Brian. Thank you, he says again, not to insist on the truth of that sentiment, but to insist that I acknowledge it and take his hand.

Reiss walks me away, smoothing, smoothing. How did you ever master it, I ask him, learning to communicate with Wilson? Reiss says he cheated. I was a student of Brians work for so long, I think I understood his sensitivities from the music, even before we were formally introduced. The music its complexities, its simplicities thats him.

During the afternoon theres another sound check, but Wilson lasts only a couple of songs before asking his bandmates if he can skip it. He climbs into a service lift with some of the gang to move between the stage and the Pavilion floor. In the elevator, Al Jardine rubs his sore shoulder. Billy Humphreys drags the door closed and works the buttons. Someone tells Wilson he looks just like a Native American chief, tucked away in the corner with his arms folded, but Wilson ignores them and says to Humphreys: Are we there yet?

On the arena floor, I watch him endure another meet-and-greet. One man, overcome, stands before Wilson and says, Oh! Hes told to get behind for his picture. A student-aged boy holds back to hand Wilson a present, an old vinyl record that looks quite expensive. Reiss ends up with it. He had assured me, earlier, that Wilson goes up for these public interactions willingly even enjoys it at a certain level. But not today.

Watching from the fringes, I half-remember a line from Wilsons book, and dig the manuscript out of my bag to find the precise line. Have I stayed strong? the passage goes, as Wilson considers his life. I like to think so. But the only thing I know for sure is that I have stayed.

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The Beach Boys in 1966 (Wilson centre front). Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

God Only Knows came out like butter: an exclusive extract from Brian Wilsons new memoir

Its hard to say exactly when the sound of Pet Sounds started. It was something that was coming for a while. Maybe it started when I first heard Be My Baby on the radio and I began to understand how you could make emotions through sound. Maybe it started when I began to understand more about soul singers like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, and how they could make you feel amazing things with small vocal gestures. Maybe it started on the second side of The Beach Boys Today!, when I started to make softer and slower songs that werent exactly love ballads but snapshots of how I was feeling as I grew up. It was probably all those things put together. But it started to change what I was doing.

There are so many songs on that record that I love, but there are a few that I love even more. God Only Knows gets named as peoples favourite Beach Boys song regularly. Some people pick it as their favourite song of all time. So I could say I spent a year imagining how the melody would work, and another year on the lyrics. But the facts are that Tony [Asher, the lyricist Wilson worked with on the album] and I sat down at a piano and wrote it in 45 minutes.

I guess we had some concepts in mind before we started, mostly in pairs of rhymes we wanted to use. If youre writing about faith and youre writing about emotion, and youre writing about being afraid of losing connection, its easy to imagine what they would be: love/above, leave/believe. But we were also trying to go big. It opened with the line I may not always love you which was a strange way to start a love song. True, but strange. It made it so there was something at stake.

Also, it was a little daring to mention God in the chorus or title of a song at the time. This wasnt any public or American God. This was something more private, whatever force helps a person control their hopes and doubts. That made people nervous. It made me nervous. But it also made me calm, because it let me get to a new world of thought and emotion. The lyrics were perfect from the first word to the last.

Then we migrated it into the studio. We had a big orchestra lined up. I think there were more than 15 musicians, which was lots for a pop song at that time. But we needed to get the details right. Tony played the sleigh bells. I was especially proud of the french horn part. I knew how I wanted it to sound and I hummed it to a guy named Alan Robinson. I wanted him to do it glissando, which means sliding down the notes instead of skipping from one note to the next and leaving out the in-betweens. We went in and just kicked ass. If you look at the studio logs, it shows almost two dozen takes, but it didnt feel that way. God Only Knows felt easy. It came out like melted butter.

When it came to the vocal, I had planned to do it myself, but I thought about other songs I had sung where I wasnt able to do everything I wanted with the lyric. If I gave it to Carl, he could sing it just as a set of words that meant something. It would take away some of the self-consciousness. That was the advice I gave him: Sing straight, just do the words as theyre written. He did it, and he did a beautiful job.

The first version had lots of other harmony vocalists on it, too, because thats what we were doing around the time. It was me singing lower than Carl, and Bruce Johnston singing higher, and also Marilyn [Rovell, Wilsons first wife] and her sister Diane, and Mike and Al, and Terry Melcher. I think I even spotted a guy who worked in the studio hanging around the edges hoping to get in.

But when I listened back to it, the layering was wrong. The song was so simple at its heart; it had just one voice. Its an I song more than a we song. Its an anxious song, maybe, but also one thats sort of at peace, because the character singing it cant control it one way or another.

Im proud of lots of my songs, but God Only Knows has a real message in it. And then theres the way we ended it, with a round. I liked all those old songs that used rounds, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat (which I did a version of with Marilyn and her sisters in 1965) and Frre Jacques (which we used pieces of in Surfs Up). I liked rounds because they made it seem like a song was something eternal. At the end of God Only Knows, thats the feeling, that it could go on for ever, that it is going on for ever.

This is an edited extract from I Am Brian Wilson: The Genius Behind The Beach Boys, by Brian Wilson, published on 11 October by Coronet, at 20. Order a copy for 16.40 from the guardian bookshop.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/08/are-we-there-yet-on-road-beach-boy-brian-wilson

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