New Vibrations

  • "Brian's back," the publicists say every time the famously elusive Brian Wilson surfaces with a new project. Has the phrase become the pop-cultural version of an idle threat? Of course, it's hard for anyone to live up to his own legend, and Brian Wilson is in the unusual position of having to cope with two. As the composer and producer for the Beach Boys, he is responsible for some of the most ethereal and sophisticated pop of the classic-rock era, as well as some of its most purely joyful and (we must be honest) embarrassingly goofy. A recent four-CD boxed set annotated his masterpiece, the Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds, with countless versions of the original 13 tracks as well as just-let-the-tape-roll session outtakes: a monument both to the richness of Wilson's music and, by virtue of the fact that someone thought this was a commercial project, to the hard devotion that music still inspires.

    Unfortunately, Wilson's parallel legacy is as one of the most troubled and eccentric rock stars of his era--which, given the profession and the era, is saying something. It was only a few years ago that he seemed to have finally emerged from nearly a quarter-century's worth of debilitating mental illness. (He refused to get out of bed for long stretches of the late '60s and '70s, and in the '80s and early '90s he put his emotional and professional life in the 24-hour-a-day care of a man who was not, perhaps, the most scrupulous psychiatrist in the world.) Now 56, Wilson has married (his second time around) and adopted two daughters (he also has two daughters from his first marriage, Wendy and Carnie, who were once part of the group Wilson Phillips). He appears to have achieved the kind of stable, supportive, involved family life that long eluded him.

    Live performance is another hurdle, a challenge broached by his first-ever solo-concert tour, now under way. Ever since 1965--when Wilson, then an exhausted 22-year-old, gave up touring with the Beach Boys to devote himself to writing and producing the group's albums--he has been known to suffer crippling bouts of stage fright. Just last summer, at a guest appearance with Jimmy Buffet, he had to be coaxed into not bolting from the stage. "When [the idea of a tour] was first suggested to me," says a member of his current backup band, "I wondered if Brian could even get through a 20-minute set, let alone a 40-minute set, let alone two 40-minute sets." Nevertheless, in the days leading up to the tour, the mood among Wilson's colleagues, handlers and friends seems to be one of nervous optimism, a collective Here goes nothing.

    "Since I've been rehearsing, I've been getting pretty relaxed with the music," Wilson says during an interview, nervously optimistic himself just four days away from the first date of the tour (in Ann Arbor, Mich., last Tuesday). "I can probably sing pretty good. I think I'll do a good job." He is speaking in the living room of a house he owns in the Chicago exurb of St. Charles. Though he still spends most of his time in Southern California, he bought the St. Charles home so he could live and work next door to Joe Thomas, a former professional wrestler turned musician who co-produced Wilson's 1998 album, Imagination, and is serving as the music director of Wilson's tour. As such, Thomas is but the latest in a long line of Wilson collaborators and semi-Svengalis (his Billy Ray Cyrus haircut and penchant for tinkly electronic keyboards are cause for concern among some fans).

    An ambitious national tour planned for last fall was postponed--"I wasn't emotionally ready" is how Wilson explains the delay--and scaled back to a comparatively gentle schedule: four Midwestern dates this month, followed by five in the Northeast in June and, if all goes well, maybe a few more shows on the West Coast later this year. But why even subject himself to something that in the past has caused him so much discomfort? "Well, for one thing, there's money involved," he says. "And the other reason is, I feel obligated to take my music around and let people hear me." According to Thomas, Wilson is more competitive than he perhaps appears: "Brian is a driven guy. He doesn't want to be perceived as someone who can't do something." Thomas also mentions that Wilson was upset about the disappointing reception for Imagination. Despite generally kind reviews (the consensus, shared here, is that the multitracked vocals, all by Wilson, are stunning but that the music suffers from a rote adult-contemporary sheen), the album debuted weakly at 88 on the Billboard 200 and dropped off quickly. "Brian wanted a No. 1 record," Thomas says. "Not that he was depressed--it more ticked him off than anything."

    In person, Wilson is clearly a man who has suffered. When he's not engaged, his face looks blank, even deadened, and when he is engaged, he still seems to be at a slight remove, just around a corner the dimensions of which only he, perhaps, can measure. He speaks and sings out of the side of his mouth, which gives the impression that he has suffered a stroke. In fact it is a function of deafness in his right ear and is something he has done since childhood. While he is attentive to questions and lucid in his answers, being interviewed is not one of his favorite things in the world. He endures this session by guardedly clutching two sofa pillows in front of himself and takes the first opportunity to cut the interview short, leap up and head to his piano, where he is plainly most comfortable and where he says he spends most of his days. He then offers up a lovely Rhapsody in Blue.

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