Pop genius or musical madman?

On Saturday, I accompanied my daughter to her voice lesson, and sat and listened while she practiced. At some point during the lesson, her voice teacher asked her about singing a Beatles song for an upcoming contest. Immediately, I came into the conversation, suggesting different Beatles songs that I thought she could sing well and that mainly consisted of one voice: “Yesterday”, “Across the Universe”, “Martha My Dear”.

During the course of the conversation, her teacher mentioned that a local high school put on a performance of all Beatles songs every year, and that the arrangements sounded really cool. I responded with a comment that most of my friends would expect: “They should do a performance of Brian Wilson songs. THAT would sound cool.”

For those who don’t know, Brian Wilson is a musical genius. He built an entire musical phenomenon around his group, The Beach Boys, throughout the early 1960’s. By the middle of the decade, Brian started looking for more challenging projects. The first such project was, in my opinion, the most incredible album ever recorded… “Pet Sounds”. There are beautiful melodies, complex harmonies, and sounds that were never produced in a studio before. After Pet Sounds, Brian set the bar higher with a single that took the world by storm… “Good Vibrations”. I remember talking to Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds about that song one time (he is also a major Brian Wilson fan). He said that EVERY musician that he knew in England was simply blown away the first time they heard Brian’s “pocket symphony”.

After that, Brian wanted to do something incredible, so he started work on a project with the working title “Dumb Angel”, and it soon became the beginning of one of the most mysterious projects in pop music… “Smile”. There were difficulties recording it, not the least of which was that the rest of the band didn’t get it, and were a little afraid of changing their formula. Plus, Brian’s drug intake was increasing, which fired his paranoia. The project was eventually scrapped for the next 35 years.

As you can probably tell, I could write volumes on Brian Wilson’s life and his music, but there’s just not enough blog space for that. Instead, I will relate my two encounters with this musical savant.

By the 1980’s, Brian’s life was a mess. He was using a lot of drugs, he smoked too much, and his weight was ballooning out of control. He chose to spend most of his time in bed. He was also suffering from mental illness. His family knew that he needed the kind of help they couldn’t provide, so they entrusted Brian to a psychologist/therapist named Dr. Eugene Landy. Before long, Brian started making progress, but at a cost. Landy was essentially running his life, keeping him very medicated, and was soon using Brian to help his own songwriting career.

On June 20, 1988, I decided I would try to get ahold of Brian to wish him a happy birthday. I got the number for Dr. Landy’s office, called and asked if I could talk to Brian. I explained that I worked in radio, and after being transferred around to a couple of different people, I was told that Brian would call me back that afternoon about 3 (he had just released his first solo album, so I was told that Dr. Landy thought it was a good idea).

I was understandably nervous, and when the phone rang, I was speaking to Brian Wilson. It was odd to say the least. For one thing, I was careful about my questions because I didn’t want him to freak out and hang up on me (people often worry about Brian freaking out…it’s been known to happen). Ten minutes went by quickly while we talked mainly about his solo album. He took his time with every answer, almost as if he was being coached. After I hung up the phone, I received a call from Dr. Landy’s office. His assistant told me that two other people were on the line while I talked with Brian, and they thought it had gone well. I didn’t really think it was a great interview…I was just thrilled that I talked to Brian. Landy’s assistant sent me an autographed promo pic.

Later this week, my second encounter with Brian Wilson. In the meantime, here’s my hero in his prime.


About groovyrick

I live in a small town in Illinois with my wife and three kids. I am a part-time musician, part-time writer, and full-time dreamer.
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