Chasing Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson (left) and Jeff Beck will share a bill at the Tower Theater on Sunday.

One afternoon last summer, I drove out to West Chester chasing after Brian Wilson.

2012 marked the Beach Boys 50th anniversary, and the long squabbling band had re-united for a tour that brought them, naturally, to the Pennsylvania campus of the home shopping channel QVC.  In years past, I had interviewed Ray Charles and Merle Haggard at QVC, so I hoped this was my chance to lasso another legend. 

It was not to be. When I got backstage, Brian was nowhere in sight, and Mike Love, his cousin with whom he had buried the hatchet for the re-union tour wasn't available either.

Instead I talked to Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine, a couple of affable longtime Love and Wilson associates. Johnston is currently touring with the Love-led band that call themselves the Beach Boys (who play the Keswick Theater Dec. 15) , and Jardine and David Marks have joined with Wilson and British guitarist Jeff Beck on the tour that comes to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby in Sunday night.

The story I wrote about that QVC event ran in the Inquirer that July. That's here. Jardine is an honest man:  “It’s mostly for the fans,” he said of the reunion. “I mean, there’s a lot of money involved, don’t get me wrong. Everybody’s making oodles of money. But the fans got left way behind. Nobody wants to see the guys doing their own careers when we could be together."  By September 2012, though, Love, who controls the rights to the band's name, dismissed Wilson, Marks and Jardine abruptly, and the band that made its name singing carefree songs about cars and girls once again is embroiled in lawsuits.

Wilson did perform with the band on stage that day in West Chester, sitting at the far left of the stage with a sorrowful look on his face and at one point blurting out, "I hope you like 'Good Vibrations' because it's our masterpiece," before  Love informed the TV audience that that wasn't actually on the set list, and the band would be playing "Wouldn't It Be Nice" instead. And after that song, everyone said their goodbyes, and Wilson, who is a towering hulk of a man, was whisked away from his keyboard and escorted backstage.

That was that, I figured. So much for chatting up Brian Wilson. But keep your eyes wide, the chance might come again. When I heard he was going out on the road with Beck this fall, I thought it was odd.  There's a surf guitar overlap between the former Yardbird with the rooster hair cut and the early Beach Boys, I suppose, though the BBs were always more about harmonies that guitar licks. But I was even more surprised when I heard that Wilson was available for a phone interview.

Wilson isn't the easiest guy to talk to. He's friendly enough, but often blurts out nearly monosyllabic answers, and often seems more connected to, as he put it, "the other worlds" than the one we share with him. He also has a strangely loud, disconcerting laugh, which came though the line when I asked him if he was a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers and their bearded relief pitcher Brian Wilson.

The story that came from that interview ran in the Inquirer this week, and you can read it here. And Wilson had some other things to say besides what made it in the paper. 

Famously, Wilson never surfed - his brother Dennis, who played drums and died in 1983, was the lone surfer among the orginal Beach Boys. "I could swim good," he says, but "I never wanted to try it I was scared to try. I didn't want to get hurt." From "Little Deuce Coupe" to "I Get Around," of course, the early Beach Boys also specialized in hot rod tunes. But likewise, Wilson was only a gearhead in song.  "I was not really into cars. I was into car songs."

When I asked him if the new biopic in which he's being played by Paul Dano and John Cusack brought back any troubling memories - he once said "I had a happy childhood - except for my Dad beating me up all the time" - he said, "No, I was very proud of my childhood. I had an interesting childhood. My dad told me how to play the boogie woogie on piano. I'm a self taught musician...  My mom and dad used to always play Les Paul and Mary Ford around the house. And Tennesee Ernie Ford, and Rosemary Clooney. I learned how to sing from Rosemary Clooney."

Wilson said his chief early inspirations were Chuck Berry and Phil Spector, "and I learned from the Four Freshman, too.  I learned harmony from the Four Freshman, and I expanded that into  the Beach Boys harmony. The Four Freshman were my harmonic education. And also the Del-Vikings' "Come Go with Me." I learned a lot from that record."

When he worked on Pet Sounds in 1966, Wilson said, "I felt young and inspired and happy and I wanted to try to make music as good as The Beatles," adding the he's still a big fan of Paul McCartney. "And there was a sadness I felt, too. A couple of the songs were very sad."

A quite lovely clip of Wilson, Beck and band doing "Our Prayer," from the Pet Sounds' follow-up Smile, plus "Danny Boy" is below, and an in studio clip showing Brian at work during the making of "Good Vibrations" is beneath that. Tickets for Wilson and Beck at the Tower are here.

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